Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
The elevator pitch for “Blockers” works pretty well: it’s “Porky’s” for the #MeToo era, “American Pie” with a feminine twist, “Superbad” for parents. But even those easy designations don’t quite capture the dizzy joy of Kay Cannon’s directorial debut. Initially called “The Pact,” the sex-positive sex comedy follows a trio of life-long best friends as they embark on the classic cinematic quest to lose their virginity on prom night. The time, however, the BFFs at the film’s center are all girls (this is a genre that mostly focuses on teen boys, after all), and their plan to take the next step is hampered by their overbearing parents.
The film may be Cannon’s directing credit, but it’s a natural fit for a comedian who first got her start in Chicago’s hopping improv scene, before heading to television with “30 Rock” under the wing of Tina Fey and breaking into film by turning a nonfiction novel about college a cappella groups into a three-film smash hit series (Cannon wrote all three “Pitch Perfect” films). Her comedy has always been smart and female-focused, and “Blockers” is a natural extension of her craft, and one that arrives at a canny time in the cultural conversation.
Above all else, “Blockers” has been welcomed since its raucous SXSW debut because the comedy hits its mark. Cannon maintains a tricky balance by focusing on teen girls, exploring modern questions of consent, while keeping the material raunchy enough to earn its R-rating. Here’s how she did it.
1. Writing Comedy is Great Training for Directing It
Cannon’s background in comedy writing might have served her well when it came time to make the jump to scripted television, but she was initially trepidatious about moving into directing. “I’m such a school person, and I didn’t go to to film school, so there was a part of me that was like, ‘I have an English degree, so writing doesn’t seem that far-fetched,’ but I was really like, ‘If I didn’t go to school for it, I couldn’t possibly do it!,'” she said. “And then you learn, of course you can! There’s not some hidden language. If there’s something you don’t understand, you just ask.”
Over the course of six seasons at “30 Rock,” Cannon moved up from story editor to writer and producer, picking up plenty of hardware along the way, including three WGA Awards, a Peabody, and an Emmy nod. She even appeared in a handful of episodes, most notably as “Human Table” in the 2007 “Ludachristmas” episode. Still, Cannon never directed an episode of the beloved comedy.
“At the end of my run at ’30 Rock,’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to direct an episode,’ but at that time, I was too chicken to ever ask,” she said. “And then I had lunch with [co-founder] Nathan Kahane at Good Universe, and he was like, ‘Aren’t you tired of other people directing your material? Aren’t you ready to direct?’ and I was like, ‘Hey, yeah, I am ready to direct!'”
Cannon expected that her first foray into directing would be something on the small screen, a possibility that seemed much more feasible than jumping into a movie, let alone a studio project. She needed one more push to get to that point.
“I wanted to direct, but I thought the first thing I would direct would be a television show,” Cannon said. “I didn’t think my directorial debut would be a big studio movie. But, luckily, Good Universe and Point Grey felt like I was the right person to do it, so they offered it to me. I’d never been offered [something like this].”
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With “Blockers” under her belt, Cannon is still cautiously approaching the next step in her career, but she’s already realized that getting honest with herself about what she really wanted to do professionally was the first step into what became her journey to making her directorial debut. That’s not going to stop now.
“I think the next challenge for me would be to write something and then direct the thing that I write,” Cannon said, “which I obviously have’t done before. But I’m really big into collaborating, so I find it a little scary to me. I’ve got to embrace that fear.”
2. Every Attempt to Write a Joke is a Lesson
Although Cannon never directed an episode of “30 Rock,” she looks back on her time with the series as a huge turning point in her career. It served as her own mini film school. Many of the lessons she honed writing on the series helped her to make “Blockers,” even if the creative processes were very different.
“My joke-writing got much better,” Cannon said. “Like how to write really solid jokes, sharper jokes, different kind of of joke structures. I learned story, how to tell a story, from being in television. In ‘Blockers,’ I have eight storylines, that really helped me a lot in terms of story structure. Just how to orchestrate that, how to put that all together.”
The time crunch of writing a weekly television series also had an unexpected corollary in the movie-making world: even there, some changes had to come on a dime. “I also learned how to write fast, which really helped me with directing, because I was able to look at a scene and if a scene wasn’t working, I was able to go back and write it or figure out what it was I needed in that scene,” she said.
3. Work With What You Know
Cannon is not a credited screenwriter on the film, but she did a lot of work on the script written by brothers Brian and Jim Kehoe, who she credits for building out a clever twist on the genre. “The Kehoe brothers had such a great idea, this antiquated idea that I felt like I could put a modern spin on, and explore why does it still exist,” she said. “Why are we still being so prudish about young women and their sexuality?”
Moviegoers tend to be surprised that two dudes wrote the film — when the credits came up during my screening, an audience member behind me actually said, “two dudes wrote this?” — and that’s both a credit to them and Cannon’s own ability to inject her personal experience into it.
“I’m the parent of a daughter, and I was teenage girl, and I was like, ‘I think I can do this,'” she said. “I felt like I had a take, and I could imagine how I want to do the story.”
Cannon made a number of tweaks to better suit her own point of view — for one thing, the original script chronicled three fathers attempting to stop their daughters from completing their sex pact, and Cannon had the idea to change one of them to be a mom (Leslie Mann, who joins John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as the other parents), just like her.
She also harkened back to her own experience growing up to round out the girls. “I did a lot of work on the script, along with a lot of other people who worked on it, but what I felt like I brought to the table that wasn’t in the script that I read was the heart and the emotion, the real specificity to the daughters,” she said.
4. Embrace the Present
Another big change that Cannon added: that one of the girls would be dealing with her sexuality in the middle of her friends’ giddy excitement over the pact. While Julie (Kathryn Newton) is excited to lose her virginity to a boyfriend she really likes (and who treats her well) and Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) is pumped about taking the reins of a big-time life experience, Sam (Gideon Adlon) decides to use the pact as a way to finally test if she’s actually attracted to guys.
“I wanted to tell a story where it wasn’t about parents being disapproving of her sexuality, but that she was struggling with it herself,” Cannon said. “In trying to decide each issue the girls individually had, I was like, ‘What are young women in high school dealing with right now? And how are they dealing with it?’ So there’s a lot of thought put into making Sam kinda nerdy, a little bit maybe different than the other two.”
It’s a modern twist on the genre, but it’s also one that’s done with a sweet edge. Sam may be struggling, but it becomes evident early on that her father Hunter (Barinholtz) knows exactly going on, and just wants his daughter to be happy. While Sam’s storyline is about her coming out, Kayla’s centers on a desire to break out of her shell and embrace her own desires. For Cannon, that meant making it clear that Kayla was a consenting young adult fully in control of her choices.
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“Consent was really important for me,” Cannon said. “Before Kayla has a sip of alcohol, she is saying, ‘I want to have sex tonight.’ It was crucial. I think we have to address what’s happening now. I shot this before #MeToo and Time’s Up, but all these things that I’d be thinking about, that the other filmmakers had been thinking about, all were important and had been important forever.”
“Blockers” also never stops poking fun at its seemingly retrograde plot, one that sees a bunch of parents trying to control what their daughters are doing. Barinholtz’s character Hunter becomes the unexpected voice of reason when Lisa (Mann) and Mitchell (Cena) really get out of control. Later, Lisa faces off with Kayla’s mom Marcie (Sarayu Blue), who gives even stronger voice to the concept that the teens should be allowed to make their own choices.
“I’ve seen some criticisms that the movie is a little too preachy and never stops reminding us [about these issues], but at the same time, I feel like if it didn’t exist, people would be like, ‘Why are they doing this? This is nuts, it’s 2018,'” Cannon said. “I’ll take the criticism, because I think it’s important.”
5. When in Doubt, Look to the Movies
Cannon’s own cinematic influences are all over the film (consider Julie’s poster-plastered room, which also includes a “Pitch Perfect” poster there). Above all, “Blockers” includes some big nods to John Hughes (she even moved the film’s setting to Chicago). “I’m a huge John Hughes fan and I re-watched ‘Pretty in Pink’ before I shot,” she said. “I loved how the prom in ‘Pretty in Pink’ was shot, so I just got inspired by that.”
Another director helped guide one of the stickier scenes in the film, a gross-out sequence in which one of the teens gets violently ill while riding in a limo. “When I was in post-production, the puking sequence? That used to be like five times longer,” Cannon said. “It was a whole thing, and it wasn’t working. [Test] audiences were just like, ‘Oh, it’s gross.’ I kept cutting it down and cutting it down, and I was like, ‘How am I going to get this to work?’ And then I went and saw ‘Baby Driver.'”
She snapped her fingers, remembering the lightbulb moment. “I’m gonna put it to music! Thank you, Edgar Wright,” she said. “I wanted to try to do different things, like it just didn’t feel like people talking and telling jokes, even though it’s a very talky movie, I wanted to get jokes from different ways, like the ways that Edgar does.”
“Blockers” opens theatrically on Friday, April 6.