Elizabeth Banks' $200 Million Path to Directing 'Pitch Perfect 2'
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."
This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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).
Banks was photographed April 6 in Los Angeles.
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."
Incredibly, this wasn't the only a cappella idea kicking around Hollywood; a few other producers were peddling their own concepts. Banks and Cannon had to do a little something extra to get out ahead. So when they pitched Pitch Perfect to Universal co-president of production Peter Cramer, it was with a madcap presentation that involved harmonicas, harmonies and the two women hitting Mariah Carey-esque high notes. "We made fools of ourselves," says Cannon. "He loved it."
Recalls Cramer: "It was a little, under-the-radar, affordably budgeted movie. We didn't project that it could be a big franchise."
This type of fearlessness — and willingness to make a fool of herself — has driven Banks' career pretty much from the start. She grew up with three siblings in working-class Pittsfield, Mass., where her father, a GE worker, was pink-slipped numerous times. At one point during her childhood, when her dad was working three shifts building transformers, the only time she saw him was when her mom, a bank clerk, would pile the kids in the car and drive to the plant so that the whole family could eat dinner together in the parking lot. Her initiation into acting happened the normal way — she tried out for Jesus Christ Superstar in high school, got the part and ended up studying theater arts at Penn (graduating magna cum laude in 1996) and earning a master's at the American Conservatory Theater in 1998.
It's a nice résumé, but roles rarely go to the actor with the best diploma. What set Banks apart has more to do with attitude. "You can see the fire in Elizabeth," says director Bill Pohlad, who cast her as Brian Wilson's wife in his upcoming Beach Boy biopic Love & Mercy. "She never shrinks back. She knows what she wants and just goes for it."
In 2002, for instance, she heard that director Gary Ross was making Seabiscuit. At the time, Banks, then 28, had only a few credits to her name (including a small part in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can). But she desperately wanted the female lead in the adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller. Horse racing had been a passion of hers since childhood, when her dad would take her to the track. "She came in, auditioned, and I liked her very much," recalls Ross, who initially was leaning toward a more recognizable name. But Banks turned all her powers of persuasion onto the director. "She sent me a letter," he says. "She explained that she grew up around the racetrack, that it was part of her life."
She ended up with the part. Eight years later, when she heard Ross would be directing the first Hunger Games film, she wrote to him again. "She wrote, 'I really want to play Effie — I really think I can do this,' " he remembers. At that point, the director was uncertain about whom he wanted to hire, but he invited Banks to a meeting. After 20 minutes of polite conversation, Banks all but intimidated Ross into giving her the role. "She gave me this look, like, 'Dude, are we going to dance here or are you giving me this part?' "
Says Banks: "Some big actresses told me a few things that inspired me. One said that the biggest challenge for a female actress was to make sure they are not profoundly bored. Another told me to just do whatever you want — do anything. And another told me that her quote hadn't changed in 15 years. That really lit a fire under my ass."
Throughout her 30s, Banks approached acting as a volume business — she's taken on 70 roles so far, a big number even for actors twice her age, though not all of them were fantastic career moves (Fred Claus, Walk of Shame). But around 10 years ago, while shooting The 40-Year-Old Virgin, she started thinking about a second career behind the camera. She studied Judd Apatow as he worked on the set, a habit that she carried over to other films and other directors: Oliver Stone on the set of W. (she played Laura Bush) and Paul Haggis on The Next Three Days (she played the wife Russell Crowe breaks out of prison). "I don't stay in my trailer," says Banks. "I like to sit in video village, probably to the annoyance of some producers and directors, because they really love to talk about actors and they can't in front of me."
"When you’re shooting a movie, it’s a 12-hour day," says Banks. "You don’t have time to think about anything else. I love that. It’s my dirty little secret because it’s the greatest excuse not to live the rest of your life."
In a way, Banks was merely being pragmatic. She knows as well as anyone how difficult life in Hollywood can be for actresses once they reach a certain age (she turned 41 in February). "There was a group of us girls coming up," she says. "A lot of us are surviving. Some of us are not. I used to go to auditions with Tara Reid. So, you know, we didn't all make it. We're not all still here." But she quickly adds, "I do love Sharknado," which stars Reid.
Apatow, for one, says he wasn't "the least bit surprised" when Banks made the move into producing and directing. "She has a great eye for material and understands all aspects of production," he says. "It's great when somebody decides to grab the reins like that."
"Grab" is the right word. In Hollywood, nobody ever gets handed anything, especially if you're a woman. A just-released three-year study by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film (the research was authored by Dr. Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg's School for Communication & Journalism) revealed how much bias remains against female directors in Hollywood. It found that nearly half the industry workers surveyed still believed that female-directed movies appeal to a smaller audience than films directed by men. It also found that female directors were far more likely to find work in independent productions than mainstream studio pictures. Twelve percent said women "can't handle" commanding a large crew, and 25 percent cited lack of ambition as the reason so few women get hired as directors. These attitudes are a particular problem for Banks, who has no interest in the type of movie that's typically available to female directors. She doesn't want to make indies or female-targeted melodrama — she rolls her eyes at the suggestion of shooting Universal's Fifty Shades of Grey sequel. "I like entertaining people," she says. "I want to make big entertainment."
Banks got her first directing experience the customary way — by doing shorts. First, she did a chapter of Movie 43, the Farrelly brothers' 2013 anthology comedy (it bombed, but that's another story). Next she directed a comical PSA for the American Heart Association, casting herself as a mom so busy tending to her family she doesn't realize she's having a heart attack.
Meanwhile, her career as a producer was chugging along on its own track. By early 2013, Universal was getting serious about a Pitch Perfect sequel. Banks and her producing partner husband met with Cannon and Moore, the director and a producer on the second film, and started outlining ideas for a follow-up. They came up with a script that reunited the original characters (Kendrick as Beca, Skylar Astin as her boyfriend Jesse, Rebel Wilson as the crude Fat Amy) and added a few new twists (Hailee Steinfeld plays a new recruit, the Green Bay Packers make a cameo). But then, before Universal gave a final green light, Moore got an offer to direct another Universal project, the Amy Poehler-Tina Fey comedy Sisters. Suddenly, Pitch Perfect 2 needed a new hand at the helm.
It was not going to be an easy job; the film contains 30 musical sequences, including one huge outdoor concert filled with thousands of extras. But Banks had one big advantage over the other names the studio was considering as possible directors: She was the film's producer. Recalls Cramer: "We had other thoughts, but then Donna said, 'Why don't we just have Liz do it? She's great, she knows the franchise, we know she's capable of everything she sets her mind to.' " Two months later, Banks and Handelman and their two sons — Felix, 4, and Magnus, 2 — were headed to Baton Rouge for a five-and-a-half-month production. Right smack in the middle of Louisiana's famously suffocating summer.
"I went through no hoops for this particular job," says Banks later in the afternoon, as the temperatures cool down to the high 80s. "I just put myself right at the spot where someone needed to be to get the job. And I prepared. I knew I wanted to direct, so I met DPs, I ran sets, I chose music. I went through the process of directing in little ways — nothing too big or risky or time-consuming. I just started really observing."
Banks hardly has given up on acting. In fact, she's working in front of the camera more than ever: In 2015 alone, she'll appear in Pitch Perfect 2, Magic Mike XXL, the final Hunger Games installment, a Netflix series based on Wet Hot American Summer and Love & Mercy. There's also a good chance she'll be reprising her voice role as Batman's long-suffering girlfriend Wyldstyle in one or more of the upcoming Lego Movie spinoffs and sequel. At the moment, however, she's focused on Kendrick and Snoop Dogg ("Fo' shizzle, dizzle," the rapper tells her when he's ready for a close-up) and finishing their Christmas-in-July duet in Louisiana.
"Yeah," she says, smiling. "I got a lot of balls in the air at all times. But my mantra every day on this set is just one word: Endure."