INTERVIEW: Director Kay Cannon on ‘Blockers’

Three high school girls make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night—but their parents find out and spend the whole increasingly crazy evening attempting to stop them. That’s the premise of Universal’s R-rated comedy Blockers, out April 6. The film is directed by Kay Cannon, a first-time director best known as a screenwriter for penning such smashes as the Pitch Perfect trilogy and earning several Emmy nominations for 30 Rock. Boxoffice spoke with Cannon about the film’s resonant messages of sexual consent in the wake of the #MeToo movement and how her four-year-old daughter inspired the film’s opening sequence.

How did you come to direct this project?

Good Universe and Point Grey came to me. [The two production companies have produced such hits as Neighbors and The Disaster Artist.] They sent a draft of the script for me to read, with a direct offer to direct. I happened to be on vacation for the first time in six years. I was in Maine with my husband’s family, and I had promised not to work the entire week we were there. I got sent the script and I read it in the middle of the night on my phone in secret! I thought it was super funny and said yes right away.

I read that you wrote the Pitch Perfect 2 screenplay while on maternity leave. You seem to keep working at times when you’re supposed to be doing something else.

And I created this show called Girlboss, which was a Netflix original, and was shooting that right before I directed Blockers. In fact, there was some overlap in pre-production when I was editing the script and casting. I was actually shooting Girlboss when John Cena flew to L.A. to audition for Blockers. They flew me from San Francisco to L.A. on a Sunday, so the two of us could meet. Then I went back to finish shooting Girlboss in San Francisco. I showran a show and directed a movie in the same year, which is pretty insane. I would not recommend doing that!

What were some of the challenges of directing your first feature film? What surprised you?

The biggest thing I was worried about was being a first-time director. I didn’t end up having to worry about it, because I had a really great crew. It was challenging only in that it’s a pretty big cast. And with the topic of young women and their sexuality in a rated-R comedy, there’s a delicate balance of making sure that you’re selling the young women in the best possible light, but still being really funny and talking about it in a way that you’ve basically never heard young women talk about it on camera before. So I just wanted to make sure that I really told their stories correctly.

You’re right—American Pie, an R-rated comedy about male teenage sexuality was made a full 20 years ago, but there really hasn’t been a female equivalent. Society seems to be more accepting of teenage males than females in that respect. In Blockers, when one of the girls asks her father if his dad had tried to block him from losing his virginity, he replies, “My dad was too busy high-fiving me.”

Exactly. Making sure the script was reflective of now, you know? I think it’s a really great movie for people to see now. I know it seems like an antiquated idea to try to stop a young woman from having sex. But the truth is if you see the movie, you get every single angle or debate about this issue. It has craziness like chugging in it, but it actually has all this heart. It’s having conversations that we haven’t really had yet on camera until now. All the girls have agency over their own bodies and consent. At the end of the day, it’s really about parents letting go of their kids and kids stepping into adulthood. Sex is just one example of how you step into adulthood.

Do you have a favorite story from the set?

I think John [Cena] will say the same thing: we had a terrible time shooting the chugging scene. I was just so excited for it to be over, and yet I got the craziest case of the giggles while we were shooting it. I do a thing where if any of the writers or producers on set have a joke that they want to pitch, I have them write it on a little piece of paper. As the scene was being shot, I was kind of looking to see what jokes they wanted to throw out to the actors. It was like two in the morning and we’re shooting John’s coverage, where he is bent over with his pants down around his ankles. I just kept shouting out all these jokes to him, but he just looked so pained. I just couldn’t stop giggling. I couldn’t even get through some of the takes with him! [Laughs.]

I read that you were in your second year toward a master’s degree in education when you switched over to comedy.

Yeah. I had seen a Second City show earlier in that timeline, but in my second year of getting my master’s I started also taking classes at Second City. I did a lot of substitute teaching, just to pay the bills. I did my student teaching. So I have my teaching certificate, but I just never used it. I came as close as you can get, academically, without actually using it.

You have incorporated a lot of real incidents from your life into your projects: singing with your friends on a bus or getting hit with a burrito for Pitch Perfect, taking a fertility test for New Girl, making a list of all the qualities you wanted in a man for 30 Rock. Was there anything from your real life that made it into Blockers?

I had my husband, who’s a comedy writer, do a big rewrite on the movie. So we were able to work with each other on the script. We have this home video sequence at the beginning of the movie [watching the main characters grow up from infancy through high school], which was inspired by the fact that we look at our own kid through this lens. We watch all these home videos from when she was a baby, but she’s now four. And also just that feel of fun at prom with your girlfriends, having real true lifelong friends. I didn’t put that in there, that was already in the script, but I felt like I understood that. But nothing like getting hit by a burrito! [Laughs.]

The protagonist roles are equally split between the parents and their teenage daughters. Would you recommend any teenagers watch this with their parents, or do you think that would be too awkward?

I don’t know if it would be too awkward, actually. I think it depends on what kind of relationship you have with your parents, at the end of the day. But I think that’s a really good question, because when we tested the movie, I was excited for people to see it because there’s not a single person out there who hasn’t experienced this in some way. You’re either a parent having a hard time letting go, or you were a teenager whose parents acted like that. I think everybody has a way in for this movie. I don’t know if they should watch it together, but I am definitely hoping that they have conversations—that the laughter they feel while watching the movie might open up a conversation to talk about some of the things that maybe they’re not able to talk about so easily.

When I got the draft [of the script], it was very different than what you will now see. Once I became the director, I took it in a new way with the other writers who rewrote the movie. At the point when I got the original draft, the girls’ roles were underdeveloped. So what I injected into the script was young women having agency, giving them story arcs and really expanding their roles. It started from my point of view as director and my vision of how this movie should be. As a woman, I felt like, “These are the things that have been missing from the script.

What were some of those missing things?

Each of the young women, the daughters, has a different reason why she wants to lose her virginity. Kathryn Newton’s character [Julie] is in love and she feels like it’s time. John Cena’s daughter, played by Geraldine Viswanathan [Kayla], she is an athlete and very disciplined her whole high school career. Once her friend Julie wants to lose her virginity, she’s like, “Oh, then I’ll lose mine too. I want to get it over with before I go to college. This is the first night that I can actually party and do things.” Then the character Sam [played by Gideon Adlon] joins the pack a little bit out of peer pressure, but she’s confused about her sexuality. Over the course of the night, she discovers what her own deal is, which is this really great story. She’s afraid of what her label is, and if her friends are going to accept her or not.

Then there are lines like, “Before I have any alcohol, I want to let you know I want to have sex.” Making sure that there’s consent. It was also really important to me that the mom and the daughter have a big argument [about whether to lose her virginity]. How can society treat our daughters as equals when their own parents won’t? Why would you try to stop them? It gets a little bit political for a hot second.

Since you filmed, the issue of women consenting versus not consenting to sexual experiences has been arguably the single biggest news story in the past six months.

Totally. It was really important to me. In a way, what was so great about Point Grey and Good Universe offering me to direct this, I think they probably knew they needed a woman’s point of view, or touch, on this subject. Because I knew going in that I can’t have any of these girls drinking without them giving consent. I was acutely aware of all the rules and made sure that we were showing that on film. It just happened to correspond with what we’re all talking about now.

Jesse Rifkin

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