After producing the surprise smash original — and playing more than 70 different characters — the star of ‘Hunger Games’ now hungers for something else: a place among Hollywood’s most exclusive club — female directors. Says Banks: “This is the test. And I like to get A’s.”
The cast and crew of Pitch Perfect 2 are waiting to shoot a musical sequence in which Anna Kendrick and the rapper (once again) known as Snoop Dogg sing a Christmas duet. Except it’s July. And it’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it’s 93 degrees. Kendrick’s makeup is melting off her face. Dogg is practically panting. A crewmember gives the ancient air-conditioner unit a whack, but it just keeps sputtering warm air.
Then, like an arctic breeze, in swoops the film’s director, Elizabeth Banks. In skin-tight black jeans and a white tank top covered in little black lightning bolts, she zooms around the set as if on skates. One moment she’s zipping over to the video monitors, the next — whoosh! — she’s consulting with her actors. “We’re on a tight schedule, people!” she announces as she finally settles into a director’s chair and gets ready to shoot. “Let’s get through this thing!”
Yes, it’s that Elizabeth Banks: The charmingly goofy actress who played Steve Carell’s freaky date in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, who guest-starred as Alec Baldwin’s prickly girlfriend for three seasons on 30 Rock, who plays the pink-haired handler in The Hunger Games as well as the smart-mouthed a cappella judge in both the original Pitch Perfect and this sequel and who has appeared in roles big and small in dozens of other films and TV shows over the past 15 years (Wet Hot American Summer, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3 …) now is a director.
Lots of actors become directors — but almost exclusively they’ve got Y chromosomes. The number of still-acting female stars who have successfully made the jump to the other side of the camera can be counted on one hand (actually, two fingers: Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie, but many continue to try). And to find an actress who has directed a big studio comedy, you have to go all the way back to Betty Thomas and Penny Marshall. Even for female directors who do not moonlight as actresses, Hollywood can seem like a cold, inhospitable place — just ask Michelle MacLaren, who in April was fired from Wonder Woman over unspecified “creative differences” and replaced by Patty Jenkins, who herself was fired from Thor 2.
But here on this set, as Banks rapidly shoots take after take, high-fiving with Snoop Dogg and trading jokes with his eight-man entourage, she doesn’t seem all that bothered — not outwardly, anyway — when asked about how heavily the odds are stacked against her or against any woman trying to become a director in Hollywood. “The list of women who get to make studio-level films is very short,” she acknowledges. “And I’m not quite in that club yet. Until this movie comes out, then we’ll see. This shoot is the test. I like to get A’s.”
The first Pitch Perfect was the surprise hit of 2012 — an irreverent, girl-powered comedy that followed the exploits of a quirky group of college a cappella singers called the “Barden Bellas.” Directed by Jason Moore, a Broadway theater vet (Avenue Q) who’d never made a film, and produced for a mere $17 million by Banks’ Brownstone Productions — which she runs with her husband, Max Handelman, a banker turned producer — it earned Universal $113 million worldwide at the box office. It made another $103 million in home video sales, according to The-Numbers.com, plus millions more through VOD and premium cable deals. Those numbers, of course, explain why a sequel is being made — and also why the studio’s top brass, Donna Langley and Ron Meyer, flew in on the company jet the day before Snoop and Kendrick did their Christmas tune for a very brief visit to the set (“I don’t think they powered down their engines,” jokes executive producer Scott Niemeyer).
The concept for the original film came from 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, who one day in 2007 casually had mentioned to Banks that she wanted to write a film set in the irresistibly dorky world of competitive a cappella. Banks, who’d hung out among “musical theater nerds” while attending the University of Pennsylvania (where she met Handelman), adored the idea. She found a book on the subject to option — Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin — and, together with Cannon, whipped up a treatment. “It’s classic storytelling,” she says. “It’s about underdogs. It’s essentially a sports movie, the Bad News Bears of a cappella singers.”