- The collegiate a cappella comedy “Pitch Perfect” premiered 10 years ago this week.
- With a low budget, a first-time director, and a first-time screenwriter, it was an unlikely hit.
- A preshoot “boot camp” made many of the actors cry — but also sparked on-screen camaraderie.
In the early 2010s, a cappella was just breaking into mainstream pop culture. “The Sing-Off,” an a cappella competition series on NBC, had premiered in 2009, launching the careers of the Grammy-winning quintet Pentatonix, among others. That year, “Glee,” a new Fox series about a high-school show choir, became wildly popular, charting 25 singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
But when “Pitch Perfect” was released in October 2012, its director, Jason Moore, was worried the film had missed its “moment.”
The stakes for “Pitch Perfect” were high: It was the first feature for both Moore and the screenwriter Kay Cannon, and only the second for Brownstone Productions, the company run by the actor Elizabeth Banks and her husband, Max Handelman. The film’s modest budget — $17 million — meant the cast and crew had to get creative during filming.
Despite the odds, “Pitch Perfect” was a smash success, grossing $115 million — over six times its budget — and spawning two sequels, released in 2015 and 2018. The original film’s soundtrack went platinum, selling more than a million copies.
“I was just so grateful that it even got made at all,” Cannon told Insider about the film, which was released 10 years ago this week. “When I got the call that they wanted a sequel, I almost threw up.”
Here’s how the filmmakers overcame obstacles — including a tough casting process and a grueling a cappella “boot camp” that left many of the actors in tears — to deliver an unexpected hit.
Finding actors with both vocal and comedic chops wasn’t easy
Starring Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, and Adam Devine, “Pitch Perfect” follows two a cappella groups at the fictional Barden University — the female Barden Bellas and the male Treblemakers — as they compete in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
Moore, a musical-theater veteran who’d previously directed “Avenue Q” on Broadway, told Insider he didn’t want to make compromises when it came to casting the film, which called for singing, dancing, acting, and comedy skills. Cannon said that everyone had to not only audition but prove that they could sing.
Ultimately, Cannon said, the production team found a “balance” of cast members with musical and comedic acumen. Some, like the Grammy-nominated songwriter Ester Dean (Cynthia-Rose), didn’t have acting experience but had musical chops. Others, like Wilson (Fat Amy), had performed musical comedy and theater, but “you’d put her comedy abilities ahead of her singing abilities,” Cannon said.
Kendrick, on the other hand, brought it all to the table. She’d already been nominated for both an Oscar — for 2009’s “Up in the Air” — and a Tony, for her performance, at age 12, in the 1998 Broadway musical “High Society.”
Moore said that while Kendrick’s scene work was “flawless,” it was her vocal audition that left everyone “flabbergasted.” It also led to the creation of the film’s most iconic moment.
While other auditioners performed songs from the likes of Lady Gaga or Rihanna, Moore said, Kendrick chose the country classic “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” She pulled out a plastic cup and created a beat with it while she sang — a routine she’d learned from a YouTube video.
The moment would ultimately be replicated in “Pitch Perfect,” culled directly from Kendrick’s audition. “Cups” went viral; a remixed version hit the Billboard Top 10 nearly a year after the film’s release.
Cannon said the part of Fat Amy was one of the hardest to cast. The character, who gives herself the moniker so that “twig bitches” don’t do so behind her back, needed an actor with “unyielding confidence,” Cannon said.
Wilson was cast in large part because of a Facebook friend request she’d sent Cannon because she was a fan of “30 Rock,” on which Cannon had been a writer. When trouble arose during the casting for Fat Amy, Cannon remembered Wilson’s performance in the 2011 film “Bridesmaids” and sent her the script over Facebook.
“I think I’d make a smashing Fat Amy,” Cannon recalled Wilson saying at the time.
The film’s a cappella ‘boot camp’ led to some tears
Four weeks before production began, the cast and crew gathered for an a cappella “boot camp” run by the vocal producer Deke Sharon, known as the “father of contemporary a cappella” for his incorporation of vocal percussion and instrumental sounds into the genre.
Sharon said that when he learned that only one of the Bellas — Kelley Jakle, a “Sing-Off” alum — had any a cappella experience, “the blood drained from my face.”
Footage from the training camp in Baton Rouge, where the movie was filmed, shows the cast drilling the choreography and music. Sharon said that both the men and the women were “awesome” when it came to the choreography and that the male Treblemakers, led by the Broadway stars Skylar Astin and Ben Platt, weren’t difficult to whip into shape.
“But then the women would sing. And I’m not going to lie: They weren’t good. At one point, Jason pulled me aside and said, ‘Deke, the women have to win at the end of the movie,'” Sharon said. “And I was like, ‘I know, I know.'”
Though his background was in musical theater, Moore said the boot camp was “more difficult” than even he’d anticipated. The a cappella arrangements were more complex than musical-theater harmonies, and the choreography, by Aakomon “AJ” Jones, was designed to be “a cappella on steroids.”
“Very few of the actors didn’t cry,” Sharon said. “There were lots of tears, because it’s enormously complicated, and they were all singing their own parts.”
The crew had to get creative with the film’s low budget
Aside from getting the cast into peak a cappella shape, the boot camp served a second purpose: conserving the film’s tiny budget.
Julio Macat, the director of photography, told Insider that to save time during the shoot, he and another member of his team would film the group’s rehearsals with home video cameras, cutting the footage together in the editing room to get a sense of the shots they’d need during the performances.
Sometimes the crew had to improvise. While filming Kendrick’s “Cups” routine, Macat said, the Steadicam operator, Chris McGuire, had to crawl over an extension arm, a piece of mounting equipment that extends a camera’s range, because the production couldn’t afford the equipment necessary to get the continuous shot he wanted. And with no money to hire an outside company to handle the flashier stage lighting for performance scenes, the crew had to set up the lighting themselves, with the gaffer, Richard Ulivella, manning the controls.
The film’s tight budget also factored into its shooting location: Louisiana State University and the city of Baton Rouge, which had performance spaces that could serve as stand-ins for New York City venues like Lincoln Center.
Barry Robison, the production designer, said the creative team had to “maximize any interesting locations” it could find — most notably the empty swimming pool on campus in which the Bellas, the Treblemakers, and other Barden University a cappella groups do a “riff-off,” an improv-game-esque vocal battle.
But there was one collegiate set that the crew had to create on its own: dorm rooms.
“All of the dorm rooms, every single dorm room in that film, were shot in the production offices,” Robison said. “That’s how it was. I made the producers move out, Jason move out, accounting move out. Everybody. Every single office was used as a dorm in that film.”
‘Pitch Perfect’ succeeded by leaning into the cringe and the inherent musical appeal of a cappella
When he signed on to the film, Sharon told Banks he didn’t want “Pitch Perfect” to go light on the cringe factor.
“Please don’t pull any punches — make as much fun of a cappella and me and the whole thing as possible,” Sharon recalled telling Banks. “Because if you don’t, we don’t have a great movie.”
Ultimately, the film managed to encapsulate both sides of the world it depicted — the goofiness of lines like “Aca-scuse me?” and the emotional pull of the groups’ performances.
Jacob Wysocki, the actor who plays Justin, said he’d been somewhat skeptical it would go well — until his first night on set, when the cast filmed the “riff-off” scene.
“It very quickly let me know, like, oh, this is more than just a movie about college a cappella, this is a big swing,” Wysocki said. “We’ve made choices, and they’re confident, and we’re going to see how it plays out.”
Moore, who’d thought he was making a movie for “teenage girls and 40-year-old gay men,” said that in retrospect, the “big bonding experience” of the boot camp was likely what gave the “very niche” film its wider appeal. The vulnerability created camaraderie among the cast that was visible on screen, he said.
Of course, the music helped.
“I often thought about how do you get people who don’t love musicals to enjoy this movie?” Moore said. “And a lot of it is the comedy and acting. But then the music is good too, and they can’t help but tap their toes a little bit.”