Kay Cannon Brought ‘Cinderella’ Into 2021 With the Help of Billy Porter as Her Fairy Godmother

Kay Cannon Brought ‘Cinderella’ Into 2021 With the Help of Billy Porter as Her Fairy Godmother

In order to lure Camila Cabello to “Cinderella,” Kay Cannon borrowed a page from Prince Charming’s playbook. Sony told Cannon she could direct the film — she had already been writing the screenplay — provided she could convince the pop star that “Cinderella” should be her acting debut. So off Cannon went to Miami to meet with Cabello, having packed a glass slipper she’d bought on Etsy, even though her producers told her that would be “weird,” she says.

“I was there for, like, 30 seconds. And I’m like, ‘I hesitate to do this!’ And I pull out this glass slipper. ‘Does it fit?’”

However embarrassing, the gesture worked. In May, Amazon Studios bought “Cinderella” from Sony — with Cannon’s blessing — and it will premiere on the streamer on Sept. 3. While it’s disappointing that the movie musical won’t primarily play in theaters, the director, who has a daughter too young to get vaccinated, sees only the bright side.

“If the goal is for people to feel joy,” Cannon says, “I think we’re going to reach more people.”

At 47, Cannon is among the still-too-small group of women directors who have a Midas touch for mainstream, feminist comedies. After getting her start as a writer for “30 Rock,” Cannon wrote the three “Pitch Perfect” movies and directed “Blockers,” an emphatically R-rated comedy with a dirty mind and a loving heart.

In summer 2017, Cannon had just completed filming “Blockers” when her agent told her that James Corden wanted to speak with her about a “Cinderella” project. She jumped at the chance — but only because she wanted to meet the late-night talk-show host, not because she had any interest in fairy tales or princess culture. In fact, Cannon was certain that any new “Cinderella” would be a non-starter, since Disney’s 2015 live-action version, starring Lily James, had grossed more than $540 million worldwide so recently. “Nothing’s going to come out of this,” she remembers thinking.

But when Corden and his Fulwell 73 producing partner Leo Pearlman pitched her the idea of a “Cinderella” musical with contemporary songs, saying she could rewrite the fable however she liked, she immediately changed her mind. “I have no poker face,” Cannon says. “And I was like, ‘I want to do this!’”

Cannon’s “Cinderella” has a thoroughly modern message. Ella isn’t interested in marriage, wanting instead to travel the world and be a designer.  Cannon also toned down the canonical cattiness of Ella’s stepfamily, and upped the story’s comedy potential. All the while, characters such as the stepmother (Idina Menzel) and the prince (Nicholas Galitzine) are singing songs like “Material Girl” and “Somebody to Love” and “Pitch Perfect”-style mashups like “Whatta Man” with “Seven Nation Army.”

At every step, her guiding principle was “How can it be different?” “I wanted people to get their money’s worth,” Cannon says, “or why do it at all?”

In an interview with Variety, Cannon talks about how COVID-19 affected “Cinderella,” her experience as a woman director and how things have changed in comedy.

The Cinderella story has been told and retold, and had just been a live-action movie when you signed on to write this. How did you want your version to be different? And is it significant here that Camila Cabello is a woman of color? 

Yes, I wanted to make sure it was incredibly inclusive. And her being Cuban Mexican is no small thing, and what she represents to millions of people — not only her fans, but to millions.

The story has mostly been told and retold almost exclusively by men: I feel it when I watch. The 2015 Kenneth Branagh “Cinderella” was hugely successful, and it was beautiful. And I love the Whitney Houston, Brandi “Cinderella.” It just feels a little told from their gaze. And I really felt like it was important to me to tell it through my gaze.

Can you talk about creating the Fab G, and what you wanted from that character?  

So many amazing actresses have played that role — so I’d written that role to be a man. And, quite honestly, the only one who fit all of everything I wanted was Billy Porter; I wrote it with him in mind. He’s just such a great singer. He’s just so talented. Because I wrote it specifically for Billy, the character kind of came easy. I just wrote it in his voice, and tried to make it funny. I had actually had another song in there, and then as soon as Billy was confirmed, we picked “Shining Star.”

Is the Fab G gender non-binary?

We talked about it. In having many conversations with Billy, I was like, “I think the answer needs to come from you.” He has said “they/them,” and “magic has no gender.” Non-binary for sure.

You started filming in England in February 2020. Tell me about shutting down because of COVID. 

We had shot the ball the first week of March, which is something I do not believe I would have been able to do coming back — and it wasn’t a super-spreader. I’d shot all of the Fab G stuff, and all the basement stuff.

It felt like something out of “The Amazing Race” — like, pack up all your stuff! I’d been in the U.K. for like four months, and my family was there. My daughter was going to school there, and my husband was the writer on set. So we packed everything up, and then Camila and her family and my family, we flew back. My husband’s family is in Maine, and so we just stayed in Maine the entire time.

That sounds so nice, actually. 

I did all of post in a boathouse in Maine. It was pretty awesome, actually.

During the break, what were you doing?

It was like getting a second prep, really. I was working with my editor, Stacey Schroeder, and we were putting together what we had. And then I was able to see what I needed and what I didn’t need. And I was doing a ton of rewriting, and I was doing a ton of prep that we didn’t necessarily have. Because I had all the opening, I had the finale, I had “Somebody to Love,” I had “Am I Wrong,” “Material Girl” — all these big numbers.  

Movie theaters have reopened, and this was obviously made with a theatrical audience in mind. How did the Amazon of it all happen?

Sony is a business, first and foremost. I know that Sony loves the movie, and that partnership was really great on that level. So I think it was hard for them to give it up, but I’m really quite happy that people can see this in this safety of their own homes with loved ones. And it is a wonderful theatrical experience, especially with the music and the sound and everything. And it will open theatrically in some theaters.

It not being a wide release in theaters means that we’re not healthy yet. And so that’s what’s the most upsetting — that we’re not healthy.

As you were moving from being a performer to being a screenwriter, did you always have directing in mind, or was that something that you discovered you wanted to do? 

I was led to it. When I was at “30 Rock,” by like Season 5, I really wanted to direct an episode. And I was too chickenshit to ask. I was the writer/producer who was always on set — at that point, I’d spent my 10,000 hours on set for sure. And it wasn’t until I had a meeting with Nathan Kahane at Lionsgate, and he was like, “You should be directing your own stuff.” I have such a respect for academics, and I never went to film school, so I just didn’t think I could do it.  And then once he put that in my head, I was like, “Yeah, you know what? I can do it.’” 

And is that how “Blockers” came about?  

Exactly. Yeah, they sent me the script with an offer to direct. And with no questions asked. I didn’t have to do any kind of auditioning.

That is very rare! Obviously, things have gotten better for women directors in the past few years, after years of the most appalling statistics. What obstacles do you feel like you’ve faced as a woman director?  

Especially with “Blockers,” I had a very good experience. I feel like the obstacles I have to face really are from the powers that be that still fight me at every level on what women want to watch, or think is funny. Or what is funny — forget gender.

My stuff happens to have female leads, and it’s female driven. So the jokes are coming out of women’s mouths. And I cannot tell you the amount of fighting I have about what they think is going to work, and what they think isn’t going to work. And there’s a lot of like, “I have all the expertise, you do not have the experience.”

And it’s just like, ‘I’ve been working in the comedy side for 15 years now — successfully.” And so what ends up happening is, I fight and fight and fight, and then I just do it and get it in. And then it gets put in front of an audience and the audience laughs. And then they have to say, “OK, that does work.” And you might not think that that’s that big of a deal. Maybe that’s creatively for everybody. Maybe it’s not gender specific. I tend to believe that it is gender specific.

Is that at the studio level? 

From my experience, it’s mostly the studio level. And maybe I’m just sensitive to it or whatever. But I just feel like there’s a lot of conversations about what is funny out of a woman’s mouth. What’s allowed. And I feel like no matter how much success I had with “Pitch Perfect,” I think it’s still as much of a fight now as it was then. Which doesn’t make sense to me.

With “Cinderella” too?  

Oh, especially with “Cinderella.” 

And now we’re back on the record after going off for a bit! I rewatched the “Black Tie” episode of “30 Rock” yesterday, which you wrote with Tina Fey, in which Paul Reubens plays an afflicted prince. That was the moment in Season 1 when I realized, OK, I love “30 Rock.”

[Affects Prince Gerhardt voice] “THANK YOU FOR COMING TO MY BIRTHDAY.”

That was the first thing I ever wrote! You know, professionally.

An unbelievable calling card to have as your first screen credit. 

Yes! I was asked recently who is my Fab G, and my answer is Tina Fey. I wrote stuff as a friend she was reading. And I never thought that she would consider me for her staff, and she just grabbed me and was like, “You’re gonna do this!” I thank her every day for giving me that opportunity. 

There are so many conversations right now about what’s acceptable in comedy. As a screenwriter who’s done mostly comedy, how do you feel about that?

Right now I think we’re in the muck, and I think we’re striving for equality. And we’re trying to work things out! Of course we should look back at things that were done 15 years ago, and be like, “Oh, no!”

I don’t know if this is a story I should tell. But I can remember getting notes to put the f-slur into “Pitch Perfect” as them being bullied like by the cool athletic guys. And I was like: “No! I can’t do that.” I think I put it in for a draft, and a friend of mine read it, and she’s like, “You cannot have that in.” And I was like, “It’s a note I was given!” I was told to do that, you know?’ And then like realizing, no, it’s unacceptable. You cannot use that word. Even if you’re trying to show that it’s awful, don’t do it.

You have to have your moral compass, and know what’s right for you. And there’s just some things we just shouldn’t tolerate anymore. And they’re just not acceptable. I’m certain if I looked back at stuff that I would cringe, you know? Or just, that’s how people thought then. And I was one of those people. But certainly now if you know better, you do better, right? Is that too soapboxy?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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