“Paul Did Me What the French Call a Huge Fucking Favor”: Feig and McKinnon on ‘Ghostbusters’ and Hollywood Bias

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Paul Feig is perfectly aware of the irony of being a man honored at a women’s film festival.

Onstage at Barnard College this Saturday to accept the Athena Film Festival’s inaugural Leading Man Award, the director of Bridesmaids, Heat, Spy, and soon, an all-female Ghostbusters reboot for Sony — hence the college marching band rendition of the movie’s theme that kicked off the event — chronicled his transition from Freaks and Geeks architect to unlikely champion of women in onscreen comedy.

“It came from years of seeing women I knew stuck as the bitchy girlfriend or the needy wife,” Feig said in his acceptance speech, a collection of stereotypes the filmmaker describes as “a little boy’s image of what a woman is.” So he focused on writing away from, say, Rachael Harris’s character in The Hangover and towards the kinds of roles he hadn’t seen onscreen before: roles that don’t center on romance (Bridesmaids is the only one of his films that includes a sustained love interest) and don’t force women to choose between their jobs and happiness. In the case of both The Heat and Spy, professional and personal success are treated as one and the same.

It’s an agenda that’s had an enormous impact on several actress’s careers, most recently Feig’s presenter and Ghostbusters star Kate McKinnon. In a joint Q&A with Time‘s Belinda Luscombe, McKinnon stressed both the opportunity her Ghostbusters casting afforded her and how rare those opportunities are. “Paul did me what they call in French a huge fucking favor,” she cracked in response to a question about looking forward to a post-SNL film career. After the audience’s laughter died down, however, she pivoted to a more serious point: despite reading “a lot of scripts,” McKinnon doesn’t see many roles that aren’t a standard, heterosexual rom-com lead — a part that’s such an obvious mismatch for the joyfully weird, not to mention openly gay, comedian’s skill set she describes the possibility as “a big joke.”

“People aren’t writing women who are anything other than normal, cute women,” she lamented. In other words, there’s no real space in film yet for the vivid, eccentric characters McKinnon is known for playing on TV: loving, spot-on parodies of female authority figures like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel; the creepy pet store proprietor with an inexplicable revolving door of girlfriends; the jaded, redneck alien abductee capable of breaking Ryan Gosling. The moment McKinnon knew the Ghostbusters remake was happening, she said, she knew she wanted to be involved, because it was the extremely rare film part that would actually allow her to do what she does best.

Those parts, to Feig’s disappointment, have stayed rare, despite the runaway financial success of Bridesmaids and its successors. Before Bridesmaids premiered in 2011, studio executives told Feig they’d consider their investment a failure if the film didn’t make $20 million, two thirds of its production budget, in its opening weekend and wouldn’t fund similar films — namely, any female-fronted comedy — in the future. Unfortunately, the reverse hasn’t proven to be true even after Bridesmaids busted through that goal and then some. “The wall barely cracked open,” a visibly frustrated Feig sighed.

Luckily, the director said he’s approaching the point in his career where he has the clout to produce movies as well as make them. That means he’ll has the power to put women behind the camera as well as in front of it, adding another front to his advocacy for women in the industry. Up until now, Feig has acknowledged that “Hollywood’s not an altruistic town” and attempted to lead by profitable example; soon, he’ll be able to employ some of the female directors he knows stuck in movie jail, a place Feig himself found a way out of thanks to his longtime friend and collaborator Judd Apatow, who’s also put his weight behind female filmmakers from Lena Dunham to Amy Schumer.

For now, though, both Feig and McKinnon are focused on Ghostbusters, a film that itself has inadvertently showcased issues with both Hollywood and our culture as a whole. After the film was greenlit by a pre-hack scandal Amy Pascal (“They wouldn’t do that to a man,” Feig grumbled in an aside turned inadvertent applause line), Ghostbusters unleashed a predictable tidal wave of misogyny from the Internet, “that fine, fine forum for people who live in their basements.” Slapped with the rather uncreative label of “Girlbusters,” Feig’s project attracted the kind of vitriol that’s routine for those of us who make a living online, but rightfully struck the director as “shocking” and “horrendous.”

Besides being demeaning and generally unpleasant, Feig noted, the “Girlbusters” moniker is an attempt to pigeonhole the new Ghostbusters as a chick flick, a term Feig loathes as “an excuse for people not to watch something.” Instead, Feig sees his latest effort as a comedy that just happens to play into a certain vision of social progress. “Anything that has an agenda written in it alienates people,” he admitted. “You make people laugh, you can slip in anything you want.”