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‘Pitch Perfect 3’ Director Trish Sie on Choosing the Right Music and Raising Chickens

In 2012, “Pitch Perfect” became a girl-power sensation, loved by a mostly female audience for its mix of hummable tunes and sassy humor. The sequel, “Pitch Perfect 2,” outperformed expectations, with Elizabeth Banks taking on directing duties. Now that the Barden Bellas a cappella singing group has graduated from college, “Pitch Perfect 3” caps off the trilogy by getting the girls together for one last blowout singing competition.

Choreographer and music video and commercials director Trish Sie, whose first feature film was “Step Up: All In,” took over from Banks as director, while Banks and her husband Max Handelman handle producing duties for the final installment. Another new element is “Enlightened” writer Mike White, who came on to work on the script alongside the franchise’s creator, “30 Rock” writer Kay Cannon.

In between working on imaginative projects for bands like Ok Go!, Sie and her husband Roe, parents of two boys, own the King’s Roost, an urban farm supply store in Silver Lake, Calif., that also offers classes in homey arts like soapmaking and beekeeping. Sie talked to Variety about how choreography influences her directing, getting the songs just right, and why it feels so good to be up to your elbows in chicken s—.

Coming onto the third film in the series, what did you want to keep, and what did you do to make it your own?

I fell in love with those characters, that “who said yes to this movie?” kind of tone. I wanted to make sure we maintained that for so many reasons. At the same time, you never want it to feel like it was phoned in, like “Oh, they just scribbled something down and got the band together and threw it on camera.”

I wanted to take it to a new place — to have the same characters you know and love, and they’re so funny and weird, and there’s something so truthful about each character.

Anna Kendrick’s Beca is kind of the grounded one, the prism through which the normal world views these events. Every character has something authentic about them, and it’s important, especially as the movie spins off into outer space plotwise, to keep the grounding and to always balance the absurd and the outrageous with something we all relate to.

If you keep the characters very familiar, you can get away with some bizarre plot twists. I wanted to take it to a new and bigger place so people get something unexpected.”

As a music video director, is it more challenging for you to stage the big concert scenes or the more intimate scenes?

Having done the OK Go! videos and “Step Up: All In,” set pieces feel very predictable. The razzle dazzle is fun, but predictable. But the scenes where you’re dealing with emotions, comic timing, they’re more exciting and unpredictable. You’re dealing with real people in a much more intimate room.

Why do you think this series has resonated so much with young women? Is it the humor?

I think it’s important to not take ourselves too seriously, both as human beings and women. The world is kind of a dark place right now, we wanted to create something that was a fairy tale and an escape. Putting a darker subversive edge on things feels true to what women are feeling right now. If things got too sweet without a little bit of salt thrown on top, they felt gooey. So the writers and I would make notes and say, “Well, that felt quicksandy,” and put a joke — some off-color, silly joke to keep things from getting mired in sappiness.

What involvement did Mike White have?

He’s so brilliant at tapping into that, dark but goodhearted humor. Kay (Cannon) obviously is the voice of this franchise, she’s got absolute command of this specific tone. We just wanted to expand their world, expand the scope of the franchise.

How do characters like Fat Amy and the others play with stereotypes and avoid being offensive?

It’s a fine line. You never want to look like you’re laughing AT anything. Or if you are laughing, you’re laughing at everything equally across the board. It was never the intention to actually poke fun — it’s hard to keep that edgy, egalitarian, nothing is sacred point of view and not actually be a jerk.

What does it mean to you to work on a predominantly female project?

Whether people like the film or not, they should at least appreciate that there aren’t that many films that have this many women in positions where they’re actually getting some control, getting a decent paycheck, being in command. It’s an important step, we need more of this. It doesn’t have to be a feminist movie, it’s just important that women are making movies. An ensemble cast can be all women, love stories don’t have to be the A story or even the B story. There’s romance, flirtation, but the main stories are about friendship, growing up, moving on, dealing with your past and future. Those are what we’re trying to lead with.

This one is supposed to be the last of the trilogy, but what about a spinoff?

It’s not like a movie where you show up for a couple of weeks — we were there for months, it does start to feel like a giant slumber party or summer camp. We would all brainstorm to make the dialogue work, it was creatively inspiring and empowering, so why wouldn’t you want to do it again? I haven’t heard rumblings, but it’s hard to imagine that fans wouldn’t want to see it again.

What is it about competition movies that audiences love so much?

It’s the same as sports movies — everyone loves an underdog. They’re satisfying. It’s like a good pop song: You knew the chorus was coming in, it’s not a surprise, there’s a formula, but part of what makes them so fun is knowing that. It’s an itch-scratch.

What was the music selection process like?

It was tough to come up with the final song that Beca sings — “Freedom ’90,” the George Michael song. We tossed around hundreds of songs, trying to find the right song, the right tone. It had to be something everyone could sing along to, so it couldn’t be an original song. It had to feel familiar but be reinvented. That one was tough.

The other one that was tricky was the one in the middle — we used the song “I Don’t Like It, I love It,” (by Flo Rida).  We wanted to find something upbeat and optimistic, not overplayed but familiar. I always like to hear them do songs by guys because it feels like an added layer of reinventing it.

Anna Kendrick has said that she asked to downplay a possible relationship between Beca and a music executive because it seemed inappropriate.

We definitely didn’t want it to feel sexual. She put her finger on it early too, saying “Let’s make it clear.” We wanted to make it clear that Beca gets picked because she’s talented. Otherwise, it would have been a confusing message that we didn’t want.

How did your dance background inform your direction?

In scenes with a lot of people, the way the layers work, the way the camera moves, all of that is choreography — it’s telling a story through the movement of things. Not every filmmaker approaches it from a choreography standpoint, so I feel that gives me something different. There’s one scene where they all run out of their rooms and go into one bedroom, and what we were trying to say there is that they finally have their own rooms, and yet they still choose to be together in one room. We choreographed that with beats, we gave it a rhythm even though they weren’t dance scenes.

Why did you decide to open an urban farming store?

I love being dirty and being connected to the earth. Especially when you’re in this city and this business, when I get my hands in the dirt, and get a chicken on my lap, and get flour all over the counter, it just feels good.

We had been milling our own grains, keeping chickens, keeping bees, we have a tilapia farm in the backyard where the fish poop feeds the plants, we had become really eccentrically obsessed with these things. We thought, what if we could just go to one place and get all the materials and the inspiring books and take classes and find all your chicken supplies and your beekeeping supplies? We thought if there was anyone obsessed like us, they would be in Silver Lake.

It’s the perfect antidote. The big Hollywood premiere of “Pitch Perfect 3” happened last week, and the very next morning at 8 a.m. I’m out there scraping chicken s—…that feels like a good balance to me.

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