Kay Cannon is an entertainment triple threat: writer, producer and actor.
Let us review: she began her comedy career in Chicago at the training grounds of The Second City, ImprovOlympic, and ComedySportz. She was personally chosen by Tina Fey to write for 30 Rock which gained her Emmy and Peabody awards. She wrote the screenplay for the a capella comedy Pitch Perfect and recently wrote and co-produced the anticipated sequel Pitch Perfect 2. An actor in her own right guest starring on 30 Rock, New Girl and Cristela, she also performs at the UCB Theatre in the improv show “Brand New Ball.”
I spoke with Kay about relating to the dynamic of an a capella group, writing and producing on the same project and getting hit with a burrito.
Did your creative process change while writing the Pitch Perfect sequel?
It changed a lot I think, because the first film I was kind of on my own. I didn’t get a lot of notes and I was sort of allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. For the sequel there was a lot more pressure for success – financial success and making sure we’re giving the fans what they want. There were a lot more people giving me notes and having a hand in the direction of where the potential franchise could go. For example in the first movie I maybe spoke to Peter Cramer at Universal Pictures a couple times on the phone. He has been such a great champion of the movie, he will always be someone who is really great in letting me share my voice in a way I want to share it. But for the sequel we would have all these script meetings with the producers and myself at my house and Peter would come to my house [laughs] and walk through saying, “This is how a writer lives right?” so it was very different.
Do you find it hard to delineate between being a writer and being a producer on the same film?
I think those both go hand in hand and the reason I don’t find it super hard or that hard at all really is because I come from television where the writer or producer is the same. Television is a writer’s medium and you’re producing the show that you’re working on. I feel like those two meld together for me. I know it’s very different for those who solely do film, but the two things combining do not really phase me.
When writing the script did you have an idea for chose the songs being performed or did they come in afterwards?
The way the process works is; I put in a song that carries the tone of what we’re going for, I’ll pick something I feel is the goal of that scene. Then we have these ridiculously talented music producers, arrangers and along with Elizabeth Banks [the film’s director], they get my script and they are the ones who see what songs would best fit and what we can afford. I would always say to the producers to tell me when it’s decided what song would go where because I’m always writing a joke or some sort of story point around the music and once I know the song I can incorporate more bits into whatever is happening.
Sometimes lyrics can apply to situations in a funny way too.
Did you take any elements from your real life and put it into the script? Although I don’t expect you were in a capella group in college…
Well, I definitely flashed my vagina in front of the president of the United States.
We all have!
[Laughs] We all have! In the first Pitch Perfect there is a scene – I really did get hit by a burrito and think I got shot the way that Fat Amy does. I was running on the side of a highway and a group of five guys drove by, one threw at burrito at me and I fell over. I looked down and thought I was looking at my guts when it was really just beans and rice. I worked at 30 Rock for 6 seasons and every season I asked, “What if Liz Lemon gets hit by a burrito?” I’m so happy it ended up in the first movie.
In the second movie I don’t have something that specific but I will say in college I ran track on this all-female team. We were the best of friends and I remember how incredibly sad I felt graduating and realizing life isn’t going to be the same and things are really going to change. In the sequel when the Bellas are sitting around the campfire talking about it, Anna Kendrick’s character says how she is going to miss every person, not the performances and knowing that it won’t be like this forever and how it’s all going to change. I think a lot of people feel that way before they graduate and I can personally remember that very specific feeling of embarking on real life after leaving the nest and those women are some of my very best friends today.
I think that is the most relatable thing whether you are in elementary school, high school or college you are usually in some sort of group. The bonding of female friendship can translate to a lot of different people whether you are an athlete or singer.
Yeah I do too. Even in a place of work where you have been with the same people for years and then when you are going to leave it is tough. Everyone knows that feeling of having to leave somewhere you love and having to move on.
I personally remember graduating elementary school in eighth grade after growing up with the same group of people and thinking how scary high school will be next and worrying how everything was about to change.
I totally understand! My graduating high school class was only 83 people, but from kindergarten to eighth grade it was the same 16 people. I remember going into high school where four different small towns were coming into one and having the same feeling you had. We called ourselves the Custer Park kids, it was the same people who you love and who knew you really well.
And suddenly all security seems to disappear. Where do you find your work ethic as someone who is busy with television, film and acting roles?
I know that answer right away – my father, who actually passed away while I was writing Pitch Perfect 2. He was a lawyer and he loved the law. He absolutely loved what he did and did it all the time so even when he was not in a courtroom or at the office he was watching Law & Order, Judge Judy or reading John Grisham novels. His hobby was his career and his career was his life. I was the fifth of seven children so he had this big family and a well-balanced life. He instilled in all of my siblings and I this idea that if you love what you do, you will want to do it all the time. I love what I do and it’s not hard for me to work a lot of the time. I have had plenty of jobs that I did not love and worked really hard at jobs that were pretty taxing so I am grateful for what I have.
Did you keep roles in mind while writing where specific comedic talents could be used? There are characters played by people well-known in the comedy world but who haven’t necessarily been showcased in a major motion picture.
I usually write with somebody in mind and that is usually somebody people don’t know very well. I just find it easier to write with a particular person in my head. Oddly enough for Pitch Perfect 2 I didn’t have anybody in mind specifically for the music producer and I’m thrilled beyond belief that Keegan-Michael Key played that role because I have known him for so many years back to our Second City days. I just wanted to write a funny role and didn’t have anybody in mind and the same is true for David Cross’s role where I knew I wanted this funny character that was rich and a capella’s biggest fan. For the sequel I didn’t do what I typically do and find somebody I love and then want to see in the movie and then write a role for them, it was all kind of the opposite and writing for what the story needed then ended up with the wonderfully talented people we got.
Do you have anything coming up that you can talk about?
Yeah, it’s weird I’ve got a movie and a TV project that I can’t talk about but all I want to do is talk about it! But right now I just hope people come out to the sequel, love it and have it bring them some joy!
Pitch Perfect 2 is in theaters today.