Critic’s Notebook: Q&A: Paul Feig on ‘Other Space’ and the comedy of close quarters
Paul Feig, who created “Freaks and Geeks” back in the 20th century, has a new series set in the next one. “Other Space,” an offering of Yahoo Screen (where the renascent “Community” also lives), tells the story of the Cruiser and its crew, lost in a parallel universe. As might be expected from Feig’s other work -- which includes “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and a pair of young adult novels, “Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut!” and “Ignatius MacFarland 2: Frequency Freak-out!,” also about traveling in parallel worlds -- it is funny, a little gross, a little dark and very sweet. (I review it here.)
The mostly young and little-known cast is a conglomeration of Feigean misfits engaged in sibling rivalry, romantic longings and institutional satire, with the added component of physics as farce. Karan Soni plays Stewart, the awkward and enthusiastic captain; Bess Rous plays Karen, his highly driven sister and chafing second-in-command. Eugene Cordero is Michael, Stewart’s fretful former babysitter, now his third-in-command; Milana Vayntrub is Tina, his unrequited crush, conscripted as navigator; Neil Casey is Kent, a science officer with a disturbing back story; and Conor Leslie plays Natasha, the visual embodiment of the ship’s computer. Accompanying them are Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu, reunited from “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” as Zalian, an affable burnout of an engineer, and Art, a robot with attitude.
I recently talked with Feig, who is currently working on the “Ghostbusters” reboot, about his new show, his first for (a now-expanded) television since “Freaks and Geeks,” and other things science-fictional and funny.
Paul Feig: I’d been wanting to do a sci-fi thing forever and so came up with this idea. NBC really wanted it, but I developed it as a single- camera, and that was right before “The Office” and all that and they weren’t really into single-camera half hours. So they said, “We can develop it as a sitcom in front of an audience,” and I was like, “Ehhh, I don’t know,” but I changed the script to make it that way. It didn’t work, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They liked it, but they said, “We don’t have any companion for this.” Networks always want to fill out the hour with a companion piece. So it didn’t happen, but they still had control of it, and it took me years to get it back.
The sci-fi comedy I’d seen was mostly parody, except for stuff coming out of England, like “Red Dwarf” and “Hyperdrive,” making fun of it in a “Spaceballs” kind of way. And I was, like, “I don’t want to make fun of it; I really like it.” It’s like when you go to Comic-Con -- now that all these movies are going, they’ll bring along people from Hollywood who make fun of the people in cosplay -- well, we like this stuff. Don’t come in and be mean to us.
I wanted to do comedy, not science-based but with the kinds of twists and turns that sci-fi has, the left turns where you think you’re in one world and then you switch it out, or the ability to be in another universe, so not all the aliens are humanoid but you can play them as an energy or a beam of light or something that gets in your head. And I love funny people in danger; it’s a really great comedy formula. I was a big “Lost in Space” fan as a kid, and I thought a lot of funny stuff would happen if you were stuck with a bunch of people you didn’t really know or didn’t really like in a space ship in another world trying not to die.
What other sci-fi did you like as a kid?
Well, I definitely liked “Star Wars,” but I liked all the old stuff like “This Island Earth” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet,” all that kind of thing. Also I was a big fan of the original “Battlestar Galactica.” I actually saw it in the theater -- remember, they released the 90-minute pilot in theaters in Sensurround? All they did is, every exterior shot of the ship they turned the subs up to, like, rock concert levels; so the only time you got Sensurround was on the establishing shot. But I also loved “Space 1999" -- Barbara Bain and Martin Landau. I thought was the greatest spaceship ever, the “Space 1999" ship. I had a model of it.
Did you read sci-fi as well?
I was a terrible reader as a kid, but I devoured Starlog magazine -- that was my favorite thing in the world. I was also way into astronomy. There was a moment when I got out of high school that I decided I was going to quit trying to be in showbiz and become an astrophysicist. Because I liked looking through a telescope. But then I realized you had to know all this math to be an astrophysicist; I had thought it could just be a job where you could sit in an observatory and look through a telescope all night and that would be your gig. So I thought, “I’ll write about it instead.”
When you hired writers for “Other Space,” were you looking specifically for sci-fi fans?
I didn’t want anybody on the staff who had contempt for sci-fi, but I also just wanted really smart writers. [Show runner] Owen Ellickson came on first; I didn’t work with him on “The Office,” but he was there, and anyone who cut their teeth over there I always trust. And when I met with him he was just so in sync with what I wanted to do, I kind of deputized him to go find the candidates. It’s a really great group of young writers. One of them, Rob Turbovsky, I knew when I was doing “Bridesmaids” -- he was an intern in Judd’s office and had the driest, funniest wit. And when I found out he was part of a writing team and that Owen knew him, I was, “You’ve got to hire him.”
Did you ever consider being the show runner yourself, or were you too busy with films?
I was too busy, and also, I don’t know if I wanted to be, because I’m tired of my specific take on the world -- I want to expand beyond that. I want to guide other people’s take on the world through my take on the world, you know what I mean? Besides, as you get older you go to the same toolbox, and the only toolbox I want to go to is the one that keeps characters feeling real and emotionally real, even if they’re extreme. But everything goes through me. I’m guarding the tone and making sure we’re not selling out any character to make them funny or silly.
I guided it along but also gave the writers a wide berth, so I wasn’t micromanaging their comedy and their overarching ideas, but then was very heavy duty in the editing room. This is the first show I’ve done since “Freaks and Geeks,” so the terror was, “I can’t put out something I don’t consider to be really good.” Other people might not consider it to be good, but I’m really happy with it.
With “Freaks and Geeks,” you managed to make 18 episodes, which fans considered cruelly few. “Other Space” has an intentionally short season.
I like it; I’ve always been obsessed with the way they do it in Britain, six episodes per season. It’s just a way to make sure you’re not in a panic the whole time making a show. I also just think it’s a healthier way to story-tell.
You’re always just looking to tell stories in a different way. For me, the sci-fi element is just a way to represent interpersonal relationships. What I love about “Freaks and Geeks” is the only reason they’re all together is they’re stuck in a high school because they’re the same age and they live in the same area; so for me a spaceship is just the same thing -- they’re stuck in this confined space. And the comedy of people stuck together is very funny.
How did you create the characters?
Well, like anything in my life I kind of based it on my own experiences. I was pretty much Stewart when I was a teenager; I was way into space, I was into the idea of escaping, I just wished that aliens would come pick me up. He’s smarter than I am, he’s really intuitive, but his greatest skill is his enthusiasm. And just like with “Freaks and Geeks,” I’m always trying to right the wrong of being an only child and create the older sister I always wanted; and I like the idea of the conflict of, like, your older sister’s the overachiever, she’s the one who was always supposed to get it, but Stewart has good people skills and she has terrible people skills. It’s the hopeful thing that you’ll get credit for being nicer than somebody else.
Michael, the best friend, is kind of based on my best friend growing up, who was my babysitter, my next-door neighbor -- he was four years older than me and we wound up becoming best friends. I liked that dynamic and the idea of leapfrogging over all these people who thought you were this cute little sidekick. And Tina is based on my whole life of, you know, you’re in love with somebody and you go, “Well, if I just got in a situation where they were just trapped with me clearly they’d fall in love with me. I like her, she doesn’t like me, so I’ll just trap her in outer space with me for years.”
The role of Kent I originally wrote, in 2005, thinking that it would be Martin Starr [Bill Haverchuck on “Freaks and Geeks”]; it was written more as this really dysfunctional nerd whose father married a younger woman and the new wife wanted the kid out of the house and so he used all his connections to get him on the ship as a science officer, even though he didn’t want to go. But that changed as we were were redeveloping the pilot and especially when we met Neil and just felt, “Oh he’s so funny, let’s put him in.” And then Natasha, I just loved the idea of the friendly operating system who’s still insecure, like all of us. For the Zalian role, I just always had my eye on Joel Hodgson; and when I wrote the character of Art I said he has to be Trace Beaulieu, and then when I got Joel to come along it was just kind of nirvana for me.
That Hodgson-Beaulieu reunion will be a very big deal for some people.
For me it’s a huge deal, because I’m the biggest “Mystery Science Theater” fan of all time. I sought those guys out like a stalker and became friends with Joel. And he and Trace were on “Freaks and Geeks,” so any chance I get to use any of those guys. ... And Josh Elvis Weinstein, who was the original Tom Servo, was one of the writers on that show.
You were a teenager when the “Star Wars"-led sci-fi revolution began.
Yeah, I was like 13 or 14. Oh, yeah, I was right in the target audience, and I went crazy for it. But my dirty secret is that my neighbor, my sci-fi best friend neighbor, had seen it a few days before I did and he talked it up so much that the first time I saw it I was slightly let down because I expected so much. And then I went back and saw it again and became obsessed with it. But I remember sitting in that theater when it started with my mom, absolutely numb with excitement, and when that spaceship went overhead in the first shot, your life was changed. I saw it at the Americana, which was the giant movie house; it was as big as the Chinese.
Any thoughts on “Episode VII”?
I’m cautiously optimistic; the trailer was awesome. What I miss is models -- but actually I heard that J.J. Abrams is trying to do a lot of stuff in-camera with models, real props. And I think that’s exciting because there’s a definite CGI fatigue going on; I feel it all the time. That’s one reason I love “Star Wars” so much; it’s like, “Oh, my god, somebody built those models, where are those models? They look so awesome,” because I was a model maker when I was a kid -- that was my favorite thing, I just built models all day.
You do have some CGI effects, and good-looking ones, in “Other Space.”
I was a kid in a candy store designing those spaceships. The effects are by Zoic, the same people who did [the rebooted] “Battlestar Galactica.” Everybody assumed, “Oh, so you’re going to have really cheesy spaceships and cheesy effects” -- no, no, for as much as we can afford those effects have to be awesome. They need to pass my geek test, because I want to go, “Oh, my god, that spaceship, I want that spaceship.” And I want that spaceship.
For the ship’s interior, did you do any thing to distinguish it from the universe of other ships’ interiors?
We looked at all the “Star Treks” and all that. Like with anything, I want stuff to feel real. These ships aren’t going to be glamorous; they’re just looking to be functional. We were working with a limited budget, but Michael Gallenberg, who was the production designer for the entire run of “The Office,” was really ingenious with what he did with the materials we had. I like that it’s very true to what a lot of space stations look like, with the padding on the walls and that kind of thing, which is both cheaper to do and feels oddly more realistic. We only play it up a little bit, less than I originally wanted to, but the Cruiser’s a crappy ship -- like they got stuck with a last-generation ship.
Do you know if there’ll be a second season, or is it up in the air until the numbers come in?
It’s up in the air. I love this show so much, and I love this cast; I’m dying to do more. There’s the standard stress anybody has in TV, but I feel it even more because we’re on a different playing field. Could be better, could be worse, I don’t know, this is a whole new model. This is the first time I’ve done something that didn’t have traditional marketing where there are billboards everywhere, and you’re doing advertising on the run-up -- Yahoo’s take is get it out and then support it. I’ve had to do a lot of, “OK, I trust you guys.” But it seems to be good and the materials that they come up with, their kind of marketing materials, are awesome, so I’m very heartened by it. It’s just a grand experiment, and it’s terrifying to be part of a grand experiment.
Robert Lloyd travels the parallel universe called Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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