Hollywood’s Most Dapper Director™, Paul Feig was in well-dressed company on the set of Spy, a new comedy espionage thriller that has a dinner jacket on and secret spy business to conduct. But as the Freaks And Geeks and Bridesmaids veteran is at pains to point out, this is emphatically not a spoofy take on the genre in the spirit of Top Secret! or a certain Leslie Nielsen hamfest. “From day one people always assumed it’d be like Spy Hard but I was like, ‘No, I love the genre’,” he stresses. “I want it to be scary, I want it to feel real.”
With the film’s first trailer(s) launching – of the red band and family-friendly varieties – Feig took time out from post-production to talk Empire through its many twists, turns and the bit where Melissa McCarthy unleashes hitherto unseen amounts of whoop-ass on the bad guys. And because the office swear jar is running low, we asked him to discuss the cussier, NSFW version...
Kicking off with one of those swoopy helicopter shots Michael Bay has built an entire career on, the trailer launches us into an opulent world you can only afford to create as an international criminal or a hedge fund manager – or possibly both. “This is Bulgaria on the Black Sea,” says Feig of the villainous-yet-actually-pretty-scenic setting. It can’t be a spy thriller without getting some stamps in its passport and sure enough, this one will take us to a variety of European locales. “The movie takes place in Bulgaria, Paris, Rome and Budapest,” Feig reveals.
“This is where we first meet Jude Law,” he continues, “and he’s a Bond-ian character called Bradley Fine.” If there’s a feel of Daniel Craig Bond about this sequence, that’s no accident. Not for Feig the crocodile submersibles and faux-horseboxes of the Roger Moore era. “I’m a traditional Bond fan,” he stresses. “I was never a fan of the gadgets because they’re not in the books. I’m more of a Daniel Craig-in-Skyfall guy.”
Our heroine is CIA wonk Susan Cooper, played by long-time Feig favourite and actress of the moment, Melissa McCarthy. “Melissa came round for dinner one night,” he remembers of its genesis, “and when I told her what I was working on, she said, ‘I love spy movies! Can I read it?’ She called me the next day and told me she loved it.” Note that Cooper isn’t a hapless desk warrior a la Spies Like Us; she knows her business. “She’s the brains behind the brawn,” Feig tells us.
That adventure involves tackling this malevolent (if short-lived) villain, played by British actor Raad Rawi. “He’s a black-market arms dealer who’s in possession of a small-scale nuclear weapon that he has for sale.” A kind of Balkan equivalent of Jon Don Baker in The Living Daylights, the villain meets an accidental end after an inopportune sneeze from Law's Bradley Fine. “I like characters who are heroes but have human flaws,” says Feig. “You never meet a superhero with allergies.”
“It’s definitely an eclectic cast,” enthuses Feig of a wonderous ensemble that, among other cinematic firsts, pairs up Miranda Hart and 50 Cent. “She calls him ‘50 Cent Piece’ in the film,” he laughs. The British telly favourite stars alongside Melissa McCarthy, Jude Law, Allison Janney, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne. “I’ve got to know Miranda over the years,” says Feig, who’d originally earmarked her for a part in his mothballed Bridget Jones 3 project two years ago. “She was going to be one of Bridget’s new friends and I based the role on her because I know how funny she is.” In Spy she plays fellow CIA-er Nancy, confidante and "earpiece person" for Susan when she’s sent into the field. “She’s the second name on the call sheet,” reveals Feig. “It’s a big part.”
In Bridesmaids Rose Byrne showed off her comic chops as uptight Chicago princess Helen Harris III. Spy gives her the chance to get her villain on as a cool-as-quartz Bulgarian called Rayna Boyanov. Don’t scour that name for any Bondian punning though, because Feig has veered away from the Alotta Fagina-school of character names. “There’s no pun,” he chuckles. “I didn’t want it to be too spoofy.” The big bad had its origins in Feig’s 2003 drama I Am David. “We saw a lot of odd stuff when we were shooting in Bulgaria,” he recalls.” Someone would say, ‘Oh, there’s a mansion that belongs to a nuclear black marketeer’, and you’d see a lot of organised crime.” So he’s relieved he didn’t plump for a North Korean storyline? “No, exactly! Hopefully the Eastern Europeans won’t get mad at me.”
The Man Called Statham, who plays a temper-fuelled spy called Rick Ford, has been on Feig’s wishlist since Lock, Stock and, more specifically, the two Crank movies. “When people read the Statham role they assumed I’d go for someone like Will Ferrell, but I felt that it had to be the real guy,” stresses the writer/director. For very refined fans of product placement, that dinner jacket is from Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard. “Statham and I are both (Savile Row tailors) Anderson & Sheppard men,” says Feig, “and all his suits in the movie are from there.”
It’s not every film set that hosts a detailed debate about the words ‘twot’ and ‘twat’, and that debate may not be over yet. “I’m debating whether I’ll have Statham say ‘twat’ in the UK version,” muses Feig. “It was original written as the C-word but Allison Janney’s character has just used it and it’s really funny.” If you’re looking for a film in which C.J. Cregg drops the C-bomb, Spy is it.
Despite his natural aversion to gadgets, Paul Feig does have a few for us. Kinda. “All the gadgets Susan is given are really terrible,” he laughs. “We asked, ‘What would a bunch of men send her out with?’ So she’s given a rape whistle that’s got a poison dart in it, anti-poison pills in a bottle of stool softener, and a night-vision watch with Barbara Hershey’s face on it.”
With everyone else dead or indisposed, it’s Cooper’s time to step up and throw herself into the fray… in disguise as, er, Mrs. Brown? “We play with the idea of this normal woman who becomes a spy and thinks she’s going to have this glamorous life,” says Feig, “but they keep giving her the worst aliases possible.” Here McCarthy is going deep cover as cat loving Midwesterner Penny Morgan, but she's also sent out in the unglamorous threads of a software firm employee along the way. “Melissa loved these costumes," laughs Feig. "She'd sent me a bunch of photos with her in this array of wigs.”
Like True Lies if it had been Tom Arnold instead of Arnie doing the dirty work, Feig’s heroine is definitely not the blundering Clouseau type. Then again, comic misfortune is never far from hand as she pursues Boyanov and that rogue nuke. “I never wanted her to be bumbling,” says Feig, citing this BMW C1 sequence as an example. “It’s funny that she falls over but I needed a reason why she falls over. So it was like, ‘Okay, those scooters with the heavy roof – if you don’t know how to drive it, you’re going to fall over.’”
“People will be surprised at how much action there is in the movie,” enthuses Feig, a diehard fan of Hong Kong action cinema. “We were channelling both Bond and Jackie Chan.” In case you were wondering, Melissa McCarthy is not one for pawning off her fight scenes to her stunt double. “We used one for the super-dangerous stuff but otherwise she wants to do it herself,” says Feig. “I have a problem with action movies where you can tell they’re trying to hide stuff by cutting around it. It reminds me of that Benny Hill spoof of The Avengers where it’s a woman getting thrown across the room and in the next shot it’s a guy with a moustache.”
Spy is out in the UK on June 5.