Kay Cannon, a performer, screenwriter, producer and three-time Emmy nominee, had never directed anything before “Blockers,” an R-rated teen sex comedy that Universal Pictures is releasing wide Friday.
She’d written and produced for “30 Rock” and “New Girl,” written the scripts for the enormously successful “Pitch Perfect” films and created the Netflix series “Girlboss.” But directing was not yet on her résumé, and it came as a surprise when executives at Good Universe and Point Grey, the production companies behind the “Neighbors” films, hand-picked her to breathe some life into a stalled project about three teenage girls who decide to lose their virginity on prom night and the parents who try to stop them.
“I never had an issue being the head of a team, or a team captain or in charge or the boss,” Cannon, 43, said recently, but she still worried about her credentials. She hadn’t gone to film school and wondered if she was even qualified to do it.
But she got over that and took on the challenge of directing a major studio comedy. She was hired, as she likes to say now, “off of potential.”
It helped, of course, that Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley and production president Peter Cramer knew Cannon already from the “Pitch Perfect” films, which helped convince them that she was up to the task.
“We knew that she had a strong point of view and we knew that she had some real experience in studio filmmaking,” Cramer said. “Kay was always an integral part of the filmmaking process beyond just being a writer. She wanted to be on set, she knew the actors, she knew how to talk to the actors, and she knew how to work with the studio. … At some point with directing you’ve got to just do it, you’ve got to jump into the deep end of the pool. There isn’t any sort of set path to how someone gets to be a director.”
And without Cannon, the film might never have been made. She took the script, which had only been worked on by male writers and executives when she signed on, and infused it with a more modern, sex-positive and feminist spirit. The teenage girls, she said, were at one point indistinguishable. Cannon turned them all into distinct characters, one of whom is even questioning her sexuality. And the main parents who go on this crazy mission to stop their daughters were originally all dads — now one is a mom.
The result is a surprisingly nuanced and modern look at growing up and parenting woven in a bawdy sex comedy with a fair amount of nudity and physical comedy. The parents are played by Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz and John Cena, who called Cannon “coach” on set, and the teenagers are Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon and Geraldine Viswanathan.
Reviews thus far have been strong (it’s currently at 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and the $21 million production is looking at a solid opening somewhere in the midteens after a successful and buzz-stoking debut at the SXSW Film Festival.
In an industry where women directed only 8 percent of the top 100 grossing films of 2017, Universal, which also gave Elizabeth Banks her first feature directing job in “Pitch Perfect 2,” has long championed female directors (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” ″Mamma Mia!”) and female-led comedies from “Bridesmaids” to “Trainwreck” and “Girls Trip.”
“I love that Donna is in charge,” Cannon said. “There’s just something different. Representation matters, and the fact that she is a woman and she’s at the helm and she’s Peter Cramer’s boss, I love that. She’s also ridiculously talented and tough and great at her job. It trickles down to everyone else.”
Cannon’s opportunity came because Point Grey and Good Universe actively sought her out, and she said it’s convinced her that that is what more studios should be doing. She supports the idea of inclusion riders (“It forces people to try,” she said) and is excited to get into a position where she too can be mentoring and hiring women off of potential.
“I want to remind people when they’re hiring, like Donald Glover was a diversity hire. And it’s DONALD GLOVER,” Cannon said. “I’m sure Donald would have found his way without ’30 Rock,′ but he wouldn’t have been hired at all had there not been this program set in place.”
She’s also not unfamiliar with setbacks and recently faced some harsh criticisms for “Girlboss,” about Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, which ended up not getting a second season and was criticized for having an “unlikable” and privileged lead. While Cannon is still surprised at how much of that criticism came from women, she also found a silver lining in the show’s cancellation in that she got to devote all her energy and attention to “Blockers.”
Now she is working on some other projects, some of which are too early to discuss, and writing a script for Sony too. “I feel like I’m cheating on Universal,” she said, laughing. She hopes to direct again and keep a foot in both television and film.
“She’s built a little industry unto herself,” Cramer said. “They’ve called her a triple threat: I think she’s actually a quadruple threat. She’s a producer, director, writer and an actress. There’s not a lot of that going on. … I’m sure we’ll cook some more stuff up with her in the future.”