How to Be Aca-Awesome

An interview with Kay Cannon, Pitch Perfect screenwriter, on how her a cappella comedy might be changing the definition of cool.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2015 | 13 minutes (3,345 words)

 

After getting her start in the Chicago improv scene, Kay Cannon went on to write for 30 Rock—where she was on staff from the very beginning—and New Girl, for which she was also an executive producer. Her debut screenplay, a quirky a cappella comedy, became the hit film Pitch Perfect. The sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, is in theaters now. Cannon and I spoke by phone about why a cappella is so uncool, the movie’s treatment of weight and race, and Cannon’s feelings about her own teeth.

You first got the idea for this movie while you were at 30 Rock, when someone wrote a line about Toofer having been in an a cappella group in college. You thought it was a complete joke. When you found out that nope, a cappella is real, you thought, someone has to make a movie about this! But what I find really interesting is that you started talking about the general idea of a movie about college a cappella without any specific story or plot in mind yet. I feel like some people would be hesitant to broach such an early-stage idea, even to friends. Is that always how you’ve operated?

Yeah, I kind of put it out into the universe. I’m around a lot of creative people, so you start to talk about ideas, and maybe somebody helps spark something. I actually think this one was kismet for me, because I had said something to Elizabeth Banks, who’s my friend, just in conversation. A long while later, and separate from what I’d said to her, her husband found out about this book, Mickey Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect, and thought it would make a great movie. So when I got the call from them to say, “Hey, would you be interested in writing this?,” it was just such a wonderful collision.

Can you describe the book a bit, and what the process of transforming it into a movie script was like?

In the book, Mickey follows several a cappella groups and takes you through the process of what they do in their year, in an a cappella season, and leading up to the ICCA [International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella] Finals. But there’s no real narrative, per se—there’s no character from the book that I pulled and put into the movie. Fat Amy, for example, is just someone I created.

But what was so great was he wrote about this all female group, Divisi, who made it to the ICCA finals. He explained that ladies are the underdogs because they don’t hit the lower registers, and don’t typically beat box. So Divisi went to the finals and did Usher’s “Yeah!” and they beat box and they rapped and they did this awesome choreography—and they didn’t end up winning, because a female judge didn’t like what they did and thought it was inappropriate, so she scored them low. But they were amazing. For a long time, the group in the movie was called Divisi, but we ended up changing it to the Bellas. Divisi is kind of an odd name to hear over and over again.

But basically, from the book, I was able to get some quirks of these groups and what it’s like to go from the beginning to the ICCA Finals. And I realized—and the producers did as well—that it’s an underdog story, and this all-female group is the underdog, and we wanted to show them break through the glass ceiling, if you will.

Are the actual recorded songs in the movie only women’s voices?

Oh yeah. Yeah. In the first movie I made sure to ask the music producers, “Are they really singing? Is that really them? And there are no instruments?” And they assured me that there weren’t. Which is not to say that they’re not produced—they are produced, and they can work magic; they can really make you sound like a drum.

Speaking of the music, I was delighted to learn that “Cups,” which is in the first movie and became this smash hit, was Anna Kendrick’s audition song.

God bless Anna Kendrick for doing that. [Laughter] In the script I’d written that her character, Beca, hadn’t prepared with the song that everybody else had and was going to sing something else, but I hadn’t specified what that would be. When we saw her do “Cups” at her audition, she was so charming, it was so great, and it was like, “That’s it. That’s what she’ll do.”

So, I feel like I’m coming out to the people who read this interview, but I was a huge a cappella fan in college.

You didn’t do it, but you were a fan?

Yes. And I think that’s even less cool, to be honest. A cappella was pretty cool in college, but the first year out, I quickly understood this was deeply uncool and I should not tell anybody. Why is a cappella so uncool?

I think because the groups take it so seriously, but when you pull back and think about it, they’re singing covers of songs. And take glee club, take a cappella, take the marching band and compare them to athletes, it leans on the side of uncool in general, in terms of our society’s version of what’s cool and what’s not.

If you’re on a sports team, you’ve got to be visibly athletic. There is a very specific type of person who is on a sports team. Whereas a cappella takes people from all different walks of life—you get all these guys and ladies and I think they just sort of find their family. So I think maybe on the bigger, broader level, maybe that’s why it seems uncool. And, you know, they could be snapping their fingers and doing choreography that might seem a little uncool, too.

Having said all that, though, when you see them perform, you get talent crushes on these people. It’s infectious. You look at the character of Jesse in the movie—if you compare him to a big old football player, he might lean towards the side of uncool, but when you see him perform, he is crushable. It’s the whole rock star thing. Every girl wants to be with him. He’s just awesome.

Do you think a cappella is getting cooler as a result of this movie? Or is Pitch Perfect giving people more confidence to proclaim their nerdiness?

I think it’s changing the definition of cool. One of the joys of the Green Bay Packers being in the movie [a few of them make a cameo appearance at a riff-off] is that it’s the jock that auditions for the musical. They basically are like, “Look at us, and we love it and it makes us happy.” I think happiness and joy are trumping any kind of, “Oh, you’re a nerd,” or “You’re uncool,” or wanting to throw somebody in a locker.

Was it hard to get the Green Bay Packers involved in the movie or was that an easy sell?

Oh, they tweeted to Elizabeth [Banks, the director and producer] how much they love the movie. They were basically like, “If you put us in the sequel, we will take it seriously, we will sing, we will rehearse, this is no joke.” They know all the choreography in the finale and, after a couple of drinks, they’ll totally do it for you.

Some of the storyline of the first film is built around the tendency of the Bellas’ leader, Aubrey, to projectile vomit when she gets overstressed…which was slightly disturbing. But I’ve heard you say in a few interviews that you know pursuing a project is going to be worthwhile if you feel really nauseous beforehand.

Yes.

What is that about? Why do you get so nauseous?

That’s a very good question. You’re like, “What’s your deal?” I think I understand the pressure right away, like the stress. I know how much work it will entail, I know that there will be a lot of debating. So I think I feel the immediate pressure, and that makes me nervous, and that nervousness gives me the worst kind of butterflies and maybe I haven’t eaten and I’m like, “Oh God, I feel sick.” I do think there is a little bit of Aubrey Posen in me, or there used to be way back when.

So I feel I have to raise some critiques of the movie’s treatment of weight and race. The plot kicks off with a wardrobe malfunction: Fat Amy’s vagina is exposed on stage in what becomes a scandal called “Muffgate.” In a review for Slate, Carl Wilson writes, “The gag depends on body-shaming the ‘Fat Amy’ character (the ebulliently game Rebel Wilson) even more than the original movie did, basically implying that vaginas are gross, fat girls are gross, and fat girls’ vaginas are really gross.” What are your thoughts?

I am so protective of Fat Amy and of that character. I didn’t create that character to ever have her feel shamed, ever. She is someone who is ridiculously confident and beautiful inside and out and loves herself and loves who she is in this world. I wanted there to be a wardrobe malfunction that caused them international disgrace so that they would start at the bottom of the barrel again. And so out of all the characters who could have a wardrobe malfunction, I thought, Fat Amy is the funniest character to do that because she is this larger than life, out there, confident character.

To me, when everybody in the movie is like, “Oh, no, she’s not wearing any underwear, cover your eyes,” it’s not about “the fat girl’s vagina”—and I’d never say “fat girl” like that, in such a negative way—or that her vagina is ugly. I compare it completely to Janet Jackson, who in society is viewed as a hot, sexy lady, but do you know how much shaming she got after the Superbowl? I think she even got death threats, and she showed just a boob, not even the nipple. And Justin Timberlake, in my opinion, got off a little bit scot-free there.

So I feel like when anyone says the “fat” part, they are putting that on there. Our intention was just to say that, as a woman, she is being shamed, regardless of what she looks like. I wouldn’t have even added that layer, and I was surprised that people did. I apologize if there is any heavyset lady out there who felt like that’s what I was doing, because that’s not at all the intention behind it.

There’s also a scene, though, in which Fat Amy paddles across the lake while serenading Bumper, and then they start making out on the lawn in front of the Treblemakers, who are all really grossed out by it and start turning away.

They’re not grossed out because of what Rebel [Wilson]—or Fat Amy—looks like, it’s that Rebel and Adam [DeVine, who plays Bumper] are going to go for funny no matter what, and they both have their tongues out. Rebel and Adam aren’t going to do a beautiful romantic comedy kiss. They’re comedians. They’re funny, they’re gonna go for the funny, and it is funny to watch. So when they start to roll around, to go after it, that’s why the rest of them don’t want to stick around. So again, I can understand why maybe that was the perception, but I think it’s our own stuff we bring in from how society treats heavyset ladies in general that maybe we project onto it. If I saw Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady making out like that, I’d leave too.

In an interview on Bullseye, Jesse Thorn asked you about the race jokes in the movie: there’s a Latina immigrant character whose gag is basically to counter any complaint the Bellas have with a dire bit of her own story. As you described it on that show, those race jokes are purely satirical, a way of putting into sharp relief the silliness of the Bellas’ complaints.

Yes.

But I did wonder, because people in my theater laughed so much—not that you know what’s in the audience’s head, but might this give some license to people to laugh at un-PC jokes that it’s unseemly to laugh at in real life?

Look, you want to have it be provocative. I think you want to start a conversation, right? I don’t want to say, “Why are you laughing at that? Are you racist and that’s why?” I don’t want to try to decide, as you were saying, what’s in the audience’s head.

But someone tweeted that they were glad that their children found it offensive, or were taken aback by the sexist or racist jokes. For me, when I hear that, I think, “Oh, this is good, because it’s starting a conversation.” The joke happens because there is a stereotype in the culture, or maybe you take something in reality that’s dramatic and terrible and you call it out or you poke fun at it. What’s good is that you can have a conversation with your children and be like, “That way of thinking is an inappropriate way of thinking. You’re right, it is wrong, it’s not nice. It is mean.” Or maybe you could talk about the state of how we treat minorities in this country. I don’t want to get too heavy with you on this because it’s a lighthearted movie, but I do think it’s an opportunity for that kind of conversation.

We’ve gotten some flak for the John Michael Higgins character, just how sexist he is. And maybe there’s one too many jokes, maybe the jokes need to be better, and that’s all fine and I’ll take that hit. But as a woman, I can write a misogynist character because even in 2015, we are dealing with people who believe women shouldn’t go to college. I mean, they are out there. So if someone gets offended by that, I’m like, “Okay, good, because you don’t believe in that, and you think that is a terrible way of thinking, and I do, too.” But I get to make fun of it because I deal with it on a daily basis.

You were one of seven children. What was it like in your house? Did you have sing-alongs with your siblings in the car?

I don’t remember sing-alongs in the car, although I’m certain we must have done it. I lived in a house of wonderful chaos. My parents were really great about having different rules per kid based on the kid, which I thought was kind of cool. They knew I needed rules and I liked it—I’m a real academic rules person—so they gave me a curfew, but my brother didn’t have one. That kind of thing.

One rule for all of us was that you couldn’t sing at the dinner table, because I think it drove my parents crazy. And so we would get up and go into the family room, which was connected to the kitchen, and we would sing in the family room. We were like, “We’re not singing at the dinner table!”

To leave the dinner table, you had to be excused, and there were two ways in which you got excused. One was if you ate enough. The second one was that you had to have given enough to the conversation at the table. So if you had a bad attitude and you were sitting there being all mopey, you weren’t excused. So what ended up happening is we’d have these really long dinners that we still have to this day. And at one point my grandfather lived with us, so it was seven kids, a grandfather and my mom and dad, five dogs, ten cats—I mean, it was just this wonderfully chaotic home. I had a friends and family screening of the movie in April and half my siblings came out just for the night to watch the movie with me. It was really fun to have them here.

So. Can you sing?

[Laughter] I’m awesome, I’m aca-awesome. No, I can. Back in the day, I used to do musicals and stuff like that, but I’m more of an improviser than a singer these days. But I can karaoke with the best of ’em.

Speaking of improv, since that’s your background—it’s so collaborative, and writing a film is so solitary. What are you more drawn to and how do you manage that balance?

I really don’t like being alone—in life in general, and also when I’m working. My husband is a comedy writer and I’ll often pull him in to bounce ideas off of, or sit with me and help me with a joke. And he is so funny, he’s so fantastic.

One thing I maybe do differently than other screenwriters is I show my work to the producers a lot. I’ll turn out pages and get their notes, which gives a sort of collaborative feel to the whole writing process.

You’ve written for both 30 Rock and New Girl. I’m a big fan of both shows, which have quite different tones, but I can’t put my finger on how exactly. How would you characterize that tonal difference?

On Bullseye, I mistakenly said that the 30 Rock tone was no tone. But that’s wrong of me. It’s really that as long as 30 Rock started in a place of being grounded, you could kind of go and do anything. We might have one episode that’s really grounded and about some character’s existential crisis, but the next episode, we make up a holiday called “Ludachristmas.” Or the first script I ever was a part of writing was called “Black Tie,” where Paul Ruebens plays this inbred prince.

Whereas New Girl starts every story with the emotional component. It’s not afraid to go to the emotional side and really can make you cry. I would say that, tonally, it’s more grounded than 30 Rock. And New Girl can feel a little bit like a movie sometimes.

In a Splitsider interview from 2010, you said you went into comedy rather than drama because you have a “cartoon-looking face.” Do you still think of yourself that way?

I still believe it. I look like a cartoon character! I have big eyes and big teeth and cheekbones and stuff and I just think that is really good when you’re on stage. And I can look really goofy really fast.

I noticed that your Twitter bio says, “Spokesperson for women with sizeable teeth,” which is such a good joke and really made me laugh. But I also was curious if anyone has ever actually commented on your teeth.

When I was first auditioning in Los Angeles, my agent at the time—he is not my agent anymore—sat me down to talk about my smile. He was basically like, “You’ve gotta pull those teeth back.” And I ended up doing Invisalign. My teeth were always straight, but they were a little bit out there, and so I did pull them back. I’m not ashamed of my smile at all, but I maybe feel a little bit sensitive about it because someone sat me down to talk to me about it. But I don’t know. I have my mother’s smile so I love it and I don’t want to be ashamed of it. That’s why I said I’m a spokesperson for it.

I love that your response to that agent’s comment is that, okay, you do Invasalign, but you’re also like, “Fuck you a little bit, I’m gonna put this in my bio.”

I think I just pulled a Fat Amy on that one.

Pitch Perfect 2

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.