Ending on a Strong Note: Director Trish Sie on The Final Installment of the ‘Pitch Perfect’ Franchise
A former ballroom dancer and choreographer, Trish Sie rose to prominence choreographing and directing the 2006 viral music video “Here It Goes Again” by rock band OK Go, which featured the four band members performing an elaborate dance routine on treadmills in a single take. She later transitioned to film, making her feature debut directing 2014’s Step Up All In.
2012’s original Pitch Perfect, a comedy starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson as singers in a college a cappella group, was an unlikely sleeper hit, earning $65 million off a $17 million budget. It also produced the highest selling soundtrack of the year, led by hit track “Cups (When I’m Gone),” which reached #6 on the Billboard charts. But it was really the 2015 sequel that made the series a bona fide phenomenon, earning $184 million and becoming the highest grossing live-action comedy of the entire year.
In this final chapter, Pitch Perfect 3, the Barden Bellas have mostly graduated from college, and the group has seemingly disbanded. But after they largely fail to launch during early forays into “the real world,” they reunite one last time for an overseas USO tour, developing a fierce rivalry with an all-female pop group competitor.
Sie spoke with Boxoffice ahead of the film’s release, discussing the differences between her former role as a dancer/choreographer and her current role as a director, and why she didn’t join an a cappella group in college.
Were you ever part of an a cappella group yourself?
There was a really big, lively, deeply intense a cappella scene at my college [University of Pennsylvania]. I majored in music, so while I was not an a cappella singer myself, I had a lot of friends who were in that scene. I went to a lot of the shows. I kind of had a secret wish to be one, but I was just never a good enough singer. Also I was a dancer and in a dance company, so I didn’t have the spare time.
But I probably would have dropped everything to be in an a cappella group, if I thought I could pull that off. The audition process was actually pretty rugged, as I recall. Even though it doesn’t really matter, they act like it matters. It was cutthroat.
You spent a decade as a professional dancer, ballroom competitor, and choreographer before transitioning to film. What are the biggest differences between film and those professions? And what might surprise people to learn is the same?
There are way more similarities than differences, frankly—which is probably the case in any two creative fields. But there are plenty of differences. The biggest difference is that dance is so temporal. Yes, it gets captured on film, or notated and put into repertory. But really, dance is an art form in that moment, in a certain space and time, whether you’re performing it or watching it. When it’s over, there’s no way to really fully recapture it. Filming it isn’t the same. Especially the kind of dance I did, which was very much live performance-based dancing. It really shocks when I look at it on tape, how flat and slow and literally two-dimensional it all seems.
My dance partners and I would tape stuff in order to remember our choreography or break down why we’d lost or won in a competition, and I was always so astounded by what worked or didn’t work on camera. It taught me a lot about how to shoot people [on camera]. And how to create an illusion that might look and feel very different than what it felt like in the room, but is creating the feeling you want people to have.
Where do the similarities come in? There is a certain amount of naturalness or genuineness in a person’s performance, the environment, or in a scene that you can’t fake. Learning how to find that while you’re in the room shooting, so it feels like a live dance performance. You know, we are going to have to edit it, use different takes, cut this differently, use a wide shot to establish the room. You have to think in all those technical terms.
But at the end of the day, you want to do the scene like a live dance performance. A real thing is happening; it’s not all smoke and mirrors. You have to create an environment where it isn’t just fake, it isn’t just illusions. It’s actually a real thing on some level that people are seeing and experiencing. It’s a magical thing, trying to create the illusion so people in their seats don’t feel like they’re looking at pixels on a screen. They feel like they’re there.
The three Pitch Perfect films have had three different directors. Jason Moore helmed the first, Elizabeth Banks helmed the second. Did either of them give you advice about directing this movie?
Yeah, they were both really good allies for me during this process. They were both very respectful: “This is your movie. This isn’t mine. It’s a franchise we all love and have worked hard on this, but this is your movie, so go do your thing.” They were very cool that way. They were also both very much there for me if I had questions—and I did. They both gave me a lot of good advice.
I think that Jason’s best advice was when he said, “Don’t give away all your chips. Keep your vision strong, keep your mind on the task at hand. There are so many other brains in this project. They’re going to give you so much good fodder. Just stay the course. Don’t let anybody take it from you.” He didn’t mean it in a negative way. He just said it’s going to be hard to steer this giant ship, so it’s really important that you keep your head.
That was really good advice, because it is hard to steer a giant ship like that. At the end of the day, on a movie like this, the most important thing is that it has a really strong perspective, viewpoint, and voice. His words would ring in my ear when it was like, Okay, what do I do? How do I tell this wonderful person that I’m not going to take their idea? When things like that would happen, I would just remember his voice. It was really helpful.
Liz [Banks] was around a lot during the development of the script. [Banks was originally announced as the director in October 2015, but exited on June 2016.] She was just really good at reminding me to keep it simple. She’s a very no-nonsense person.
You’re telling me the person who played Effie Trinket in the The Hunger Games told you to keep it simple?
Isn’t that amazing? [Laughs.] She could not be more different than Effie in real life. She’s a very down-to-earth and very no-nonsense person. She thinks really fast, she can’t stand a bunch of gobbledygook. So when things would get complicated, she’s like, “Cut it out.” She’s great that way.
Who decides which songs are sung in the film? How much of that is you, versus the screenwriter, versus somebody else?
It’s very much a collaborative situation. We have a really strong music department at Universal, and they obviously have a lot of ideas and a lot of say in it. The actors actually bring us a lot of musical ideas, because they know their own voices really well, what they’ll sound good singing, what they connect to. The producers have ideas. The music supervisors have ideas. The screenplay writers have ideas. So there are a lot of different people.
It was my job to curate all the ideas and make the short list. Sometimes my top choice wouldn’t get chosen, because the studio for whatever reason feels like that’s not the right choice. Sometimes the rights aren’t available for the song you want. So I couldn’t always get my first choice, but I would listen to everybody’s ideas. We would have a ton of meetings and listening parties, where we’d sit around a table and just start playing songs. “Listen to this from Howard Jones. Listen to this new Sia song.” We would all just throw stuff out from our Spotify playlists. It was a big brainstorming session.
What’s your best Anna Kendrick story?
She’s pretty great. Pretty funny, very dry-witted, very smart. One time we were out to dinner, it was just me and Anna and the writer [Kay Cannon]. We went to this weird little vegan restaurant that nobody had heard of in Atlanta, where we were shooting. The waiter was super normal, we ordered a bunch of food, it was really good.
But right at the end of the meal, he was like, “This isn’t for me, but it’s my uncle’s restaurant and he really wants a picture with you.” She’s like, “Sure!” She’s so nice, she just dropped everything to take a picture with the guy. Sure enough, the uncle comes out. She just stood there for probably like 10 minutes taking selfies with these two dudes. I feel like [fans] in LA don’t do that because they’re all so jaded and they know that you don’t do that, but we were in Atlanta. I just thought it was super sweet of her to do that.
Then we go out to our cars and the guy came running out because I had left my Pitch Perfect 3 script on the table. Instead of selling it on eBay with all my weird scribbled notes, he brought it out to me.
AT THE MOVIES
What’s your favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
When I was like seven, I went to see [1980’s] How To Beat the High Cost of Living in a drive-in movie theater with my parents in rural western Maryland. You know, there were very few drive-in movie theaters even at that time. But we were in the middle of truly nowheresville. I don’t think my parents knew much about the movie. They just took me because it seemed like a cool thing to go to the drive-in.
What I remember is at the end, the women get up onstage and rip their tops off. I just remember as a pre-adolescent child, being so incredibly pumped up. I was like, “Holy shit. You can have women rip their tops off?” I just found it the most eye-opening thing I had ever seen in my life.
What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
I can’t think of the name. Not the Whoppers, it’s the caramel ones with chocolate that are chewy … Milk Duds!