By Iain Blair
At a time when women are increasingly breaking down barriers in Hollywood, writer/director Kay Cannon is helping lead the charge. The director of Universal’s new film, Blockers, got her start at such comedic training grounds as The Second City, The iO West Theater and The ComedySportz Theatre.
While writing and performing around Chicago, she met Tina Fey, a fellow Second City alumna. When Fey began 30 Rock, Cannon joined the creative team and worked her way up from staff writer to supervising producer on the show. She’s a three-time Primetime Emmy-nominated writer, twice for Outstanding Comedy Series and once for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She has also won three Writers Guild of America Awards, as well as a Peabody, all for her work on 30 Rock.
Cannon, who also served as a co-executive producer on New Girl, a consulting producer on Cristela and co-produced the hit feature Baby Mama, received rave reviews for her debut screenplay for the film Pitch Perfect, and she wrote and co-produced the hit sequels. She served as the executive producer, creator and showrunner of the Netflix series Girlboss, based on Sophia Amoruso’s best-selling autobiography, which starred Britt Robertson.
Now, with the new release Blockers, Cannon — one of only a handful of women ever to direct an R-rated comedy for a big studio — has stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with this coming-of-age sex comedy that takes one of the most relatable rites of passage and upends a long-held double standard. When three parents discover their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity at prom, they launch a covert one-night operation to stop the teens from sealing the deal.
The film stars Leslie Mann (The Other Woman, This is 40), John Cena (Trainwreck, Sisters) and Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors, Suicide Squad). It is produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and James Weaver, under their Point Grey Pictures banner (Neighbors, This is the End), alongside Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar) and Chris Fenton (47 Ronin).
Cannon leds an accomplished behind-the-scenes team, including director of photography Russ Alsobrook (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad), production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly (The Big Sick) and editor Stacey Schroeder (The Disaster Artist).
I recently talked to Cannon about making the bawdy film, which generated huge buzz at SXSW, and her advice for other aspiring women directors.
This is like a long-overdue female take on such raunchy-but-sweet male comedies as American Pie and Superbad. Was that the appeal of this story for you?
When I read the script, I really connected on two levels. I was a teenager who lost her virginity, and I’m also the mother of a daughter, and while she was only two at the time, it made me think about her and what might happen to her in the future. And that’s scary, and I saw how parents can lose their minds.
How did you first envision the film?
I grew up in a small town in the Chicago area and I was inspired by John Hughes and all his great teen comedies. I could really relate to them, and I felt he was speaking to me, that he really got that world and the way it looked. I wanted to do that too, and show how people really live, and I wanted it to feel real and grounded — but then I was also going to go to a very crazy place and got very silly. (Laughs) That was very important to me, because I wanted to make people laugh really hard, but also feel emotion.
Did you always want to direct?
It wasn’t always my dream. That’s shifted over the years. I started off wanting to be an actor on a sitcom, then writing one and then wanting to have my own show, which happened with Girlboss, so that was my focus for the past few years. To be honest, I’d kind of do movies when TV didn’t work out for me. A pilot didn’t happen, so I wrote Pitch Perfect, and then did Pitch 2 when another pilot didn’t go.
How did you prepare for directing your first film?
Being the showrunner on Girlboss was great training because I could shadow all the directors and watch them work, and I felt definitely ready to direct a film.
What was the biggest surprise of directing for the first time?
I pretty much knew what to expect — and that there will always be surprises on the day and stuff you could never have anticipated. You just have to work through it and keep going.
How tough was the shoot?
It was hard. We shot in Atlanta for nine weeks, and the last five were nights, and that’s very tough. I had a very long script to squeeze into the shoot. But Russ, my DP, was a huge help. We’d worked together before on New Girl, and he’s so experienced; he really guided me through it all.
Where did you do the post?
All in LA. We started at Sunset Gower, and then we took a break and did some reshoots in January, and then finished at Pivotal Post in Burbank.
Do you like post?
When I was at Girlboss I’d never experienced post before, so I was really afraid and uncomfortable with the whole process. It was so new and a bit daunting to me, especially as a writer. I loved writing and shooting, but it took me a while to get comfortable with post. But once I did, I loved it, and now it’s my favorite thing. I’d spend the night there if I could! As they say, it’s where you actually make the film and where the real magic happens.
Your editor was Stacey Schroeder (pilot for The Last Man on Earth, for which she got an editing Emmy nom). How did that relationship work?
We’d worked together before on Girlboss, and we have a great partnership. She’s like my right-hand, and we’re automatically on the same page. We very rarely disagree, and what’s so great is that she’s extremely opinionated and has no poker face. I’m the same way. So it’s very refreshing to sit there and discuss material and any problems without taking anything personally. I really appreciate her honesty.
What were the biggest editing challenges?
Trying to balance the raucous comedy stuff with the serious emotions underneath, and dealing with some of the big set pieces. The whole puking scene was difficult as we shot three times the material you see, and there was a whole drug thing, and it was very long and it just wasn’t working. We previewed it a couple of times and it was seen as a poor man’s Bridesmaids. (Laughs) And then I saw Baby Driver and it hit us — what if we put the whole scene to music? And that was so much fun and it suddenly all worked.
Resistance VFX did the visual effects shots, and there seemed to be quite a few, considering it’s a comedy. What was involved?
You’re right. Usually comedies don’t have that many and we had a significant amount, including the puke scenes, and then all the computer stuff and the emojis. And then they did such a great job with all Amy Mann’s tears at the end. I really loved working with VFX, and the fact that they can create all this magic in post. I’d be constantly amazed. “Can you do that?” They’d sigh and go, “Yes Kay, we can do that, no problem.” It was a real education for me.
Where did you do the DI?
At Technicolor, and I was pretty involved along with Ross. I loved that whole process too. Again, it’s the magic of post. (Maxine Gervais was the supervising senior colorist. She used a FilmLight Baselight 5.)
Did it turn out the way you hoped?
Do you want to direct again?
Definitely, if I get another chance.
I’m writing a movie for Sony — another comedy — and I’ve got a bunch of projects percolating.
What advice would you give to any woman wanting to direct?
Do the work, and don’t quit when it gets hard. I think a lot of women quit before the magic happens, and there were times when I wanted to quit, but you can’t. You have to keep going.
Kay Cannon Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert (c) 2018 Universal.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.