Interview with I Am David's writer and director, Paul Feig, conducted on December 2, 2004, by Greg Shull, editor of Preview.
Paul is best known for his Emmy-nominated television comedy Freaks and Geeks. He worked for years as a stand-up comedian before getting into television acting on shows including Dirty Dancing, Good Sports, The Jackie Thomas Show, The Louie Show and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Greg: I understand you were involved with the TV show Freaks and Geeks?
Paul: I created that show.
Greg: Was that your high-school era?
Paul: Yes, I was in high school from 76 to 80. How often do you get to recreate your childhood on national television?
Greg: I take it that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? knocked you off.
Paul: Yeah, like everyone else at that time. They aimed their guns at us. And we dont know why. We were one of the lowest-rated shows at first. We started on Saturday nights, which is death on TV. Then it was Monday nights, and that was when they went after us.
Greg: Now, is I Am David your first film?
Paul: Its my first official feature film. Before Freaks and Geeks, I did a $30,000 independent feature film called Life Sold Separately.
Greg: How did I Am David come about?
Paul: It was right after I finished Freaks. Walden Media wanted me to do a high-school film. We went back and forth about adapting classic books into a high-school setting, but I wasnt crazy about it. Then they said, What do you really want to do? I wanted to do something about someone discovering the world for the first time, seeing things that we usually take for granted as new and wondrous. I loved this aspect of the book, and especially how David has to learn not only how to get by on his own in alien surroundings, but also how to trust people and believe in their goodness.
Greg: Preview addresses not only the plot and acting of a movie but also the morality and the message. What role do you think these elements should play in a film?
Paul: Im old-fashioned. I like movies that have a happy ending and that are uplifting. I like the ones that grab your emotions. I dont like a movie where you walk out and say, That was good. Where do you want to eat? I like the ones that you cant stop thinking about.
Greg: Well, you accomplished that with our reviewer. Her advice, after seeing it, was, Take your hanky and forget the popcorn. I Am David will grab your heart.
Paul: Well, good. Thats great. Thats what were after. Most of Hollywood does escapism, which is fine. For me, I love being able to make people think about something they might not normally think about. The way I was brought up, my mom used to get upset about Jerry Springerish shows because they bring the standard down for the public. I took that to heart, and as an artist I feel the great responsibility that I have. There's a sense in which Im controlling their senses. For a time, Im controlling what they think or feel about something. Im not looking to preach to anybody. There's also a historical nature in this film. These Communist camps, the Russian Gulag, its almost impossible to find out about these. There's so much tragedy in the world that its good to put the camera on it so that people dont do that again. I Am David takes you through the personal journey of someone who went through it so you can experience it. Id like to leave the world in a slightly better place than I found it with messages like this one.
Greg: So, you ended up doing a film totally different from Freaks and Geeks?
Paul: Not entirely. Im drawn to stories about outsiders. Freaks and Geeks was all about people who the mainstream thought were weird. To me, the hero of I Am David is the ultimate outsider. He doesnt know who he is, where he came from, or what his place is in the world, but he discovers all these things in one remarkable series of events. So we put the camera on him.
Greg: You say you like movies that make you think, not just escape. As a spectator, what movie comes to mind that accomplishes this?
Paul: My favorite movie in the world is It's a Wonderful Life. It has everything that I like in films. Somebody is going through a tough time, a crisis, and then how uplifting it is at the end.
Greg: What projects are you working on?
Paul: Im currently directing episodes of the TV show Arrested Development. It just won an Emmy for best comedy series. And Im directing a Paramount movie, a sweet story about a strange girl that shows up in a town. It's about being accepting of other people, a very positive message. It's called Star Girl. It's based on a book thats out now that teenage girls are crazy about.
Greg: I Am David is opening Friday, December 3, right?
Paul: It's a real experiment. We're not opening in New York and L.A. Were opening in 14 markets across the country, mainly in the Midwest, this Friday. They're testing it out in the Heartlands. It's definitely one of those films that if youre a snobby, big-city reviewer, you can find fault with it. But everything you hear in the news, everyone is legitimately concerned about moral values. Here's a film that is what everyone is saying they want. But I've been told by Hollywood for a year and half that no one wants to see this film, that it will bomb. It's been such a long road because all the studios say no one cares about a film like this.
Greg: Is it the lack of R-rated stuff or the storyline of I Am David that Hollywood objects to?
Paul: All of it really. They say its a movie for everybody, and Hollywood doesnt make movies for everybody. They aim for particular groups of people today. There aren't small family films anymore, other than the Pixar animated films. So there's a lot to prove. For me the big thing is we can sit around and complain, there arent these kinds of movies anymore, but Hollywood doesnt respond to that. If these films nice family films went through the roof, they would start making them again. They know how to market certain stuff, like violence, which looks titillating on screen. Hollywood movies are very event driven. An enemy attacks our country or a bad guy is trying to kill a good guy a lot of visual conflict. And animation looks good. I Am David falls into that strange place. It's old-fashioned like Disney films of the past. There are no explosions. It's a smaller, character-driven movie. The ones I like are those with strong characters. We made great pains to shoot it all across Europe, but its not a big Hollywood movie. But to me, its a big adventure. In this film, it's realizing he wants to get away from this place and hes found someone he can trust, not an enemy that's after him. That's a big event in my film not the same as an army blowing up his house. At the end of the day, people do like the big films, but there has to be a place for the small films that have messages that are in the moral realm, the teaching realm, the uplifting realm. Hollywood needs to offer a public service, not just a monetary service for themselves. It's an uphill battle, but I keep trying to tell them that.
Greg: I know this is a big weekend for you. We hope it goes well.
Paul: Yes, it is. Thank you