Kay Cannon came up through Chicago’s prestigious Second City comedy troupe before landing in Hollywood. Her penchant for sharp, witty, feminist stories landed her job writing on 30 Rock and the sitcom New Girl. Cannon also forayed into feature films, penning the sleeper hit Pitch Perfect and its two sequels. In 2018, she tried her hand at directing with the comedy Blockers.
Now Cannon grabs the helm again as writer/director of Amazon’s new reimagining of the classic fairy tale Cinderella. The movie debuts on Amazon Prime Video September 3.
This new version of the story combines original songs with Top 40 hits to tell the story of Ella (Camilla Cabello), an aspiring fashion designer living with her oppressive Stepmother (Idina Menzel). When Ella crosses paths with the handsome Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), romantic sparks fly. With a little help from her Fairy Godmother (Billy Porter), Ella sets off to win Robert’s heart at a royal ball, and must face a choice: should she marry for love? Or should she pursue a career as a designer? Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver also star in this empowering take on the story.
We caught up with Cannon to chat about the movie, her deconstructionist approach to the story, and working her way into the director’s chair while a female in Hollywood. Cinderella debuts on Amazon Prime Video September 3.
So this is your second film as director. When you set out to reinvent a story like this one—which has been done well, and done to death—what’s your first principle in making it your own?
I don’t disagree with you that it has been done to death. There are a lot of movies that I love: Ever After and the Whitney Houston and Brandy movie.
I would consider that my Cinderella. That’s the one I loved, that I held on to. Hindsight being 20/20, I look at that now—my daughter is seven, and my hope is that this Cinderella will be her generation’s Cinderella. Ten years from now there will be another for a younger generation. And as you mention, there is a reason it has been told over and over again. It’s an iconic, underdog story that’s female-driven.
So how I approached it…as soon as it was pitched to me to do contemporary songs, I was like that’s different. Good. There have been musicals of Cinderella before, but not with contemporary songs. So I used the songs as dialogue on the page. I was like, how can I find interesting, cool ways to do that? Then, at every point—I wasn’t a Cinderella/princess little girl.
I didn’t really like the story. I just thought it was ladies being mean to each other.
There is that.
So for me, the chance to rewrite the story where I could make it more relatable and modernize it to how girls and women are viewing themselves today, and to try to make it less about—almost less about Cinderella.
I wanted to change everyone around her. You’ll notice Cinderella doesn’t really change in this version at all. But everybody else around her is enlightened. Everyone else grows and evolves. Even structurally, I kept the structure of the classic fairytale. But I made it so that Cinderella and the prince kiss, and you think the story is over. But, haha! The story isn’t actually over. We have several scenes after that where we show happy endings for other characters. So that’s how I approached it: how can I honor it and make it different as I can make it.
You use a very eclectic mix of songs in film—a few originals, and a lot of pop hits. This is obviously where your work on Pitch Perfect comes in handy. What makes you want to include a song? Do you write scenes around a specific song, or write a scene and plug a song in? I have to add, that you using “Seven Nation Army” really took me off guard. I didn’t ever think I’d see that in a musical.
I start with the story. Every song is dialogue on the page. It had to make sense. It had to pull the story. It’s not like Pitch Perfect where they perform a song for an audience.
In that way, “Rhythm Nation” made sense, because I wanted to show a kingdom where everyone was doing the same thing. Then, I wanted to have Cinderella sing “You Gotta Be;” that was her waking up every morning saying I’ve got to be the best. She’s giving herself a pep talk.
And I wanted different genres for different characters. So for Prince Robert and his bros, I wanted them to be like The Strokes. They were rock and roll. So it made sense that I looked at “Seven Nation Army” as the style of his character. What was so great was that we not only got the rights to “Seven Nation Army,” we also got to rewrite the lyrics. And [The White Stripes] were awesome. We had to send the pages with the new lyrics to show how we were going to use them in the movie. And so we got a lot of support from our artists. And it was hard to figure out what to do, because we wanted to do original songs too. We wanted to show Cinderella as an original thinker.
Did you have actors attached, or were you allowed to cast the whole movie?
Oh no. James Corden and Fulwell 73 approached me as a writer. And they met with other writers. I had no poker face, so I said in the room, “I want to do this.” And they were like “We’re meeting with other people.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, but I want to do it.”
Obviously, it worked.
They picked me. And I started to fall in love with it. I got really excited about what I was trying to do. I told them I would rewrite it all day and all night if I could direct the movie. I said if I wasn’t the director, it was fun, and I’ll see you later. To their credit, they supported me and what I was doing.
You already mentioned the most intriguing part of the film for me. Cinderella really isn’t the protagonist, in that she doesn’t change. She’s an agent of change for everyone else. It’s so interesting to me the way you make the Stepmother into a woman who genuinely loves Ella, but who has been imprisoned by her gender. She is arguably the protagonist here, and Idina damn near steals the movie. Tell me about that. Why that character? How does her story of being a virtuoso talent denied credit for her gender echo your own experience in showbiz as a woman?
Well, you know, I’m really attracted to multi-dimensional stories. I feel like people aren’t evil by nature. The fact that she’s the “evil” Stepmother—I think people can do evil, terrible things of course. But I think that we’re all shaped by how we are raised. Our worldview is shaped by how we grow up. And I know this through my own mother. I love my mother, but there’s a generational gap there between how she was raised and how I was raised.
So I wanted to humanize [the Stepmother]. I don’t think she’s evil. She’s someone who wanted to show tough love, but she does love Cinderella. She really believes the only way a woman improves her lot in life is by getting married. She does everything out of love. And she does bad things, she’s not the warmest woman in the world, but she loves her. And it was really important that they make up at the end. I don’t think any other Cinderella does that.
So that was the crux of the movie for me. I’m glad you feel like Idina steals it. That’s the biggest change—she’s not banished. [The Stepmother and Cinderella] come together and learn from each other.
In terms of being in Hollywood, I feel like I’ve been given a lot of opportunities. I’m just trying to put my head down and do the work. I really make a point to hire women behind the scenes. I try to make a point to fight for women behind the scenes. Any marginalized group of people—I’m trying to level it all out and make conscious decisions to do that. So I dunno man. I take it one day at a time.
Cinderella debuts on Amazon Prime Video September 3.