Stars and director of the new Ghostbusters say there should be more female-driven films

Zip it, critics. The stars and director of the new Ghostbusters film say there should be more female-driven films such as this

If there is one thing Hollywood is good at, it is taking an unexpected hit and trying to replicate it ad nauseam, as it has done with everything from the superhero genre to true crime.

Yet the groundbreaking success of the female-led comedies Bridesmaids (2011) and The Heat (2013) has not sparked an avalanche of ensemble or buddy comedies starring women, as some hoped it would.

The director and star of those hits, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy, have now re-teamed for the new Ghostbusters remake - a supernatural comedy that has become a lightning rod for discussions about the viability of female-driven films.

Opening in Singapore tomorrow, the story of a group of paranormal researchers hunting down strange apparitions in New York triggered a backlash when it was announced that the beloved 1984 original starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis would be rebooted with four women - McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon - in the lead roles.

Speaking to The Straits Times at press events in Los Angeles and Singapore, Feig, McCarthy and Wiig say there ought to be many more female-driven films such as this.

But the actresses seem reluctant to discuss the reasons behind the gap in the market, which Feig and other film-makers have openly linked to sexism and other outdated attitudes in the industry.

There was no resistance at all, they thought it was a great idea. They're all in it and that's the biggest blessing we could have gotten.

MELISSA MCCARTHY on how having the members of the original Ghostbusters cast on board the new film is the biggest stamp of approval for the team

McCarthy - whom Feig also directed in last year's hit comedy Spy - bristles when asked why she and Wiig think there have not been more films in the vein of Bridesmaids, which turned both performers into movie stars.

"I don't know - why didn't you write any? I shove it back at you," says the 45-year-old, who won a Best Actress Emmy for the sitcom Mike & Molly (2010 to 2016).

Wiig, 42, says: "I don't know the answer to that. I would love to walk into studios and say, 'Hey, greenlight a bunch of this stuff.' But I can't.

"I hope to God things aren't being put on the shelf because they have women in it, because that is insane, and what year do we live in?

"There's always room for more, a lot more," she adds as McCarthy nods.

Feig, on the hand, has no problem calling out Hollywood's continued reluctance to make non-romantic comedies starring women, which - the conventional thinking goes - do not have as broad an appeal as those starring men and may not travel as well to non-American markets.

He says: "Hollywood's very slow on the uptake - very, very slow. And the funny thing now is there's a group that feels like, 'Oh, it's great, we're really forging ahead.' But no, we're not. I always say don't pat yourselves on the back because unless it's 50-50 (with male- and female-led movies) and including diversity and everything, we're still behind the times."

In a recent Associated Press report, Feig and the writers behind the female-ensemble hits Pitch Perfect (2012) and Legally Blonde (2001) reveal that such films are also held to a different standard, with each new release often treated like a fresh litmus test for whether female comedies are viable.

Thus the attitude in the industry and media towards Ghostbusters and the upcoming comedy Bad Moms starring Mila Kunis and Christina Applegate is "let's wait and see" how well they do before clamouring for similar films. Whereas "if a giant tentpole starring men doesn't do well, people don't go, 'Oh well, we can't have guys in movies anymore'", Feig says.

Kay Cannon, who penned Pitch Perfect (2012) and its follow-up last year, says despite the huge financial success of her earlier films, "I feel like with every movie, we're auditioning to be members of this business".

After Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, Feig is considered the go-to director for female comedic ensembles, but the 53-year-old believes it is a waste of talent if such films continue to be viewed as niche.

"Sometimes my nightmare is that they go, like, 'Oh, it's great, you're the one who does this.' Don't make it just about me because there's too many funny people. Trying to figure out four women to be in this movie, out of all the amazingly funny, talented women, was the hardest thing in the world. It's such a hard choice you have to make.

"So I'm like, they're all out there, give them the movies. Give them small movies that'll launch them into big stars, and put them in these other things."

While there has been progress, he adds, much more needs to be done on this front.

"It's slowly cracking, but it shouldn't be just a crack - the door should be open. I find it really depressing that it's still a big deal."

A nod from original cast

Feig does not mince his words about the sexist backlash that greeted the announcement of an all-female Ghostbusters either.

"The amount of misogyny I got hit with on casting this movie with women at first was just shocking.

"It wasn't everybody, obviously - there are people who are leery about the project who just don't want you to touch a classic and that I'm fine with, I get that. But when it's just unadulterated misogyny, it's like, 'Wow, what year is it?'"

Although McCarthy is considered one of the industry's most bankable stars, the uniqueness of her trajectory is damning in itself.

It has been "a long time" since Hollywood has seen a bankable female comedy star like her, Feig points out. "I'm hard-pressed to think back to who had a run like that before, at least in the modern era.

"But it's a testament to how amazingly talented she is and it's also a slam against Hollywood for not letting this happen earlier. There have been a number of comediennes and actresses who could've carried movies too, but there haven't been enough vehicles for that.

"They tend to be rom-coms, which guys consider chick flicks and won't touch with a 10-foot pole. And so that just perpetuates this idea of, well, guys won't go see those movies. But that's because they're not making (female-led) movies that everyone wants to see.

"I have a hard time going to see some romantic comedies too, versus when you put women in roles where you go, 'Oh that movie looks great, I don't care who's in it.'"

Speaking to reporters in Singapore recently as part of the Sony Pictures Summit, Feig says he felt the only way to reboot an iconic film such as Ghostbusters was with a funny female cast.

For comedy directors such as himself, he considers the original film as part of a canon. He admits to turning down a Ghostbusters script from the film's original director and the current film's producer Ivan Reitman the first time around. "I thought the script was good, but it was also a sequel and I didn't like the idea of Ghostbusters being handed technology from the past," he says.

He figured that the only way in was to reboot the film and "hire all the funny women I'd worked with".

He credits producer Amy Pascal, who is also behind the new Marvel Studios-produced Spider-Man: Homecoming, for allowing the film to happen. "Because, you know, it is Hollywood and they don't normally let four women be the lead in a giant tentpole movie that costs this much money," he quips.

While familiar elements from the first movie, such as the Ghostbusters vehicle Ecto-1, the ghost-catching proton packs and the glowing green ghost Slimer have been retained and updated, for the new team, the biggest stamp of approval was having members of the original cast on board with the reboot and even on set.

"There was no resistance at all, they thought it was a great idea," McCarthy says. "They're all in it and that's the biggest blessing we could have gotten."

Murray, Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson are among the original cast members with appearances in the new film.

But there was no question for Feig that it was important to establish the new cast first. "Since this is a reboot of a very famous thing, you need to let the new cast take control of the movie," he explains.

Hence, even the cameos were strategically fitted into the plot of the film. He says: "You almost want to make people forget about the old movie so that when things from the old movies come up, they're like little Easter eggs, little gifts (for the audience)."

The nostalgic throwbacks aside, McCarthy describes making the film with a group of friends as "heaven".

She and Wiig have an almost 16-year history together, having first met at the famed Los Angeles- based Groundlings improvisation and theatre company, while she shared the Saturday Night Live stage with McKinnon and Jones.

She describes improvisation on set as "an organic sort of volley".

"You can lob something up because you know Leslie will attack it or you give it to Kristen a certain way because you know it's gonna make her do something," she says.

"With that sort of comfort level, you can just get right to it. I feel like sometimes if you don't know somebody, you take three weeks to try and get to that point on a movie - if you even get there, that is."

Feig adds that it all worked perfectly for the story, with the script almost mirroring the real-life relationships of the women. Wiig and McCarthy's characters - Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, respectively - are old friends who have reconnected, while McKinnon and Jones' characters (Jillian Holtzmann and Patty Tolan) are new to the group.

The director says: "It created this great dynamic where you could feel the old relationship between Erin and Abby and then feeling out the new additions. It was all happening on camera because they're all great friends and they were discovering one another's comedy styles. It made it very real."

Above all, McCarthy says she treasures the chance to carry on the legacy of a movie she recalls saving money to watch again and again, back in 1984.

"At the time, it was so monumental to me. I love unlikely heroes, when everyday people become triumphant and they save the world. There's a little piece in most of us, where you say, 'That could be me.'"

•Ghostbusters opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Girl power'. Print Edition | Subscribe