Pitch Perfect 2: Making the Sequel with Woman Director Banks

In 2012, when producing partners and husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman joined with Gold Circle Films’ Paul Brooks to bring Pitch Perfect to the screen, they had no idea that the funny, eccentric and formerly internal world of college a cappella would ignite such audience fervor.

From the infectious music, quotable lines and endless sass, fans grew obsessed with the sleeper hit that became a cultural touchstone.  In fact, it grew to such popularity that the comedy’s album became the top-selling soundtrack of 2013 and the second-highest soundtrack of the decade.

Brooks, a seasoned producer who has experienced the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was particularly surprised by his new hit: “What was intriguing about Pitch Perfect was that, even though it did well theatrically, it was discovered in a big way in the world of DVD and VOD.  It was an extraordinary performer, and people and families across all age ranges found it.”  Some of the biggest fans were ones no one would have expected.  “We had a rep from one of the aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy send us an e-mail letting us know that all their guys watch it all the time.  From those guys to big sports teams, wherever you turned, people fell in love with the movie.  This was incredibly gratifying, but of course, it does also deliver a bit of a nice burden in terms of where to go when we decided to do the sequel.”

Elizabeth Banks reflects on what drew her to the project and why she cared so much about the original directed by Jason Moore and written by Kay Cannon: “First of all, I loved that it’s a story about amazing, interesting women who are really funny.  It’s an underdog story, which I always find compelling, and most importantly, it’s very joyful.”

After the success of the first movie, questions and discussions about a sequel were, of course, logical ones.  Banks relays that she felt there were many more stories to be told from this world: “Pitch Perfect 2 allows us to spend more time with characters that people love, and it allows us to tell more about who they are.  It was fun to go back and think about where the Bellas would be three years later and share what has happened to these women since we saw them last.  The first movie was about their coming together and being freshmen and forming these bonds, and this film is about them graduating, leaving the nest and the anxiety that goes along with that.  We wanted to explore the idea of legacy: the friends you take with you and also the people that you leave behind.  The girls are graduating from Barden Bellas to Bellas for life.”

When it came time for the next chapter, Banks opted to step behind the camera and direct.  That wasn’t, however, always a given.  She offers: “I produced the first film, and I was there every day.  When we were putting together the second movie, we very much hoped that Jason would come on to direct as well.  In the lengthy development process, however, he took on another film [Universal’s Sisters].”

A multi-hyphenate herself, Banks had been directing smaller projects over the past few years, but she knew that when the opportunity came up to helm a feature-length motion picture, she would be ready.  The filmmaker says: “I’m also an actor so I haven’t always had the time in my schedule to direct a feature, but I knew I was going to be making the time to do Pitch Perfect 2 as a producer, no matter what.  It just seemed the natural progression to take on the directing duties as well.”

With such an enormous previous hit on their hands, Handelman was very aware of the challenges that they would face when creating another chapter in the lives of our heroines.  He reflects: “The Bellas work best, and fans respond best to them, when they are underdogs who are fighting against something and fighting for each other.  The fundamental challenge of Pitch Perfect 2 is that when we last saw the Bellas, they were winning the national championship.  They gave that phenomenal performance at the finals, so we needed to find a way to make them underdogs again…despite the fact that everyone now knows that they’re extremely talented.  We felt like we had to rip that Band-Aid off right away to start Pitch Perfect 2, which we do by having them disgrace themselves in front of the president.  They become a national disgrace.”

The producers worked with returning screenwriter Cannon to open up the Bellas’ world.  Leaving the comforts of Barden University behind, they would head to Copenhagen, Denmark, to face off against the toughest rivals they’ve ever encountered.  Banks explains this logic: “I wanted a world competition in which the Bellas would go up against a European competitor.  I also knew we wanted it to be their senior year and introduce a couple of new Bellas.  We discussed having Beca be the first one who had her foot out the door, ready to start the next chapter of her life but struggling with the responsibilities of the Bellas.  Then, visually, I wanted it to improve upon everything that we’ve accomplished—as well as have the girls looking gorgeous, which they do.  The Bellas are more confident than ever, and I wanted the look of the film to reflect that.”

For Cannon, writing comedy is not just a labor of love, it’s a lengthy commitment.  She gives us an example of a pivotal scene from her script: “Screenwriting is a real process.  For example, I knew that I wanted the Bellas to go on a retreat in the wilderness.  Then I wrote to what’s available.  In the process, you research what happens at these retreats, and you write toward that and ask yourself what else you can add.  When we were on set, along with the actors, we went through a scene and improvised off of that.  It kept evolving and forming as they responded to their environment.  For example, at the retreat, they act like they don’t like going through the mud, but that was one of the actresses’ favorite things that they’ve ever done.”