No one thought it would be a hit -- too much singing, not enough superheroes -- but ''Pitch Perfect'' belted its way into a $113 million worldwide grand slam, spawning a smash single and a DVD sensation; now the balladeer Bellas are back for another a cappella ass whupping and we've totally got a toner
The Barden Bellas have split up!
But before you scream ”A ca-scuse me?!” it’s just a temporary separation. On this muggy June day in Baton Rouge, La., the cast of Pitch Perfect 2, the sequel to Universal’s sleeper about a college a cappella group, is pulling double duty. Rebel Wilson (returning as blunt bombshell Fat Amy) and Brittany Snow (back as dim bulb Chloe) are cloistered in the production offices, recording and preparing for dance rehearsal. It sounds way more glam than it is. Instead of catered cuisine, the stars can dine on granola bars while huddling in a kitchenette, and the recording studio is plunked down so close to railroad tracks that everything rumbles when a train rolls by. Still, it’s a major step up from the original. ”On the first movie, we didn’t have probably one-third of the things we have now,” Snow says. ”It looks like Transformers is filming here.”
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin, reprising their roles as vocal power couple Beca and Jesse, are shooting Beca’s first day of work as an intern at a recording company. ”Any first-day jitters?” Jesse asks. ”No,” Beca responds. ”I’m just going to be moody and distant — artists love that, right?” If anyone has slight jitters, it’s the woman behind the camera: actress Elizabeth Banks (the Hunger Games franchise), who executive-produced the original and appeared in a small role as sassy judge Gail. She’s now making her feature-directing debut. ”This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever had,” she jokes during a break in shooting. ”My first movie is this huge studio movie that a lot of people care about that also happens to be a musical with massive dance numbers. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
But Pitch Perfect is all about defying the odds. Released in September 2012, the movie, directed by Jason Moore (Avenue Q) and written by Kay Cannon (30 Rock), focused on a ragtag a cappella group at a Southern college and their surly but sensational new recruit, Beca. The film earned solid reviews and grossed $65 million in the U.S. ”It was pretty modest,” Banks says. ”But it engendered a lot of love. That’s what we could not have foreseen.”
Pitch almost doubled its box office overseas, raking in an additional $48 million from 37 countries. And back in the U.S., it exploded into a DVD blockbuster, boosted by Kendrick’s ”Cups”single and a platinum-selling soundtrack. ”Pitch performed on DVD like a movie that did at least twice what its theatrical business was,” says Peter Cramer, Universal’s co-president of production. All of which fast-tracked the sequel. ”It went from ‘Boy, it would be great to do this!’ to ‘We must do this!”’
The little comedy that could is now striving for franchise status. Pitch Perfect 2 will swing into theaters on May 15, 2015, facing off against some of the biggest guns of the summer. (Avengers: Age of Ultron opens two weeks earlier.) ”The first film flew under the radar, and it was a gift,” says Banks. ”This time around, much higher stakes.” And the studio knows it. ”Everybody is much more involved,” she adds. ”As the saying goes, ‘Success has many fathers.”’
Months after shooting on PP2 has wrapped, Banks sits inside a cavernous mixing stage on the Sony lot finalizing her movie’s sound mix. She screens about 25 minutes of the film for EW that includes a major set piece: a new version of the ”Riff-Off,” a swagger-fueled musical battle between multiple groups. In the first film, this improvisational sing-off took place in an empty swimming pool. This time, it’s at the mansion of an eccentric a cappella devotee played by David Cross (Arrested Development). Think the ultimate karaoke contest, but with top-notch teams belting out Carrie Underwood’s ”Before He Cheats,” Bell Biv DeVoe’s ”Poison,” and Taylor Swift’s ”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Pitch Perfect 2 is set three years after the first film, and most of the Bellas, including Beca and Fat Amy, are now seniors. (Chloe should have finished college already, but she has failed on purpose for three years to stick with the group.) The Bellas are no longer underdogs, but the hottest a cappella team around, attracting both new members — e.g., freshman Emily (Begin Again‘s Hailee Steinfeld) — and fresh competition in the form of German team Das Sound Machine. (YouTube star Flula Borg plays their leader.) Fun, right? But there was just one teeny tiny problem with creating Teutonic villains: Pitch Perfect is huge in Germany. The original film grossed more there than in any other non-English-speaking country. Studio executives watched the script like U.N. peacekeepers. ”There were so many jokes that I would get notes on,” says returning screenwriter Cannon. ”Like, ‘The Germans love this movie so much. Don’t be too mean toward the Germans!”’ (Entschuldigung, Freunde.)
As we rejoin the Bellas, Beca and Jesse are still happily together, but now the other girls are getting some action too. Fat Amy’s flirtation with Bumper (Adam DeVine) in the first film goes to a whole new level. ”She’s really freaky,” Cannon says. ”And he’s like, ‘Okay. I guess I’ll do that!”’ But, as they say, lucky in love, unlucky at…well, everything else. As the film kicks off, the Bellas tarnish their gleaming reputation. ”We kind of disgrace ourselves very publicly,” Wilson says. Seeking redemption, the team enters the world championships, going up against the best groups on earth (including one played by YouTube phenom Pentatonix). In other words, expect epic production numbers. ”I’ve been training with this coach from Cirque du Soleil for the opening sequence,” Wilson says, not joking. ”It is a little bit inspired by Pink’s performance.” That would be the showstopper at the 2010 Grammys where Pink sang ”Glitter in the Air” suspended from the ceiling in trapeze silks. ”It is extremely difficult,” Wilson says. ”They couldn’t get a stunt double my size to do it, so they said, ‘Let’s just make Rebel do it. Is she afraid of heights? Yes? Let’s put her up there. That should be hilarious.”’
Despite the success of the original, Banks wasn’t sure, initially, that a sequel was a good idea. She and her husband/producing partner, Max Handelman, had developed the first film from Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction book of the same title, and they felt protective of the property and the characters. Serious sequel talks with the studio began in January 2013 but evolved in fits and starts. ”We didn’t want to be exploitative,” Banks says. ”We wanted to make sure we had more to say about these characters and more story to tell without straying far from the original. That’s a tricky balance to strike.” Cannon eventually latched onto the idea of the Bellas facing graduation. ”To me, that’s a great story,” she says. ”You see them when they form [the group], and then you see them as they leave.”
Banks and Handelman wanted Jason Moore to return as director, but he had already committed to helm the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy The Nest (out in December 2015). They tried to find a way for him to do both but couldn’t get the schedules of the two films to align. They needed a new director. Fast.
Universal chairman Donna Langley had seen a short film that Banks had directed for the American Heart Foundation and suggested that the actress step in for Moore. Banks had been looking for a script to direct, but a movie of this scale was a huge leap for a newbie. Her intimate knowledge of the source material, and her years of industry experience, persuaded her to take the plunge. Even now, though, she still sometimes wonders how she got roped into this gig. ”I’m responsible for choosing all of the songs and approving all of the arrangements, and I don’t know how qualified I am for all this s—,” she says, laughing.
Music is as critical to Pitch Perfect 2 as visual effects were to Guardians of the Galaxy. And just as hard to get right. Dozens of things can go wrong in the journey from page to screen. Cannon will write actual songs into the script, but whether they stay in the script depends on a host of variables, including whether the song is available, whether it’s affordable, and whether it actually sounds good. It requires an entire team of people to pull that off. ”I take a lot of opinions into consideration,” says Banks, who has final say on which songs make the cut. ”Certain things don’t arrange well in a cappella.” Or simply don’t sound fresh enough. The success of ”Cups” aside, Banks insists you will not see a sequel full of actresses banging away on beverage containers. ”’Cups’ was such an organic discovery by the audience that it’s impossible to replicate,” she says. Not that Kendrick wasn’t tempted. Kinda. ”I was thinking about doing one with pots and pans,” she jokes. ”Just get real angry and f— some s— up.”
If PP2 hits with audiences, Universal is prepared to move forward with Pitch Perfect 3. Kendrick, at least, has developed a can’t-miss plan to make sure the sequel blows the doors off the box office. ”We’ve got a foulmouthed teddy bear, we’ve got the Black Widow, and we’ve got Rosamund Pike,” she says. ”We just want to give people everything they could possibly want.” And we thought Fat Amy in a silk sling was enough.
‘Cups’: The Story of A Thing
How an audition song in Pitch Perfect performed with only a plastic cup became a Billboard sensation
A song really can change your life. ”Cups” — a rendition of the 1931 tune ”When I’m Gone” that Anna Kendrick’s Beca sings in Pitch Perfect — has sold more than 3.5 million copies. ”That tickled me so much,” Kendrick says, laughing. ”Every person on the Billboard charts at that time, which was, like, Miley Cyrus and Macklemore, had to have had a conversation with their friends going, ‘Who the f— is this girl?”’ Here, a timeline of a musical phenomenon.
Sept. 25, 2012 The a cappella version of ”Cups” is released on the Pitch Perfect soundtrack.
Jan. 5, 2013 ”Cups” hits No. 25 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under Hot 100.
April 6, 2013 A pop version of the tune enters the Billboard Hot 100.
April 12, 2013 Kendrick premieres the video on her Vevo channel; it racks up more than 165 million views.
Aug. 17, 2013 The song reaches No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Meet the New Bella
Hailee Steinfeld plays freshman Emily, a stellar singer with a family secret
By the end of Pitch Perfect 2, most of the Bellas will be graduating from college. So the series needed fresh blood. Freshman blood, to be exact. Enter Emily, played by 17-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit). Emily is a legacy Bella — her mother (Sons of Anarchy‘s Katey Sagal) was in the group. But Emily wants to be admitted on her own merits. ”She has her insecurities, and she wants to know that she’s a Bella because she’s a great singer and she’s a great performer,” Steinfeld says. ”She doesn’t want to pull the [legacy] card.” Em’s a bit of the wide-eyed little sister, in other words. ”Emily is the future of the group,” says director Elizabeth Banks. ”That’s really her role — to be the fresh eyes into the sorority.” And Steinfeld embraced it. Being the new kid usually blows, but the actress jumped at the chance to dive into the Pitch Perfect world. ”It’s kind of surreal as a fan of the first movie,” she says. ”Being a part of this and seeing how it all happens is really exciting.” Ah, freshmen…