Interview: Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth-Banks-Will-Direct-Pitch-Perfect-2

Originally published on The National Student on 07/05/15. 

Following an impressive, star-studded career in-front of the camera, starring in Hollywood blockbusters such as The Hunger Games, raunchy comedies, dark dramas and everything in between, Elizabeth Banks finally makes the jump to the director’s chair with a sequel to a 2012 sleeper-hit in the a capella teen-sensation Pitch Perfect 2.

The National Student caught up with Banks ahead of the film’s release, where she promised more of the same from Becca and the Barden Bellas, but on a far wider scale. 

What is it about the young age-group that you think appeals to audiences?

First of all, it’s a transitional age, it’s the coming of age time in everyone’s life. When you’re younger than, say, 20, you’re aspiring to be 20, you just can’t wait to get there. And when you’re my age you’re like “It was so nice when I was 20!” (laughs) 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. 

In Pitch Perfect 2 you’re back on-screen as Gail; did you find it difficult to distance yourself from 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 (laughs). I have a great partner in John [John Michael Higgins – Banks’ co-star], he and I are old friends, he’s so good at his job, so 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 whilst I do my hair and make-up. I put three cameras on it so we can get it done really quickly, I trust my DP [director of photography] and I have a monitor the whole time so I can see what’s happening and what it looks like. People think it’s really hard, but it’s technically not that difficult at all. 

What lessons would you say you would like learned from Pitch Perfect about acceptance and body image? 

One of the things I love about our film is that no one apologies for themselves, no one talks about what they look like, there’s no makeover sequence, nobody’s talking about the clothes that they’re wearing, they’re just living their lives. It’s not about boyfriends, it’s just about regular, real girls. All shapes and sizes and ethnicities, and just the wonderful chemistry between all of them.  

Was the female-friendship element of the film intentional, or did it come naturally from the characters?

Yeah, it was a natural progression from the first film. The first movie is about putting the band together, so we didn’t really know who any of them were, they were just sort of a group of misfits who all had one thing in common: they really loved to sing. This time round I used my experience as a sorority girl at university to inform this notion of all the women living together in a house and really having that bond. Also facing graduation, and how friendships sustain you through that transition in your life. 

How important was it for you to have a comedy lead by an almost entirely female cast? 

What we have done is very rare, so it’s perceived as being this politically feminist statement. I am a feminist, I’m not afraid of that word, I love it – I’ve spent a lot of my time fighting for women, and also trying to lead by example. The main thing I’ll say about this movie though is that we really just wanted to make a funny comedy that happened to be about this all-girl group. It was based on a book that was about the first all-female group at the University of Oregon who won the national [a capella] title in America. So we started there, we weren’t like “Let’s make a movie that’s feminist!” That wasn’t a particular 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. 

Obviously with the chemistry and the friendship between the characters being so core to the film, did you have any problems on set trying to keep everyone focussed?

No, I have a very professional team of people, my entire cast included. Everyone was very game actually, really up for it. We shot a sequence at a camp the first week of filming, and that was all about getting people to get up on the zip-line – and not everybody did it – 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 never a big concern of mine. Also I wanted there to be room for everyone to play, there’s a lot of wide-shots in the movie where you see everybody all at once… that’s the energy that I wanted in the movie.      

Was there a lot of improvisation on set?

Yes, there was. 

With this being the first feature film you’ve directed, how did you get involved? 

Well, I produced the first movie, so that helps (laughs), and I worked really closely on that first movie with the director Jason Moore – I hired him. So what happened really was, I was actually looking for a movie to direct and really the stars do have to align I think in life, and I was really at the exact right place in my experience to take over the reigns of the movie. I had worked so closely on the first film, the studio knew that they could trust me to do it. I had been directing shorts and little things as time had allowed in my very busy acting career in preparation for directing a feature, and then Jason fell off and I was just like “Of course I should do it!”   

So when you were approaching the film as a sequel, what elements did you want to keep from the original and what new direction did you want to take it in? 

It was really all about expanding the world. The first film is a pretty small story. It’s university-set, it’s about two groups from the same school and we never had to leave the campus, and also it was really told from Becca’s [Anna Kendrick] point of view. In this film we really felt like we could expand the world of a capella, we could get off campus. It’s a theme of the movie, leaving the nest, meeting more adults. The riff-off this time is not just between the collegiate groups, it’s big professional groups – real grown-ups. That notion just appealed to me, putting them in contact with grown-ups. They’re the big fish in their little pond, and I wanted to show a really big pond. 

Then there’s all the musical numbers. I think it’s important to remember that in the first movie the Barden Bellas pretty much sang ‘The Sign‘ like four times in a row (laughs), so you heard them sing the same thing over and over again, and it wasn’t until the last two sequences of the movie that you really saw them be explosively amazing. In this movie they’re amazing from the first minute, so every sequence this time around had to be totally blown-out. Bigger, better and crazier with camera-angles, lights shows, fire – the whole thing. 

What do you think makes a capella so popular? 

I think a cappella’s an interesting metaphor for life. It requires all the voices to sing in harmony to be at it’s best. It’s a very important message that Becca learns, which is that we don’t get through life on our own. You have to rely on people; we need each other. And with a cappella, you literally can’t do it by yourself. I mean you’d be singing a melody line, but who cares (laughs). 

You’ve worked with some incredible directors over your acting career – were there any particular skills or bits of advice you found yourself using in your own directing work?

Yeah, absolutely. I got some specific advice from Francis Lawrence who told me to include the hips when shooting the dance sequences. It turns out that just shoulders isn’t very interesting but if you add the hips… it’s very interesting (laughs). So that was very good advice, he had a long career making music videos. Some of it was as specific as that, and some of it was just style. Judd Apatow allows for tonnes of improv on his sets which requires cross-coverage, which is a pretty technical term. Cross-coverage is not something that everybody does, it’s not something that every director of photography wants to do, but it was really important to me that we were allowed to improv on our set and that we would be able to capture both sides of the conversation at the same time, so you have to cross-cover. That’s something that I essentially stole from Judd. 

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to break into the film industry? 

Move to New York, or LA, that’s where the movie business is. You have to at least be courageous enough to go there. 

How much of the film is based in the actual a cappella world? 

All of it is based in some version of reality. We have a lot of authenticity checks along the way. Kelley Jakle who plays the blonde Jessica, she was in SoCal VoCal at the University of Southern California, they actually just won the championship in America. They’re a co-ed group though, not all female. She literally just graduated from this group so she gave us a tonne of real-life stories. Like, they do all live in a house together, they do all tour together, singing the national anthem at the puppy bowl – that’s totally a real thing. Pentatonix sang at the Audi car-show, you can watch it on YouTube, it looks exactly like what we did. One of the reasons that the Germans were chosen as the arch-nemesis this time around was because when we looked at the world and where a cappella is most popular, it’s most popular in America and Germany. So it just made sense. 

Your filmography is very varied, what draws you to certain scripts? 

I don’t want to be bored, that’s important as you get older. I just look for stories that interest me, characters that interest me, journeys that interest me. I don’t have an overwhelming desire to challenge myself (laughs), but I do find that it also depends on where I’m at 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?

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. 

Most universities are coming up to exam time now, have you got any advice for students on how to deal with stress?

Sure, drink a lot of water. Don’t eat salt, avoid salts. Sleep, it’s more important than you realise. And don’t party until you’re done with the very last test. That’s a guide to life really. 

With this film being a sequel to a sleeper-hit, and the general consensus that comedy sequels are usually inferior to the original, did that add any extra pressure? 

Yeah sure, my number one goal was not to disappoint the fans of the first movie, and whenever you make a comedy sequel it’s sort of a referendum on the first film. That movie’s beloved to me as well, I’m very proud of it – it absolutely came from my heart and soul. So I also wanted to protect the legacy of that movie. 

Any possibility of Pitch Perfect becoming a trilogy?

It’s possible. We need to put this movie out and see. I would say that we really strove to do something organic and authentic with this story. You want to give the audience a little more of what they love but not totally repeat yourself. You want to grow. I don’t really know what the journey would be in the next one. We don’t have any plan yet. 

Musicals aren’t particularly popular at the moment, do you think there’s a reason for that? 

I don’t know if that’s true – Wicked sells more tickets I think than anything in the world. But I think it’s very risky to make an original musical, they do it in animated films like Frozen all the time and we were able to make this movie frankly because we didn’t have any original music – we were using songs that people already know. People are a little scared of original musicals. I mean, I’m not scared, but the people that write the cheques are scared.  

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), directed by Elizabeth Banks, is released in the UK on 15th May by Universal Pictures, Certificate 12A.

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