Kay Cannon on How Teen Sex Comedy 'Blockers' Flips the Script on Gender Roles

Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures
'Blockers'

The 'Pitch Perfect' scribe takes the helm on the R-rated film, which premieres Saturday at SXSW: "That these three young women had agency over their sexuality and were making this decision, I was excited to be a part of that."

Kay Cannon was on her first vacation in six years when she made the decision to tackle her directorial debut.

“I promised my husband that I wasn’t going to work at all,” recalls the 30 Rock alum and Tina Fey protege, whose Universal comedy Blockers opens April 6 after a March 10 SXSW premiere. “I read it in the middle of the night, while he was sleeping.” After writing and producing three Pitch Perfect films back to back to back, she was ready for a new challenge. 

The R-rated comedy follows three girls who form a pact to lose their virginity on prom night — and the parents (John Cena, Ike Barinholtz and Leslie Mann) who try to stop them. “We’ve seen many comedies that have the male perspective of losing your virginity,” says Cannon, 43, who has a 4-year-old daughter. “That these three young women had agency over their sexuality and were making this decision, I was excited to be a part of showing that.”

Ahead of Blockers' Austin debut, Cannon talked to THR about what exactly went in to her directorial debut.

What was it that made you want to direct?

I had met with Nathan Kahane at Good Universe and he was kinda like, "Aren’t you tired of not directing your own material?" I have such a respect for directing, being someone who didn’t go to film school or anything like that. In that moment, in that lunch, I was like, "You know what! I am ready to direct my own material! I do wanna do that!" It’s so funny how it just takes someone to just pose the question.

What is it about Blockers that you wanted it to be your directorial debut?

The idea that these three young women had agency over their sexuality and were deciding to make this decision, I was excited to be a part in showing that. It was exciting, for me, because I don’t think it’s really been done before. I had that experience, as we all have, of losing our virginity. But I’m also now on the other side now, where I'm the parent of a daughter. She’s now 4, she was 2 when I read the script, and you know, I think a lot about when she grows up. No matter how progressive I am as a parent, there is something that you’re still afraid of. We’re in this #MeToo movement, where all of our fears and all the bad things that have happened are coming out. And I think that that is a fear that you carry when your daughter decides to have sex.

How was the casting process?

Ike and I go way back. We’ve been friends for 20 years. So I got a pretty easy hire. And I was watching John host the Espys, and John was really really, really funny in the monologue. I thought he was super funny in Train Wreck and I though he was very funny in Sisters, but [hosting the Espys] he was just like acting as himself and not the tough guy. He looked like he had a real wealth of knowledge about comedy, and he had the heart to sell a joke. Once those were in order, the hardest role to cast was Lisa, the role that Leslie plays, because that character is like the heart and soul of the movie. Leslie actually went through this with her own daughter, Maude, when Maude left for college just this last year. So this really resonated with her.

Getting ready for the director’s chair, who did you look to anyone for inspiration and guidance?

I’m inspired by female directors like Beth McCarthy-Miller; I worked with her at 30 Rock and she directed at Saturday Night Live for years. I’m a big fan of Ava DuVernay, so I was reading anything she wrote about [directing]. The advice she gave was that she changes her socks in the afternoon, and I was like, “Wow, I think I want to do that!” But I don’t really wear socks. I’m more of a loafers kind of gal.

Any surprising experiences on set?

My assistant would get me breakfast [each day], and the chef in the truck would just be like, “What does he want?” You know, assuming the director is a man. He just couldn’t wrap his head around it. And he never tried to learn my name. 

If you could go back and give yourself advice at the start of production, what would it be?

When I was starting up writing, Tina got me Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird [about writing], and that was her advice, to take writing one line at a time, one joke at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed by the whole thing. I’m going to keep saying that until I die. 

A version of this story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.