Director Kay Cannon Talks ‘Blockers,’ Advice From Tina Fey and Elizabeth Banks (Exclusive)

Kay Cannon
Mike Pont/WireImage

The writer behind the “Pitch Perfect” franchise steps behind the camera with “Blockers,” becoming the sixth female director to helm an R-rated studio comedy.

To many, Kay Cannon is probably known as the writer behind the Pitch Perfect franchise, or as the Emmy-nominated producer of 30 Rock and New Girl, or as the creator of Netflix's Girlboss. Now, Cannon is adding director to her list of titles with the raunchy R-rated comedy Blockers, about three parents trying to stop their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night, in theaters on April 6.

Of course, taking on the challenge of directing is a big step -- even for a comedy goddess like Cannon -- so it should come as no surprise that she turned to fellow female filmmakers and friends, Tina Fey and Elizabeth Banks and others, for advice about her debut.

“When I was hired by Tina for 30 Rock, I had talked to her about my frustration with writing. And she bought me a book [called] Bird by Bird," Cannon told ET, explaining that the concept is to approach a script one line at a time. “You take one joke at a time and just go ‘bird by bird.’” Soon, this became Cannon’s mantra and secret to her success, which she relied on onset of Blockers.

“I don’t think of the whole long day, I think of where I am now,” she continued. “[I think], How is this going? Let me work on this, and then I move onto the next one. I found myself repeating ‘bird by bird’ often.”

Leading up to directing Blockers, Cannon called on many of the directors she previously worked with and shadowed all the directors she could. “Just take in any nugget of information you can,” she said, highlighting this advice she got over lunch from Banks, who recently transitioned from acting to directing and producing: “Know things will be hard.”

“I learn a lot from Liz just by watching her in action, because I think she more walks the walk. If there’s an obstacle, she’s like, ‘OK, whatever,’ and she moves on,” Cannon said. “She’s really strong and so I tried to think of it that way, too. Just be strong, be tough; just go.”

With Blockers, Cannon is joining a small number of female directors working on a big-budget studio production -- including Banks, who made over $287 million worldwide directing Pitch Perfect 2. Cannon is one of an even smaller group -- only six, including Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Tamra Davis (Half Baked), Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated), Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Lucia Aniello (Rough Night) -- who helmed an R-rated studio comedy. Actually, Cannon is the only female director whose movie is an R-rated studio comedy about a trio of teenage girls urgent to lose their virginity, while audiences have watched for decades as guys celebrate the first time they have sex in films, like American Pie, Porky's and The 40-Year Old Virgin.

“I’m shocked that [a female, coming-of-age story] hasn't already been told. I feel like it's about time,” Cannon said, citing John Hughes classics -- The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty in Pink -- as some of her favorites from her own teenage years. Cannon said that she was attracted to Blockers because it "wasn't a typical high-school sex movie" and confronted that sexual double-standard audiences have seen in movies through the years. “We’re seeing young women have agency over their own bodies and making their own choices and being really funny ... I think it should have happened a long time ago, but I'm happy to be the one to do it, that's for sure.”

In fact, Blockers initially wasn't quite as progressive as it ended up in the final cut -- at least, not totally. While the movie always centered around three teen girls, the parents were all dads. Once the script changed to include a mom (now played by Leslie Mann, with John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as the other two parents), the all-male writers and producers behind the film immediately recognized the need for some female energy in the room. Cannon proved to be the missing link to making the female-driven comedy work.

“I think it's safe to say all of our careers would be over if this [movie] was directed by a man,” producer Evan Goldberg said. “And it was not just important [to have a female director], but the only thing that mattered.” Goldberg and his longtime-producing partner, actor Seth Rogen, have been behind some memorable but male-centric romps, including Superbad, the sex quest that made household names out of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They were the first to recommend Cannon for the job.

“The first time I met her was at a writers’ roundtable that we were doing for Neighbors 2 because. once again, we were a bunch of men making a movie that was heavily supposed to feature the female perspective," Rogen said, revealing they got input from women writers they knew. “With that, I remember thinking, Wow, Kay is super smart and impressive and we should work with her in a more meaningful way because she just seems incredibly talented.”

“I was kind of like the only lady in the room. It’d be like me and 12 guys," Cannon recalled about first joining Blockers. “I felt like [the movie] was written by guys and I felt what was so great about being offered to direct was that I was going to be able to come in as a writer and put my perspective into it and give more to the daughters and make it make more sense from my female perspective.”

The 43-year-old says she immediately identified with the script as both as a former teenager and as a mother to a daughter (Evelyn Rose, 4). She laughed when thinking about raising a teen, saying, “I hope to be the cool mom that she can come and tell anything she wants to. At the same time, I’ve got this little voice in the back of my head that's like, ‘Is she OK? Is she going to be all right? What's happening to her?’”

Ultimately, the director is hopeful that the movie leads to more frank discussions about sex between parents and their kids, especially fathers and daughters. But in terms of having an impact on Hollywood, Cannon hopes that directing a successful, R-rated comedy can help forward the movement for more representation for women behind the camera.

“I think that we have a long, long way to go. I think just maybe in the last six months there’s just been change coming, like, forcing the hand. Like, it just can’t be, you know, talking about it," Cannon said. "Pitch Perfect 2 made monster money and Spy and Trainwreck and 2015 was huge for female-driven comedies. Then in 2017, we should've seen the numbers [of female-driven comedies] increase, and it didn't. So, I was a little disheartened by that. I hope now, [studios] just can't have a short-term memory.”

Cannon concluded: "[Women] are good business. We do good business and they should be investing in us."

--Additional reporting by Cameron Mathison and Keltie Knight