Paul Feig—actor, writer, director—woke up on a late summer morning several years ago to begin work adapting a children’s novel for the big screen.
The novel was the 1963 classic North to Freedom by Anne Holm. The day would be unforgettable.
“The day I was going to be starting it was September 11,” Feig recently told EthicsDaily.com by phone. “This event happens that just threw me for a loop. Suddenly your work can be reduced to being so unimportant.”
Feig, in Los Angeles, didn’t start work on the adaptation as planned. Shell-shocked like most Americans, he just took stock of life and thought about the novel, which had recently been published with a new title, I Am David.
“After a week of soul searching I realize that the theme of I Am David is a reflection of what we as a nation went through that day,” Feig said. “Who do we trust? Is there anybody in the world we can trust?”
The novel tells the story of 12-year-old David, who escapes from a Bulgarian labor camp in 1952. His journey to freedom puts him in contact with many people, most of whom he is unable to trust. David has only known oppression, brutality and fear, yet he keeps being exposed to the possibility that not everyone is mean and horrible.
Producers Lauren Levine and Clive Parsons had been fans of the book, and they had worked for years to get it produced. They eventually got the novel in Feig’s hands.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” Feig said. “I just saw the possibilities for it.”
Some critics see “I Am David,” which opened Friday in limited release, as an odd choice for Feig. The 42-year-old Michigander is best known for his TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” a critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama about a group of high-school kids on the fringes.
Though the show departed NBC after only one season (1999-2000), it nevertheless served as another calling card for Feig, who had attended film school at the University of Southern California and been working in the industry for years as an actor and stand-up comedian.
The sensibility Feig displayed with “Freaks and Geeks” caught the attention of producers Levine and Parsons, as well as Walden Media, a film company owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz that focuses on combining entertainment with educational value.
Walden’s values meshed with Feig’s.
“I like to use movies to try to educate people, too,” said Feig, and the novel’s setting and themes offered an opportunity to do just that.
Most Americans know very little about Europe in the years immediately after World War II. Feig counted himself in that group.
“I’ve always been a kind of history buff,” said Feig, “but that was one era that I had sort of skipped over.” He delved into the rise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the labor camps they created to house dissidents. Feig even hired a researcher to help him gather more details about life in such a camp.
Though Holm’s novel is somewhat vague about the camp where David’s journey begins, Feig wanted to convey a bit more reality.
“That was a great opportunity to shine a light on a little known facet of history,” he said. Of course, his edict was to make a family film, so he had to tread carefully between being too brutal and whitewashing the experience.
“I’m happy with the balance. You know something’s bad,” he said, referring to the ways he shot the camp, its supervisors, their behaviors. “As a moviegoer, you know the shorthand.”
Feig says he improved not only his cinematographic shorthand but also his emotional shorthand while working on “Freaks and Geeks.”
“Everything I do is about outsiders,” Feig said, challenging those critics who see a disconnect between his tenure on “Freaks and Geeks” and the more sober “I Am David.”
“What I learned about ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is how audiences relate to outsiders—what they will and won’t put up with in empathy toward outsiders,” he said.
“People don’t treat movies like they do real life,” he continued. “They expect more out of characters.”
When Feig spoke with EthicsDaily.com, he was on lunch break at Fox Studios, where he’s directing his fifth episode of “Arrested Development,” the Emmy-winning comedy series about a dysfunctional family.
“It’s really fun,” said Feig. “It’s just straight comedy.”
It’s also a far cry from the “I Am David” shoot, which kept Feig in Bulgaria (where it was shot entirely) for almost six months, though the shoot itself took about nine-and-one-half weeks.
“I Am David” is essentially a road movie, meaning most days brought new locations and no opportunities to go back and pick up shots he might have missed. He also had to maximize the time he was given with child actor Ben Tibber, who plays David.
Nevertheless, “It was a pretty stress-free shoot,” said Feig.
But back home in Los Angeles and once again working in comedy, Feig remembers the refugee of his film—and the refugees still wandering Earth.
“My personal feeling is we have definitely turned a blind eye to it,” he said of the crisis that keeps people from their homeland for political and social reasons. Most people feel there’s nothing they can do to help, but there’s much to be done.
“I just have great guilt by sitting around making movies about it,” said Feig.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.