Pitch Perfect, the Universal Pictures musical comedy that centers on an all-girls a cappella group, marks the feature debut of veteran 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, who was unaware of the world of collegiate competitive a cappella until it was pitched as a joke for the NBC series.
“There was a joke about the character Twofer being in an a cappella group in college and I thought that was so funny,” Cannon told a gathering of reporters. “My boss, Robert Carlock, was like, 'No, that actually exists.’ And I said in the room that somebody needs to write a movie about that."
The passing thought became more serious when Cannon discovered Mickey Rapkin's non-fiction book Pitch Perfect, which chronicles the ups and downs of a cappella ensembles from schools like Tufts University and the University of Oregon.
"It allowed me to have the research of a world that I didn't know about," she explained. While reading, she discovered that all-female groups tend to be the underdogs, providing her with the initial concept for the script. "It's Bring It On in the a cappella world,” she said. “Instead of white and black, it's girl/guy.”
Her first draft was written before the debut of Glee, but Cannon thanks the Fox series for making Pitch Perfect an easier sell. "Now people know a little bit [about song competitions] and you don't have to teach them so much [about the world]," she said.
Although the premise became easier to explain, song selection remained a bit of a challenge. "What I did was pick placeholder songs that I wanted to give the feel of the moment," she recalled. "Then the wonderful music people took that and put songs [within] the music budget that they can afford and they were able to take and make the right choices musically." Songs in the film include "Since U Been Gone," "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," and the classic Simple Minds track "Don't You (Forget About Me)" from the The Breakfast Club.
A few songs made it from first draft to completed film. "'Don't Stop the Music', that first song you hear, was the first song from my very first draft,” Cannon said. “I just like the feel of that song and I felt like it was good way to start the movie. I always had that Breakfast Club song. It was very specific to the ending of the movie. There was a story value there. So, that was something that was picked and written before and that song didn't change."
One aspect that did change was the film's centerpiece moment, the Riff-Off, in which the groups compete informally in a drained pool on campus. "I had written 15 or 17 songs [into the scene]," Cannon recalled. Each song flows from a key word in the previous one, and it's up to each group to keep the chain going. With four groups involved, it became an epic moment in her script. "The producers and Universal were like, 'How much do you think this movie should cost? It's a lot of money, Kay,'" she said with a laugh. "So 17 songs went down to eight."
With the Barden University Bellas and their main rivals The Trebelmakers, each consisting of six or seven members, Cannon enjoyed writing such a vast ensemble, but noted it presented a particular challenge when it came time to rewrite.
"Maybe it was my downfall as a writer, but I knew the outside characters a lot better than I did the character of Beca," she said. As the central character, the audience has to know and understand Beca in a way that was not presented in the initial drafts. It was a problem she eventually tackled, but it spoke to the energy the supporting characters already contained. They came easily as Cannon drew from life experience. "I did a lot of sports growing up, so I've been on a lot of all-lady sports teams," she explained. Utilizing her own memories, the Bellas became distinct people with quirks and histories. "From there, I tried to go out of my way to figure out the game of that character and give them a [defining moment]. If I hadn't heard from them in a while, I wanted to hear from the character.” Eventually, the characters created their own rhythm, but their strengths came from preparation.
"A lot of thought went into who the characters were before I started writing the actual story," Cannon said.
That preparation gave her the room to add a few in-jokes for her friends. "Mary-Elise, [the one] who gets kicked out of the group and cries, I told [director] Jason Moore to give her Tina Fey glasses," Cannon revealed. Even the Rebel Wilson character, Fat Amy, is named in honor of Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler, who took to calling herself "Fat Amy" while pregnant.
As far as first screenwriting gigs go, Cannon admits to being pretty happy. "You hear horror stories," she said. "I come from television, where the writer is also the producer and has a lot of control." In the film world, the writer is often discarded once filming begins and has little-to-no involvement or input. Cannon was able to contribute and really enjoys the result.
"I feel like it did what it's supposed to do. It's funny and it has a bit of heart in there. I think the music is awesome and the choreography is great. The actors were super-well cast and did an awesome job." Reflecting on the experience, she joked, "It's only downhill from here!"
Pitch Perfect opens Friday nationwide.