How 'Blockers' Became a Feminist Trojan Horse

Courtesy of Universal Pictures (Still); Christopher Polk/Getty Images (Cannon)
'Blockers'; inset: Kay Cannon

Director Kay Cannon offers a spoiler-filled explanation of the thinking behind the film's most empowering moments and how a script originally called 'Cherries' became her directorial debut.

[This story contains spoilers for Universal's Blockers.]

When the script that became Blockers first landed on the Black List in 2012, it was called Cherries and followed three dads endeavoring to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night. The optics didn't exactly scream "feminist."

Six years, a title change, several rewrites and one SXSW screening later, Blockers has garnered acclaim for its empowering view of women, its attention to its teenage-girl characters, one butt-chugging scene and — perhaps surprisingly, given its premise — its sex positivity. The film has an 87 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has inspired multiple essays about its feminism and interviews in which actor and former WWE star John Cena talks about empowering young women.

Director Kay Cannon is in large part responsible for that turnaround. Coming to the script after a rewrite from producers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg that added one mom character, Cannon says she and writer Eben Russell added, among them, more specificity to the teenage girl characters, a feminist debate between moms, some sexuality confusion and one joke about soy creamer. That's not to mention the film's sex-positive tone and general attention to female friendship over male attention.

Before the film's wide release, Cannon chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about the film's journey to becoming an unexpectedly empowering raunchy prom comedy.

How did you first get involved with Blockers?

I was sent the script with an offer to direct. I read it, thought it was really funny and felt like I connected to the material, so it was a no-brainer. I got back to my agent and I said, "I definitely want to do this." That was an easy way in, in a way.

It's interesting that it was so straightforward, considering this is your directorial debut.

Nathan Kahane at Good Universe [the film production company] had been wanting to work with me for a bit, and so I had met with him a year or two earlier. And then I came in and did some work on Neighbors 2 with Point Grey [Pictures] and Good Universe. It was when I was at that writers roundtable with Neighbors 2 that they thought, “Oh, she should direct this movie.” I didn't know this until just recently. It's interesting when you take a job to do something else and then you have no idea what's in store for you.

The script was originally penned by men, but you made some changes when you were brought on, correct?

Brian and Jim Kehoe are credited with writing the script, which was a script on the Black List called Cherries. Then [Blockers producers] Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg started working on it, and it changed to being called The Pact. Originally the script had three dads instead of two dads and a mom, and so when Hayden and Jon started working on it, they changed one of the dads to a mom, the Leslie Mann character. Then when I got hired on and I came in and used my female perspective, given that I’m a lady, and infused the things that I’ve experienced and know about this thing we call life and put my mark on it.

What specific things did you have a hand in?

It was really the specificity of the [high school] girls. When I got the script, there was this imbalance where it was mostly the parents' movie. I wanted to make sure that the girls were all individuals, that they all had different wants and desires and that they weren't interchangeable. I added that Sam (Gideon Adlon) had this storyline of being confused about her sexuality and her coming out. That was something that was added later. I always like to say, and it's true, that the script was fluid. We were constantly changing the script on the day, at the rehearsal, in the moment, and constantly throwing in new jokes. What was great about the cast was that they were amenable to all these changes — they really embraced them. They could feel how the work was getting better when they made these changes. So a lot of people had a hand in making the movie as funny and hopefully as good as it can be.

There's one scene where Lisa (Lesley Mann) and Marcie (Sarayu Blue) have a feminist debate about their daughters controlling their own bodies, and they're in two different camps. Who brought that to the table?

There was a version of that scene in the script that I read, but then myself and [writer] Eben Russell worked a lot on the script, too. That scene was really important to me, and I really fought to make sure that that scene existed, and that it existed with two moms of the two daughters in question both having two completely different points of view in how they're reacting to their daughters making the pact. So I made that scene bigger and wanted to get out, I hope not in a preachy way, all the thoughts and ideas that I’ve had thinking about the double standard [of women who are supposed to be virginal and vixen-like]. And then also the idea that [Mann's character] Lisa said — "I'll worry about society tomorrow, I'm thinking about my daughter.” That's the issue, right? That's the idea of "I want to be progressive and I want her to do whatever she wants and I trust her to make the right decisions, but we live in a really dangerous world where often women are hurt, and I don't want that for her." I wanted to show that.

It’s been interesting to see people’s different takes on that scene. Some people think, "We didn't need that, we got it, it felt too preachy." Others are like, "Oh, my God, I’m so glad that scene exists, that's exactly what we've been thinking about and talking about." I'm glad the scene exists, too.

Blockers exists in the tried-and-true American high school raunchy comedy genre but also updates it. To what extent were you looking to older comedies like American Pie or Superbad to subvert or update the genre?

Well, I wanted to be as truthful as possible, and I wanted to have a movie that had scenes as ridiculous as butt-chugging and also as heartfelt as any real conversation you have with your kid. I wanted people to be moved, and to feel something.

I feel like this movie feels modern because it's coming from the female perspective, and we haven’t seen that. When the daughters are talking to each other and people are responding and saying, "Well, they sound so real, that's how they actually talk," I feel like that’s how I talked to my girlfriends in high school and that’s a long time ago. We made it modern in that we used technology in the way that teens use it now, but the actual core of the messaging in the movie, that is something that hasn’t been talked about or shown, really, in this way, and that's what makes it feel like more of a modern movie.

Any changes of yours that did not make it into the final product?

No, and I really credit Universal and all the producers that they were so supportive and great, there wasn’t any fight that I lost. Even down to a joke in the movie — well, I think it's a joke, but it's arguable if it's a joke or not — in that scene where, at the beginning, Ike Barinholtz is sipping his cup of coffee, and he goes, "Is this soy creamer? It's pretty rich." And it doesn't get a huge laugh, but I think it's the funniest thing in the world. We sent it to Universal and the producers were like, "You could just cut it," I was like, “No.” I was like, "You gotta give me this, you gotta give me my joke."

Any advice for first-time female directors after this experience?

My advice is to be firm with your ideas, to have a vision and know exactly what you want. At the same time, you really have to be open to collaborating. I think when you collaborate, especially in comedy, it's just the best idea needs to win, and so I felt that stance [worked] — that you have to be like, be firm, be firm, make decisions, also listen to everyone around you.

How did Blockers' premiere at SXSW change the narrative and hype around this film, from your view?

South by Southwest was amazing. I think it might have been the best thing that ever happened to my career. The reception was just so wonderful. It was exciting because it felt like people really got the movie that I wanted to make, and they were responding to it in such a really beautiful way. I'm really grateful to South by Southwest because I think that there's this definite perception of a rated-R comedy, where we start to think, "Oh, I’ve seen that before" or "It's just gross-out, raunch whatnot." I’d like to think that our movie is a little bit smarter than that. It’s funny, but it will make you feel something, and I’m really excited that it’s coming from a female perspective. So getting that word of mouth going at that festival was really a wonderful, wonderful thing.

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