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, screenwriter Kay Cannon talked about how she came to write this film, how she developed the group of very unique characters, the inspiration for the girl power of the story, how they determined which songs would be selected, not being able to be on set during filming, her favorite parts of the movie, how she went from studying theater in college to writing for TV and film, and the workplace series, set in the world of sports, that she’s sold to Fox. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Question: How did you come to write this film?
KAY CANNON: It’s actually a weird story. I was a writer on 30 Rock for six years. I’m now at New Girl. But, the first season of 30 Rock had a joke that was about the character Toofer (Keith Powell) being in an a cappella group at Harvard, and I thought that was really funny. I had asked my boss, Robert Carlock, who wrote that joke. I was like, “That’s so funny!” And Robert was like, “No, that’s a world that actually exists, where there are a cappella groups that compete.” It blew my mind. I was like, “What?!” I actually said, in that moment, “Somebody needs to write a movie about that.” He looked back at me and went, “There’s your movie.” Over lunch, I went online and looked up all the different groups and was like, “This is amazing! How did I never know this existed?” I’m from Chicago. In the Midwest, it just wasn’t as popular as it is now. I didn’t have the research. I didn’t know the world enough. I’m an improviser, and I felt like the world was probably a lot like the improv world, where there are different groups and you compete and some become famous and it’s very serious and women are the underdogs. I felt like it was the same kind of world, but I didn’t want to write about something I didn’t know. So, I put the idea to rest.
And then, Liz Banks and I are friends and she said, “What ideas for movies do you have?,” and I was like, “I want to write this a cappella movie, but I don’t know what to write yet.” And then, she found out that Mickey Rapkin was writing this non-fiction book where he followed three groups around, and I thought, “Oh, that’s my research!” So, we got the rights to the book. We had to fight to get rights to the book. We had to come up with our pitch, and another writing team wanted the rights. Whoever sold it got the rights, and we sold it to Universal, so we got the rights. The book just confirmed my suspicions. What the book really did to help me is that it really showed that women were the underdogs, and that an all-female group didn’t really do as well. And then, I went to the ICCA finals when I was writing my first draft, which was about four years ago now, before Glee came out. Now, those freshmen are freshmen in college. That’s how long it took for this movie to get made. Thank god that Glee happened because now people know and they get it.
What led you to reference The Breakfast Club in the film?
CANNON: When I was younger, I wanted my hair to look like Molly Ringwald’s. My hair is straight today, but I have crazy curly hair. And so, they cut it really short in that bob that she had, and I looked terrible. That’s how much I loved that movie. That movie stuck with me. The story of the movie is something very familiar. You can compare it to other movies. You can compare it to Bring it On and you know the story structure. There are these tropes that we followed, but I wanted to turn them on their head. I wanted to poke fun at The Breakfast Club because of how much I loved it, but also do the thing when Beca (Anna Kendrick) sings [that song]. So, I’m honoring it and poking fun, at the same time. Weird Science couldn’t fit as well, which is another of my favorite movies. Rocky is my favorite movie of all time, and I mention Rocky in the movie. And Star Wars is a tribute to my nerdy husband.
All of these characters are so unique. How did you develop them?
CANNON: I spent a lot of time developing characters. It’s a very familiar story structure, so I was like, “This has to be a super funny script, and it has to have characters that you love and want to watch for a really long time.” So, I really thought a lot about who would make up this group. I’m the fifth of seven kids, so I have a lot of siblings and I was able to pull from life experience. I felt like there were different personalities of ladies that I hadn’t seen yet, so I was excited to put them all together. I felt like A League of Their Own had a lot of ladies that had to be serviced. The name Fat Amy came from when my friend Amy Poehler was pregnant. I said, “How are you feeling?” She’s really petite and was like, “I wasn’t able to tell anybody. I wasn’t feeling good. I was tired. I just felt like fat Amy.” I was like, “I think somebody should call themselves Fat Amy, so that other people can’t make fun of them.” That’s how that came about. And then, for the character of Stacie, who’s very sexual, I wanted to get someone that is really stunningly beautiful, but who just isn’t able to control her body.
This movie has a lot of girl bonding and girl power. What was your inspiration for that?
CANNON: Because I was an athlete growing up, that’s the sports part of me coming out. But, I was on so many competitive teams. I played volleyball and basketball, and I did track and volleyball in college. I was in relays for track where you just bonded with all these different kinds of personalities who were coming together for this one common goal of beating a rival team. A scene that was super important to me and that I really wanted to keep was the bus ride where they are singing “Party in the USA.” Someone starts singing, and then there’s all this singing. I don’t want to age myself, but I think we sang Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69.” You weren’t in your headphones as much, back then, so that bonding was really important. I was super excited to be a part of something where, when I see that scene, it just reminds me of that.
When Fat Amy gets hit with a burrito, that also happened to me. I’ve been trying to get somebody being hit with a burrito in 30 Rock for years, and I just was never able to get it in there. In college, I was running on the side of a road with my boyfriend, at the time, and he said, “Maybe we should switch sides,” because I was running nearest the highway. And I was like, “I think I’ve got it. I’m okay.” And then, sure enough, four dudes in a car came by, and one of them had a burrito and whipped it at me. It knocked me over and I thought I had been shot. That was a real thing. I was like, “I’ve been shot! Oh, my gosh!” I fell over. I was wearing this windbreaker and, when I looked down, it looked like my guts, but it was really just bean burrito. So, I told Rebel [Wilson], “This is something that actually happened. I’m sorry you’re getting hit by a burrito.” I remember looking back and seeing the guys all laughing as they left, and then I had to eat crow because of what I had said to my boyfriend.
How did you come up with the songs they would sing?
CANNON: Throughout the whole script, I put placeholders for tone. In the shower scene, I had Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” in there as a placeholder. I wanted it to feel like it’s a song that Beca is really feeling like is a part of her life right now. And then, that song changed throughout. The music people did such an amazing job. I think the music and the arrangements are incredible. “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” at the beginning, has been in since the beginning. I wanted that kind of rhythm and I really love that song. I thought it had a great tone. When I talked to the music people, we went through each scene and I said, “This is the feeling you should get from this song,” and then it was about what they could afford with their budget. “No Diggity” was their idea, and I think it’s amazing. I had a different song there. But, it was tricky because that riff-off was last word/first word, which I was pulling from this comedy sports game. It took me a long time to come up with the riff-off. And then, I worked with Jason Moore, too, to figure out what would be the greatest songs.
Were you on the set during filming, at all?
CANNON: No because I was working at 30 Rock and writing the hour-long Valentine’s episode while it was shooting. I went the weekend before they started shooting because there were some spots that I wanted to work on. There was a lot of emailing and punching up scenes, and a lot of Skyping with Jason Moore, the director. Just seeing him lose more hair and look more and more tired was so funny. I wish I would have been there. I actually wrote the role of the greeter who gives Beca the rape whistle for myself. I was really excited to do that, but the Valentine’s episode was shooting right at that time, so I couldn’t leave to do it. But, we were still trying to pitch jokes in ADR, to the bitter end.
What was your favorite part of the movie?
CANNON: Is it weird to say that there’s a lot that I like? Is that a bad thing to say? I think because I like being on teams of all females and I know what that’s like, I love the shower scene. I love them singing “Titanium.” And I love when they’re in the pool by themselves, when they sing “Just the Way You Are” and you see the mash-up. The riff-off is something that I love, that I thought came together well. When I wrote it, I picked 15 songs, which is crazy expensive. Universal was like, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” So, the 15 songs came down to eight songs, or whatever it ended up being. But, the “No Diggity” moment is really sweet. I love the ending, and I cry at the ending. I really like the Jesse (Skylar Astin) and Beca (Anna Kendrick) scenes a lot. I just think Skylar played that part so great. He’s become this very crushable guy. I think a lot of ladies are really going to like him. But, when they’re by themselves in the pool, it really makes me get emotional. I just think that’s such a good mash-up of songs. It was cool.
How did you go from studying theater in college to writing for TV and film?
CANNON: That’s a good question. I did Second City in Chicago, so I was an improviser and sketch actor. I was auditioning for a lot of things, and that’s when I became friends with Tina Fey. She was already at SNL and doing her thing and being amazing, and I was still at Second City. When I left Second City, I went to L.A. to audition for things. For about a year and a half, I auditioned and got called back and tested for stuff, but I really wasn’t getting anything and I wasn’t loving what I was reading either. I didn’t really feel like I fit any of the parts. You either have to be this crazy beautiful supermodel lady, or you’re a real character actress. I felt like I had to write things for myself, so I started doing that.
I wrote a pilot with my dear friend, for ourselves to be in it, and Tina read that and liked it. And then, I did an all-female sketch show called Camp Hot because we were the hottest girls at camp, but we were the only girls at camp. That did really well. And then, I wrote a spec of The Office. Tina was about to staff for 30 Rock, so one day she was like, “Hey, would you care about not performing for a year?” So, I submitted my stuff. I hadn’t worked in a year and a half, so I was like, “No, of course! I’ll do whatever.” And then, because she was taking a risk, she said to me, “If I have to fire you, can we still be friends?,” and I said, “I look forward to the day you fire me.” And then, it was six years later and I was still writing. I didn’t want to leave the show, but I had to move on. They’re doing their final 13 episodes right now, and I work at New Girl. I also have my own show that I just sold to Fox. It was just time. So, that’s how it happened.
Do you want to get back into acting?
CANNON: Oh, yeah! I still perform. I still do stuff at UCB Theater. You just run out of time. I just did an independent movie, called The Little Tin Man, where I was the female lead. Whenever I can, I try to get out there and do it.
What is the show that you sold to Fox?
CANNON: It’s in a man’s world, actually. It’s about the Fox NFL Sunday commentaries. It’s about their lives. It has a female center, but it’s based off my divorce story. We’re not telling sports stories. It’s really about this group of people who are transitioning into the second half of their lives. It’s these football guys who are commentating, but who really wish they were back in the glory days. The producer is this female producer who is basically me. She has never been single a day in her adult life and, in the pilot, she gets officially divorced and goes through divorce court. So, she’s starting this new life as a single person. And then, there’s a meteorologist supermodel who does the weather. She’s a Carmen Electra type who took three years to get her meteorologist degree, and she wants to be taken seriously. It’s about how your workplace is really a family, and how they help each other transition into all of this change. Football is a big part of it, but it’s like Mary Tyler Moore in a Cheers-like familial setting.
Pitch Perfect opens in limited release on September 28th, and in wide release on October 5th.