They say that the cream always rises to the top, and that’s also true for talent, as Kay Cannon has proven with her meteoric rise from being a writer on NBC’s 30 Rock, writing the hit Pitch Perfect series, to directing her very first comedy BLOCKERS. (In between, she also created the Netflix series Girl Boss, which tragically, only ran for a single season.)
Blockers stars Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz and WWE Superstar John Cena as the very different parents of three teenagers, best friends since they were little girls who decide they’re all going to lose their virginity on prom night. When their parents find out, let’s just say that they go a little too far.
It’s hard to put into words how hilarious Blockers is with Cannon directing from a screenplay by Brian and Jim Kehoe, but the movie finds a way to spend equal time between the parents and their kids, making all their various subplots compelling and funny.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Ms. Cannon a couple weeks back to talk about her directorial debut, but she also told us this great story about transitioning from a writer on 30 Rock to writing the first Pitch Perfect movie.
I was surprised that you hadn’t directed anything before this, like one of your TV shows. Had you wanted to direct or did this just happen?
Kay Cannon: I always thought, because I have such a respect for academics that I felt like I had to go to film school to direct. It felt like maybe it’s not something I should be doing, but I really thought that my first time directing my own show. Like if Girlboss had gotten a second season, I would have directed episodes of Girlboss and that would lead me into films, but several years ago I had lunch with Nathan Kehane (SP) at Good Universe, and he said to me, “Aren’t you tired of other people coming in and directing your own material?” I hadn’t really thought about it before, and I was like, “I AM tired…” even though they did a great job. It’s like, yeah, I should be directing. The fact that Good Universe and Point Grey sent me this script with a straight offer to direct when I hadn’t directed anything prior to that, I was really grateful to them for giving me a shot.
That’s actually a normal path for screenwriters. Many of them start directing out of frustration with having to hand their babies off to these other people who are making their movie when they have a lot of ideas on what they want to do.
Yeah, I think because I go back and forth… well, now a lot of people go back and forth between TV and film… but maybe like five years, because I go back and forth so much, there wasn’t time to have that shot to direct a movie while I was still busy with TV.
Did he just give you the script and that was enough? What connected with you about the script?
First, when I read the script I thought it was very funny, so that was the first thing I noticed. I read a lot of stuff, and a lot of stuff isn’t super-funny, so that was a plus, but I connected in two ways to this material. One being I was a teenage girl who lost her virginity. Don’t tell my mother. And then I’m a parent of a daughter, so that for me, after I read the script, I said to my husband, I was like, “I just think about our kid,” and at the time she was two, and I just look at her and I’m like, “She so amazing and so perfect and smart and funny and all these things, and one day she’ll grow up.” Hopefully, bad things won’t happen to her or she’ll want to have sex, and how will we be as parents? Will we continue to be progressive? Will we be afraid of who she dates? All these questions were kind of popping up for us, so I really wanted to tell this story.
It really is a double standard that parents with daughters have to think about that stuff, but parents with sons not so much.
Yeah, I probably would worry just as much if I had a son, but (laughs) in general, there is this double standard, and that was something I wanted to explore. I wanted it to have every single point of view displayed in the film and talked about. That Marcy-Lisa scene where you have two moms of two of the daughters with two completely different takes on the situation. That was really important to me that we let that scene be in the movie.
Yeah, when I say that, Good Universe and Point Grey sent me the script.
I think Leslie and Ike are kind of ringers because they’ve been very funny in other comedies, but John Cena comes from outside the box, because he’s done movies and had small roles in comedies, but this one really has to carry a lot of the funniest scenes.
I worked with the writers on a draft, and we had rewritten that role to be a big guy who is sensitive, kind of like a stay at home Dad, and I had thought John was very funny in Trainwreck and Sisters, but he still was playing that tough guy. It wasn’t until I was at home watching him host the Espys, and he was being himself. I was watching him in the monologue telling some jokes, and I was like, “You know what? He should play Mitchell.” So I emailed the producers straight-away, and said, “Let’s get John Cena in” and because what you’re saying, he hadn’t carried a movie and just done little things here and there, they wanted him to audition, so John came in and he auditioned for me, and he killed it. He was just great, and I really loved working with him. I think he does a fantastic job.
My first knowledge of John Cena was probably from the E! reality show Total Divas, rather than wrestling. There was a marathon on, and I kind of got hooked.
You know, that’s funny, because I think that was my first time of knowing John, too, was Total Divas. I had no idea he was a wrestler. (laughs)
What about casting the kids? The three girls are fairly varied on their own, and their dates are very different, then you have these extra kids who are very funny in recurring jokes. How did you find all these kids? Just scour the drama schools?
Yeah, it was a tough search. I saw hundreds of young women to play these parts and did lots of chemistry reads, and actually, Katherine, Geraldine, and Gideon were all really down to the wire hires. Katherine came in to audition, and I saw her in person, and when she left the room – and I had just seen her on Big Little Lies – and I could absolutely see her as Leslie’s daughter, like I could see them as you can see in the movie. They look like they’re mother-daughter, and act like it and have this wonderful bond. Geraldine and Gideon, they just put themselves on tape, and I ended up bringing Geraldine in, but Gideon I didn’t meet until the first day of rehearsal, a week before we started shooting. I didn’t do a chemistry read with the three of them, either, to see how their chemistry was together, so it wasn’t until the first day of rehearsal where the three of them were in the room together. They were like immediately best friends. They seemed like they had known each other for years, and I was really relieved when they had such great chemistry.
I think my favorite is Jimmy Bellinger as Chad, maybe because I relate to that character more than the other two dates. When you found the kids, did the characters change a lot to bring in some of their own personalities?
Yeah, I mean Chad didn’t change that much, and he auditioned very early on, and I liked him from go. He was at the table read, so he was the first of the kids that was hired. I say they’re kids when they’re adults, but you know what I’m saying. I have kids and parents, and then the Conner character, there were early versions of his character where he was just a real jerk that had no drug stuff. He was just a bad guy, and then we started to realize… I didn’t want audiences to just be rooting for Mitchell. I wanted audiences to be unsure of who they’re rooting for, so I had Conner give out drugs and be “the Chef,” which a parent would not like, so you might be like, “Yes, Mitchell. Stop her from being with him,” but then when you meet Conner and see him talking with Kayla, you fall in love with him, and he’s adorable, and he’s not a bad guy. He’s a good listener, and he’s sweet, so Miles Robbins, he was very last minute. He put himself on tape. I had no idea he was Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s son. I just thought that he was perfect for the role, and then Austin was a little bit tricky, because you just want it that Julie is clearly the alpha in that relationship (laughs).
I’ve been to a couple comedy sets including Trainwreck and Sisters, so I’ve gotten to see Judd Apatow work and Tina and Amy with Paula Pell, so when you’re directing a movie like this, are you throwing out jokes on the set to get different versions of things?
Yeah, the script is really fluid, and I was constantly throwing out jokes. We had a gazillion alts. I let them improvise. It was really a collaboration, and it was kind of like best idea won, and we would rehearse scenes, and they would go to hair and make-up, and I might rewrite the scene in its entirety, and then I sent them pages while they were in the hair and make-up chair. What was so great was that everybody was on board. Everybody was like, “Okay, we’re just going to try to find the best version of this scene and just keep working it until we get it.” There were some things like the emoji scene was pretty much exactly as scripted, and the coding scene, and when Mitchell is in the house with Ron and Kathy, that was very much blocked and exactly what we had on the page.
Did you get to go to the sets of the Pitch Perfect movies when they were making those?
For the first movie, I was at 30 Rock still, so I couldn’t be on set. I was like there for the weekend before they started shooting to do last-minute rewrites, and then Pitch Perfect 2, I was on set quite a bit. I was on there for maybe three or four weeks, so I was a big part of that movie, and then Pitch 3 I wasn’t part of it at all, because I did Girlboss and then prepped for Blockers. While they were shooting in Atlanta, and I was prepping in Atlanta. I did get to go watch them when they shot the finale, which was really such a beautiful moment for me. It really put a finishing touch to a really nice experience.
I also liked the action in Blockers, and I was really impressed with that. I thought maybe you could direct a Fast and Furious movie…
Oh, wow. Thank you so much!
Have you ever wanted to go in that direction?
Yeah, I think that would be great. I want to do an action-comedy movie or TV show. I think combining those two things would be my ideal.
There’s been a pretty big change in the world with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, so I wondered if you thought it might affect the comedy genre at all. For instance, could they do American Pie today or would it have to have a twist by having the women as protagonists? How do you feel about doing R-rated comedy in this changing world?
I have to say that I’m so happy that when people watch this movie that they feel we’re on the right side of history with it, because we’re showing it from a female perspective. I think they go in thinking they’re going to see a certain kind of movie, and then get pleasantly surprised by what they actually see. I don’t think this movie would have been made five years ago. I definitely don’t think I would be the director of it, but now that we’re calling people out and taking them to task, we need to start telling underserved stories, showing different kinds of people, making things more diverse. I hope the movie does well, because I hope it opens up doors to having more types of movies like these exist.
I generally like the movies that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg make, but what are they like as producers to work with them? What do they bring to the mix?
I’d never done anything rated R before, and I’m not a prude, but I can be prudish (laughs), so they really push the envelope with me on that. There’d be times where I was like, “I can’t believe I’m directing this right now.” I feel like they do specifically rated-R comedies better than anybody. I think they’re so funny, and what was great with them as producers is that they’re really great writers and directors, so I felt supported the whole time. I felt like I learned a lot doing rated R stuff, and I think that they learned from me, coming from what I typically do, and I think that the movie is kind of a nice mix of what we both bring to the table.
I think Universal also has a lot of experience with R-rated material, so do they and the producers help you deal with the MPAA, so were you able to do what you wanted with the R-rating and not have them say, “That’s too much”?
What they’re really great about like you just want to tell the story, right? They weren’t trying to stop me from doing that. I just felt really supported, and I think that combination of Universal – I’ve only done movies at Universal – Point Grey, myself, I think we complement each other really well. We show full frontal nudity, so we still got it rated R. I think if the movie is funny, they don’t say much about it. (laughs)
I read your bio, and I was amazed that you got the 30 Rock gig from your very first spec script. Was Pitch Perfect something that you had been writing over the years while you were doing 30 Rock and then it got made? How was that transition from working on the show to writing Pitch Perfect?
In the first year of 30 Rock, I was in the writers’ room, and one of the characters, Toofer, was in an acapella group in college, and there was this joke, and I was in the bathroom when they wrote the joke, and I came back and sat at the table and read it, and I was like, “Who wrote that joke, it’s so funny?” and Robert Carlock goes, “Well, actually, it’s a real world,” because I’m from the Midwest and it wasn’t popular in the Midwest. He was like, “On the East Coast, they have competitions,” and I literally said in the room, “Somebody needs to write a movie about that.” But I didn’t know anything about that world, and I didn’t want my first screenplay to be about something I didn’t know anything about, and I had mentioned to this Elizabeth Banks in passing. She was like, “What are you working on?” and I was like, “I really want to write an acapella movie, but I have no idea what to do.” This was so far back ago, this was, I was like, “I could have Jason Sudeikis be at a state school and John Krasinski, his brother, is at an Ivy League school, and they compete against each other!” And then it was two years later, totally separate from any of these conversations, Max Handelman, who Is Elizabeth Banks’ husband, also her Brownstone Productions partner, she saw this book Pitch Perfect, and it was the research I needed to write the movie. So they called me up and said, “Would you be interested in writing this acapella movie?” and I was like, “Of course! That’s what I’ve been talking about for the last two years!” (laughs) Basically, between the second and third season of 30 Rock, we sold Pitch Perfect to Universal, and then I wrote the script from the third season on, and then it shot during the fifth or sixth season.
Blockers opens on Friday, April 6… against John Krasinski’s new movie.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor