The hilarious new comedy Pitch Perfect, from director Jason Moore (Broadway’s Avenue Q) and screenwriter Kay Cannon (New Girl, 30 Rock), tells the story of Beca (Anna Kendrick), a young woman who dreams of being a music producer, but who instead finds herself at Barden University in an all-female a cappella singing group. With both new takes on old favorites and hits of right now, The Bellas fight to climb their way to the top of the cutthroat world of college music competitions. The film also stars Rebel Wilson, Skylar Astin, Adam Devine, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks.
At the film’s press junket, actress/producer Elizabeth Banks spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how much fun she had playing one of the a cappella competition commentators, how much improvisation she did with co-star John Michael Higgins, just how many outtakes they have, what made her see a movie in the book the film is based on, what she’s most proud of with the finished product, and the guidelines she and her husband use, when it comes to finding projects for their company, Brownstone Productions. She also talked about getting ready to return to the role of Effie Trinket for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the possibility of taking on the role of Tinkerbell for the feature film Tink, and recording a voice for the animated feature Lego: The Piece of Resistance. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: Both you and John Michael Higgins were so hilarious in this film. How much fun was that to do?
ELIZABETH BANKS: Thank you! We had so much fun with it. John Michael Higgins is an old friend. We wrote the role for him, and we always wanted him to do it. He’s just so great. And then, we actually wrote my role for Kristen Wiig. When she wasn’t going to be able to do it, we made a list of who else could do it, and then (director) Jason [Moore] was like, “Why aren’t you just doing it?” So, I was like, “Yeah, okay, I’ll just do it!”
Was all of your banter scripted or did you do a lot of improvisation?
BANKS: There’s a lot of improv in it. (Screenwriter) Kay [Cannon] wrote amazing jokes, so we had this great script, but then we started making the movie and you learn so much about what the movie is while you’re making it. Because I was there every day, I knew tonally where we were and what we needed, frankly, out of these scenes. We shot them pretty late, in the process. The kids had already done all of the singing and dancing, we’d seen all of the choreography and we knew all of the song choices. When Kay wrote the script, we didn’t know which song they were going to sing. It was just like, “They’re going to go to the regionals, and they’re going to sing and dance.” So, to be able to be specific with the script, in that moment and on those days, it just required improv because Kay wasn’t with us since she was working on 30 Rock. John Michael Higgins was hired because he’s one of the greatest improv actors of all time, so we were going to make use of it. And I’m not too shabby, myself. We got there and just tried to make each other laugh. We did the script, and then we just played and played and played and played.
Was there ever anything that was said, where you just couldn’t help cracking up?
BANKS: Oh, my god, so much! He made me laugh so hard! We had a lot of outtakes. At one point, we had some outtakes of us, at the end of the movie. We did a lot of warm-ups. At one point, we were humping each other. Some really, really crazy stuff was going down.
Will that stuff end up on the DVD?
BANKS: Hopefully! I think it will be, yeah.
Did you ever wish you could have gotten down there on the stage and sing with everybody else?
BANKS: Oh, my god, no! I’m so proud of what all of the actors brought to this. Everybody that came in to audition and who we hired did something really unique and special in the room, and we were looking for a group of really unique and special people. A character who calls herself Fat Amy is, by definition, a really specific type of person. An Asian girl who doesn’t speak is really specific. Everyone’s audition was incredible. Anna Kendrick, in fact, auditioned with the cup song that’s in the movie. We saw her do it and it was so magical in the room that we said, “That’s gotta be in the movie,” so we put it in. Instead of having her audition with everyone else, we wanted her to have a really special moment.
How did this book first come to you, and what made you see a movie in it?
BANKS: Well, it’s a non-fiction book. We read the book proposal, so at that point, we only read the outline and chapters of the book. But Mickey Rapkin, the author, had interviewed all these groups and had gone to see them sing. It was a world that my husband and I were familiar with because we went to Penn and there were six groups on the campus at Penn. I remember seeing a performance of a kid singing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” a cappella, and he was better than Elton John. So, we knew how seriously they took it, but we also knew that it’s a performance art. It really comes out of guys in colleges, sitting around, drinking beer and singing at each other to have fun. To then make that competitive and really invest in it, when you’re just a dork who couldn’t get into a fraternity, I love those stories. I love stories about misfits and underdogs. What we honed in on, with Mickey’s original book, was that one of the four groups he followed in the book was the first female group to ever go to the finals. They really do feel like underdogs. And then, we saw the video of them at the finals and they sang Usher’s “Yeah!,” and they were incredible. If you could imagine a group of misfit girls coming together, and then doing this amazing rendition, at the end, that would be a great journey to watch. That’s what hooked us.
Since this was such a huge undertaking with the large cast and big performance numbers, what were you most proud of, when you saw it all come together?
BANKS: I’m like a super proud mamma! I’m proud of the whole thing, but I’m proudest that we set out to make a really specific type of movie, tonally. That’s a hard target to hit, and I’m really proud that we made the movie we said we were going to make. That’s really hard to do. So, I’m really, really proud that we really accomplished what we set out to accomplish with this movie. Every decision we made was about tone and about finding the right partners. Max [Handelman] and I read the material and we agreed there was a movie there, and we knew that we wanted it to be very fun and funny and almost culty, in the way that Best in Show delves into the world of showing dogs, but we also wanted it to be Mean Girls and Bring it On and Superbad. We knew that we were going to use improv and hire really fun people, we knew that we wanted it to be a world filled with crazy, kooky, young characters, and we knew that it was going to be a coming-of-age story. Getting Kay [Cannon] involved was great. That was the first piece where we went, “Okay, now we have another partner who sees it the same way that we do.” And then, getting Jason [Moore] involved was like, “Okay, now there’s four of us who see it exactly the same way.” I think that’s the key to really producing the movie that you want to make. And then, bringing on actors who see and embrace their characters, in the way that we all see them was also important. We just wanted to make sure we were constantly celebrating people. Every time we hired somebody onto the movie, our goal was to bring in a collaborator who saw the same movie that we did, and we put together the team that did that. And Universal saw the movie, which was great.
Do you have any kind of guidelines for the types of projects you want to produce under your production company, Brownstone Productions?
BANKS: It’s an interesting question to ask. We talk a lot about what we’re not interested in doing, which is that we’re not developing animation and we’re not developing horror. But, we’re really just looking for good stories and things that we feel like have a big hook. We don’t look at a lot of indie material. We don’t look at a lot of movies about drug addicts on the side of the Jersey highway, who’s pregnant with twins. The other thing that we attempted to do was to make sure that our production company was not directly related to my status as an actor. We didn’t want it to be considered a vanity thing for me, as an actor. We specifically develop projects that I would not act in. I play a small role in Pitch Perfect, which was totally incidental because I was there and they could pay me SAG minimum since we had no money in the budget. Frankly, it just felt like I was helping the movie. But, I would say that our main goal is to feel like a legitimate production company and not just like, “Oh, Liz Banks, the actress, wants to produce movies for herself.” That’s what the perception of a lot of actor-driven companies is.
Now that you know what to expect from The Hunger Games fandom, what’s it like to gear up for that again with Catching Fire?
BANKS: I’m really happy that I don’t look like Effie Trinket, in real life. That’s a blessing! It’s really fun to go into a job knowing everybody. (Director) Francis Lawrence is amazing, and he’s got a great handle on everything and everybody. The stakes are definitely raised, in this one. The emotional stakes are raised. My costumes are all bigger and better and more over-the-top. Everybody is pulling out all the stops. We have so many amazing new actors coming to work with us. I just met Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and that was like, “Wow, we’ve got some really amazing actors joining us! That’s crazy!” It’s great. I’m super excited. I love Effie so much.
Will there be more of a human side to your character, this time around?
BANKS: In Catching Fire, Effie really starts to feel the injustice of what’s happening. We plan to explore that, in the movie.
What’s it like to possibly taking on the role of Tinkerbell for Tink?
BANKS: I hope I get to take on that role! I hope we get to make that movie. It’s something that we’re really focused on, right now. We think we have a really fun script. She’s an amazing character. We’re going full steam ahead, but it’s a miracle whenever a movie gets made. Are we going to find the right collaborators who see the movie that we see? We hope so.
What’s it like to do a voice for Lego: The Piece of Resistance?
BANKS: That’s so fun! I’m having so much fun, doing that. It’s a really good movie. They did a great job adapting it for film. These properties that get made into movies, some are easier than others. When they first said, “Yeah, they’re making a movie out of Lego,” I said, “Lego what? What does that even mean?” And it’s such a good concept. I’m so excited! They were so smart about it. [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller are the directors who wrote the script, and they did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. They’re so smart and they went to Dartmouth, and they’re so edgy and fun. They have a great way into the Lego world, and I’m super excited about it.
With all the great projects and roles you’re doing, is it hard to keep finding such interesting work?
BANKS: It’s really hard! It’s really hard to find things that are challenging. That’s why this producing opportunity was so meaningful to me and why I worked so hard at it. It was a true challenge. Effie was really great and challenging. I made People Like Us last year. But, I look at the landscape and I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve played a lot of girlfriends and wives. I’m a fully developed, three-dimensional mother, wife and working woman. I would like to play that. I would like to live that, in my work. I know what level I can be working at, and I feel like the industry, most of the time, is offering me stuff down here. So, I’m always reaching to find something that will challenge me and make me do my best.
Pitch Perfect is now playing in limited release goes wide this weekend.