Interview: “Pitch Perfect” Director Jason Moore on the Sweet Sound of Subversion and Making Audiences Believe in Singing

The Tony Award-nominated director makes a seamless transition to the screen with a new comedy set in the world of competitive collegiate a capella choirs and talks about making...
Jason Moore and Anna Kendrick on the Set of the movie Pitch Perfect

When I wandered into the 10:40 show of “Pitch Perfect” Lincoln Square Loews on its first night in theaters last week, nothing could’ve prepared me for what I was walking into. I suspected the evening could be special since the film’s opening scene is set just blocks away at Lincoln Center, where the Barden Bellas, a collegiate all-female a capella squad is bound for defeat at the hands of their rivals, the all-male Treblemakers from the same school. However, what I couldn’t have anticipated was the person who climbed their chair near the front of the theater to urge everyone in the crowd to sing happy birthday to his friend, an act that would’ve put everyone in the right celebratory mood for what followed even if his friend Ben Platt didn’t turn out to have a small, but critical role in the film as an aspiring illusionist/singer whose dream it is to be in the Treblemakers.

Soon enough, the theater was consumed with screams greeting Platt’s every appearance, but they didn’t stop there. As the Bellas scrap together a winning team with an embrace of musical mashups and the recruitment of Beca, a sullen freshman (Anna Kendrick) more interested in producing music than singing it, and a supremely confident soprano who’s christened herself Fat Amy so others won’t do it behind her back (Rebel Wilson), the ladies make up for the fact they can’t hit the low notes, a necessity of the competition, to only hit the high ones when it comes to the movie they’re in.

It speaks to the strength of Kay Cannon’s screenplay that every character’s arc could be so satisfying — including Platt, who was afforded a rousing “Rocky”-like moment at the end in front of his assembled friends — and to the energy director Jason Moore brings to the table that he could outpace whatever momentary jubilation the audience was experiencing to deliver even more in the next scene. Whether or not it’s someone’s birthday, every screening of “Pitch Perfect” is as likely to turn into a party as the Bellas are to break into song.

Though it is only his first film, Moore is used to throwing the best shindigs. As a boy growing up in Arkansas, he was the kid on the block who organized parties and designed haunted houses. It was a talent that would serve him well while attending Northwestern as a film and theater major, where his short-lived dabbling in acting always seemed to take a backseat to everything else that was going on on the set, and eventually on Broadway where Moore brought sophistication to a collection of profane puppets in “Avenue Q” and was nominated for a Tony Award. “Pitch Perfect” is no less of an achievement and on the eve of the movie’s expansion across the country, Moore spoke with me about finding that perfect pitch for the delectable sweettart of a comedy, capturing a moment when everything is of the utmost importance without going overboard and how his love/hate relationship of musicals has translated into innovation.

What was it about “Pitch Perfect” that made you want to do it?

I read the script just in a stack that was sent to me and Kay Cannon’s voice is so specific and so funny. A lot of scripts look and smell and sound funny, but don’t actually make you laugh. This one actually just made me actually cackle out loud. I just knew that this was special and I got to meet Kay and realized that she comes from that “30 Rock” world, which is so witty and smart and kind of weird. I love anything that’s a little bit left of center, so it appealed to me on that comic level, then it also had heart. That’s the thing I like best is when something can be subversive and funny like “Avenue Q,” but then it actually delivers a little bit of a gooey center. Then it had music on top of it, so I was pretty much sold. I knew from the minute that I read it, I was like this would be one, a really fun movie to make and two, I feel like I would know what to do with this for a first feature when so many things are unknown.

Since you first found success with musical theater, were music-related films what you were primarily being offered for your first film or what you pursued?

After “Avenue Q,” I was sent a lot of music-based projects – a lot of puppet-based projects, actually – and a lot of projects for kids, just because “Avenue Q” looks sort of like it’s for kids, I guess. I’ve always wondered should I be doing a musical? What does that mean? But ultimately, it didn’t really matter because I’m just drawn to stories that have music in them. I play the piano, music has always been a part of my life. I think it’s part of everyone’s life in some way or another and it’s one of the quickest ways to an emotional connection that you can get. Good movies always need music somehow, so the fact that it had singing and comedy felt like a good fit. It’s so scary to make your first movie. There’s so many things that you don’t know that there were other scripts that I was interested in and maybe would’ve gotten the job, but truth be told, I’m sure my experience with music and singing and dancing helped me get a first movie, which is always a difficult proposition as well.

This may be a stretch, but did you connect to any degree with the story of the Bellas? Because over the past few years, the popularity of mashups has really grown and as someone who came up in musical theater during that time where there’s a certain form well-established, you had to do something similar to disrupt it while remaining respectful of it.

Totally. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I love musicals, and I also really hate them. I hate them for the reasons a lot of people hate them, which is if they’re too earnest or they’re too gooey or too unbelievable, I tune out. One of the things we talked a lot about when we were making “Avenue Q” was how do you get people to believe singing? How could we get a new generation of people to look at an old artform like musical theater and maybe see it with some kind of freshness? The author’s answer to that question was well, most people grew up on singing puppets and puppets might be an entry point for people who hate musicals to potentially like one. That’s actually how that was born –how do you take an old form and find a new spin on it. The form doesn’t really change, but the coating that you put on it may change.

The mashup thing wasn’t too much in the original script because it was just like [Beca] does this amazing thing and we were trying to figure out what’s a new way to do a capella. Mashups aren’t that new in the sense they’ve been done for the last couple of years, so what I added on top of it was what does a DJ do? We actually have a lot more beatboxing and we have a dubstep section – musical styles that you wouldn’t normally find in A-Capella. I always try and look at a form that works, and generally forms work for a reason – musicals or Hollywood romances or thrillers – and then you go, well, what’s the different treatment I can give it that hopefully gives it an original voice and that’s exactly what Beca does. You’re not always successful at it, but I always try to ask that question because that hopefully makes it something people feel they haven’t seen before even if many of the things are kind of tropes they have seen before.

Elizabeth Banks has credited you with finding “Titanium” long before it became a big hit for David Guetta, as the song Beca sings in the shower that gets her recruited to the Bellas, and this isn’t a question of just music, because you’ve got a cast of actors such as Rebel Wilson and Anna Camp whose careers are taking off, but does a fair amount of forecasting become a part of the job for a film like this when you’re planning it out two years in advance?

There’s a couple things about that. I’ve directed plays about high school and “Dawson’s Creek” and some of those TV shows, and if you look back at the other movies that this genre has birthed from “Bring It On” to “Clueless” to “Mean Girls,” you’re working with an age group where many super-talented people haven’t been discovered yet. These are the kinds of movies and roles that allow them to step up and really take a bite out of something when they haven’t had a chance to do that. So that may be part of why I tend to gravitate towards this age group is because there’s a kind of wide-eyed freshness to the way that you can discover comedy and actors and characters at this moment in their lives.

From a musical perspective, any time you’re making a movie about music and about music being cool, you end up in a slightly tricky position because you start to have to define what’s cool and new about music, which frankly everybody has a different opinion about. I actually love electronic dance music and I love to go dancing and I love DJs — I spend most of my time at Coachella at the dance tent and right now, dance music is pop music basically.

A lot of dance music can be really emotionally distancing, but what I loved about that track [“Titanium”] when that David Guetta album came out is it has a real beautiful melody and an emotional quality to it, even though it’s a traditional dance track. Then the lyric was similar to Beca, that she could sort of stand alone and nothing could penetrate her exterior. [slight laugh] It just seemed like a good connection and I didn’t even realize it at the time, but now David Guetta has so many big hits that he’s actually probably the most popular DJ, literally popular on the top 40, so it also seemed an accessible way for people to know about that kind of music when it wasn’t their favorite. I really chose the song because I thought it would work for the story and it was just a really bizarre and happy accident that it’s been climbing the charts over the summer.

This is tangentially related to something you said earlier, but it seems like you walk a very thin line with a movie like this because it would so easy to strike a false chord, whether it’s in the music feeling passé or the emotions inauthentic if it’s taken too seriously. Both here and in your TV work on shows like “Dawson’s Creek” or “Everwood,” is there a sweet spot you try to hit where it’s just subversive enough but emotionally connecting?

This is also still true of this age group that we’re talking about, which is most teenagers kind of adopt an exterior of “been there, done that” or cynicism and kind of too cool for school, but they’re basically operating at a level where everything [they do] is extremely passionate and important. It’s like the classic 14-year-old who says, “It doesn’t matter,” and really what they mean is “It matters more than anything.” There’s a cool tension there, which I always find interesting about that age group.

So [for] a lot of kids, and now grownups too who are more cynical, you have to subvert things, like we did in “Avenue Q” or in this movie, which is we’re going to make fun of the very thing that we’re then going to deliver to you on a platter. You’re actually telling your audience, we know this is kind of cheesy and we know it’s kind of silly, yet if you just relax for a second, you might actually enjoy it too. That’s interesting for me because also part of the challenge is how do you make people pay attention in a way they might not pay attention. Some people might dismiss the movie as it’s another singing movie, it’s another “Glee” and I’m generally happy when I hear that someone is sort of surprised by [the fact] it’s actually subversive and it’s actually funny. That was the goal.

Was there a particular moment when you knew this movie was working?

It was towards the end of my directors cut, like two months into the cut and that’s when you’re thinking, “oh my God, this is total shit.” You’ve seen it so many times you don’t think it’s funny and you don’t know what’s working. And my assistant used to coach a girls’ high school lacrosse team. She’s like, “What if I got 12 of my girls in here? Just crowded them into the editing room and we got them pizza and Cokes and you just like sit back and watch that with them?” We sat down and they didn’t feel the bumps and warts like I did. They didn’t care the music wasn’t all polished yet. They just laughed. And I thought okay, well, if these girls are having a good time, maybe other people will too.

I hate to bring it up, but there is one oddity I wanted to ask about – the DVD cover of “The Breakfast Club” looked a little funny to me.

Oh my goodness. Well-spotted, sir.

What was particularly striking about it is that because “Pitch Perfect” is a Universal film, as is “The Breakfast Club,” surely it allowed you the right to devote such a significant amount of time to it in the film, but why wasn’t it the regular DVD cover that one would see in stores?

Whenever you use an actor’s likeness, either visually or audibly from another film, you have to get their individual permission, so we had to go through a process of tracking all those actors down to make sure we could use their faces and their voices. We didn’t have everyone’s approval at the time that we shot it, so we had to make some adjustments, though in the end, we did get everyone’s approval. But that’s why it looks different.

That’s the only thing I could find that was slightly imperfect about this movie.

And again, well-spotted. You really know the DVD, you really know the artwork for “The Breakfast Club.” It’s so funny because I always see that and of course, that’s one of those warts that I see and I’m like, ugh, it’s not the real cover. And I feel like there must be people that notice, so I’m glad to know there are purists.

Speaking of purity, some of the funniest scenes in the film are pure cinema sans dialogue, just clever camera moves and quick cuts – was finding the rhythm of the comedy onscreen similar or different to the way you’d find it on stage?

The similarity is with a musical-based story, music by its very nature has its own drive and tempo and rhythm and the comedy has to usually be as brusque or as brief or as sharp as the music in it. It’s that classic problem in a musical where the songs are awesome and upbeat, then the talking scenes are really slow. The comedy challenges are similar in this movie that you want to make sure it all stays bouncy and driving and so that when you get to a song, it doesn’t feel like you’ve sped up or when you get to talking, it doesn’t sound like you’ve slowed down.

But what’s also great about film, of course, is that the subtleties of an eyeroll or a look or a double take can be quite small, but then be really funny. Rebel Wilson is a great example of that. She’s a bigger-than-life character, but most of what she does is actually quite small and subtle. I think audiences like to feel that there’s a reality behind comedy and a lot of times in theater, the comedy is just by its nature pushed, so that’s one of the things I found really fun is that in a movie you can play things a little bit more real and so you can both be funny and real.

“Pitch Perfect” is now open in wide release.

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