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Screenwriter and former "30 Rock" writer Kay Cannon talks about her a cappella sequel, and why she likes projects led by “being funny first, gender second”


Why “Pitch Perfect 2” will be the summer’s most radical movie

By Kara Cutruzzula on May 15, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 opens with a presidential peekaboo as the Barden Bellas, our lovable female a cappella group, perform for the Obamas. Rebel Wilson’s character, Fat Amy, trussed up in Cirque du Soleil-style silks, twirls and gyrates like she’s Pink at the Grammys, killing the performance until an ungodly RRRRRRRRRRIIIIIIPPP signals a wardrobe meltdown and she flashes the president and first lady her Down Under.

The film’s screenwriter, sketch comedy alum and former 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, admits this follow-up to the 2012 sleeper hit that made a cappella cool, launched a billion “Cups” covers and—music to a studio’s ears—grossed three times its budget, is a “silly, silly movie.” It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

The film is tart and sugary-sweet, like chasing Sour Patch Kids with Reese’s Pieces. Sure, it can be a date movie, but it also lampoons grand romantic gestures (a highlight: Fat Amy—she calls herself that so skinny bitches won’t—canoes over to her love interest belting out “We Belong.”) The first film’s popularity may explain why the Obamas allowed stock footage to be used for their genius reactions. As Cannon said, “I’d like to think, though I have no proof, that maybe their daughters were fans and they thought: We’d look super cool by being in this movie.”

The sequel jumps forward in time. Beca (Anna Kendrick) and her lovable crew are already seniors. But first, there’s a campfire sing along. “Every time they sang ‘Cups’ I cried. They must have sung it 30 times and I was like ‘Oh my god, they’re graduating,’ said Cannon during a lunch this week in New York, where she’s shooting a role in the upcoming film How to Be Single. Starring Rebel Wilson and Dakota Johnson, it’s written by her friend Dana Fox. Cannon started her career as an actor and sketch comedian before another friend, her fellow Second City alum Tina Fey, hired her on 30 Rock.

Pitch Perfect 2 pits the upstart Bellas against new rivals, the strapping Germans who comprise Das Sound Machine. (The height discrepancy between five-foot-two Anna Kendrick and her blonde counterpart is hilarious—Cannon said that when she emails with Kendrick, “she’s Tiny Mouse and I’m Average-Sized Cat. We joke that we’re still working on my nickname.”)

Behold the power of DVD sales: Cannon said she saw the sequel come to life, oh, four times faster than the first film, which she was inspired to write after a throwaway joke about a 30 Rock character’s a cappella past. She and actress Elizabeth Banks, who directed the sequel, optioned Mickey Rapkin’s book about a cappella competitions and went off to discover more about altos, trebles, and everything in between.

Despite the film’s silliness, it’s a hugely important project for industry observers to watch this summer. There’s a second drought in California, and it’s not the one that’s driving up the price of avocado toast. Hollywood’s record on promoting women in the industry is so abysmal that the ACLU got involved this week, asking for state and federal agencies to look into the studios’ hiring practices of female directors (only four percent of the top-grossing films in the past two decades were directed by women).

It’s vital for Pitch Perfect to hit the high notes because it’s not a sweet indie, or even a standard rom-com. It’s a big splashy summer wannabe (and probably gonna-be) blockbuster. As Banks told the Hollywood Reporter,  “The list of women who get to make studio-level films is very short, and I’m not quite in that club yet. Until this movie comes out, then we’ll see.”

I wonder, though, if it gets exhausting being the unofficial torchbearer for Every Beleaguered Woman in Hollywood, a burden bestowed on whichever woman has a movie coming out next. There’s a reductive tendency to conflate similar types, creating categories like the “Fempire,” a term used a few years ago to lump together four major female screenwriters, Diablo Cody, Dana Fox, Liz Meriwether, and Lorene Scafaria, “which they weren’t thrilled about, by the way,” said Cannon. Such shorthand terminology makes for nice, neat little feature stories, to . fill your lady filmmaker coverage quota. But highlighting the few women in a position to buoy projects doesn’t remedy the larger issue of women’s clout (or lack thereof) in Hollywood. As director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay said at the Women in the World Summit last month, “When a woman makes a film, that is a radical act.”

Banks, Cannon and their huge ensemble of funny women are just doing the same thing as the dudes but with different anatomy: they crack jokes, write stories, develop characters, and yeah, even tell the occasional poop joke. Of course in the case of Pitch Perfect, the box office matters—for a third film, for Banks’ cred as a director, for ammo in the effort to show that counter-programming to films that rhyme with Bavengers: Cage of Schmultron actually works.

And it matters especially to someone like Cannon, who’s planning to direct an indie film written by a friend and sketch improviser. “I hope that I don’t hit a lot of walls, and that this shakeup and them noticing that the numbers are so low will work in my favor,” she said. But she’s not in the game to do the big blockbusters anyway: “My sensibility would be to do comedies that are either female-driven or not. I feel like a lot of women feel that way. It’s a genre thing.”

Another common practice in Hollywood is for a female writer to be pulled in on a script to “punch up” the female characters’ lines, a practice Cannon thinks is a little ridiculous. “My first couple of years writing, they’d say, ‘We’ve got this movie with this huge, comedic, superstar actor, will you punch up the lady part?’ Which I never liked hearing, because that’s not how scenes work. You don’t just write dialogue for one character without it affecting how the other person responds,” she said. “I remember having one conversation with Kate Hudson, and she knew that they hired a writer to beef up her part, and I don’t want to speak for her, but it’s not the best feeling. You feel like you’re this added element as opposed to a part of the process of the story. You cannot beef up a female part without taking away from the lead, which is why it’s so important to have more female leads.”

Thankfully, Cannon’s graduated from that process. “Now, because the stuff I’ve done is led by being funny first, gender second, I get asked to do other things.” Meanwhile, she’s worked as a co-executive producer on New Girl and with her husband, comedy writer Eben Russell on Cristela. They had a baby girl, Evelyn, right around the time the Pitch Perfect script was due. Right here is where we could discuss the challenges of being a mother and career woman — how do you do it, Kay? But let’s refrain because that would never take up space in the profile of a male writer—ever.

What is important is how easy or difficult it is to get projects made. “What I’d love to see change is the list of ladies who can green light a comedy on network TV is way too small, and most of them are movie stars who they’re hoping will do TV. And I think there are so many wonderful, talented, funny, crazy great ladies,” said Cannon. “I think that list needs to be longer, or have people realize that TV creates stars. Think about Elaine from Seinfeld: Julia Louis Dreyfus became a star after that.”

As for talk of a third film, the math is elementary: For months, Universal has been papering every flat surface around New York City with ads heralding that “The Pitch is Back.” The soundtrack is already No. 1 on iTunes and the sequel is on track for a $40 million weekend. Imagining a scenario in which a third film doesn’t happen is like pretending Justin Bieber will wake up tomorrow and be a reformed and productive member of society: both terrifying and highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, Cannon’s on her way back to L.A. for the movie’s Friday release, and is planning to be driven around to movie theaters showing the film with her husband, Elizabeth Banks, and Banks’ husband, producer Max Handelman.

“We’ll just sneak in and stand on the side and listen to reactions,” said Cannon. I have a feeling they’ll witness a very loud singalong that will reverberate for a long time to come.