INTERVIEW: A Discussion with ‘Blockers’ Director Kay Cannon

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Kay Cannon knows how some of you felt when you first saw the marketing for “Blockers.” The comedy seemed potentially like a misguided sex romp, with parents stopping their daughters from losing their virginity. Because, of course, sex is bad when it comes to girls. Obviously, that’s not the movie that she made, so when audiences finally saw the film, they knew she’d made something far more nuanced. In advance of “Blockers” coming to Blu-Ray and DVD this week, we spoke to Cannon about the flick. It’s a fun chat with someone who is quickly making a name for herself in the industry.

“Blockers” of course stars the trio of Ike Barinholtz, John Cena, and Leslie Mann as worried parents trying to prevent their daughters from having sex. The young ladies looking to lose their virginity are played by Gideon Adlon, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, who are as good here as their adult counterparts. We were fans of this film, writing in our review that it’s not what you’d expect from the promotional material. It’s a winning movie, one that announced Cannon, already a successful writer, as a filmmaker to watch out for.

Here now is our chat with Cannon:

Joey Magidson: It was interesting to see the narrative around the film change. Initially, people labeled it as just another sex comedy, but then around South by Southwest, folks found out that wasn’t the case. Since you obviously knew what you had made, how initially annoying was that, followed by how satisfying that was?

Kay Cannon: (Laughs) Yeah! Obviously, I had seen all of the marketing materials before it went out. So, when I saw it, I shared reservations about what I thought, you know, people would think from the trailer. Then, I was educated that we needed to show that it’s a really funny movie that people who like to see rated R comedies would enjoy. I always knew that the movie would speak for itself, but the narrative at the beginning, I was like, “I’ll just wait for people to see it.” We were so fortunate to be able to premiere at South By, and that experience was so amazing. Did you go this year?

JM: I didn’t, but it’s funny how they’ve become such a great place for comedy to debut. “Trainwreck,” “The Disaster Artist,” and now “Blockers.”

KC: Absolutely. They really pick the one comedy they want to support. They did that for us and the audience went nuts. I feel like it’s the best thing that will ever happen in my career! (Laughs) At one point, Leslie Mann was sitting behind me and she leans forward, and of course that audience is going to be really generous to us, but it exceeded our expectations even more. She leaned over to me and was like “Holy shit!” It just was so great. Hearing people afterwards, the people I spoke to afterwards, and of course the people who came to review it, the narrative completely changed. You’re so right. People started saying that this was a surprising movie, that it was saying something. This movie will make you cry! It’s really about, sort of a statement about young women. Oh my god, it was so satisfying. It was great.

JM: You directed this as opposed to writing, which has been your hallmark until now. What made you want to direct, and how did you come across the material?

KC: It kind of just worked out for me. I feel like the joke with directing is that I’d always wanted to direct, but thought I would do television first. I didn’t think I would go do a studio movie, and certainly not something rated R. The joke is I chose to do that movie because it was the only movie I was offered to direct. (Laughs) I was sent the script. But, luckily for me, I was so lucky to have been sent the script, because Point Grey knew the scenes that were in the script were important to me.

As soon as I signed on as director, I started writing it. You know, because the nuggets, the good stuff that I could see…I just had a take on it. I definitely had a take on it and knew what I wanted to do with the material. I knew what I could bring to it as a woman, you know? There’s a lot of guys who worked on that movie, and there’s a lot of writers who worked on that movie. I feel like I needed to put in what I bring to the table, which is that, first and foremost, I’m a comedy writer, and now a comedy director.

But, I’m also someone who has a very different perspective. Since this is about women, women and their sexuality, I felt that maybe I could bring something to that perspective. Maybe something the very amazing guys who worked on this script don’t know? So, I was so excited to tackle it. I also thought it was really cool that we were telling the story from the female perspective, in terms of losing virginity. Just regular girls deciding to lose their virginity, not being the objects of desire. Just being funny and cool and good friends. That’s kind of what I wanted to do.

JM: You need that other set of eyes when telling this story. Inherently, male writers will look back on their own experiences, which won’t be the same.

KC: And its a feeling too! I wanted to take this very antiquated idea of dads trying to stop their daughters from having sex. That’s a real old idea. Perhaps, at the beginning, there was a backlash to just hearing the idea. I wanted to take this idea, which absolutely still exists, maybe more than ever these days, given our horrible political climate right now, and turn it on its head. Call out the double standard.

Also, I wanted to show why our parents were doing it, this very different and antiquated idea. Each of our parents had this real reason for wanting to stop their kid. A reason you could empathize with, even if they were 100% wrong. You could still empathize with them as a parent. I thought that was exciting to show, and I thought that Leslie, Ike, and John were just so funny together. Like, I thought the three daughters were so funny and so great together, and the three parents were so funny and so great together. I just loved to watch them all day long.

JM: That’s part of what got lost in translation early on, right? The movie knows the adults are wrong.

KC: Yeah! (Laughs) Right.

JM: How did you find the cast for the film? What made them the right choices?

KC: I mean, Ike Barinholtz and I have been friends for 20 years. We’re from Chicago, we improvised together, come from the improv background. It’s such a weird thing for me to say about Ike, but when I got the script, the role of Hunter was the most fleshed out and the standout character, so so funny. I immediately was like, ‘Ike should play this part.’ And again, he not only fits it perfectly, but I feel like he’s so talented and on the cusp of being a more well known comedic actor, so I sent him the script, and he read it and loved it. Signed on right away. So that was super simple.

Then, John I thought was really funny in “Trainwreck” but wasn’t convinced about. Even though we’d re-written the character to be a big guy with emotion, a stay at home dad, but it wasn’t until I was watching him host the ESPY’s and hearing his monologue. My husband and I were watching, and we were like “he should play Mitchell.” I literally emailed the producers and asked what they thought about John Cena, and they were like “oh my god that’s great.” So John came in to audition, because he’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of can he do this bigger role. He just nailed it, so he was the second one cast.

And then, I was just like “who am I going to get for the role of the mom?” Lisa, she’s the heart and soul of the movie, so I needed an amazing comedic actress, I needed an amazing actress who could bring the audience in emotionally. I sent the script to Leslie and luckily for me Leslie was literally going through the same thing with her own daughter. She was dropping Maude off at college and was having to say goodbye to the love of her life, so when she got the script, she had such a deep connection to the material, so she said yes.

Then, the three daughters were just them coming in and auditioning. I probably saw 100 of these young women. It was so hard, since we were still working on the material, writing scenes, like the cafeteria scene for example, that took a lot of rewriting. The only thing I really knew was I wanted Kayla to be a woman of color, and I was so thrilled when I saw Geraldine’s audition tape. And then I felt the responsibility to bring another funny lady from Australia into people’s lives! (Laughs)

JM: To wrap up, now that you’ve done it and it’s about to hit store shelves, what are you hoping to do next? Does this success change the focus of what you might look for as a project?

KC: I just announced K&L Productions, a production company that I have with Laverne McKinnon, who was executive producer on a show I did called “Girlboss,” which I created for Netflix that only got one season. So whatever. You live, you learn. (Laughs)

JM: More Britt Robertson is always a good thing though.

KC: I think so too! So, I started a TV and film production company. Currently, I just finished writing a movie for Sony that hasn’t been green lit or anything yet. I would love to direct that, I have designs to do that. If that happens, that would be amazing. I definitely get a lot of offers, which is what’s so great about this production company. It’s got a TV slate and a film slate. I can really focus on the things that I want to direct, or to direct and write, or just to write, or to produce. All of it is really exciting.

Directing “Blockers” really changed my life, and it probably wouldn’t have changed my life in a negative way if it had gone poorly (Laughs), but the fact that it went well, it just opened up a lot of doors for me. Even though I had a successful run of stuff as a writer. I probably would have just gone back to doing TV, but since we were successful, you know, I’m just getting a lot of opportunities. It’s up to me that I do good work. So, I’m kind of being picky about what I do next.

JM: There are so few filmmakers like you out there, people really will look to what you do in a different way. Not being a white dude, you’re a part of a club that’s still far too small.

KC: Absolutely. It’s a really good thing. It’s really interesting. I’ve been in the comedy world for over a decade now, and I just got asked today about after “Pitch Perfect,” I’m one of the upper echelon for female film writers. I was like “wait a second!” Why couldn’t it just be as a screenwriter? I’ve had success for several years now. You know, it was weird. I’ve been in comedy, and I’m a sought after comedy screenwriter. Probably, it’s just because there are so few, you know, females across the board. So, it’s not that I get put into a box. In a lot of ways, I have not been put into a box, which is nice. There was just that perception, and we’ve gotta change that perception. We’ve gotta get so may women involved that the perception goes away.

JM: For sure. It’s a shame that filmmakers or actors who fit a certain accepted profile get to have failure after failure, while you see female filmmakers have one project not be a hit and they wind up in director’s jail.

KC: Well Joey, it sounds to me like you’re an ally! (Laughs) You’re a really good ally.

JM: Thank you, and congratulations again on the work.

KC: Thanks so much. Great to chat with you! Thanks a lot.

“Blockers” hits Blu-Ray and DVD shelves on July 3rd.

THOUGHTS ON OUR “BLOCKERS” DISCUSSION WITH KAY CANNON? DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS!