Critic Katie Manzi attended an interview with Pitch Perfect and Hunger Games star Elizabeth Banks. Here she and fellow journalists spoke to Banks on her directorial debut Pitch Perfect 2…
Questions by Katie Manzi are identified with a *.
In Pitch Perfect 2, you both played Gale and directed. Do you find it difficult to distance yourself from the role as an actor and a director?
EB: No, I like directing myself. It’s very interesting, like I know what I want and I don’t even have to say it out loud. It’s so easy to direct me! And um, I have a great partner in John (John Michael Higgins), he and I are old friends. He is so good at his job… we just talk to each other and try to make the crew laugh. It’s technically not difficult. I just set the shots up with a double, and they light it while I do my hair and makeup and I put three cameras on it so we can just get it done quickly. And I really trust my VP, and I have a monitor the whole time so I can see what’s happening and what it looks like. So it’s technically not- people think it’s somehow really hard but it’s technically not difficult at all.
On your website you recently uploaded an article with quotes from women about-
EB: Their body image.
Yes, so what messages and lessons do you want learnt from Pitch Perfect on acceptance and body image?
EB: Well, you know, one of the things I love about our film is that no one apologizes for themselves. No one talks about what they look like, there is no makeover sequence, no one’s talking about the clothes they’re wearing. You know they’re just living their life! It’s not about boyfriends, it’s just about regular, real girls of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, and just a wonderful chemistry between all of them.
In Pitch Perfect 2, even more so than the first, the film is very much a kind of girl friendship movie, focusing more on women just being together and hanging out. Was that an intentional thing to focus on when you started out or did it come from character pay-offs?
EB: It was a natural progression from the first film. The first film was about putting the band together, so we didn’t really know who any of them were, we just sort of knew they were a group of misfits who all had one thing in common, they really loved to sing. And this time around I used my experience as a sorority girl at university to sort of inform this notion of all these women living together in the house and really having that bond that you have, and also facing graduation and how friendships sustain you through that period in your life.
Going back to university, is there anything that you learnt there that you have kept with you your whole life?
EB: I mean, its innumerable. I found my husband at college, he’s still around.
***Going back to the the theme of female empowerment, how important was it for you to have a comedy that was led by an almost entirely female cast?
EB:What we have done is very rare, and so it is perceived as sort of this like, politically feminist statement. And I am a feminist! I am not afraid of that word, I love it and I spend a lot of my time fighting for women and also trying to lead by example. The main thing about this movie is we really just wanted to make a really funny comedy that happened to be about this all girl group. It was based on a book that was about an all-girl group, the first all-female group, Divisi, at the University of Oregon who won the national title in America. So we started there, we weren’t like “Let’s make a movie that’s feminist! It’s about girl power!” That was not, particularly, an intention of ours. But because we made a movie about a group of women, and nobody else makes those movies, we are a feminist statement, just by our existence.
Obviously the theme of friendship is sort of the core to what the film is, the chemistry between them. Did you have any problems on set, either getting everyone to do their job or getting everyone to focus on the script?
EB: No. I mean I have a very professional team of people, my entire cast included. Everyone was very game actually. That is what I would say, everyone was really game, really up for it. We shot the sequence at the camp the first week of filming, that was the very first sequence that we shot. And it was all about getting people to get up on the zipline, and not everybody did it! And not everybody jumped on the blob, and you know it was like everyone was overcoming their fears with each other and cheering each other on and it was really amazing. So, the logistics of the movie were insane. There was so much-it’s a very big movie, with a lot going on. Wrangling the actual people was not particularly a big concern of mine, and also I kind of wanted there to be room for everyone to kind of play. We have a lot of wide shots in the movie where you see everybody all at once and they are all just kind of mashed up against each other and you know that’s the energy I wanted in the movie.
There’s a line in the film where you say “Everybody hates us”, referring to the international reputation of Americans. Have you found that yourself, when you have been doing the press tour for this film or just being out and about in London?
EB: One of the things that the world likes America to do is make movies. We’re really good at making movies. Um, no, that was really just meant to be funny. And actually had a bunch of different lines there and we ended up choosing that one because it was the one who made the most people laugh. I think even in America we just assume everybody hates us because we’re so good at everything! Of course they want to take us down a peg!
Seeing as this is the first feature film that you have directed, how did you actually get the job?
EB: Well I produced the first movie, that helped. And I worked really closely on that movie with the film’s director Jason Moore, I hired Jason Moore to do that movie. What basically happened was, I was actively looking for a movie to direct, and really the stars do have to align, I think, in life. And I was just really sort of, at the exact right place in my experience to take over the reigns of the movie. I had worked so closely on the first film I think the studio knew they could trust me to do it. I had been directing shorts for little things as time allowed in my very busy acting career, and in preparation for directing a feature and then Jason fell off and it was like, of course I should do it.
*** So when you were approaching the sequel, what elements did you want to keep from the original and what new direction did you want to take the film in?
EB: You know, it was really all about expanding the world. The first film is a pretty small story, it’s university based, it’s about two groups from the same school, and we never had to leave the campus! It’s also really told from Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) point of view, and in this film we really felt we could expand the world of a cappella. We could get off campus. I mean a theme of the movie is the girls, sort of, leaving the nest and meeting more adults and so the riff off this time is not between the collegiate groups it’s between big professional groups, you know, real grownups! Just that notion appealed to me, of like putting them in contact with the adult world. They’re the big fish in their little pond, and I wanted to show a really big pond. And then there’s all the musical numbers, I think it’s important to remember that in the first movie the Barden Bellas pretty much sang “The Sign” like four times in a row! You literally heard them sing the same thing over and over again and it wasn’t until the finale of the movie, and maybe the pool mashup, were the only times you saw the Bellas be explosively amazing. In this movie they are amazing from the first minute. So every sequence this time around had to just be totally blown out you know: bigger, better, crazier, light shows, fire, the whole thing!
I really did find that the film was bigger and better. But what do you think makes a cappella so popular?
EB: I think a cappella is an interesting metaphor for life. It requires all the voices to sing in harmony, to be at its best. I think it’s a very important message that Beca learns, which is like, we don’t get through life on our own. You have to rely on people, we need each other, and a cappella is- you literally can’t do it by yourself. You could be singing a melody line, but who cares?
Although this your first time in the director’s chair, you’ve obviously had such an amazing acting career, working with some pretty incredible directors from Sam Raimi to James Gunn to Spielberg, is there any particular skills or particular pieces of advice you picked up from any of them that you found yourself incorporating into your own work?
EB: Yeah, absolutely! I got some specific advice from Francis Lawrence, he told me to include the hips when shooting the dance sequences. It turns out that this (imitated dancing in her chair) is not very interesting, but if you add the hips… So that was very good advice, he had a long career making music videos. Some of it was as specific as that and some of it was just style. Judd Apatow allows for tons of improv on his sets which requires cross coverage, which is a pretty technical term, but cross coverage is not something everybody does, it’s not something every director of photography likes to do, but it was really important to me that we were able to improv on our set and capture both sides of the conversation at the same time so you have to cross cover, and that’s something I essentially stole from Judd.
Do you have any advice for budding young directors or producers of films who want to get into the film industry and want to take their career further?
EB: Do they want to live in LA or New York? That’s my first piece of advice. You would be surprised how many people are like “I want to get in the movie business” “Where do you live?” “I live in my hometown!” Well move to New York or LA! That’s where the movie business is! You have to at least be courageous enough to go there.
*** I noticed that you got the real life a cappella group Pentatonix to guest star in the film. So with riff offs, international competition etc- how much of that is based on actual a cappella world?
EB: All of it is based in some version of reality. We have a lot of authenticity checks along the way. For instance, Kelley Jakle who played the blonde Jessica, she was in So-Cal Vo-Cal at the University of Southern California, and they just won the championship in America. They’re a co-ed group though, not all female. She gave us tons of real life stories about a cappella – they all do live in a house together, they do all tour together, singing the national anthem at the Puppy Bowl, that’s totally a real thing! When we had the car show (in the film), Pentatonix sang at the Audi Car Show. You can look that up on Youtube, it looks exactly like what we did. One of the reasons that the Germans were chosen as the arch nemesis this time around is when we looked at the world and where a cappella was popular, it’s most popular in America and Germany. So it just made sense.
Your filmography this year, not just this year but in general, is ridiculously varied. For example, you have Pitch Perfect 2, then later Hunger Games on and you are also starring in another True Life cop drama in a couple weeks- What is it that draws you to certain scripts? Is it a desire to push yourself, to not pigeon hole yourself in any particular role?
EB: Yeah, I don’t want to be bored. That’s important as you get older. I’m really just looking for stories that interest me, characters that interest me, journeys that interest me. I don’t have an overwhelming desire to challenge myself, but I also find that it depends on where I’m at in my life, and what interests me. So, it changes. Your goals change.
When you were at university did you do anything outside of the regular education system like a cappella or anything like that?
EB: Well, of course I was in a bunch of theater groups, and I sang in musical theater, did plays constantly. Pretty much all through college I was performing. Some of it was academic. I did study theater in college so I studied plays as part of my education, and then I also did extra-curricular activities that involved lots of performing.
EB: Yes! Drink a lot of water, don’t eat salts, and sleep! It’s more important than you realize. And don’t party until you are done with the very last test! It’s a guide to life really.
So with the success of the first film, did that add any extra pressure on you?
EB: My number one goal was to not disappoint the fans of the first movie, and I think whenever you make a sequel it is sort of a referendum on the first film, and that movie is beloved to me as well. I am very proud of it, it sort of came from my heart and soul so I also wanted to protect the legacy of that movie.
Any possibility of Pitch Perfect becoming a trilogy?
EB: It’s possible! You know, we just need to put this movie out and see. I will say we really strove to do something organic and authentic with the story. You want to give the audience a little more of what they love but not totally repeat yourself, you want to grow. So I don’t know what the journey would be in the next one. We don’t have any plan yet.