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Here’s the Secret to a Great Crossover Comedy, According to the Director of ‘Sisters’ and ‘Pitch Perfect’

Here's the Secret to a Great Crossover Comedy, According to the Director of 'Sisters' and 'Pitch Perfect'

READ MORE: Tina Fey on Why ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Wouldn’t Exist Without Ellie Kemper and Her Contagious Optimism

As a storyteller, Jason Moore has good luck with the ladies. The director of beloved a cappella comedy “Pitch Perfect” has now followed up his 2012 smash hit with another comedy feature about good women behaving kind of badly, this one top-lined by two of Hollywood’s most cherished comedians.

With “Sisters,” Moore is tasked with directing comedic powerhouses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — as penned by the very funny Paula Pell, who previously wrote for both actresses during their stints on “Saturday Night Live.” The film chronicles a pair of very different siblings, the straight-laced Maura (Poehler) and the wild child Kate (Fey), as they decide to throw one last rager at their parents’ house before the family home is sold off to a pair of humorless yuppies. The event brings together all kinds of disparate characters, but the main attraction is Fey and Poehler generally having the best time ever. It’s a fine companion piece to “Pitch Perfect,” and one that continues to reassert Moore’s own place in a growing canon of funny films about even funnier women.

Moore recently got on the phone with Indiewire to talk about what he finds funny, the experience of being welcomed into an “SNL” power players club and why party movies are so good at conveying the “trauma of high school” (in a fun way, of course).

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the place of women in the industry and especially women in comedy, yet here you’ve directed two comedies that are very much about women. Why do these kinds of female-centric comedies appeal to you?

I’ve always just followed funny, and the fact that they are women is secondary in some ways because funny, to me, is funny. I think the reason why I tend to be attracted to these stories is because women can more readily be strong and funny and vulnerable, and I think that’s more interesting to me.

You have more of a range of characters that happen so much more naturally — that’s maybe why I’m drawn to these stories. But ultimately for me, funny is funny, and I like to think that all genders and sexual orientations are laughing for the same reasons. 

Both “Pitch Perfect” and with “Sisters” spend time getting to know the characters emotionally before amping up the humor. Is that important for you in a project?

Yeah, that’s definitely right. I believe in a good comedy that you laugh a lot and you guffaw and you’re surprised, but ultimately that you feel something. It’s hard to watch something for more than an hour where you aren’t compelled or rooting for the people.

That was true for “Pitch Perfect” and that’s true for this movie, I hope. That’s mostly because when you see someone’s vulnerability you want them to win — that’s the basic dramatic process. Also, these are two great women comedy writers [“Pitch Perfect” screenwriter Kay Cannon and “Sisters” screenwriter Paula Pell], so they’re writing for comedy and for vulnerability. I think those things are hopefully what make an entertaining movie and that’s why I’m drawn to them.

In both of your films, the female characters are also allowed to be raunchy and gross. Is that something that you’re always looking for?

That’s the thing — men and women are both gross and they’re both raunchy. Sex is awkward whether you’re a man or a woman, but sometimes for different reasons. And all of that is about being authentic and truthful. Maybe we just haven’t seen as much of that on film as we do now, and that’s the story around it. To me I just see something that is human, truthful, authentic, and therefore funny. The fact that it happens to be coming from a woman is just secondary. 

When “Bridesmaids” came out and was such a hit, the thinking seemed to be, “Great, we’re going to have all these wild female-centric comedies now,” but it’s taken a while for that to really translate to the box office. Both “Sisters” and “Pitch Perfect” seem like they sprung from that mold, though.

I love that movie. That’s a story about sisters of a kind too, those two characters love each other and they’re going through something really significant in their relationship. It’s the funny stuff and it’s the vulnerability that makes a movie like that special to me. It was a turning point in that sense of “Well, it’d be great to make a movie like that.”

When I was growing up, I was watching “9 to 5” and “Big Business,” and I always loved stories that had funny women who were also being vulnerable. It’s something that I’ve always been attracted to, but I think it’s something that most people are attracted to because there’s something real about it. 

Did you anticipate the massive cross-over appeal of “Pitch Perfect”?

I was conscious of it. I knew that we had a female-centric movie, and a gay director who was doing a musical, [laughs] so the thing that I tried to be really diligent about was to make sure I was including something for the straight dudes as well.

I’m going against what I said before, which is that people laugh at different things. Ultimately, I think the secret is that if something is funny and observant, most people of any gender will laugh at it because they’ve had some sort of similar experience.

I do think that in “Pitch Perfect” in particular, with casting Adam DeVine and finding other ways, that we made sure that it hopefully did appeal to all kinds of people. And also that it was representative of that world: a capella has boys and girls and gays and straights, and we wanted that to feel authentic, too. We did plan for it in that sense, but I could have never planned for the success it had in terms of teenagers and 50-year-olds enjoying it alike. It was a testament to the tone of the people and also the truth underlying the tone of the basic storyline. 

With “Sisters,” you were lucky enough to have a script from long-time “SNL” writer Paula Pell, who’s worked closely with Tina and Amy in the past. What was your relationship like with her?

Paula and I fell in love hard and fast. We still grope each other a lot. I had followed Paula on Twitter because she has one of the funniest Twitter feeds. I heard that she had written this script, and I got my hands on it and I of course fell in love with it. It’s so observant and off-center and high-brow/low-brow and joyous, all the things that I love. When I met with her, I felt the same way. She had developed this with Tina, so there was already a lot of family involved.

Paula was on set with us everyday. We were basically ultimately all there because of Paula. It’s her voice, it’s her story; that’s what attracted Tina, that’s what attracted Amy, that’s what attracted me.

Tina and Amy come from a strong improv background and when you add Paula into the mix, you must have been changing the script quite often.

In comedy you’re always trying to get as many options as you can. We had a system, which was similar to what they had done on “30 Rock” or “Parks and Rec”: You do the first couple takes as scripted, getting the rhythm and getting the jokes that were already funny while Paula and I were watching. I’m watching for different kinds of things, but Paula’s looking for ways the scene can be funnier and other lines. She knows the actresses and actors so well, she knows what their funniest moves are. She would write down alternate jokes on Post-it Notes and she’d put them next to my monitor. I could cherry-pick the ones that I’d love, run in and hand the Post-it Note to the actor, then they have a secret little gem that they’re going to put into the scene to surprise the other actor, constantly trying to keep it surprising and bubbling.

Then we would usually do a couple takes at the end where we would just let them go and let them do some of their own improv and some of their own instincts. By harvesting the many different versions and different jokes from all of these really, really funny people, that’s hopefully how you get the best distilled comic version of the movie in the end.

The majority of the film takes place at this wild party that Tina and Amy’s characters throw, which harkens back to a lot of classic party movies, especially “Bachelor Party.” What other movies did you use as touchstones for that portion of the film? 

There really is sub-genre of teen comedies that have to do with party tropes. There’s the one that wants to get laid and the one that wants romance, the one that’s trying to keep the house from being destroyed and the nerd who’s trying to get in. “After
Party” is a good one, “Porky’s” is a good one, “16 Candles” is a good
one. Even more recently, “Project X” is a great party movie. There are a
lot of the John Hughes parties, even though they’re not party movies.
There’s “Superbad.”

That was the conceit: What happens if a bunch of 40-year-olds, who are still dealing with some of the same issues, go to the same kind of party?

“House Party” was another big touchstone for me, there’s a great dance number in that movie. I always knew it would be fun to do a musical number in a non-musical. How do we get Amy and Tina to dance? And that’s how I came up with the apple butt dance that they do. The party movies tend to be classics for a reason, and I love that you referenced “Bachelor Party,” because they do, in different ways, basically tell the same story of the trauma of high school.

By the end of this shoot, did you feel that you had been accepted into this sisterhood of comedy?

I have to say that I feel pretty lucky that I felt accepted from the get-go. I wondered what that would be like, being the new adopted sister, if you will [laughs]. But they come from a world on “Saturday Night Live” where everybody’s working together for the best goal. In improv, where people are helping each other be funny and keeping the scene afloat, there’s a real generosity of spirit to the way that Tina and Amy work and the way that everybody works in this kind of comedy. They want me to be good, I want them to be good, everyone is there to look out for each other.

Of course I could never compete with all the history that they have and all the stories they know on each other, but in terms of being part of the team, they made me feel instantly an important part of it. I think that made us all have a really good time.

“Sisters” is in theaters this Friday.

READ MORE: Watch: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Reunite In The New Trailer For ‘Sisters’

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