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Reluctant activist Paul Feig honoured in Banff for challenging Hollywood's status quo

Paul Feig.
Paul Feig.

The Banff World Media Festival’s online bio for Paul Feig describes him as a director, producer, screenwriter and activist.

Pretty straightforward, except for that last one. In an interview in Banff earlier this week, Feig admits that he has a hard time with the label, even if he has strived to shake up  Hollywood when it comes to encouraging diversity.

“The industry has been so bad in representation, especially for women but for anybody who is under-represented, that to try and right that wrong makes you an activist,” says Feig, who was at Banff to give a keynote speech and receive the festival’s award of excellence. “I think that’s more of a bad reflection of the industry itself. You shouldn’t be considered an activist for just trying to get women into a movie or get people of colour into a movie or behind the camera. You realize it just means you’re trying to break out of the status quo and challenge the default setting of the industry, which is to just do the same thing over and over again.”

Feig is the mastermind behind the 1999 sitcom Freaks and Geeks, a high-school comedy-drama that has ascended to cult-classic status despite its short shelf life. But these days he is probably best-known for his female-led ensemble comedies. That includes the raunchy 2011 hit Bridesmaids and his 2016 Ghostbusters reboot that recast the spirit-hunting team as female characters played by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. When it comes to developing projects, Feig says he is naturally drawn to writing female characters. But it goes deeper than that. As an only child growing up in Michigan, Feig would watch old movies from the 1930s and 1940s with his mother.

“Men and women were just equal in those,” he says. “There were funny women and funny men. It was Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. That always informed my view of the world.”

But when he watched more modern movies, he was disturbed but how women were represented, often as sexual objects or “the obstacle to the man having a good time or saving the world.” When he arrived in Hollywood — initially as a comedic actor — he realized how bad it was.

“I started befriending different comediennes and comedic actresses who I knew were so funny. I’d see them on stage and doing great stuff or just hang out with them and then I’d see them in a movie and they weren’t allowed to do anything. They were either made to be one-dimensional, shrewish girlfriends or boring wives.”

Feig says of all the characters he has written, his favourite remains Lindsay Weir of Freaks and Geeks. Played by Lindsay Cardellini, she was the older sister of Sam, the endearingly geeky character Feig partially based on his own soul-crushing experiences in high school.

“All the characters were based on people I knew or amalgamations of people I knew,” Feig says. “The only character who was completely made up was Lindsay, because I was an only child and always wished I had an older sister.”

Feig has taken action to back up his beliefs. Not only do his own films tend to be female-centred, he now has an inclusion rider in place for all future projects produced under his Feigco Entertainment, a clause that states cast and crew on productions must meet a level of diversity in order to get green-lit.

Last year, he also launched Powderkeg, a digital content company that focuses on giving opportunities to female, LGBTQ and people of colour in film. The company has already backed a web series written by and about Muslim Americans and a series of six short films based in L.A. made by female filmmakers.

When it was first announced that Feig would be rebooting Ghostbusters with a female-led cast, the blowback from outraged Twitter trolls was fast and furious. All of which made Feig a little reluctant to attend last Saturday’s Ghostbusters Fan Fest in Culver City. Feig joined Ivan Reitman, the director of the 1984 original and its 1989 sequel, and Reitman’s son Jason, who will shoot Ghostbusters 3 in Calgary and area this July.

“I was actually dreading it, but it turned out to be really, really fun,” Feig says. “I’ve just found over the years that the true Ghostbusters fans were so lovely and so supportive of the project. It’s really more of the ancillary trolls that make your life miserable.”

The Banff World Media Festival runs until Wednesday.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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