Director Kay Cannon powers through obstacles with comedic brilliance on ‘BLOCKERS’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Kay Cannon is no stranger to comedy, having been a fixture on the Chicago comedy circuit for years, scripting television shows like 30 ROCK and THE NEW GIRL and jump-starting a female-driven mega-success like the PITCH PERFECT franchise. Now she makes her pitch-perfect directorial debut with BLOCKERS. This raucous, surprisingly progressive and absolutely hysterical comedy involves three parents – Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) – who lose their ever lovin’ minds when they find out their respective daughters – Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) – have entered into a prom night pact to lose their virginity. This sets of a chain of events filled with hijinks, hilarity and lots of heart.

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable talent about everything from creating the film’s emoji speak, to adding to the parent/teen toolbox for healthy communication, to cascading vomit concertos.

This cast is so on point. We see stuff from Ike we’ve never seen before and this is such a perfect showcase for Leslie Mann, who I think is a Heinz ketchup bottle of emotions. Did their character voices change at all once they signed on to fit their talents?

[laughs] No, actually. Ike and I have known each other for twenty years. We did comedy in Chicago together. I think Ike Barinholtz can play this character so great – and he did. He could understand and empathize. I’m really proud when I watch Ike in the scenes when he’s telling Lisa and Mitchell what happened with him and Brenda. I feel like he’s acting in a way I hadn’t seen him do before. And with Leslie, I feel like she could so relate with Lisa, because she had literally dropped Maude off at Northwestern and was having to let her daughter go. So she really connected. The difference between Leslie and Lisa was that I don’t think Leslie would be in a hotel room.

Was it a challenge to come up with the emoji speak and have that feel authentic to teens language?

It wasn’t too bad. Half of the emojis are real and a couple we made up. “Yasss Queen” is made up. It was fun. That’s every comedy writer’s dream is to be able to come with a bit like that. The idea of finding out through emojis was a scene brought late in the process. I’m really excited that scene is so well-received. As much as social media bridges the gap of generations, it’s like the secret code of teenagers and the one kind of thing parents don’t understand. I found out some things just by talking to my 15-year-old niece, who was very open with her mom. I talked to my sister-in-law and my niece and they were filling me in on everything. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’

I thought a lot about how problematic SHE’S OUT OF CONTROL was for my generation of “prom movies.” One of the things I loved about this was that wherever the parents turn up, they get scolded about their interference. How important was it to give parents and teens the tools here to bridge that gap towards understanding? 

It was something I certainly thought about the entire time. It was really important to me to have that Marcie [Sarayu Blue] and Lisa scene be in the movie. I did a lot of rewriting on that scene. It was important for it to be two mothers of the two daughters – that they could have different perspectives. In this, I wanted the parents to be the most irrational – that they just start to go crazy in the night in such a heightened way that it doesn’t make you feel like these are parents trying to control a woman’s body. So that it didn’t feel super preachy – that you understand their motives and that they were slowly losing their minds.

Do you conduct the set differently on the days that are more emotionally intensive than the one that are comedy-driven? 

Not really. I tried to play every scene we shot for the truth of that scene even if it was ridiculous. Leslie Mann says she would try to play it as if it were a drama – the most serious thing she ever had to do. What was really nice shooting the movie was there were all these jokes undercutting the emotional stuff and so as much as I love the scene with Sam and Hunter at the end, when Ike starts to cry, it was really making me laugh. I felt like every single scene had that element.

Miles Robbins, Kathryn Newton, Graham Phillips, Jimmy Bellinger, Gideon Adlon, and Geraldine Viswanathan in BLOCKERS. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Let’s talk about the barf concerto in the limo. I’m calling it a “concerto…”

Uh huh. I love that.

What was the barf made of? What was the consistency? Was there a CG assist? And let’s also talk about selecting the right song for it.

Right. These are very good questions. We had our prop guy ask each actor what foods they liked. I wanted the consistency and the color to be different per person. There was some talk of, ‘Sam had beets at dinner.’ I just wanted it to look different, because that’s how it would be. They wouldn’t have all looked the same. Most of them are not CGI-enhanced. When Colton Dunn pukes, that’s real. When Rudy the limo driver pukes, that’s real. When Austin [Graham Phillips] pukes, that’s real. Just on Sam we needed a little bit more help.

I picked a classical song because that was the easiest way for me to enact the puke – to do the orchestral elements, because I knew I wanted to have Chad [Jimmy Bellinger] screaming and have that be a part of the song. I didn’t want anything with words.

Another scene that made me laugh a lot was Hunter and Mitchell’s whisper scene. Was there a trick to conducting Ike and John’s level of broad comedy?

That was really choreographed. I spent a lot of time in blocking. I went to the house ahead of time, walked around it to try to figure out exactly. I always called it “the diamond” when the four of them were together. On the A side, I wanted Gary [Cole] and Gina [Gershon] to be like the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK and John was hiding from them.

But when the subtitles thing happened, I had this real concern that people might think that Mitchell was being homophobic by not wanting to touch Ron. John Cena is a real personality and I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to make a statement about John’s feelings towards that. Barinholtz and I were talking and I knew I wanted to do a subtitles thing. So Ike and I came up with that idea of, ‘No, you’re homophobic!’ ‘No, you’re homophobic!’ ‘My brother’s gay!’ And it just escalated from there.

I was crying with laughter at that point.

[laughs] It’s so ridiculous, isn’t it?

It’s so ridiculous, but so good! It seems like there were a lot of night shoots. Those can be pretty brutal. How did those go? 

Those were brutal. When you do like a couple weeks in a row, it’s one thing, but when you do five weeks in a row, it’s a whole other thing. I would come home at nine in the morning. My daughter was with me so she’d be up when I got home. I would try to sleep next to her. Often, I would come home and pour myself a glass of wine and watch Hollywood Medium on E! and try to make it seem like I was having a night.

In terms of the actual shoot, it felt like we were having this long night of prom. We shot pretty much in order. We were at the actual prom, and then the lake house and then we went to the hotel. I swear, being in that hotel, we were only there four days and it felt like I was there for five years.

Like you were trapped in a casino, or something.

Exactly, yes.

What did you learn about yourself making this movie?

What a great question. I feel like I learned that nothing is going to shake me or rattle me – not really. There was a lot of stuff that came up, whether it be the script was constantly changing, or that I had a big cast and a lot of storylines. You just get through it all. It was really nice. James Weaver, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, after I was done shooting the movie, they called me and they were like, ‘We’ve never seen somebody just power through so many obstacles.’ I was an athlete growing up and I feel like I had that athlete mentality. It was nice to know that I could tackle whatever.

BLOCKERS opens on April 6.

Header Photo: Kay Cannon directs Leslie Mann and John Cena. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.