Elizabeth Banks is an extremely talented woman; a successful actress, with roles in huge movies such as The-40-Year-Old Virgin, The Spiderman Trilogy, Role Models, and The Hunger Games. Alongside a long and successful acting career, Banks is also a producer and a director. We were lucky enough to sit down with Elizabeth to talk about the amazing Pitch Perfect 2; her directorial debut for a feature film.
So in both Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 you play the character of Gail, but you were also a producer and a director. Did you find it difficult to distance yourself between the roles of actor and director?
I like directing myself. It’s very interesting. It’s like I know what I want, I don’t even have to say it out loud! It’s so easy to direct me. I have a great partner in John, he and I are old friends and he is so great at his job. We just toss each other softballs and try and make the crew laugh. It’s technically not difficult, I set the shots up with a double and they light it while I do my hair and makeup, then I put three cameras on it so we can just get it done really quickly. I really trust my DP. And I have a monitor so I can watch what’s going on the whole time and see what it looks like. People tend to think it’s really hard but it’s technically not difficult at all.
Pitch Perfect 2‘s central focus is on the friendships of the girls in the group, even more so than the first movie. Was that an intentional thing? Or did it just come from character play-off’s?
It was a natural progression from the first film. The first movie was about them putting the band together, so we didn’t really know who the girls were, we just knew they were a group of misfits who all had one thing in common; they really loved to sing. This time around for Pitch Perfect 2 I used my experience as a sorority girl at university to inform this notion of all the girls living together in a house and really having that bond that you make, and of course the fear of facing graduation and how friendships sustain you through that period in your life.
The female friendship statement is essential to the film’s core, the chemistry between the Barden Bellas really makes the film. Did you have any problems on set; getting everyone to do their job and focus on the script?
No. I have a very professional team of people, the entire cast included. Everyone was very game. That’s what I would say, everyone was very game, very up for it. The sequence of the camp was the first sequence we shot, the first week of filming. It was all about getting people to get up on the zip line, you know, not everybody did it, and not everyone jumped on the big blob, but everyone was overcoming their fears with each other and cheering each other on. It was really amazing, the logistics of the movie were insane. It’s a very big movie, with a lot going on, but wrangling the actual people was not a particularly big concern of mine. I wanted there to be room for everyone to play, I have a lot of wide shots in the movie where you see everyone talking all at once, all mashed up against each other and that’s the energy I wanted in the movie.
How important was it for you to make a comedy that was led by an all female cast?
What we have done is very rare, and so it’s perceived as being this politically feminist statement. And I am a feminist, I’m not afraid of that word. I love it. I’ve spent a lot of time fighting for women, and also trying to lead by example. The main thing I would say about this movie is we wanted to make this really funny comedy that was based around an all female girl group, it’s based on a book about the first all female girl group called Divisi from the University of Oregon who won the national title in America. So we started there, we weren’t like ‘let’s make a movie that’s feminist! And it’s all about girl power!’ That was not particularly an intention of ours, but because we made a movie about a group of women, and nobody else makes those movies, we are a feminist statement, just by our existence.
I saw on your website you recently posted an article with quotes from women about their body image. What lessons do you want to portray through Pitch Perfect about body image?
This is one of the things I love about our film, no one apologises for themselves, no one talks about what they look like, there’s no ‘make over’ scene. No one’s talking about the clothes they’re wearing, you know, they’re just living their lives! It’s not about boyfriends, it’s just about regular, real girls. All shapes and sizes and ethnicities, just a wonderful chemistry between all of them.
What do you think it is about the university/college age group that appeals to audiences?
First of all, it’s a transitional age. It is the coming of age time in everybody’s life. It’s when you’re younger than, let’s say 20, and you’re aspiring to be 20. You just can’t wait to be 20. When you’re my age, you go, ‘oh it was so nice to be 20’, you have a lot of nostalgia for that time in your life because you really do realise when you get to be my age how much that time period shapes who you become as a person.
Is there anything you’ve learnt from university that you’ve taken with you through your whole life?
Definitely, I mean, it’s innumerable. I found my husband at university, and he’s still around.
The film has some references to bisexuality and lots of the girls have an openly sexual nature – for example, Becca’s constantly admitting her awkward sexual feelings towards the leader of DSM, did that mainly come from comedy, or was that something you just thought felt right?
I’ll just say this; college is a liberal time and place. You’re supposed to experiment, it’s how you figure out who you are. I think it is funny by its nature, but the reason it’s funny is because everybody relates.
There’s a line in your film where you say ‘everbody hates us’ referring to the international reputation of America. Have you found that yourself while you’ve been doing the press tour for this film?
One of the things that the world likes America to do is to make movies. We’re really good at making movies. I mean that was really meant to be funny. We actually had a bunch of different lines there, and we ended up choosing that one because it was the one that made people laugh. We just assume everybody hates us because we’re just so good at everything. Of course they want to take us down a peg!
So was there a lot of improvisation on set?
Yes, there was lots!
When you were approaching the sequel, what elements did you want to keep from the original and what was the new direction you wanted to take with the sequel?
It was really about expanding the world. The first film is really quite a small movie, it’s in a university town, the groups are from the same school, we never had to leave the campus! It’s also told mostly from Beccas’ point of view. In this film we really felt like we could expand the world of acapella, we could get off campus. The theme of the movie is of the girls leaving the past and meeting more adults. So the theme is the girls meeting not just the collegiate groups but the real adult groups, the international groups. Just that notion appealed to me, putting them in contact with the grown ups. They were the big fish in their little pond, I wanted the sequel to show the girls in a really big pond. And of course there’s more musical numbers. It’s important to remember that in the first movie the Barden Bellas pretty much sang ‘The Sign’ like four times in a row, you literally heard them sing the same thing over and over again, and it wasn’t until maybe the finale of the movie where you see the Barden Bellas be explosively amazing. In the second movie, they are amazing right from the beginning. Every sequence this time round had to be totally blown out. Bigger, better, crazier, more camera angles, light shows, fire the whole thing.
We really did find that the sequel was bigger and better, what do you think makes acapella so popular?
I think acapella is a really interesting metaphor for life, it requires all the voices to sing in harmony, to be at their best. I think it’s a very important message that Becca learns, that we don’t get through life on our own. We need each other. Acappella is all about needing each other.
This is your first time in the directors chair for a big feature film, and you‘ve obviously had such a long and successful acting career working with some incredible directors from Sam Raimi to James Gunn to Spielberg. Is there any advice you’ve picked up off them that you took on?
Absolutely. I got some specific advice from Francis Lawrence – he told me to include the hips when shooting the dance sequences, it turns out that the hips make it interesting. He had a long career in making music videos. Some of it was just style, Jed Apatow allows for tonnes of improvisation on his sets which requires cross coverage; that’s not something that everybody does and it’s not something that every DOP wants to do, but it was interesting to see and to learn all the different techniques.
Do you have any advice for young budding directors who want to get into the film industry?
Yeah. Do they want to live in LA or New York? That would be my biggest piece of advice. You’d be surprised how many people want to be directors but still live in their small home town. Move to New York or LA because that’s where the movie business is! You need to at least be courageous enough to go there, that’s a good starting point.
We noticed you got the real life acapella group Pentatonix to guest star. How much of the movie is based on the real life acapella world?
All of it is based on some version of reality. We had a lot of authenticity checks along the way. For example, Kelley Jakle who plays Jessica was part of SoCal VoCal at the University of Southern California, they actually just won the championship in America. She gave us tonnes of advice, she literally only just graduated. So she told us that they really do all live in a house together, they do all tour together, and singing the national anthem at the Puppy Bowl that’s totally a thing. When we had the car show where DSM sang, Pentatonix actually sang at the Audi car show, you can check it out on YouTube, it looks exactly like what we did! One of the reasons why the German team Das Sound Machine were chosen as the arch nemesis is because when we looked at the world and where acapella is most popular, it’s most popular in America and Germany. So it just made sense.
How long does it take for everyone to rehearse the acapella sequences?
It takes about a month, then they do brush up rehearsals over the course of the movie because we don’t shoot in order. They spent 4 weeks rehearsing, learning all their music, recording, and dancing and getting all that down. After that, we went and shot the first sequence at the camp for a week, so we had to go back and brush up the acapella sequences so the cast could re-familiarise themselves with the choreography.
Your filmography is ridiculously varied, from Pitch Perfect to The Hunger Games to Every Secret Thing, what particularly draws you to certain scripts? Is there a certain desire to challenge yourself?
I don’t want to be bored, that’s important as you get older. I’m just looking for stories that interest me and characters that interest me. I don’t have an overwhelming desire to challenge myself, but I do find that it also depends on where I am in my life, and what interests me. It changes. Your goals change.
When you were at university did you do anything outside of the regular educational system? Like acapella?
Of course! I was in a bunch of theatre groups and I sang in Musical Theatre and did plays constantly. Pretty much all through college I was performing.
It’s coming up to exam time now for universities, do you have any tips to deal with stress?
Yeah, sure. Drink a lot of water, don’t eat salt. Avoid salt!! Sleep – it’s more important than you realise. Don’t party until you’re done with your last exam!
That sounds like a guide to directing too…
It’s a guide to life!
Did you feel any pressure in making a sequel as your big feature directorial debut? Did you worry that the sequel wouldn’t be as successful as the first Pitch Perfect?
Yeah sure! I mean, my number one goal was not to disappoint the fans of the first movie. I think whenever you make a sequel it’s sort of a referendum on the first film, and the first movie’s beloved to me as well. I’m very proud of it, it really came from my heart and soul. So I really wanted to protect the legacy of that first film.
Any possibility of Pitch Perfect becoming a trilogy?
It’s possible! I mean, we really strove to do something organic and authentic with this story. We wanted to give the audience a little more of what they loved but not repeat ourselves. We wanted to grow. I don’t know what the journey would be in the next one, we don’t have any sort of plan yet.
Pitch Perfect 2 is out in cinemas now!