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Anna Kendrick flirts with dark comedy in Paul Feig's 'A Simple Favor'

Anna Kendrick flirts with dark comedy in Paul Feig's 'A Simple Favor'
Actress Anna Kendrick and director Paul Feig, pictured here at Feigco's Burbank offices, team up for the new movie "A Simple Favor," a dark comedy about suburban moms with secrets. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Feig's latest film, "A Simple Favor," is hard to categorize.

One part suburban noir, one part dramatic thriller, the film follows the evolution of the unlikeliest of friendships before shifting into a murder-mystery whodunit. Somehow, it also manages to be funny.

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"It's not a joke fest, this movie, but it's behaviorally very funny," said Feig, known for directing comedy blockbusters including “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” during an interview at his Feigco offices. "For me, all the humor comes from the extreme emotions or extreme personality traits of the characters and the situation they're in."

In “A Simple Favor,” which is now playing in wide release, Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a widowed suburban mommy blogger who stumbles into a friendship with Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous working mom who regularly picks up her son from elementary school while decked out in couture. The two women couldn't be more different, but the friendship is believable: Each has a trait the other lacks… and can exploit.

"It's a heightened relationship," said Kendrick. "There's something about having a person in your life who, on paper, is just so different from you. You can learn so much from each other and help each other out because you have such different world views."

The story, based on a novel by Darcey Bell, had been floating around Hollywood. After a brief bidding war, 20th Century Fox won the rights to the book in January 2016 and brought on "American Horror Story" writer Jessica Sharzer to adapt the script. It was then sent over to Feigco Entertainment to produce.

"They said, 'It's a thriller, but it's crazy, but it seems funny, but it's also really dark. You do comedy, maybe you can figure this out,' " Feig remembered. "I read it and I was like, 'I have to direct this.' "

Anna Kendrick as Stephanie and Blake Lively as Emily in "A Simple Favor."
Anna Kendrick as Stephanie and Blake Lively as Emily in "A Simple Favor." (Peter Iovino / TNS)

Feig had been in the market for a "Hitchcockian thriller" for a while, he says, "so I just saw the opportunity for it."

"I never felt as a writer that I could write one of these from scratch," said Feig, who added a few more twists with Sharzer to the final version of the script. "So getting this great material and then to play with it, I was on board."

Neither Feig nor Kendrick had read Bell's novel before signing on for the film. In fact, Kendrick didn't even know Feig was attached to the project until she re-read the script for a second time.

"I'm lazy and I don't read the cover letters," she explained. "So I read it thinking, 'OK, this is a thriller and a mystery.' "

However, she quickly realized that it was much more nuanced than that.

"The entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, 'Do they know that this is funny? Is it supposed to be funny?' " she said. "I was a little worried about it being [done by] a director with no experience or interest in comedy and therefore some of the situations and dialogue feeling too absurd. And then I saw that Paul was doing it and I was like, 'Got it. On board. Into it. So excited.'

"I'm glad that I got to experience it as a straight thriller and then read it the second time knowing 'OK, we're going to be having some fun,' " she added. "Not going for laughs and not telling jokes but we're going to be enjoying how absurd some of this stuff is."

Director Paul Feig and actress Anna Kendrick team up for the new movie "A Simple Favor."
Director Paul Feig and actress Anna Kendrick team up for the new movie "A Simple Favor." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Kendrick's preparation for playing Stephanie, a picture-perfect mom with her fair share of skeletons in her closet, included going "down a rabbit hole" of mommy blogs.

"The ones that I liked the most were really raw and makeshift, someone propping their phone up against the side of the table and just being really honest about maybe the guilt they feel as a mom and the ways they're stressed," she said. "But the ones that were popular were the ones that were very polished and very well lit — the person had designed a background that they always filmed against — and there was almost something really sinister about them.

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"Paul had this idea for Stephanie to talk directly to [the camera] to address the moms that are watching, which is just so overproduced and so alienating," she continued. "But it speaks to how tightly wound she is, because she's hiding so much and she's repressing so much. It's one of those things where, you've been through some trauma and you feel like as long as you just keep everything perfectly in order … everything will be fine and you don't have to deal with the fact that you're also a person that has this history that's kind of dark."

"Stephanie's such an A student," Feig agreed. "She's covering up this dark history she has by dressing really bright and fun and goofy. There's just something so nice about the contrast between what people think they're hiding [and how they present themselves]."

"I think it's kind of this beautiful metaphor for peeling back the layers of who someone is," Kendrick added. "In this movie, Emily has more literal secrets, but Stephanie has a lot of tricks up her sleeve that people who know her don't expect from her. The entire community thinks they have her figured out and it's nice to have a mystery as a backdrop via which to peel back the layers of her personality."

Peeling back layers to reach something unexpected was something the director and star were interested in achieving with “A Simple Favor.” The trailer declares the film to be "from the darker side of Paul Feig," something the traditionally comedic filmmaker was excited to pursue.

"I'm a huge fan of thrillers," said Feig. "It's kind of my favorite genre. I mean, if you look at all my movies, they're all genre movies, really. The thriller was the genre I haven't gotten to do yet but I was dying to do."

"I was really hung up on wanting it to be suburban noir," he continued. "So it's not scary things happening in the shadows, it's happening in broad daylight. There's hardly any night scenes in it because I just liked the idea of things happening during the day. So it was this very non-threatening looking environment and then really … up stuff is happening in it."

Director Paul Feig and Anna Kendrick on the set of "A Simple Favor."
Director Paul Feig and Anna Kendrick on the set of "A Simple Favor." (Peter Iovino, SMPSP)

One of the things Kendrick struggled with in bringing Stephanie to life was making the seemingly one-dimensional character likable.

"She is so sweet and so self-deprecating and so how do you make her likable? How do you make her the person that the audience is rooting for? Particularly when you have someone who's well-dressed and hard-drinking and very witty and fun to be around [like Emily]. Every time she's on screen, it's really fun. I just felt like I had to try to make sure that it was funny but also really raw and really — and this is so stupid — but really human."

"This is a very hard role because you need a great actress who's great with comedy but who can bring all these shades to it," said Feig. "And really Anna was probably the first person that popped into our heads. It all hinges on this character because Stephanie's in every frame of the movie, basically. That's a really difficult thing."

"A movie like this can spin off the rails so fast if you don't have people who face even the craziest stuff finding the reality in it," he added. "And Anna was always really great at challenging the dynamics of the scene to make sure that Stephanie's not a punching bag."

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Though making the transition from drama to comedy from scene to scene proved challenging ("There's the comedy element but in other scenes, I have to be playing it like it's a Spielberg drama," said Kendrick) both the star and the director agreed that it was a welcome departure from the demands of a straight comedy.

"It was really fun knowing that the pressure to make it a comedy wasn't there," she said. "And that meant I felt even more free to just play around and not be feeling like, 'Well I haven't said a joke in three lines so I better do something funny.' "

"On the one hand, it's almost easier when it's a drama because people aren't coming in going, 'All right, make me laugh, funny man!’ " she added. "They're actually taking in the honest comedy of real, natural situations as opposed to waiting for the punchline."

"Audiences have become slightly hostile towards straight-up comedy, I've found," Feig agreed. "At least when one of my movies is a straight-up comedy, the internet is always like, 'Well, clearly all the funniest jokes are in the trailer!'"

"That's the classic, isn't it?" said Kendrick. "It's like 'Oh, all the best bits are probably in the trailer.' Blake was saying that a lot of her friends are like, 'Well, I already know what happens. This trailer gives everything away.' I was like, 'The trailer gives nothing away.' "

"We structured it actually so it made you think you know the story but you're so wrong," said Feig. "I love that."

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