Kay Cannon knows what you think of her 'Cinderella' movie

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Kay Cannon
Kay Cannon, the writer-director of Amazon's movie-musical "Cinderella," photographed in the backyard of her Studio City home. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Once upon a time in 2017, production company Fulwell 73 requested a meeting with Kay Cannon about yet another feature-length "Cinderella."

"I've had this idea and I just don't have time to write it," James Corden told her then. He went on to describe its opening frames: the camera soaring over a kingdom, settling into a basement and zooming in on Cinderella as she wakes up and breaks into song. Specifically, Dolly Parton's "9 to 5."

Cannon, who wrote all three "Pitch Perfect" movies, knew covering an Oscar-nominated song from a famous film would not fly. And even though she wasn't particularly fond of any "Cinderella" throughout childhood, she viewed Corden's concept — retelling arguably the most frequently adapted fairy tale in Hollywood history with catchy, contemporary hits — as a rare canvas for something that's decidedly unprecious yet highly achieved and widely accessible.

"I don't know how you'll feel about how I say this about myself, but I am a dirtbag," she said in a video call with The Times. "I grew up in not even a town, it was a township of less than a thousand people; I never thought I would fly on an airplane and didn't until college, and it was only because I played in a volleyball tournament. And I have a theater degree, but I went to improv schools because I couldn't handle the precociousness sometimes of doing straight plays.

"So I'm not very cultured — I don't naturally gravitate toward things that feel stuffy or highbrow or sophisticated because, again, I'm a dirtbag. But I love movies and I love musicals. And I remember saying in that meeting, 'Wait, so I could rewrite this story in a way that would've spoken to my younger self?'"

In a way, the Sony title, streaming Sept. 3 on Amazon Prime, is a dream come true for its writer-director, as she bestowed the titular damsel-in-distress with dimensions like personal goals and the agency to reach them. "She's still kind, but you can be kind and still want things for your life," said Cannon, whose version of Ella dreams of making dresses and sees the ball as a chance to make a sale rather than to romance a royal.

And she has a real sense of humor, which, when dealing with any female character, is its own infamous quest. "Those debates about what's funny when it's coming out of a young woman's mouth, and whether or not she's likable enough — that's something I've navigated in the past and will probably have to navigate in the future," said Cannon, an alum of Second City, NBC's "30 Rock" and Fox's "New Girl."

"I got notes from random people at the studio that 'She's too sassy, she's too aggressive, she always has a comeback,' and I did tone her down a little bit because I really learned my lesson from 'Girlboss,'" she added, referencing her divisive 2017 series for Netflix. "If I were to ever redo anything, I'd be more thoughtful and rewrite that pilot. I know what my north star is but I don't want to cross that imaginary line and put people off."

Toeing that line onscreen is pop star Camila Cabello, landing punchlines between musical numbers with Billy Porter, Idina Menzel and Nicholas Galitzine. "If you really look at her 'Havana' video or her Grammys performance, you can tell she's got comedic timing," said Cannon of casting the singer in her acting debut.

"But really what set me over was this one L'Oreal spot where she's rocking out, acting silly, popping in and out of frame. I was like, 'She gets it.' And man, she is a learner, she is focused and works hard. It was such a pleasure to direct her."

Kay Cannon stands between shrubs before a pale wall.
"I got notes from random people at the studio that 'She's too sassy, she's too aggressive, she always has a comeback,'" said Kay Cannon of making "Cinderella." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Ensuring the movie is a family-friendly kind of funny meant losing industry quips (like when Ella is told by her stepmother, "It's ironic how much you make us laugh when it's a biological fact that women aren't funny"), leaning into physical comedy and poking fun at musical theater tropes, fairy-tale clichés and Pierce Brosnan's past singing roles — with his approval, of course.

Cannon was nervous to meet Brosnan — "'Remington Steele' was the first time I knew I was heterosexual," she said with a laugh — but the actor approved the scripted jokes made at his expense, went along with Minnie Driver's improvised jabs and even asked Cannon to let him make fun of himself by singing a few bars. "It's not a shock to anyone: He has so many strengths and singing is not one of them," said Cannon. "He was game for anything.”

The melodic romp includes a mashup of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" and Des'ree's "You Gotta Be," a ensemble rendition of Nico & Vinz' "Am I Wrong," a romantic waltz to Ed Sheeran's "Perfect" and a finale party set to Jennifer Lopez's "Let's Get Loud."

"There are songs that parents will already know and kids can learn about, and vice versa," said music supervisor Denise Luiso. (Cannon was initially unaware that Queen's "Somebody to Love," another Corden suggestion from that first meeting, was of note in the 2004 movie "Ella Enchanted"; she feels the sequences are "different enough that I can take the hit with anyone who compares them.")

It also has original compositions like Cabello's midtempo "I want" song "Million to One" and an angst-ridden anthem co-written and performed by Menzel. "Being that I'm recognized for singing songs that are always sort of uplifting and empowering, I liked the idea of singing something that also gives people a chance to tap into their anger," said Menzel of "Dream Girl," written with Laura Veltz.

"If you take it out of the movie, it's a universal cry for all the struggle of not being recognized and appreciated for who you are, and the pain of someone telling you that your dreams don't matter," she continued. "I'm so fortunate [Cannon] trusted me with this — it's really a milestone in my career."

When the trailer debuted online last month, Cannon was disheartened by comments that called the project "Girlboss Cinderella," a shorthand for Ella's professional drive that flattened two of Cannon's projects in one breath.

"When I saw that, I felt like it was a real minimization of the point," she said. "Giving Cinderella some drive is just so that she can want more out of her life, and be able to actively go after it. And that's also true for the other characters in the movie as well.

"My wish is that people can watch it and be surprised that it's more than that. And that we can have more nuance about works with female protagonists, and that we won't oversimplify what someone's dreams can be."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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