Just before the release of "The Heat" in 2013, director Paul Feig lamented that the film industry hadn't grown enough for women following the global success of his "Bridesmaids."
"We're not advancing as much as we should be," Feig told The Huffington Post at the time.
Two years later, as Feig has continued to put funny women front and center in his films, the director is still waiting for Hollywood to catch up.
"I don't think it is getting better," he said in an interview with The Huffington Post on Saturday at the South by Southwest Film Festival. "It's not as terrible as it was, but look at the number lady directors. I have guilt that I'm a man doing these movies. Women should be doing them, too! The studios aren't giving them the opportunity for whatever reason, and the roles still aren't there for women like they should be."
Yet the lack of films with women in lead positions seems antithetical to what the audience actually wants. "Bridesmaids," which starred Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, earned $288 million worldwide; "The Heat," with McCarthy and Sandra Bullock," clocked in with $229 million in global grosses. Feig's latest feature "Spy," with McCarthy and her "Bridesmaids" co-star Rose Byrne, could follow a similar path to success.
The comedy, which will premiere in Austin, Texas on Sunday night before its wide release on June 5, is the third film Feig has made with McCarthy in a central part. And it's expected the pair will reunite again for his reboot of "Ghostbusters," which will feature four women in lead roles (Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are expected to join McCarthy).
"People got on me about 'Ghostbusters' and said that it should be a mixed cast," Feig said of the sexist backlash the film faced after it was announced. "It's hard enough to pick four actresses! There are so many funny women out there and they need these roles. I hate that. I hate that there isn't more opportunity."
As a result, Feig himself has tried to create opportunities, all while subverting the expected gender norms about movies with women as a focal point.
"That's why I love doing these genre movies. Because there are women in it, but it's not about all my lady problems," Feig said. "But they're not acting like men. They're acting like women would. I love the theme of female friendship. I've seen it with my wife, and how important and difficult it is. So I enjoy that. To me, that's more interesting than trying to work out a relationship with a man. There are plenty of those movies being made, so I don't have any interest in doing them."
"Spy," for instance, was inspired by Feig's love of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, and his long-held wish to make a Bond film himself. ("But who would ever hire the guy who made 'Bridesmaids' to direct a Bond movie?" Feig said, before laughing. "I wouldn't!") It was after the director saw Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" that he had an epiphany. "I was sitting there at my desk one day and I thought, 'I know all these funny women, why don't I write a female spy movie?'" Feig said. "I had a bazillion ideas. My brain exploded."
But "Spy" is not "Austin Powers." As he did with "The Heat," which included scenes of heavy violence mixed in with laughs, Feig sought to make the comedy with a strict commitment to reality.
"If you don't get the tone right, then you're just going joke to joke, and you have to have the funniest jokes in the world," Feig said. "And even if you do, the audience kind of zones out -- they're not engaged. If you're not engaged with the characters and the stakes, then it disappears. There's a lot of violence in 'Spy,' but it's in service of the idea that Melissa's character could be killed at any moment."
While "Spy" owes a great debt to 007, it's not as if Feig made a canonical version of James Bond with an actress in the lead role. Would the director have faced less backlash from "Ghostbusters" fans if he were to make a film about four women ghost hunters without the brand's stamp? Quite the opposite, Feig noted.
"For some reason, 'Ghostbusters' is such a specific thing that it would be really weird if I made 'Spirithunters.' I think I'd get more shit for that," Feig said. "I just think it's a great franchise that's been sitting dormant for 25 years, other than ancillary stuff like cartoons, toys and video games. But I loved the original one so much that I want to have that experience again, and I want a new generation to have that experience too."
This year's South by Southwest Film Festival runs through March 21.