Austin Film Festival awardee Paul Feig talks ‘Alf,’ female comedies, movie jail, Donald Trump and more

Paul Feig at the 2016 Austin Film Festival. (Credit: Jack Plunkett AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL)
Paul Feig at the 2016 Austin Film Festival. (Credit: Jack Plunkett AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL)

He may be now be known as that guy who makes all the really good female comedies, but Paul Feig is so much more. In addition to directing “Bridesmaids,” “Spy” and “Ghostbusters,” the latter two he also wrote, Feig created “Freaks and Geeks” and has directed episodes of some of the best TV shows of the past decade, including “Arrested Development” and “Mad Men.” The dapper director with the voice of an NPR affiliate station in Michigan received the Extraordinary Contribution to Film award at this year’s Austin Film Festival and appeared in conversation Sunday with the festival’s executive director Barbara Morgan. Below are 10 takeaways from that chat:

  1. This ain’t Feig’s first rodeo. He has been coming to AFF since 2002 and won an audience award for his second feature, “I Am David,” at the fest in 2003.
  2. Feig got his start in “show business” when he moved to Los Angeles as a young man to serve as a tour guide at Universal Studios. He was under the impression that the “tour guide was the conduit between lay people and showbiz.”
  3. He turned to “The $25,000 Pyramid” to earn some money during his nascent stand-up comedy career. It worked. He won $29,000, which helped support him for five years a comedian.
  4. Before cracking into the industry, the former script reader wrote many spec scripts, including one for “a very special episode” of “Alf,” in which Alf worked at a suicide prevention hotline. He teased the audience with the idea that one day he may offer a script reading for that at AFF.
  5. “Freaks and Geeks” started as a memoir that he translated to a television show. The dodgeball scene from the pilot was torn from the pages of his real life, as were most of the characters. The only character not based on someone Feig actually knew? Lindsay Weird, played by Linda Caredellini. She was the platonic ideal of the kind of big sister Feig always wished he could have had.
  6. Feig’s stand-up career informed his filmmaking. He would tape his stand-up act and go back and listed for what jokes got laughs and what didn’t work. He applied that same technique to test screenings of films, looking to see what resonated with audiences and what needed to be excised or honed.
  7. Feel the pain. Feig said that the painful personal stories are the ones that give you the best and most relatable material.
  8. Big tip on writing comedy: “Don’t try to be funny.”
  9. On why he wasn’t a good actor: He thought too much and you could see it in his performances.
  10. Turn out the lights. “The only true way to end a series is to kill everybody. That is why ‘Six Feet Under’ was the best ending ever.” #spoileralert
  11. Biggest lesson he ever learned: Jason Segel killed in his audition for “Freaks and Geeks,” but he wasn’t the kind of person Feig had envisioned for the role, so he was prepared to pass on the 6’4″ kid from Southern California. But producer Judd Apatow convinced him to hire Segel and figure it out from there. “If you get a great person, tailor that role for them. Take the strength,” Feig said.
  12. Why comedy? “Life is too short to try and depress people.”
  13. After two box office bombs, Feig was making promotional movies for Macy’s. One of them included Donald Trump and a bake sale, apparently. Feig was stressed out from the work and said Trump, whom they wanted to get in and out as efficiently as possible, “was so nerve wracking to work with.” Feig said he almost had a nervous breakdown working on the project and was suffering what sounded like something of an existential crisis surrounding his career and his future. A day or two later he got a call alerting him that the long-gestating comedy about bridesmaids was back on. He was hired to direct soon thereafter. And the rest is history.
  14. Feig said finding his groove as the man who directs women was “the happiest day of my life.” He admits that he isn’t great at writing male characters, in part because he doesn’t relate to hyper masculinity and he’s always related better to women.
  15. As for the state of female comedies, “It’s better than it was but it should be way better than it is.”

Tony Hale talks Tim Conway, ‘Arrested Development,’ ‘Veep,’ YouTube and more at Austin Film Festival

Austin Film Festival executive director Barbara Morgan (left) and Tony Hale in conversation at the 2016 Austin Film Festival. (Credit: Jack Plunkett AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL)
Austin Film Festival executive director Barbara Morgan (left) and Tony Hale in conversation at the 2016 Austin Film Festival. (Credit: Jack Plunkett AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL)

Tony Hale has made a name for himself playing lovable oddball that can hold discomfort and tension in their wrought faces until the wires snap and the comedy boils over in fits of hilarity.

Following the Saturday world premiere of dark comedy “Brave New Jersey” Saturday night at the Austin Film Festival, Hale appeared at the Driskill Hotel ballroom Sunday to talk about his career with AFF executive director Barbara Morgan. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Hale currently plays the neurotic and overprotective bag man to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ president Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep.” True to form, when Morgan’s phone buzzed in her purse at the back of the stage, Hale transformed into his Gary Walsh character and retrieved the phone from the purse of AFF’s commander in chief. Later in the talk, Morgan’s water bottle fell and Hale dutifully returned it.
  2. Hale says he has dealt with anxiety in the past, which he has gotten a handle on through therapy but that he’s been able to “use it for good” in portraying a character who often looks twisted in knots on the inside.
  3. Not surprisingly, Tim Conway and Bob Newhart are both huge comedic influences on Hale, who says those two greats, “didn’t push comedy; they sat with the tension.” Audiences would often laugh at the two actors because you could tell what was happening in their heads. Since Gary can’t often speak up in his role on the president’s team, Hale has found ways to use a raised eyebrow or a sigh to deliver his point (and laughs).
  4. When Hale is finally able to let Gary blow off some steam when he loses patience with Meyers’ team, Hale describes it as “Five years of build up watching idiots around Jesus.” Indeed, Hale says Gary loves Meyer so much that his spare time his spent practicing how fast he can retrieve things from her bag.
  5. Asked to reflect on some moments from his time on the short-lived series “Andy Barker, P.I.,” Hale (who drew a blank on specific memories) used the opportunity to praise star Andy Richter as “the coolest guy.” In discussing his high regard and appreciation for Richter, whom he called “a very normal guy,” Hale explained how “arrogance sucks the creative energy out of the room.” He likes an atmosphere of respect and giving, which he says he found on “Brave New Jersey,” as well.
  6. Don’t ask Hale about his favorite aired episodes. He doesn’t watch his shows over again. He does, however, watch the blooper reels from his shows because he says that they make him laugh and remind him of the great camaraderie and energy on set.
  7. Echoing something Jason Segel said Friday, Hale said that his biggest challenge is to stay present. That is something which must be practiced, he said. “If you don’t practice being content where you are, you are not going to be content when you get where you want to go.”
  8. On whether he wants to break from his typecast (that of Bust Bluth and Gary Walsh), Hale, joked, “I am very comfortable in emasculation.”
  9. Hale obviously has had much fun with his work on “Veep” and “Arrested Development,” and some of his favorite moments are not being able to contain his laughter. He says he cracked most often at Will Arnett’s outrageous alpha male on the latter. As for the former, he said one time Louis-Dreyfus looked at him after cracking and said, “Tony, you know you’re not watching the show; you’re on the show.” Hale doesn’t just enjoy cracking on his own shows; he said he loved the “Saturday Night Live” Debbie Downer at Disney World sketch (featuring a rattled Jimmy Fallon everyone) so much that he’s watched it 500 times.
  10. What else does he watch in his spare time? Apparently not a lot of scripted television. But he loves YouTube. Bloopers for a laugh and soldiers-coming-home videos for a good cry.

See Tony Hale for yourself. “Brave New Jersey” screens again Monday night during AFF at Alamo Village.

Video: Muppets, ‘Freaks’ and more with Jason Segel at the Austin Film Festival

I sat down with actor/writer/producer Jason Segel today at the Austin Film Festival to discuss his colorful career. Since I was holding a microphone instead of pen and paper, I didn’t get great notes on the talk or exact quotes, but these are few of the winning anecdotes from an artist who is as affable, humble and approachable as fans of his imagine him to be. (All quotes are paraphrases based on my memory.)

Jason Segel signs some Austin Film Festival posters after his moderated conversation at the conference. (Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Jason Segel signs some Austin Film Festival posters after his moderated conversation at the conference. (Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
  1. Not the cool dude. When auditioning for “Freaks and Geeks,” Segel was worried that he and a young James Franco might be trying out for the same part. When they were told they both got hired, Segel somewhat perplexed told Franco on the way to their cars that, “I guess I’ll play the awkward guy and you’ll play the cool guy.” To which Franco cooly responded, “Uh, yea.”
  2. Segel loves the ethos surrounding “The Muppets,” a franchise which he helped reboot — “A bunch of weirdos make a family.”
  3. The Muppet to which he best relates: Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear.
  4. When doing a table read of “The Muppets” script, Kermit appeared out of a trunk about 20 minutes into the reading and an unsuspecting Segel burst into tears.
  5. Segel didn’t originally write the Dracula puppet musical for the end of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” He wrote it after “Freaks and Geeks” got cancelled and before making “Sarah Marshall.” Judd Apatow had instructed Segel to write his own material. So, after finishing that musical around midnight one night, Segel called Apatow and asked if he could come show him something. Apatow relented and Segel showed up to screen the Dracula love story. Segel intended it as an earnest artistic expression. When it ended, Apatow looked at Segel and said, “You can never show this to anyone.”
  6. The first thing Segel, who suffers from night terrors, wrote was a screenplay entitled “Nightmares Beware,” about a kid who battles his nightmares. He has since turned the idea into a series of children’s books.
  7. Segel loved musicals as a child and when he attended his older (much cooler, alpha male) brother’s camps, he jumped up at the chance to perform a talent and sang “Castle on a Cloud,” a song usually performed by a young girl, in its entirety.
  8. Two informative pieces for Segel as an artist: the documentary “Beauty is Embarrassing,” which encouraged him to identify himself as an artist and own it, and the Christopher Vogler book “The Writer’s Journey,” which helped him understand story structure.
  9. Being in the moment. Segel said that as they filmed the dancing scene for “The Muppets,” a large billboard of Jim Henson installed at a museum was overlooking the shot, by complete coincidence. Here was in the middle of a scenario you could never dream to imagine — a young man remaking one of his most beloved childhood movies — and all he could think about was, “What am I going to do next.” Segel said that hindsight has allowed him to realize he needs to be more present and appreciative of the moment.
  10. His advice to a young writer looking to write autobiographical material: I write about one of the hardest, most embarrassing moments in your life and set it on a tropical island.

After his chat, I talked to Segel about his final day of shooting “How I Met Your Mother” and what he learned from “Freaks and Geeks” creator and 2016 Austin Film Festival Extraordinary Contribution to Film awardee Paul Feig.

SXSW winner ‘Transpecos’ gets distribution deal

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Here’s an uplifting tale for aspiring filmmakers out there. And it also illustrates why festivals like South by Southwest, Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Festival are so important.

Austin resident Greg Kwedar got his debut feature, “Transpecos,” into the narrative feature competition this March at South by Southwest. It was unheralded, and few people in the Austin film crowd even knew who Kwedar was.

But securing a spot in the competition – and providing an early screener to critics – helped build buzz,, and the  thriller about the Border Patrol went on to win the audience award – which means festival attendees thought it to be the best of the bunch.

Kwedar and his team had no distributor for the film, however. And without a distributor, most movies just end up screening here and there, at places like the Austin Film Society and various festivals, without reaching a wide audience.

But that’s what festivals are for – raising the profile of small, independent films. And this week, Kwedar got the best news possible. Samuel Goldwyn Films is buying the rights to “Transpecos” and plans a theatrical release in the fall.

And in May, Screen Media Ventures will be attending the Cannes Film Festival, trying to sell distribution rights to international territories.

The deal was first reported by Deadline.com. And Peter Goldwyn of Samuel Goldwyn Films said, “Greg is a raw talent in independent cinema. ‘Transpecos’ is an accomplished first feature that we’re eager to deliver to audiences in theaters and in homes across the country.”

Details of the deal were not disclosed.

The thriller stars Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr. Kwedar co-wrote the script with Clint Bentley.