By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Audiences may know Elizabeth Banks as the color-coordinated and well-coifed chaperone Effie Trinket in “The Hunger Games” films or as Jack Donaghy’s peripatetic wife on the sitcom “30 Rock.” Having directed a few short films and a segment of the 2013 comedy “Movie 43,” the blond beauty is now tackling her first feature length film with the musical comedy sequel “Pitch Perfect 2.” She also reprises her role as Gail, the snarky announcer that she played in the 2012 original film.
With her husband Max Handelman onboard as a producer, it’s a true family affair. Taking over the reins from Jason Moore, who directed the “Glee”-like music-comedy about a group of underdog a capella singers who manage to overcome the odds and become the champs, Banks had the challenge of taking the successful franchise to the next level.
Returning to reprise their roles are Anna Kendrick (“Into the Woods”) as Beca, Rebel Wilson (“Bridesmaids”) as Fat Amy, Brittany Snow as Chloe, Anna Camp as Aubrey and Alexis Knapp as Stacie. Having won the national a capella championship three times, the Barden (College) Bellas now have to face off against even stiffer competition from around the world, including Germany’s renowned Das Sound Machine. Fat Amy’s embarrassing accident while the group is performing in front of the First Family tarnishes the team and complicates their road to victory.
Joining the Barden squad is Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit,” “Romeo & Juliet”), following in her mom’s (Katey Sagal) footsteps in the vocal group. Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorenson (“Game of Thrones”) plays the imperious leader of the rival German singing group.
Directing a musical comedy is no small feat for even a seasoned filmmaker, but Banks, whom her husband calls “a born leader,” rose to the task. Challenged with a tight schedule—44 days—shooting in Baton Rouge, La., during hurricane season, Banks directed her cast and crew to a worthy encore to original hit film.
The Massachusetts native recently spoke about making her directorial debut, juggling an ensemble cast and picking an assortment of music that ranges from Snoop Dogg singing a Christmas duet with Kendrick, to a Riff Off that includes an a capella squad composed of actual Green Bay Packers players.
Q: You’ve got some great cameos in this including Snoop Dogg, the Green Bay Packers and Robin Roberts. How did you attract these famous artists?
Banks: It helps if you have a beloved first film. It also really helps if somebody has a child that really likes said film and they want to impress their kid.
Q: So this will make Snoop Dogg cool with this daughter?
Banks: Yeah. And he’s Snoop Dogg. None of us are cool to our children.
Q: Did your producer Paul Brooks, whom you met on the set of “Slither” in 2006, offer you other films to direct?
Banks: Yeah, he is a huge supporter of me.
Q: Are you a good boss on set?
Banks: I went to set every day with a true attitude of gratitude. I really was grateful for the work of the crew and the cast for making the vision I had for the movie come true. Even (Paul and producer Max Handelman, her husband), who are my partners in crime, and fought me on certain things like the outdoor music festival—they were afraid that it was going to rain—but I said, “I think it’s really going to look cool.” (She laughs.) Luckily, they dealt with how many porta-potties there were going to be because that was not on my to-do list that day.
I also tried to lead by example. I was serious about the work but I also left a lot of room for play. We are pretending for a living so we should have a sense of playfulness about it.
Q: Paul calls you incredibly opinionated…
Banks: …but collaborative. Their concern about the weather was valid. It was hurricane season when we shot the film in Baton Rouge (La.). We prayed every day that it wouldn’t rain while we were shooting the outdoor music festival. In the end, I just have this optimism every day that it’s going to work out. It had to. We only had 44 days to make the movie and we had to put something in the can.
Q: What was the process in getting the music rights? Was it easier this time around?
Banks: No, it was complicated.
Q: Can you talk about mixing classic pop songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” with more contemporary music including “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Bootylicious?”
Banks: It was all really deliberate. Music is sort of a universal language and not everybody knows Miley Cyrus so we really wanted to feature as many genres and fun songs, classics, sing-a-long type songs that we could have in the movie. One of the themes of the film is “legacy,” the girls are joining a long legacy of singing. So, thematically, it made sense to put in classics and also to speak to the future with our original song.
Q: How many musical numbers ended up on the cutting room floor?
Banks: If we shot a musical number, it’s in the movie. Those were the big days. In fact, we added a musical number in the tent sequence. That was an improv by Brittany Snow. That song (“Torn,” by Natalie Imbruglia), we loved it so much that we had to buy it. We had to pay for that moment. (She laughs.) We had to go and get it. Easily. And there’s an extra song on the DVD that I’m not revealing yet.
Q: How was it casting someone like Hailee Steinfeld with this established group of singers?
Banks: First, she’s a great singer, so that part was easy. She was 17 years old when she joined our cast. We were looking for the perfect little sister, and her journey as an actress perfectly matched her journey as a person. She came into a situation where the relationships were established. The group had these amazing bonds of making the first film. And she was the new girl. I kept telling her, “Just lean into that.” The group loved her. I don’t think you could find a person that worked on our movie that doesn’t just absolutely adore Hailee Steinfeld. She brought the perfect amount of charm and energy into the group and really served that little sister role perfectly. I’m sure the girls took her out on adventures that her mother would not approve of.
Q: Would you be interested in directing a Fat Amy spinoff?
Banks: We don’t know what the future holds. We’re really focused on putting out “Pitch Perfect 2.” What we found for this film was that it was really important to us to find a story that felt very organic and authentic to this group of women, and to the world that we created in the first film, and really build on that story and the relationships that we established in that movie. So we want to put this movie out and let fans embrace it and then see what the future holds. Our goal is to have those intentions in mind: to make it authentic and organic.
Q: What challenged you and what did you find joyful on this? What surprised you?
Banks: We had a lot of joy; so much joy. What surprised me? The craft service was amazing. It was the best we ever had. (The caterer) baked fresh bread every day, and served it with berry compote. It was pretty ridiculous.
Q: How was it wrangling 3,000 extras during the outdoor music festival?
Banks: They were great. And they stayed all night until 5 a.m. Their energy really sustained the girls, the performers, because it was the fifth night (of shooting the concert sequence) and they’d been shooting non-stop. They were sweaty and tired and then they got out in front of 3,000 people and they just felt the love and gave it their all.
Q: How was it directing the Green Bay Packers a capella group?
Banks: The male crew really loved that.
Q: And the female crew?
Banks: Oh, we loved it. That’s a given. The people from Europe were like, “They had a group that had a guy that looked like the henchman from ‘Die Hard.’”
Q: Comedy Central’s Keegan-Michael Key plays a music producer that Anna’s character is interning for, but he never can remember her name. How was it directing him in a film?
Banks: I’d met him before and I just knew that he would be right for that role. We have a music producer Harvey Mason Jr. who Keegan-Michael is modeled after. The thing about him is that prior to filming, we had a phone conversation about what he was going to do. And then, on the day of (shooting), we had this actor Shawn Carter Peterson, who plays Dax—I don’t think he originally had any lines—but the two of them were hanging out together between takes, and they just started to riff. That really helped. Max gave a great note to Keegan-Michael about being exasperated with Anna. I told him, “She’s like some little girl; you don’t even know her name. She’s like please, look over here.” Once I said that, that whole bit that he goes into, “What’s your name? Reggie?” It was sort of in finding Reggie that he found the whole character.
Q: Was an offer made to Manny Pacquiao to perform with the Filipino a capella group The Filharmonic?
Banks: You know he sings, right? He’s a very fun, fantastic singer. There’s the main reason to make “Pitch Perfect 3” right there.