For all the Farrah Fawcett posters sold to adolescent boys in the 1970s, director Elizabeth Banks has always seen “Charlie’s Angels” as “super aspirational”: What if a pack of female spies could be smart and funny and capable and sexy, and work together to take down some bad guys? “I remember watching [the show] and feeling like I was watching professional women, women who worked,” Banks, who watched the show with her two sisters, said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I thought that was so cool and they looked so great doing it and they were doing a really interesting job and it changed every day. My mom had a job, and I knew that when I grew up, I was going to have a job. ‘Well, so you’re going to have a job, that looks like a pretty good one.'”
After the success of her feature directorial debut “Pitch Perfect 2” in 2015 ($180 million domestic, the highest box office take in a series that the multi-hyphenate first helped create as a producer), Banks met with Sony to talk about another potential directing gig. (She declined to share the film, but said she didn’t have enough affinity to devote herself to it.) That’s when another executive mentioned that the studio was thinking of reviving “Charlie’s Angels.” Now, that’s what she wanted to do.
At the time, she was busy prepping “Pitch Perfect 3” as its producer and star, but she couldn’t shake the sense that “Charlie’s Angels” was the next move. “I just could not stop thinking about how I felt I could bring the themes of sorority and sisterhood and camaraderie and women working together as a team into an action movie if I did a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ movie, and that ‘Charlie’s Angels’ already had that built into its DNA,” Banks said.
Banks’ film, which stars Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, and Banks herself (as one of many boss Bosleys), pays homage to both the original television series and the pair of early-aughts feature films directed by McG and starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz. Banks, who also wrote the script (with story credits by Tony-winning playwright David Auburn and “Beauty and the Beast” screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos), didn’t set out to erase or reset anything that has come before, and eagle-eyed fans will be able to spot at least one of the McG films’ marquee stars reprising her role.
“I think it’s important as a woman and as a filmmaker and as a feminist to recognize that I stand on the shoulders of the women that came before me,” Banks said. “I thought that, thematically, that was really appropriate to ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ I like to say it was not my idea to turn ‘Charlie’s Angels’ from a TV show into a movie, it was Drew Barrymore’s. I’m just building on what she started. The inclusivity and openness of those scenes really matters to me, and I think it really speaks to women about how we should be conducting ourselves.”
The film even opens with Stewart’s character commenting to a meaty male mark that she thinks “women can do anything.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also a fast summation of the messages Banks wanted her second feature to impart. “I wanted it to be a celebration of women,” Banks said. “I wanted it to remind people that women are everywhere, that you can’t ignore us and that when you underestimate us, you give us a superpower. I feel like these are real, relatable women. The stunts that they do in the movie are all within their actual abilities. We help people out with little wires and pads and things like that, I mean, I can’t hurt them!”
Banks emphasized that her goal wasn’t making her actresses seem invincible; it was making the boldness of their characters become more accessible. Stewart’s Sabina is goofy, Balinska’s Jane has some big professional secrets, and Scott’s Elena is a super-smart engineer. “I wanted to make sure that this movie felt distinct from this sort of super-powered superheroes, the lights-shooting-out-of-your-fingertips women that I feel like have been in action movies right now, and really celebrate the everyday heroics of women all around me,” she said.
That said, for the right project she’ll embrace superpowers. She’s taken a Marvel meeting, like many filmmakers of her stature, but she has no interest in directing a female superhero movie just because she also happens to be a woman. “That’s not that interesting to me,” she said. “And Patty Jenkins has the best one! She has Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman is my favorite, it’s already taken. … I mean, it’s hard because actually, if I were to go over there, I want to direct like ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Thor.'”
“Charlie’s Angels” boasts a number of bombastic action sequences, from a city-spanning car chase to a zippy heist sequence, and that’s just in its first act. The way Banks sees it, making a musical helped make her an action filmmaker. After the “absolutely ridiculously huge endeavor” of making her feature filmmaking debut with the musical “Pitch Perfect 2,” Banks said she felt prepared for what she knew would be a big next step. She boned up on other action films from Tony Scott and Kathryn Bigelow, along with “Atomic Blonde” and a hefty dose of classic James Bond features.
“I think shooting the action sequences might even be easier than making those musical numbers, because you get to do so much of it in post-production,” Banks said. “When you make a musical, so many decisions have to be made before you shoot. You have to decide the song, you have to arrange it, you have to choreograph it, the camera has to know where to be when the song is happening, you have to build the choreography to meet the camera. You shoot it over and over and over again from all different angles.”
By contrast, many action sequences don’t get the opportunity to go back to one. “At the end of the day, I got one car to throw in a river, so I got to do that one time,” she said. “I put seven cameras on it, on different angles, and I threw it into a river and then it was over and I was like, ‘Oh, all right. It’s a little anticlimactic, actually,’ and then you realize that you’re going to make it climactic in the edit months later.” She added with a laugh, “I’m so happy that I made ‘Pitch’ first.”
“Charlie’s Angels” could become Banks’ next franchise; the final sequences in the film include a look at a new class of Angels, including some familiar faces from Banks’ previous projects and two real-life Olympians. Is another $100M-plus outing in the offing?
“The main concern I have is that it will never happen again,” she said. “I feel like I’ve spoiled it for myself going forward and, frankly, I think that’s fine. That’s my personal best. I have a friend who just ran a marathon and beat the personal best that they did when they were 19 and now they’re 46 and they just bested it by a minute. I feel like that’s how I’m gonna approach everything: I have had my personal best, and I’m going to spend the rest of my career trying to beat it.”
Finally, as for anyone who might sneer at a woman claiming feminist space in the action realm (see: the recent reintroduction of Linda Hamilton, plus two other new female characters in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” which emboldened scads of online trolls), Banks offered these thoughts.
“I will say that I think they’re apples and oranges, because ‘Charlie’s Angels’ has always been about women, and the DNA of it is about women working together on this team,” she said. “We are not treading in a male space. I think that’s one of the big differences between these two things. I don’t know, I’m less concerned about that. Of course, those trolls are horrifying, but you know, I challenge them to get up and make a fucking movie action movie. I welcome any of them into my realm.”
Sony will release “Charlie’s Angels” in theaters on Friday, November 15.