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Kay Cannon – Breaking Through the Glass Slipper

Kay Cannon

Breaking Through the Glass Slipper

By Jay S. Jacobs

The beloved fairytale Cinderella has been a family favorite for generations, and it has been the basis – either directly or indirectly – of dozens of films over the years. However, strangely enough men have directed pretty much all of the movies telling this parable about a young woman breaking free from an oppressive life and finally reaching her dreams. With such a strong, independent heroine that has been idolized by millions of young girls, shouldn’t a movie version of Cinderella be filmed by a woman?

Finally Kay Cannon has helped to break through the glass ceiling of filming a story which revolves around a glass slipper. Cannon got her start as a writer on the great TV series 30 Rock. She became an in-demand screenwriter when she wrote the surprise hit film Pitch Perfect. She ended up writing that film’s two sequels, as well as the holiday romance Let It Snow. She didn’t give up on television, writing episodes of New Girl and Cristela and creating the series Girlboss. Cannon got the chance to try her hand in directing with the 2018 comedy Blockers, which was based on a screenplay which she did not write.

Now she has finally tried on the glass slipper – writing and directing a new musical version of the classic tale. However, Cannon knew this story has been told before and she wanted to put her own spin on it. The new version of Cinderella is the movie debut of singing superstar Camila Cabello in the title role. It also has a strong supporting cast including Broadway stars Idina Menzel as the not-quite-so-evil stepmother and Billy Porter as the fairy godmother (rechristened the Fab Godmother, or Fab G). Film faves Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver play the king and queen, and up-and-comer Nicholas Galitzine is Prince Charming.

About a week before the Amazon Prime release of the new Cinderella, we were able to catch up (on Zoom!) with writer/director Cannon to discuss her new film.

Cinderella is such a legendary fairy tale, but it's one that's been told many times. How did you want to make sure that your vision of it was unique?

I would have never set out to do this had James Corden not pitched me this idea to do the Cinderella story, with contemporary songs. I'm not a fairy tale person. (laughs) As a little girl, I was more of an ET kind of gal. When I had my meeting with him, this was back in 2017, and I thought Kenneth Branagh [just did Cinderella and it was] hugely successful. Cinderella was just out a couple years before. But [I liked] the notion of using contemporary songs and making it a musical and then me myself being able to rewrite the story in a more relatable, modern way. How women and young girls are viewing themselves. Make it more comedic or try to infuse my brand of comedy. That was really interesting to me. I was just signed on as the writer at first. Then as I was writing it, I said to the producers, “I'll rewrite this all and day all night, but only if I'm the director of it,” because I was starting to fall in love with it. I was starting to have a lot of fun and to really see it. You're right, there's been a ton of retellings of Cinderella. We've seen a ton, but I feel like it's really generational. Like, my Cinderella is Brandy and Whitney Houston. I hold that dear to my heart. I also really love Ever After. Whereas my seven-year-old daughter, my hope – I'm going to force her – is that this Cinderella is her Cinderella that she holds near and dear to her heart. Hopefully ten years from now, there'll be another one that cracks open it and shows it in a different way than we've ever seen before.

I was reading that the studio was really heart set on getting Camila Cabello to star in this as our first film role. How did it come about that you got her? What was she like to work with?

Tom Rothman [Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment's Motion Picture Group] brought up her name in one of my first meetings. As soon as he did, I was like, that's genius. Camila feels like she's had a real Cinderella story of her own. She feels like Cinderella to me. She's really funny. I saw something in her where I felt like could… I was an athlete all my life and I coached a lot of teams… I was like, I could coach her. (laughs) I could coach her and get her to a place. She read the script, and I had a sizzle reel and to show her my vision of the movie. She asked to meet. So, I had to fly to Miami and talk with her. It was like, I was auditioning her [and] she was auditioning me. I don't know if you know this, but I bought a glass slipper on Etsy. I presented it to her like an idiot. (laughs again)

How did that go over?

I don't know how it was for Camila, but her mother Sinu loved it. I was like, I'm winning over her mother in a heartbeat. But I wouldn't have done that had I not suspected somewhere that Camila wanted to play this part and believed in what I was doing and my belief in her.

This is the first musical film that you've done as a director. Pitch Perfect was kind of a musical, but you wrote that, you didn't actually direct it. You had two Broadway legends in your cast Idina Menzel, and Billy Porter. How did their presence of help you in making the film? Obviously, they know musicals.

They are Broadway royalty. (laughs) There was a bit of fangirling on my part, because I loved them both so much, especially Idina. Years ago, I stood outside in the rain [trying] to get $20 house seats to go see Rent and did, I got in. I saw her and just loved her ever since. I felt like Idina can play the meanness. She's got a quality about her that can play the meanness but at the same time, she's got this incredible vulnerability. That was a difference that I was making with the stepmother. I don't want there to be a villain in this movie. I wanted to justify her actions by giving her a backstory. Idina was amazing with that. I will tell you in pre-records, that's where I was really blown away by both of them. I mean, I was blown away the whole time. There's a picture of me, I took a selfie where Idina's in the booth. She's killing it on “Material Girl,” I just gave her a fun run to do whatever she wanted. I'm like this. (Mimes taking a selfie looking over her shoulder and laughs.) I can't believe I'm actually able to see her work in this way.

That’s great.

Billy does “Shining Star.” He does that big note at the end, where he just kills this note. In the pre-record, he's like, “I don't know if I'm going to be able to get there.” He did this little warm up and stuff. I was like, let's just give it a go. (claps her hands) Let's go. Let's try it. He nailed it the first time. I think he only did it twice because he nailed it the first time. It is pretty incredible to watch them work.

There were some original tunes in there, too. I believe “Million to One” and “Dream Girl” were written for the film. Why did you want to get some songs that were specific to the film?

It was all in the storytelling. “Million to One” came about because I was really trying to redefine the Cinderella character. I was trying to make that feel original. She had a different drive, and she had different ambitions and goals. The best way to express that storytelling wise – because all the songs had to feel like dialogue on the page – was for that to be an original song. I was reprising it too. I had already written into [the script] that whatever the song was, [it] would be reprised a couple of times. The same holds true for “Dream Girl,” where the stepmother’s character is seen in a new way. I really wanted to show in multi-generational storytelling that she's pissed. (laughs) She's not only pissed, but all the other women all over, regardless of status, or class or whatever, are also pissed. They can relate. They can connect on that level. Of course, she's wrong, her thinking is wrong. Of course we need dream girls. Of course, we should be allowed to follow our dreams. I felt like that was just such a great spot to have originals, whereas all the other spots felt like homages to different genres of music.

You pull off an interesting balancing act. The story and the setting are very old fashioned, but a lot of the dialogue and the characters are really pretty modern. Was that interesting to pull off – both as a writer and as a director?

That was the juxtaposition that I wanted. I wanted to like make you feel like you're in a fairy tale. Then the songs and what they're saying make it feel very current. Now, that could just be that I'm not that great of a writer and I cannot write about the period. But that was really my intention. I want the world to see this, right? Those songs connect everybody. Everybody around the world knows “Somebody to Love.” It's just such a great song. We through the music we can come together in that in that way. I felt like the way to make it modern is to is to have them speaking in a way that little kids to adults can understand [it] feels of this time.

The movie was in the middle of filming when COVID hit, and everything had to be put on the put on hold. Everyone had to go home and shelter in place before you could get back later on. As a filmmaker, was that sort of frustrating? Or did it give you time to get things all in a row? How did that work?

It was both. It was frustrating because it was scary. Also, there was a lot of unknown. I didn't know if we were going to get to finish the movie. I didn't know if we were going to get to come back. The silver lining was I was able to regroup and put together sequences that I shot. I shot the ball. I shot the Fab G and all the basement stuff prior. Those are isolated, separate chunks, so I didn't have to do a lot of filling in. I was able to really rewrite. I basically got a second prep. I got to figure out what was working and what wasn't. When we went back, I actually did my reshoots, because every film does reshoots now. I did my reshoots while doing my shoot. (laughs) So, it did give us the time. It gave us the focus. It just was scary. Me personally, I take the weight of the safety of the cast and crew very seriously. I didn't want anybody to get sick because we were shooting a movie, you know?

Also, because of COVID, the movie world sort of got turned upside down. I mean, theaters are finally open again, but still a lot of movies that might have played in theaters are going directly on to platforms like Amazon Prime, which yours is. Do you think that that can sort of help the film find an audience?

My heart dropped when they called to tell me that we were going to go streaming. (laughs) Then, after I picked it back up, and held it so tight to my chest, I felt like I wanted to make it a highly entertaining movie that makes you feel good and makes you laugh and sing and dance. How people see that? I do think it translates through the television. I know it does. I had to do a lot of previews where I was watching people at home watch the movie to see what they would laugh at and what they wouldn't. I watched a woman do her whole laundry while she was watching the movie. I was like that section might be boring. I might have to cut. (laughs again) I'm losing people.

I doubt that…

It's sad because we're not in a healthy place. We're not out of the pandemic. We're still in the muck. That's what is the most disheartening thing, but the fact [is] that I believe I will reach a whole lot more people this way, and hopefully spread some joy. I'm going to try to force some joy on people. That I feel really good about. I can already feel it. The trailer has been watched so many times and the messages I've been getting and stuff like that. Everybody has their opinion and certainly Twitter has their opinions. (laughs) But I'm getting stuff from all over the world. It makes me feel really good.

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: September 1, 2021.

Photos ©2021 Christopher Raphael and Kerry Brown. Courtesy of Amazon Content Services LLC. All rights reserved.


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