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Blockers Director Kay Cannon Interview –
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good, old-fashioned teen sex comedy.
The genre saw a rise in popularity in the ’80s, a resurgence in the late ’90s thanks to American Pie, but petered out by the mid-aughts. And maybe that’s a good thing. The most popular examples—Porky’s, American Pie, Superbad—were told through the male perspective. For every Little Darlings or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, there are dozens of movies about the rampant horniness of teenage boys.
That’s why Blockers feels so timely and necessary. For one thing, it’s nice to laugh about sex after months of reexamining the way it gets tangled up with power. But more importantly, the comedy throws a spotlight on three teenage girls who form a sex pact to lose their virginity on prom night.
What could be brushed off as a well-worn comedic premise is heightened by the girls’ parents—the titular cock-blockers played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz, who join forces to stop their daughters from jumping into bed with their prom dates.
Each parent has his or her own personal motivations for stopping their kid from getting laid. Mann’s Lisa has a codependent relationship with her daughter Julie and is freaking out about her going off to college. Cena’s Mitchell is the overbearing father to the overachieving Kayla, and he simply can’t fathom his daughter having sex. Barinholtz’s Hunter is a borderline deadbeat dad who wants to stop Sam from sleeping with her boyfriend, as he’s (correctly) convinced that she’s a lesbian.
Chaos and hilarity ensue, from exploding cars to competitive butt-chugging to run-ins with a pair of parents who are perhaps too sex-positive about their teenager’s love life.
Director Kay Cannon at the Esquire Mavericks of Hollywood party in March 2018
But at the center of this big, raunchy, R-rated comedy is a lot of heart with a surprisingly progressive and honest look at teenage sexuality. The film has its director, Kay Cannon, to thank for that. Cannon—who wrote the three Pitch Perfect movies as well as created the Netflix series Girlboss—steps behind the camera for the first time to direct a script by Brian and Jim Kehoe. Although her name isn’t on the screenplay, you can sense Cannon’s influence over the dialogue and its sensibility.
I spoke with Cannon over the phone a day before Blockers hit theaters, and she talked about how much of her own experience went into the film, the pressures of being a female director at the helm of a studio-backed comedy, and why she think it’s empowering to see a woman do anything to get a laugh.
First, I wanted to tell you that you made a movie about a high school experience that looked a lot more fun than my own. What did you bring in from your own memories of high school and being a teenage girl?
Well, my prom wasn’t crazy like the one you see in the movie. But I remember sitting in the cafeteria with my girlfriends—I’m from a very small town, so I had the same friends from kindergarten until I graduated, just lifelong friends—and just talking frank with each other. You know, we said anything, we cursed… Very much like what’s in the movie.
That’s how we talked to each other and how we related to each other. I didn’t learn sex from my parents, or even have a sex conversation with my parents at all. Far from it; I was raised Catholic and it was, like, abstinence until marriage, and you didn’t talk about it. So talking with my friends—that’s how I learned everything.
How did the script come to you? Did you need to convince people that not only is this a movie that needs to be made, but that you’re the one who should make it?
The script was originally called Cherries, and it was about three dads. During the development process—before I got the script—it was changed to two dads and a mom. I was sent the script by my agent with a straight-up offer to direct, which was amazing because I had never directed anything before.
I had met with Nathan Kahane at [production company] Good Universe a couple years prior, and he had put it into my head. “Don’t you want to direct your own material? Aren’t you kind of tired of people directing your work?” I thought the first thing I would direct would be a television show. I didn’t think it would be a studio-backed, R-rated comedy.
“It very much felt like it came from a male perspective. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.”
I found out much later, just recently actually, that I got the script because when I worked on Neighbors 2—they had a round table with female writers—I guess I sort of took over the room. And it was, in that moment, when they all felt like I was the right person to direct this movie. So I read the script, I thought it was super funny, and I connected to the themes of the story.
I’m a parent of a daughter, and I was also a teenage girl who lost her virginity. And I knew what the changes that I wanted to make and how to make it more from a female perspective, because it very much felt like it came from a male perspective. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
You come from an improv background, as did a lot of people who worked on the film. How much of that influenced what ended up in the movie? How often did you guys play around with different scenes to see what happened?
There was a lot of rewriting. Sometimes I would have the actors doing a scene, and if it wasn’t working I’d rewrite it, or the actors and I would figure it out together. I wanted it to feel very real and truthful, and to have the lines feel natural coming out of the actors’ mouths. We’d do what I would call the Fun Run—they’d improvise and try things out—and then in post I would curate what I thought were the best performances and the best jokes. So, to answer your question, there was a lot. [Laughs]
You worked with Stacey Schroeder as your editor. Did she help you keep the female perspective at the forefront of the film?
Absolutely! I had worked with Stacey on Girlboss, and we became this really great team together. We agree with each other 98 percent of the time, and the two percent that we disagree… Well, we’re both really vocal, neither one of us has a poker face. [Laughs] We really share what our feelings are. At the end of the day, it’s my decision, but she’s a wonderful partner.
It was so important to have her when she’s editing it, to see it from her gaze. She knew exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t have to overly explain a point of view to her. She got it. And it was even more helpful, when I had more than a handful of male producers, to have both Stacey and also my assistant Irene keep a balance of representation. There were definitely moments where we were like, “Us ladies feel the opposite of what you’re saying.”
Can you think of a time when you had to really fight for a moment in a movie—and you won?
[Producer] Evan Goldberg and I have laughed about this. At the end of the movie, when the girls are checking in with each other, Kayla says, “Let’s just say the chef went out to eat… my pussy.” Evan was like, “Take that out. We’ve done such a good job of not being so crass,” and blah blah blah. And I was like, are you kidding? That’s the song of our movie—to speak that way is liberating. And he said, “I don’t know if it gets a laugh.” Of course, when I do previews, I record the laugh so I can play it back.
And this this is where our big argument came in; not an argument where we’re, like, yelling, more like a fun debate we had with each other. He said, “Don’t make it seem like this is the first time anyone’s gone down on Kayla.” And I said no, I want it to be the first time someone’s gone down on her. And he said that would never happen. “Someone that beautiful and at that age so confident—of course a guy has gone down on her.” And I was like, what are you talking about? That girl doesn’t exist! [Laughs]
I was like Kayla; I’m not that I was saying I was beautiful, but I was really confident, and that didn’t happen for me.
The way I was able to win these sort of questionable debates on things that the young women say, that maybe we haven’t heard them say this way before, is the laugh. The laughs always keep the jokes in. We were just at the premiere on Tuesday, and people started applauding at that line. It gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie. I think Evan was nervous about losing the audience, but we’re first of all not going to lose the audience—we’re only going to become more winning.
You’ve talked about the liberation of allowing young women to be that crass. I’ve read in other interviews where you’ve said that’s part of gender equality in comedy: to allow women to make the same pratfalls, to make fools of themselves, and that it itself is kind of empowering. As a funny woman, why is that so valuable to you?
It won’t feel like we’re equal until we can do the same things that the guys do without judgment or shame or disapproval. That is the reason this is such an underserved story. It feels so weird to say it’s underserved, but we just haven’t let the young women be the stars. And when you let them be the stars, then you’re allowing them to do the same sort of things that the guys have been doing for a laugh.
There’s an acknowledgement that women laugh at the same things that guys do. Our tastes and our likes and dislikes have expanded and changed and evolved. We are no longer the women of the 1950s—who’s prim and proper and wouldn’t dare say such a thing, who goes to bed with makeup on and wakes up with makeup on so her husband doesn’t see her without it. I’m really proud to be a part of a project that shows these young women being who they are.
As an improviser, you know, we play. That’s what attracted me to improvising, because I could be anything that I wanted up on that stage. You could forget about your gender. You could play someone from a different country even; you could play a baby, a chair, anything you wanted, and it sort of like evened out the playing field. I hope this movie is a step in the direction of evening the playing field.
Cannon on the set of Blockers
You’re a female director who is making a movie in which half of the main characters are young women. Do you feel an extra layer of pressure—not only to see this movie that’s directed by a woman to succeed at the box office—to make the “right” feminist comedy?
I didn’t feel society’s pressure or critics’ pressure when I was making the movie. I wanted to tell the story from my perspective as I saw it and be truthful. Now that the movie is about to come out, I feel a crazy amount of pressure. I equate it to like when you buy a house. I was totally cool when I was searching for a house, and even when I bought it and signed on the dotted line. It was the night that I moved in when I woke up in a panic attack.
“The pressure of being a woman in this role, with this genre of a movie… I just feel this extra desire for it to do well. I want it to help move the needle.”
I did this on Sunday night. It was Easter, and we had this wonderful beautiful day with my family, and I went to bed all totally fine. And then I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating in a full-on panic attack. I woke my husband up and I was like, The movie’s coming out! Like, it’s actually coming out!”
There are no more fun test screenings with my friends and family. The previews are over. Now I feel this incredible pressure for the movie to do well. And I really hope that it does. And honestly, less for myself—I’ll get another writing job, you know. I can do other things. I’ve had failures before! But the pressure of being a woman in this role, with this genre of a movie… I just feel this extra desire for it to do well. I want it to help move the needle.
I want to talk about one of my favorite sequences—and, I think, one of the most surprising moments—in the movie: When Gary Cole and Gina Gershon’s characters are roaming around their house, completely naked and blindfolded. First of all, for a teen sex comedy, it’s shocking that the two nude scenes featured middle-aged actors. It’s another moment of comic empowerment.
I’ve got to tell you: Gary and Gina were such champs; they were so game, there were no egos. They were committed to making that scene as funny as possible. They weren’t worried about anything and they trusted me. And I really appreciate their trust in me.
We shot that scene throughout the night; we started at five and didn’t end until eight in the morning. And they’re just walking around, doing their thing. I remember we were all loopy by the morning, just trying to get as much as we could. The camera wasn’t even on them, and they were at 100 percent, giving it their all. You know, like, “Oh yeah, you want me to do what to your what?”
If you get the chance to watch the movie again alone at home, you should listen to what they’re saying to each other. It’s really funny.
Another revolutionary thing I noticed about Blockers: The boys barely interact with each other except to talk about the girls, their prom dates. It passes what might be an Anti-Bechdel Test. Was that on purpose, or an accident?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I did shoot some stuff with them, and there was some stuff on the page that I ended up cutting because that’s not what the story was. I already had so many story lines between the parents to each other, the kids to each other, the parents to each kid, and then the kids to their dates. To spend any time with the guys would have felt like I wasn’t on story; there just wasn’t enough room in the movie for that.
If it had been more like American Pie, where it was all about the kids, there would definitely have been scenes with the guys just talking to each other. So it does pass the Anti-Bechdel Test. And I think that’s okay!
We’ve talked a lot about the teenagers in the movie, but it’s also about these parents dealing with the scary truth of their kids’ growing up and moving on with out them. What did you bring in as a parent, and which of the parents do you think you most resemble?
It was really important to me that we have every single different angle on this topic of young women and their sexuality. There’s an important scene with two mothers of two of the daughters in question having two completely different points of view on the topic. I just feel like that’s the struggle with moms. That struggle is real: You want your daughter to be independent, free-thinking, and treated equally in this society, right? And then there’s a part of you that’s like, Boy, a lot of bad things can happen. As a parent, that’s a dilemma I feel like I will face.
In terms of who I’m most like, I feel like I’m like the cool, fun mom. I say that about myself, I have other people tell me that. But my daughter is still really young. We do have this incredible bond that I feel is a lot like the Lisa and Julie, even though I’m married and have friends and a life outside of my daughter. [Laughs]
But I have to watch myself because I do have a Mitchell-like tendency. I was raised an athlete and was very disciplined, and I have high expectations for my kid. I need to check that a little bit; I can’t have her smelling how much I want her to be an athlete—like, I’ve had her in soccer since she was a year-and-a-half. Maybe I need to take it down a notch?
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.