For this year’s 30 Under 30 we asked one of the Hollywood list’s judges, Paul Feig, to interview 2015 honoree John Francis Daley. Director-actor-writer Feig and Daley’s relationship dates back more than 15 years to Freaks and Geeks, the cult classic created by Feig and starring a then-13-year-old Daley. Daley played Sam Weir, a freshman geek whose older sister, played by Linda Cardelinni, starts hanging out with the school’s “freaks.” The show was lauded by critics, but Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow spent much of their time battling NBC executives who just didn’t get it. The show was canceled after one season.
Freaks and Geeks could have faded into oblivion, except that pretty much every person involved in the show went on to become a megastar. Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco all got their start on Freaks, and Apatow is now one of the most influential producers in Hollywood. The show found a second life on Netflix as an origin story for entertainment’s biggest stars.
Now 29, Daley has been busy. He spent seven years co-starring on the Fox series Bones, and co-wrote hit movies Horrible Bosses and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Now he’s co-writing and co-directing a reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation – a franchise that started two years before Daley was born.
Feig’s career is on hot stretch, too. He directed two of the highest-grossing comedies of the last five years, Bridesmaids ($288 million worldwide) and The Heat ($230 million worldwide). He’s teaming up with star Melissa McCarthy again for Spy, an action comedy he wrote, directed and produced, due later this year. And the Internet nearly exploded when he confirmed that he’s also making an all-female Ghostbusters.
In December, Feig and Daley took some time to catch up for an exclusive FORBES conversation, condensed for space and clarity.
Paul Feig: I remember when I first met you you were 13, and you were probably the person I hung out with the least or connected with the least just because you were so young.
John Francis Daley: A hyperactive, precocious young child.
Feig: No, you were great. You were definitely not precocious, you were really talented. But you stuck with your dad. My favorite thing in the world was watching you go up to Linda and you guys would do these little improv games where you would just talk to each as brother and sister and complain about things.
Daley: They were games to me, and I think to her it was just annoying.
Feig: You guys got so into it. That’s what made me laugh, because you really talked like brother and sister. And it was so naturalistic that I would listen in for getting ideas for the show, and just marveling at how real you guys sounded. It was very impressive.
Daley: She was very patient with me.
Feig: The funny thing about our show was that so many people, especially the guys, went on to have these writing/directing careers, and now yourself included. What do you think, was there an influence being around the show? I’m not looking for, “Oh yeah, we were so cool.” I’m just curious about how you guys all got drawn into it, just kind of being around the train set when it’s up and running and seeing how cool it is?
Daley: I wanted to write and direct since I was really little. I put on plays in my basement growing up, and forced the neighborhood kids to be in them. Nobody quite got me, though. I felt very much an outsider. You guys might have just found a bunch of people that all had the same kind of aspirations and interests. And it wasn’t until doing the show that I realized that it could happen someday, where I could branch out beyond just acting. I remember that film that you made, Life Sold Separately, — you made that on a nothing budget and it was ambitious.
And I realized, “Oh shit, I can do my own thing too.” It was very encouraging. And also being around Jake Kasdan, and [knowing] that he directed his first movie when he was 19 or 20 or something crazy like that [Ed. note: Kasdan was 22 when he directed his first movie, Zero Effect. Most recently he directed the 2014 comedy Sex Tape]. It was eye-opening for me to be able to see that this was a possibility.
Feig: The thing I always remember is when we were shooting the pilot, and Seth was coming up to me and Judd with what turned into Superbad. He was like, “Yeah, I wrote this thing about my friend and I tryin’ to get beer.” It just seemed like just a fun thing that a teenager would do. But you’re so busy in production that you go, “Oh, that’s nice, he’s an actor and he’s young and he’s writing a script. That’s cool.” But I never realized, dumbly, that he had this hyper aspiration to do that. Did you guys ever talk about it back then or ever discuss that kind of thing?
Daley: We were in the same studio school for a little while before he graduated or got his G.E.D. or whatever he did. So we were under the tutelage of the same studio teacher who let us go off and write our own things. And he was like, “What are you working on?” And I said, “Oh, it’s a horror thriller about a woman that slowly metamorphosizes into a frog. It’s to be taken very seriously.” And then I asked him what he was working on, and he was like, “Oh, it’s about a couple friends who want to go buy beer.” And I thought to myself, “That’s not very ambitious.”
Feig: No, I have to admit, I had the same kind of weird little prejudice when he told me about it. I was like, “Well, that sounds like just a doofy thing that a guy would do.”
Daley: I truly thought that frog movie would have made it before Superbad.
Feig: Well, now you’ve got the power, my friend. Get that thing into production.
Daley: Let it destroy my career.
Feig: So now how are you enjoying big-time movie making?
Daley: It’s amazing. It’s so unbelievably cool. The first couple days on set, directing, was overwhelming and intimidating, but having done it for so long as an actor definitely helps. And it also just made me realize that it’s not, this is going to hurt me saying this, but it’s not as hard as it looks like it could be. It’s obviously very hard, and I know nothing still about all of it. But you realize that you have so much support if you have a good crew. There are so many people that have been doing one specific facet of it for 20 years. They bring their expertise to the table, so you really don’t have the think about absolutely every single thing as much as if you were shooting an independent film and you were in charge of 10 different departments.
Feig: Even though I went to film school I put off going into directing because I was still of the mind of “I have to know everything. I have to know how to light a scene. I have to know all this technical stuff.” And it was like, “No, you don’t.” You can know as much or as little as you have to. Your main job is to get great performances and tell the story correctly and capture it correctly. Then it’s just basically yours to complicate or simplify as much as you want. And it’s funny, as we know with comedy, the main thing we want to get is make sure that we’re getting stuff funny, we’re getting options and we’re getting the emotional arcs of the characters and the reality. You want to make it look as good as you can, but at the same time we’re not making Interstellar. So it’s fun. The best thing is to bring a lot to it, really listen to the people around you and be malleable and listen to the actors and to whoever has an idea. It’s all valid. Then it’s just up to us to be the ringmaster in the middle of it all.
Daley: It’s so much fun. And having written it too, with Jonathan [M. Goldstein], I know the script and the story inside and out. It makes it so much easier to have a sense of how you generally want it to play. And then, of course, you’re so surprised on the day when you’re working with actors who bring all this new stuff to the table. You realize, “This is better than what I had even imagined.”
Feig: I’m sure you’re like me where we’re not so religious about the words that we’re cutting off the creativity of other people. Which I’ve seen is a mistake I see a lot of writer-directors do. You know, “Say it exactly like this.” It’s like, why do you hire funny, talented people to just make them say exactly what you wrote?”
Daley: Totally. And now I’m in the editing process, which can take forever if you want it to. We’re three weeks in, and it’s so much work.
Feig: Here’s my advice to you, my friend, as a grizzled veteran. Get your first cut together as quickly as you can, and then test screen often and brutally. Don’t take 10 weeks to get your cut. Because what happens is you’ll fall in love with everything in the movie. And by the time you get it in front of an audience you’re just, like, “Ugh, I love that, and they’re stupid, they don’t get it.”
Daley: You’re totally right. Then you’re working with a two and a half hour comedy, which doesn’t work. So that’s the plan.
Feig: Well done, sir, well done. I always felt, and still feel, one of my best strengths as a director is having been an actor for a long time. Nobody knows actors and their insecurities and strengths and everything more than somebody who’s done it before. Do you find that that really helps you?
Daley: It definitely helps. And having worked with awesome directors and not so awesome directors, I remember the things that would make introverted or affect my performance in a bad way, where I become really self-conscious. And I’ve tried to be hyper-aware of not saying those things.
Feig: It’s all about just creating a safe environment, especially when you’re trying to do comedy and some director gets you to say something, it just cuts you to the quick. And you’re like, “Well, I’m not going to try anything now because I don’t want to be made to feel stupid.”
Daley: Right. And for the most part I’ve been fortunate enough to have a cast that is so easygoing that there haven’t been too many eggshell walking situations.
Feig: It’s really thrilling to see you doing so well and Seth doin’ so well, and Franco and Jason. It’s crazy, just that everyone’s gone behind the camera and stayed in front of the camera. That’s the really fun part.
Daley: It’s unbelievable. It’s like it was prophesized by you guys back in the day. I can’t think of a single other show or movie or anything that found so many people that went on to such great success. It’s so cool. And did you know I put Samm [Levine] and Martin [Starr] in Vacation?
Feig: I had heard that, which made me very happy.
Daley: It was fun to get the two of them together. It was like going back in time.
Feig: Trust me, I remember the three of you guys together, it was always very, very funny because you didn’t have to write it. It would just, turn on the cameras and there you go. It was really, really fun.
It’s such happy memories of that show. It’s crazy, we only did 18 episodes, but it felt like a long time. Not in a bad way, but it felt like we were together for so long because it was such an intense process. For Judd and I it was literally like we made 18 independent movies over the course of that time, and treated them all so personally, that it’s just nice that they have stood the test of time. And a day doesn’t go by that somebody doesn’t email me or tweet me that they just watched the show and fell in love with it.
Daley: I don’t think I realized at the time how much pressure you guys were under with the studio and network to change it to the standards that they were used to. It’s amazing that it even was made.
Feig: I marvel at it too. And our goal was always to keep all that stuff away from you guys. And it gives me such an amazing thrill to see you guys doing so well. And I love that we’re all putting out movies. People need more comedy. And I love that we all went into comedy. Even the fact that Franco is being hilarious now makes me so happy.
Daley: And you could see it in Freaks. From the very beginning he had that sensibility, that slightly tongue-in-cheek, earnest way about him that can be so hilarious. And he never seems to be trying to. He’s just naturally a funny, funny guy. And the fact that it stood the test of time and that Netflix brought this whole new generation to it. It’s great.
Feig: I’m very proud of you, my friend. I feel like your proud second father because I always naturally still think of you as that 13 year-old kid. And then I see this massive success and all the great work you’re doing. I try to subtract the part where I go, “Hey, I’m getting older.” But it’s exciting to know that you guys have found your niche and you’ve got so much time in your career to do so many things. I just look forward to seeing what you guys are coming out with for years and years to come.
Feig: Thanks. I’ll be watching in the retirement home. Keep up the amazing work.