"Pitch Perfect" writer on her a cappella underdogs beating "Mad Max" at the box office: "If that happens, joy will win the weekend"

Kay Cannon opens up to Salon about writing female leads, her mentor Tina Fey and appeasing the "Bec-Clo" shippers

Published May 15, 2015 4:20PM (EDT)

Kay Cannon; Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Kendrick in "Pitch Perfect 2"      (AP/Matt Sayles/Universal Pictures)
Kay Cannon; Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Kendrick in "Pitch Perfect 2" (AP/Matt Sayles/Universal Pictures)

In an industry where female-led films — particularly female-led comedies — are a rare breed, Kay Cannon is one of the genre's resounding success stories. Her feel-good musical comedy "Pitch Perfect" was 2012's biggest sleeper hit, grossing over $113-million worldwide on a $17-million budget. The "Pitch Perfect" phenomenon has since been held up as proof that people will show up to see funny women onscreen, and that vocal harmonies and female teamwork can be just as compelling as men in capes when it comes to making money at the box office.

"Pitch Perfect 2," which boasts a female director (Elizabeth Banks) in addition to a female producer, female writer and almost all-female cast, is off to a similarly ebullient start. Already one step ahead of box office competitor "Mad Max: Fury Road," the film earned $4.6-million during Thursday previews (to "Mad Max's" $3.7-million), and pundits are predicting a cool $50-million haul over its opening weekend. While the "Pitch Perfect" franchise is her first foray into big-screen scriptwriting, Cannon is hardly new to making people laugh: The long-time improviser honed her chops as a writer and story editor Tina Fey's "30 Rock," as well as writing for beloved comedies "New Girl" and the recently-axed "Cristela."

We caught up with Cannon at New York's Ace Hotel to chat about her surprising smash hit, appeasing "Bec-Clo" shippers, and being a women in the comedy industry. As she puts it, referring to her native TV: "The list of ladies who can get a green-light on a show... is so small. And I don’t think it should be that small." The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

While I was watching the movie, I was thinking just how refreshing it was to watch a movie that wasn’t about superheroes, or just about a man trying to save the world.

I’m excited to see “Mad Max,” and I’m excited to see the “Avengers” movie, so I’m not taking anything away from them. But if we happen to somehow win the weekend in box office, if that happens — I just feel like joy will win the weekend. Because it’s not about the apocalypse or hero movies in that way. It’s just jokes and songs.

I noticed that the male characters were sidelined a bit in this one. 

In the first one, I remember getting notes from the studio to make more of the Beca-Jesse romance and Luke, the station-manager character. There are scenes that were cut that I had to write to satisfy that note, to make more of that sort of love triangle. But I remember in note-sessions, saying: ‘guys this is a movie about a group of underdog, rag-tag gals, who are competing in this a cappella competition. This isn’t about the romance.’ So it was kind of a little bit of a fight — not a fight, but where the studio wants one thing and I’m wanting something else — and ultimately those scenes got cut.

The same exact thing happened with this one. But it all goes back to like, what is this movie about? This movie is about an a cappella group, and their friendship, who they are to each other. Fat Amy and Bumper have this romantic situation, but Fat Amy wouldn’t talk about it with her girlfriends. And she wasn’t sharing like ‘what do I do, should I be with him?’ or anything like that. So then it came out in a confession. I was purposely trying not to make it about them with guys.

This movie is talked about, along with “Bridesmaids” as proof — not that we needed proof -- but as evidence that people will show up to the box office for a female-centric comedy.

For the first movie, I set out to just write a funny movie, and it just happens to be that the underdogs in the a cappella world are all women, or all female groups. So I just was setting out to write what I think is funny and play characters that I think are funny.  I think "Bridesmaids" is the same way, they just happen to be women. They’re hilarious. Kristen Wiig is just one of the funniest — Melissa McCarthy —  they’re just some of the funniest people around. That movie really helped “Pitch Perfect” even get made.

We know that people want to see these movies. Why do you think there are still so few comedies with female leads?

I think the numbers are changing. I think it’s increasing. 2014 was pretty bleak, because I think the movies that were female-driven and maybe even written by women or directed by women were being made in 2014 to come out in 2015. “Hot Pursuit,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Trainwreck,” and “Spy” were all being done in the last year. All four of those movies I just mentioned are not rom-coms, they’re all about women doing different things. So I hope the number is shifting and turning. I think the problem is, and this is unfair, but if one movie does really poorly, then it’s like, whoosh, we all go back down to the bottom.

Right, and it has been proven that when there are more women working behind the scenes, that correlates to there being more female stories on screen. I know Amy Poehler, for example, just started her own production company, and one of its aims is to more female-centric projects on air.

If you look at Amy Schumer and her show, which is doing amazing, Jessi Klein is the head writer of that. We just need more shots. I was talking about how, for me, it’s been hard to get a TV show on the air, because I write what I know and I always have female leads. Look, I might have written a turd burger, but let’s say that it’s not a turd burger for a second. Just the list of ladies who can get a green-light on a show, a pilot — because it’s all about casting at the end — is so small. And I don’t think it should be that small.

Was Tina Fey a role model for you when you worked on “30 Rock?”

Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean she was my friend, first, and then she was maybe an unwilling mentor, but I’ve called her my mentor. I don’t even know if she would say that she’s a mentor. She just does everything really well.

I think the first thing I ever learned about working for Tina is that I will never be as good as Tina. But that’s okay because what you learn and what you absorb from her and how good she is, is worth it. And she’s one of the best. She not only was writing, but she walks the walk and she works really hard.

Can you talk a little bit about writing the “Pitch Perfect 2” script? What were your anxieties about doing a sequel?

There were so many anxieties. Also, I lost my father and I had a baby while writing the script. And then continued to write the script after I had my daughter. So I had all this life stuff going on, and it was actually really nice to be in the a cappella world again and be writing jokes for Fat Amy and Beca and Bellas because I can imagine if I was doing something like, “Schindler’s List” or something, it would be awful.

But you definitely feel the anxiety. I just didn’t want to mess up. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. The fans are the reason there’s a sequel, and so to make something that they didn’t like really weighed heavily on me.

You must feel good about how it turned out.

I do feel like — look, it’s not perfect. It’s not like there’s real suspense, like ‘what’s going to happen to the Bellas!?’  But again, I go back to that joy thing, which is, I feel like people have a good time. They have fun, I feel like they laugh, I feel like they feel joy. I think music helps you feel better. I’ve seen the movie many times with a group of people, with large groups of people, and I feel like we did it. I think fans will like it, and kind of don’t care if critics like it at all, because as long as the fans like it, that’s all that matters.

Was the scene where the Bellas perform for Barack and Michelle Obama in the script from the beginning?

Well, that’s stock footage. So I thought that if we couldn’t get the stock footage approval, then we would just see the back of their heads. In order to get that approval — it’s never been confirmed to me — but I suspect that Obama’s daughters liked the movie and he wanted to be cool in front of his daughters. He’s the president of the United States and he’s trying to be cool.

This film starts, like the first one, with an embarrassing incident — “Muffgate” where Fat Amy accidentally flashes her vagina during this audience with the Obamas. How did you come up with the idea for that? I got the sense that there was this undercurrent of slut-shaming or body-shaming running through it, especially when the news media reacts to what happens.

I never really thought of it as a slut-shaming. And only looking now as people do bring it up, it’s kind of like the generation that doesn’t get it, like the old lady secretary who’s like ‘they’re ready to see you tramps.’ And with John Michaels Higgins’ character [a misogynist a cappella announcer], it’s like, I’m obviously a woman who’s writing a character who is so misogynistic, and the reason I can do that is because it’s an exaggerated version of what actually is still happening in society. There are still men who think this way. There are still men who think women shouldn’t go to college, even though it’s crazy for us to believe. I feel strongly about this, and I think some people take offense to those jokes, but as a woman I feel like I get the right to make those, because we live with it.

It’s a reminder, too.

Yeah, this is what they’re up against, that they are up against people who are like him. The idea for “muffgate” was I knew I wanted them to be underdogs again.

President Obama’s birthday is in August, which is before their senior year. And big successful groups do perform in front of the President, and they’ll still sing at the World Series. They do big things. And then I was like well, how can I have this sort of Janet Jackson moment? And it just came to me: Fat Amy’s doing a sort of Pink/Cirque du Soleil thing, and she shows her vagina. But also, Janet Jackson was slut-shamed after that, as if she was the major culprit, whereas Justin Timberlake was sort of, like — she apologized and he kind of apologized — I think he came out but was basically like ‘I didn’t know what was going on.’ And [in the movie] Beca says, ‘Fat Amy apologized, can’t you just let this go? Why are people still so upset about this?’ They’re getting hate mail still because people can’t let certain things go.

Do you guys know yet if there’s going to be a “Pitch Perfect 3?” 

I wouldn’t want to jinx anything. If there’s no demand for it, I’d feel silly if I was talking about a third one. Hopefully there will be a demand for it.

The Barden Bellas are a very diverse group of women. Was showcasing diversity something that was important to you?

Yes. Not for any international sales reason, I just wanted to make sure that we were seeing a bunch of different types of women. And the addition of Flo [a Latina character] — I think some people have been offended by Flo, but to me it’s simply satire. And I wanted to have a character that represented — like, when Chloe says ‘this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to us,’ that there somebody who had perspective on it. That this is not a thing.

I mean, it is in that she takes it so seriously, and you’re so in the moment [when] you’re in college. I can think of all these improv groups I was on, where we were all so serious about it. So I just wanted to make sure that there was somebody that could give that perspective in a joking way, to remind the audience that this is a quirky world. Cause I kind of made the Bellas super-cool, and I had to un-cool them a little bit.

How much did the writing process change the second time once you had seen Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick inhabit these characters?

It was so much more fun for me because I understood their rhythms. I kind of know how they say things in a funny way now. Rebel has very specific comedic rhythms. She says things a little bit slower. She kind of takes her time with stuff.

I tried really hard to give Anna Kendrick more funny in this one and give her more jokes. So that’s the whole thing with her not being able to talk to the Kommissar [the front-woman of rival group Das Sound Machine].

I love the flirtation Beca had with Kommissar. There definitely seem to be some queer undertones to the film, like the time when Chloe tells Beca, “I wish I had experimented more in college.”

For the record, in the first movie when [Beca and Chloe] are naked in the shower, that was not — on the page — nearly as sexual as it was shot. That’s [director] Jason Moore’s doing, he added a little bit more. And it might be kind of out of left-field a little bit when Chloe is saying that to Beca in the tent, but that was another tip to the Bec-Clo fans. There’s a substantial number of people —shippers—who want those two [to get together]. So that was our little wink to them.

The sequel really does owe its existence to the fans and the unlikely phenomenon that sprung up around “Pitch Perfect.” So it’s cool that the sequel is directly reacting and responding to that. 

In coming up with the sequel, I thought a lot about how I’m a such a big fan of “Sex and the City” and I couldn’t go wait to see the movie. I just felt excitement, which I don’t think is unlike how people are excited to see this sequel.

I remember for the first “Sex and the City” movie, the first three minutes was like: New York City, the girls, shoes, handbags, music — it was like, this is what you love, and here it is. So that’s what I was also thinking a lot about: Bellas, Higgins, Gail, same jokes, Fat Amy doing something really funny, big, music, let’s give them what they want. It’s a silly, silly movie. I’m okay being the author of a silly silly movie. I’m attracted more to that than I am to something that’s really serious.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

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Comedy Feminism Kay Cannon Movies Pitch Perfect Pitch Perfect 2