Pitch Perfect: a ‘Sports Movie’ about A Cappella
Kay Cannon discusses her how her improv background helped her write screenplays, why Pitch Perfect is like Rocky, how to balance over two-dozen characters in an ensemble film, and the challenges of writing a television series.
By Chris McKittrick.
Pitch Perfect debuted in 335 theaters in September 2012. In February 2015, a trailer for the sequel played during a commercial break for Super Bowl XLIX in front of the largest audience in American television history. How did a movie about college a cappella groups go from a limited release genre comedy to becoming the biggest sleeper hit of 2012? While credit can be given to the film’s incredibly successful soundtrack and memorable performances by actresses Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, the root of the success comes from Kay Cannon’s hilariously clever screenplay, which is a fictional story based on Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory.
Though Pitch Perfect was Cannon’s first credited screenplay, she is no stranger to comedy writing. While involved in various improv groups in Chicago including Second City, Cannon became acquainted with comedienne/writer Tina Fey. When Fey was launching her NBC sitcom 30 Rock, she hired Kay as a staff writer. Over the first six seasons of 30 Rock, Kay worked her way up to producer, and her work helped the critically-acclaimed series receive three consecutive WGA Awards for a Comedy Series. After leaving 30 Rock, Kay became co-executive producer/writer on New Girl, beginning from the second season. She currently serves as a consultant on the ABC sitcom Cristela starring stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonz. Naturally, she also wrote the script for Pitch Perfect 2, which was directed by the original’s producer, actress Elizabeth Banks.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Cannon about how her improv background helped her write her screenplays, why Pitch Perfect is like Rocky, how to balance over two-dozen characters in an ensemble film, and the challenges of writing a television series.
Your background is in improv, which like a cappella deals with live performance, teamwork, and competition. How did that contribute to the Pitch Perfect screenplay?
I had always suspected that the a cappella world was like the improv world that I’m from, but with music. When I was creating the characters, I was thinking about the team dynamics of improv groups that I’ve been in. I was also an athlete growing up so I’m very familiar with all-lady group dynamics from the different teams that I’ve been on. Improv doesn’t necessarily get competitive, but you take it very seriously. People from outside that world are like, “What are they doing? They’re doing something called a Harold? They’re hanging out all night at this improv bar?” [Laughs] That was all very helpful in realizing the parallels. Beyond that, in every scene I tried to follow the improv tenets, like “What’s the game of the scene?” and thought about how to heighten that game. That was the structure I used throughout the writing of the actual script because I’d like to think that my scripts lend themselves to actors being able to take the material and improvise from that. Contrary to what a lot of people think about Pitch Perfect, while it seems like a lot of things were improvised, they were scripted. Only a few actors were actually allowed to improvise, but I’d like to think that whenever I am writing something someone can take it, play around with the words, have fun, and make it their own.
You mentioned your sports background. While Pitch Perfect is a comedy about a cappella groups, it’s also at its heart a competition film much like a sports drama. Were there any particular influences from that genre?
It’s an underdog sports film to me. I really treated it like it was a sports film. I’m a huge fan of A League of Their Own and I think about that movie a lot. My top five movies really are sports movies. Rocky is my favorite movie of all time. I watch Hoosiers any time that it’s on, and of course, Field of Dreams. I really feel like that idea of Pitch Perfect having a “sports feel” to it was something that was intentional on my part. In reading the book Pitch Perfect, what I gleaned was that all-lady groups are the underdogs in this world because they can’t hit the lower register like men can do and also they don’t typically beatbox. That’s why it was important to add those elements in the first movie because it was like, “How is Rocky going to beat Mr. T?” [Laughs] Actually, I referred to Rocky quite a bit in the sequel. Rocky is actually referenced in the first movie when Jesse (Skylar Astin) says he’s got Rocky with him, but in the creation of the story the producers and I often talked about Rocky defeating whatever opponent he was defeating [Laughs].
Considering your improv and TV writing background, are you more comfortable writing/collaborating in a group setting?
I have no problem showing my work, though I imagine other writers do. Because TV is so fast and you have to churn out episodes, you have to constantly be hitting deadlines. When it comes to film, you get however many months to write your first draft. I will definitely share my work and show the first act to the producers to get a sense if they like the direction I am going in. I’ll take notes all day long because I think it makes the work better, especially when writing a comedy. The five-headed monster is much more powerful than the one sitting by herself trying to make it funny. Certainly coming from my television background the writing staff is constantly collaborating on each other’s scripts. Your jokes will go into someone else’s draft, and vice versa. Again, coming from an improv background I like to be with a group of people. I’m the fifth of seven children, so I don’t like to be by myself [Laughs]. My husband is a comedy writer, and I’ll constantly drag him into the room too to pitch him something or work a problem out.
How do you ensure an entertaining breakout character like Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) doesn’t throw off the balance of an ensemble movie?
This might be a weird thing to say because Fat Amy is considered one of the stars of the film, but I don’t consider her the star of the film. I think that’s helpful in the writing of that character so she doesn’t trump everything and overpower the story. I consider her a side character, though I’m not trying to minimize her because in the sequel Rebel Wilson is so fantastic – there are two scenes in particular where she’s so fun to watch. How I perceive her I think is helpful in making sure she doesn’t run away with it in a way that might not be beneficial to the script.
Additionally, I wondered what to do with Lily (Hana Mae Lee), the quiet one, in a sequel. I love writing crazy things to come out of her mouth, but that game can only go so far. So the real challenge in the sequel for me was to show her character in a different way. Even Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean), Stacie (Alexis Knapp), and a lot of the side characters have evolved a little bit and have become more grounded. You get to know what their wants and desires in life are. Particularly Fat Amy has evolved a bit.
Pitch Perfect is an ensemble film, which means you had to juggle about twenty-six characters in a movie that is less than two hours long. How did you ensure each character had a place in the story?
The producers kept saying, “Kay, you have to get rid of some of these characters.” [Laughs] I had a lot more actually that didn’t make the film that I had cut out. It’s pretty tough. Especially with the sequel, Beca, Chloe (Brittany Snow), and Fat Amy were my triangle of main people I was focusing on. For all of the other characters I think it’s about being specific in what their particular quirks are and what their comedic worldviews are, and peppering them throughout the whole draft. I often find myself thinking, “Who hasn’t talked in a while? Who have we not heard from, and how can we show that person in a surprising, fun way? How can that person contribute to the conversation in an interesting way?” I also really tried to balance the male characters when we’re away from our Bellas and what they bring to the table in terms of how best to tell the story that we’re trying to tell.
Pitch Perfect was a relatively low-budget movie that opened in about 300 theaters. Just over two years later the sequel was advertised during the Super Bowl.
I assume you weren’t even anticipating ever writing a sequel, so when did you start developing ideas for a sequel?
I got a call from the producers saying there was going to be a sequel after the huge success of “Cups” and the DVD sales. I had a feeling there was going to be a sequel, and after the DVD sales that Christmas were just astronomical I realized there was a huge fanbase. I wasn’t sure how to approach a sequel because I didn’t want to ruin this unexpected love of the first film. I didn’t want to create a sequel that did terrible, got poor reviews, and make people not like the first one, which sometimes happens with sequels. So when they told me there was going to be a sequel I felt like I was going to barf, actually. I was like, “Oh… oh no. Let’s just let this fun thing that happened be!” [Laughs] Actually, I just had found out that I was pregnant, and then my father passed away while I was writing it, and then I had my daughter and turned in my first draft two months later and it was a terrible, terrible draft. [Laughs] It was not good. But there was a lot of hard work that went into creating the story into something that would be worth it. I’m hoping, knock on wood, that we did it.
A big issue with writing a film that has a strong connection with music is music rights. When writing the original Pitch Perfect, did you know what songs you would be able to use? Did that make it challenging? Was there more freedom with the sequel?
For both of them it’s still a process of figuring out what songs we would want to use and thinking about what songs would still be popular by the time the movie comes out. For the first movie, I would pick a song and put the actual lyrics of the song into the script that I felt had the same tone of what I was going for. I really needed to have those lyrics laid out even if it wasn’t going to be the right song because things happened story-wise while they were performing. I needed to know what kind of page count I was working with and I needed to have a feel for what that particular moment would be like. There were a few songs in the first movie that I put in the script that were actually picked, but most were changed. With the riff-off I had about eighteen songs, and I remember when we were meeting production-wise they were like, “Kay, how much money do you think we have?” [Laughs] I wrote things in terms of what my dream would be if we had all the money in the world. For example, in the first movie “Don’t Stop the Music” by Rhianna, which the Treblemakers sing at the beginning of the movie, was always the beginning song in the script from the first draft.
It was so much easier with the sequel and the budget for music was better as well. Musicians understand that their songs are going to be heard, downloaded, and make them more money, like with the success of “Don’t You Forget About Me” from the first movie. There’s about twenty-five minutes in the middle of the sequel that are so ridiculous, so fun, and so entertaining.
What are your thoughts on Elizabeth Banks directing the sequel?
I was so relieved. I knew that Jason Moore was going to direct the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler movie Sisters, so there was a short period of time when we didn’t know who was going to direct. I was nervous because Jason Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman and I were a nice team of people. It was the first thing that Liz and Max had produced along with Gold Circle Films that they had started from a script, it was Jason Moore’s first film he directed, and it was my first screenplay, so we were like this solid core who had worked on this together. The idea of someone coming in from the outside, even if they were great, who might not get the tone that we’re going for was a little bit scary. So when it ended up being Liz, it was great because she was already part of the band and one of us. We have been friends for years, so we were able to be very honest and open with each other and collaborate well with each other. The production level on this sequel is through the roof, so she had a pretty difficult task ahead of her. It was a great experience, and she did a phenomenal job.
Your main writing background is in TV, being a writer/producer on 30 Rock and on New Girl. What are the biggest differences between writing for TV versus writing for film?
The speed to me is the biggest difference. If you’re on a show that’s on the air, you are just churning out episodes. It’s relentless and it just doesn’t stop. I’m consulting on the show Cristela only two days a week, and it’s the first time I only worked just two days a week. It’s blowing my mind because normally January through March I have what I call the “Writer’s Swell” because you’re just eating candy all day and putting on weight because it’s so stressful to churn out all these episodes in a short time. [Laughs] Then you go on hiatus and realize you can exercise and have a life again. The schedule is so much more hectic than film even just in terms of hours that you put in. Aside from Cristela I’ve work on single-camera shows, so you’re getting up at six in the morning to be on set and you’re on set for fifteen hours a day if you’re not in the writer’s room or at home writing a draft. With film, I’ve been fortunate to have a few movies be made. The idea that a lot of screenwriters are writing many movies and they don’t get made is very frustrating. The process is so long in terms of how long you have to write a movie, then you get notes, then you get more time for your second draft – it just takes a really long time. Writing-wise, it’s the difference between working with an ensemble on a TV show and feeling isolated writing a film by yourself.
When you’re performing improv on stage, you have immediate feedback from an audience on how they’re responding to your material. You obviously don’t have that with film, and with TV it takes a few episodes to gauge an audience’s reaction. When writing for TV or film, how can you tell when something isn’t working?
You can tell a lot at a table read. I live or die by a table read. For television you have a table read for every episode. For Pitch Perfect I was there for a table read. You can just feel when something’s not working. Those six years that I worked on 30 Rock I got a lot better at realizing when something was going to work and when it wasn’t. That was part of the many things that show taught me. You go to the table with things you’re thinking that for sure are going to kill that die, and then there are things that you can’t believe get laughs. I will say that for the first movie we didn’t know if people were going to laugh at Lily talking quietly or not. Even after a table read we really didn’t know. It was a little scary, and we were thinking, “Oh no, if this doesn’t work, what are we putting there?” A lot of times she was the comedic engine of a scene and was supposed to be a huge, huge laugh. I remember the producers saying to me, “What if it doesn’t happen?” [Laughs] But then there was the relief of hearing that it was gangbusters, of course. I think when it comes to film there is so much testing and screenings now where you can hear it work, and it has reshoots and fixes in post, which television doesn’t have. Also, for both Pitch Perfect movies I got a group of my TV writing friends to watch the films and with ADR we put in more jokes. We had Liz and John Michael Higgins as commentators, and because you don’t see them you can just put joke after joke after joke, which was pretty cool.
How do you handle disagreements in a writer’s room?
In the television writer’s room there’s a boss who is the decider. I think this was very different with Pitch Perfect, because we were a group of people who really worked well together. Especially for the sequel, we would just go back and forth debating what we should do for hours. If you would’ve recorded our conversations you would be laughing pretty hard, like us yelling, “What is Bumper doing in the movie?” [Laughs] It was all nonsense. There were a lot of conversations about a little teacup pig, which was kind of interesting. Of course, ultimately it was Liz’s call in terms of what she wanted to do because she is the director. In a good way we’d have these very intense discussions, but there’s always a boss who’s making the final decision.