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Director Series: Kay Cannon on Modernizing Cinderella and Dealing with the Pandemic

September 1, 2021 08:30 | By
Cinderella

Camila Cabello and Nicholas Galitzine in Cinderella

For many years, Kay Cannon was best known as a writer/producer on Tina Fey’s NBC show 30 Rock, followed by a stint on New Girl, or as the screenwriter of the Pitch Perfect movies. In 2018, she went behind the camera to direct the raunchy comedy, Blockers, and that’s all it took for her to quickly make the transition into being a director.

Cannon has now directed her second feature, a musical version of Cinderella that’s not based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that’s been translated to stage and screen for the likes of Julie Andrews in 1957 and Brandy forty years later. No, this one is based on an idea by James Corden to use modern-day pop to tell the timeless story of the poor, beleaguered girl always being taunted by her stepmother and stepsisters. One night, she has a chance to go to the Prince’s ball with the help of her Fab G (Billy Porter), and she has quite a sway on the young man (played by Nicholas Galitzineb). 

Starring in the title role is Cuban-American singer-songwriter sensation, Camila Cabell0, who gets to sing and act opposite the likes of Idina Menzel, Minnie Driver, Pierce Brosnan, and others, including Corden in the role of a mouse/footman.

Below the Line spoke to Ms. Cannon over Zoom earlier this week, and as always, found her to be quite spirited, energetic and enthusiastic, but also, very, very funny, even when talking about how her production became one of the first to get shut down by COVID.

Kay Cannon

Kay Cannon on set

Below the Line: How did this first come about? Did James Corden come to you and pitch the idea, or did you have to pitch something to him?

Kay Cannon: I  got an email from my agent that James Corden and his production company, which Leo Pearlman runs, that they wanted to talk to me and meet with me about a project around Cinderella. I was like, “Nothing’s gonna come of this.” There was already a 2015 Cinderella. Yeah, it’s not happening.” But I am a fan of James Corden, so I wanted to meet him. I went and met… and they met with a handful of other writers — at that point, it was just to write this idea that he had. His idea was to tell the Cinderella story using contemporary songs. I thought that was really interesting, and I was like, “Okay, I like that that’s different.” And I go, “Wait a second. I’ll be able to retell the story in a more modern way, like I could modernize it, make it more relatable how girls and young women are seeing themselves these days, and I could really put my spin on it. I knew he was interviewing other people, but I said in the room, “I want to do this, I think she should be a designer.” I think I pitched in the room that she wants to design clothes in a time when women can’t have their own careers, all that kind of stuff. So then obviously I got the writing gig, and then, as I was writing it, I started to fall in love with it.  I started to really enjoy it, and then I told them, “I’ll rewrite this all day, all night, if I’m directing it as well.” To their credit, they really supported me on that, so I went and I presented my vision of the movie and the script to Sony, and they were on board. 

BTL: Since you wrote the Pitch Perfect movies, and those all have songs and performances in them as well, but when you’re writing a movie where the songs are going to be a huge part of production, so how are you making sure you’re covered in terms of getting the rights to the songs before you start shooting?

Cannon: It’s a whole thing.  My first drafts, I always do a dream version, where I just put in songs that I think will fit. I know it’s a whole process — not every song I put in is going to work. All I knew going in, in my first few drafts was “Somebody to Love,” and “Rhythm Nation,” and  “You Gotta Be.”  And very different than Pitch Perfect, where they’re performing the songs in front of an audience. Here, it’s the dialogue on the page, and it’s to forward story, so it was much more of a puzzle and figuring it out. But it would be really funny, because  I’d go and ask Sony or Spring Aspers over at Sony, who handles all the rights. I’d be like, “How much is ‘Material Girl’ gonna cost? I want to use it, but I don’t know ‘cause we’ve got a budget.” I was really blessed, and I’m very grateful, because the artists were completely supportive. You give the pages to them and say, “This is what we wanna do with your song,” and most, not only did they give us their blessing, but they allowed us to manipulate the song in a new way, too, that they liked a lot as well.

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Cabello with Cannon (R) on set of Cinderella

BTL: When I want to talk to writers, I always wonder whether they need to consider the budget while they’re writing maybe something on spec, since you never know if the budget necessary is even possible while writing. 

Cannon: You have a script, and they like the script, and you’ve written your dream version. For Pitch Perfect, I think I had like 18 songs in the riff-off, and once they greenlit it, they go, “Yeah, you can’t have that many songs” or like in Cinderella, “You need to cut that out and make it work or do something different.” It’s kind of like you write your dream first and then it kind of gets molded into what the movie ends up being.

BTL: You have a couple of ringers in this one, starting with Camila, who hasn’t acted in anything before, I don’t believe. But she’s an amazing singer and songwriter, and I think she wrote a couple of songs for the movie as well?  How did that come about where you were working with her, and would she suggest writing songs?

Cannon: I normally have somebody in mind when I’m writing a script, but in this case, I didn’t, I think because Cinderella is such a known figure. It wasn’t until one of my meetings with Sony, where I believe it was Tom Rothman [who asked] “What about Camila Cabello?” As soon as he said her name, I was like, “Oh, that’s genius.” She is actually Cinderella to me. Her family came to this country when she was five or six years old with no money, and she had big dreams and she worked her way at a very young age. She goes on a reality show, she ends up being part of Fifth Harmony, and then she started making choices for herself that were difficult choices to make. And then, on top of that, she’s a great musical artist, and then on top of that, I thought she was really funny. When I watched her videos, and I watched her commercials, I could see some really great comic timing. When I met her, I’m a coach really at heart, I kind of approach it that way, and I was like, she’s coachable. I think I can get there. We’re a good match together,

BTL: Who came up with her writing a song? Or did she write a few songs?

Cannon: She wrote the one song, “A Million to One,” and I had always structured it as it was gonna be an original song, and I put fake lyrics in there about what the song was going to be like. And then, of course, we reprise it a couple of times. I always knew she and her writers were going to write the song. There were just a lot of conversations about what I was looking for and what I wanted, and I thought they nailed it. What I’m trying to say with this movie is [that] Cinderella is like a bad nickname given to her by stepsisters, and her real name is Ella and this is who she truly is. And I love that lyric, “You’re gonna know my name. You’re going to know who the real me is.”

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Idina Menzel (center) in Cinderella

BTL: Of course, you also have Billy and Idina, who also wrote a song, and her song is absolutely amazing. She wrote that song specifically for this movie, right?

Cannon: I’m so glad you like that song. That is my favorite, actually. I mean, I love “Million to One” — don’t tell anyone I don’t, but I love, love, love, love… when I was shooting all the women in the town square dancing to it, and the servants in the castle dancing to it, and like that rage, that underneath the surface anger that a lot of people feel when they can’t follow their dreams. And all that coming out, even the stepsisters and their dance, I loved shooting all those six segments. That’s the song that I feel like I sing the most, and I can hear my daughter singing it around the house.

BTL: Who did the musical arrangements for everything once you had the songs you wanted everyone to perform?

Cannon: Keith Harrison and I worked hand in hand. I wrote a lot of how I wanted it arranged in the script already, and then he did the musical side of it– the musical arrangement in the vocal arrangement. I had a great partnership with Keith Harrison, I thought it was really great, and I particularly love what he did with “Am I Wrong?” I had scripted out that every character was going to be singing it, and where they were, but I just love, love, love how he did the vocal arrangement of that.

BTL: I want to talk about some of the other people you worked with on Cinderella. I think the editor is one of the people that you brought back from your first movie, Blockers.

Cannon: It was shot in the UK, where I had to do a lot of UK hires, but Stacey Schroeder is definitely my ride or die. I also did Girl Boss with her — that’s where we met. She and I have a shorthand, and we just kind of see the world in the same kind of way.

BTL: You shot this at Pinewood in the UK, which is an amazing place with all the history it has. Did you actually get to shoot on the James Bond stage, or were you on other ones?

Cannon: I don’t think we were in the James Bond stage, but I did get to see the 007 on the outside, and it was COVID time. It was pre-COVID, and then we got shut down, and we came back five months later, but it was really interesting being around Pierce. He tells a really funny story about how he was shooting Mamma Mia, and they were shooting at Pinewood, and he was dressed in his Mamma Mia costume and then he’s seeing Daniel Craig as James Bond. But it’s a really special place, and the crew was really fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about them.

BTL: I think the Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnik, she actually worked on a previous Cinderella movie. 

Cannon: She did the Brandi and Whitney Houston 1997 Cinderella. I asked her when I interviewed to hire her, “Why would you want to do another one?” She loves fairy tale, she loves that world, but I think she liked the changes that I was doing to it. It’s not a comparison to the Brandy-Whitney [movie], it is a comparison to the original,  actual Cinderella fairy tale 2000 years ago. The fact that Cinderella was the designer — she wears the dress to the ball that’s of her own design — that was quite a challenge, I think, for Ellen and Ellen was up for it, and I think she nailed it.

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Cannon with Cabello and Galidzine

BTL: I think we just ran an interview with her on the site for Bridgerton, which she’s probably going to win another Emmy for.  

Cannon: I hope she does. I’m voting for her!

BTL: You mentioned having to shut down for COVID and then come back five months later. What was that like? I’ve spoken to a few people who were making movies during the pandemic, but you had started and then had to stop and then start up again to finish.

Cannon: We started filming the third week of February, so the first week of March, I was in Blackpool shooting the ball with 200 extras, and I was super aware of [something going on], and I stopped hugging people. I was definitely giving elbows already, pretty early on. And then, we shut down on the 13th, and in that five-month downtime, I basically put all the sequences that I had shot together with Stacy, my editor, and was able to rewrite, was able to see what I didn’t have, what I needed. I was able to get a second prep, in a way, and then all the changes in protocols that we had to follow when we came back. When we came back, it was seven weeks of shooting, and it was the opening, the finale, the “Material Girl,” “Am I Wrong?,” “Somebody to Love”…  I mean, it was big, big, big stuff — it was the bulk of the movie. In a way, we had a lot of silver linings, because I use the same 60 dancers and same 20 townspeople throughout the whole thing. I like to say that the kingdom has a lot of twins. The guardsman is also a guy selling cheese in the cheese shop in the town square. But, I’m not gonna lie, it was really stressful at the beginning, but not when we came back. When we came back, I felt like we had a handle on stuff, even though it was uncharted territory. When things were happening, when the sh*t was going down, I had just shot a week in Blackpool with over 200 people indoors — there was a lot of fear there. When we came back, everybody was so grateful to be back and so grateful to be working, and we were seeing live performances when there weren’t any live performances happening when the world was shut down. It really was an experience I’ll never forget. And then, I did post all in Maine in the boathouse.

BTL: Did you stay in the UK after production shut down, or did you come back to the States?

Cannon: No, no, I went back. My husband’s family is all from Maine, so we flew from the UK to Maine, and then, we were able to take care of my husband’s parents and have our little bubble in Maine. I basically did everything, post, all of it, then I went back to London by myself for the two months and then came back and then finished the movie in Maine in the boathouse. It was the one time when I was like, “Holy crap, you can just do everything from your own couch.” We were composing the movie, actually composing with composers, I was in Maine, my composers were in L.A. and the orchestra was in Vienna. We were all on Zoom. So I’d give my notes to the composers in L.A. they would give the notes to the conductor in Vienna in English, and then in German, he would tell them what the note was. It was incredible.

BTL: I’ve heard all these stories, and yet, the projects have all turned out great despite the COVID limitations, and that’s a testament to hiring the right people, because they were able to do whatever it took to get it done.

Cannon: A lot of CGI, a lot of help from the VFX department.

BTL: Cinderella was your second movie as a director, and for some reason, I thought you might have directed some of the shows you worked on.

Cannon: I was a showrunner on my TV show, which feels like you’re the director of the directors. I think showrunning is much harder than directing. [laughs]

BTL: Was there any one thing from directing Blockers that you could bring to directing Cinderella?

Cannon: I’m an improviser at heart, and my directing philosophy is “best idea wins” so for Blockers, I loved getting a bunch of jokes or getting a bunch of ideas from anywhere, and I’ll take them from anywhere. But Blockers really taught me two things that were really helpful. Blockers was a hard shoot, too, in different ways. It was the first thing I was directing, so there was that. I know I can do anything hard, firstly, and then secondly, there’d be jokes where I would be like, “There’s no frickin way that’s making it in the movie.” Not only would it make it in the movie, but it would be in the trailer, and it would be one of the biggest laughs of the whole movie.  I really take that always with me. I remind myself that even things I think aren’t going to work, let’s put it all up, let’s try another take and let’s try something else differently. Because when you’re the writer of it, I’m not precious about my words at all, but you have in your head what you think it’s gonna be. So it’s just always reminding yourself to be open about something completely different.

BTL: Can you do that with a musical, though? How much improvising can you do when everyone has to hit their marks and the camera team has to be there to capture everything?

Cannon: It’s not within the music, although in “Shining Star,” when they’re like doing this… [nods head from left to right and back as Camila and Billy Porter do] That was like a fun improvised thing, and they just kept it going. That wasn’t scripted or anything like that, but it’s the straight scenes and allowing people to get what’s on the page, and then have what I call “fun runs” when they can do whatever they want for a take. 

BTL: It seems like Camila just got right into it. I don’t think I would have known this was her first acting role, so had she done musical theater or stuff like that?

Cannon: I mean, this was a risk. When she did the chemistry test with the different princes, she and I shared a really nice moment, because she did the chemistry test, she did the scenes, and I workshopped with them, and I do some rehearsing before the chemistry test. But she came up to me and she’s like, “So I can do this, right?” Basically, [she was asking] if she was capable of doing this, and I was like, “Yes, you can.” We both were like, “Phew!” [laughs] 

BTL: Well, it turned out great, and I think a lot of the people who were doubting it will be surprised when they watch it on Amazon Prime Video. I remember some of the more cynical comments are coming from guys, and I thought maybe this movie just wasn’t made for them. I think people will be surprised by how fun this is.

Cannon: Oh, good. It’s a PG fairy tale movie. It might not be for you. [laughs]

Cinderella will debut on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Sept. 3, but it will also be in select theaters in New York and L.A.

All photos courtesy Amazon Studios. Photographer: Kerry Brown (unless noted differently).