Choreographer-turned-director Trish Sie traveled to Washington last week for a screening of “Pitch Perfect 3,” the latest installment of the music-and-dance franchise about the demimonde of competitive a cappella. But the visit isn’t your typical stop on the press junket so much as a homecoming: Sie grew up in the Friendship Heights neighborhood, and her Washington bona fides include attending National Cathedral School and the Washington School of Ballet.
Alas, her mom and dad couldn’t attend her event, even though it’s just down the street. “They’re in L.A. babysitting the kids,” Sie says. “Isn’t that irony?”
Sie, who also directed the 2014 dance flick “Step Up: All In,” got her big professional break choreographing videos for the rock band OK Go, which is fronted by her brother Damian Kulash. We caught up with Sie just as she was heading to the screening to chat about her early Fellini-knockoff films, directing a franchise and talking to Al Gore about barn owls.
What was your childhood in Washington like?
I don’t think I realized how much I loved living in D.C. until I left. I never knew you had to pay to go to museums. I never knew you had to pay to go to the zoo. I was so mobile from an early age because I could take the bus, I could take the subway.
If you had to do a project on insects for your fourth-grade science class, you could go to the Smithsonian and see the world’s most incredible collections of insects. I did all of that and thought that’s the way the world worked, and it was kind of a cruel shock to move away and discover you don’t have that in every city.
Growing up, my favorite restaurant was this Ethiopian place called Mamma Desta’s — kind of a hole-in-the-wall family place with the most delicious Ethiopian food and it never occurred to me that you might not have amazing Ethiopian food in every city.
Tell me about your relationship with your brother — were you guys collaborating even back when you were kids?
Definitely. He’s younger than I am, so I had the advantage of being the bossy older sister, and he had the advantage of being cooler way earlier than me. My friend and I would do these really elaborate acts — sort of halfway parody, halfway homage to Milli Vanilli … my brother would help me with the moves and I would help him and his friends when they were making these short films.
We got the family camcorder, which was the size of this table and we would run around shooting. They were non-linear to say the least. It would be, like, my brother in a contorted position on the floor… and I would whip a red silk bedspread off of him and reveal him like a magic trick, and that would be that scene. We thought we were Fellini-esque. Or like someone barfing into a toilet, but it was fake barf and then you’d say the word “Athena” to the camera really slowly.
As we got older, he had a band and I would help choreograph the band and he would help choreograph my dance stuff. We were always close collaborators.
When did you realize you wanted to make a career out of all the stuff you’d been doing just for fun?
Really, really late. I went away to college thinking that dance and music were just going to be hobbies, and that I’d get a regular job and do those on the side. But then I realized that I was bad at all the normal stuff. Out of college, I had a receptionist job and failed. I tried to work for a laser-beam company and that failed. I was a terrible employee. I was easily bored and I couldn’t focus and I got really lazy.
I started teaching dance part-time and that took off. It seemed effortless compared to sitting at a miserable desk making $7 an hour answering the phone. I built my own studio and was doing choreography for other people and then for OK Go and then shooting and getting recognized as a director. I hate to say it was effortless because of course you work hard, but you get in the flow where you do the thing you’re supposed to be doing and you’re not fighting so hard.
How did you feel coming to a franchise like “Pitch Perfect” — especially since you were replacing Elizabeth Banks?
It was terrifying. The stakes are very high. The “Pitch Perfect” world is so known and established and I am a big fan of the franchise and I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Banks, so knew I had big shoes to fill. I knew it was like, jump in the deep end… and you’re either going to do this well or you’re going to fail horribly and it will be end of your career.
So no pressure or anything. How did you get the job?
Liz Banks and I went to college together — we didn’t know each other then, but we both went to Penn. When they needed to find another director, I know it was important to her to try to find a woman and we have the same company repping us in L.A. so it was not too hard to get that first meeting. Because we have a fair amount in common, we hit it off. Prepping a movie like “Pitch Perfect” is big — there’s location scouting, visual effects, rehearsing numbers, staging them, managing a big, big crew; managing a bunch of actors who have been with this franchise for a long time and have strong opinions, also.
My OK Go videos, while they’re nothing like “Pitch Perfect,” have required that same level of detail. It’s a logistical nightmare. It made [Banks and her husband Max, who were producers] feel like I could handle it. There was creative stuff, too, but honestly, I think it was the CEO-ish-ness of it all that made them feel like I could do it.
Are you worried about the reaction from fans who have very specific expectations after two installments?
I’ve had a lot of social media feedback from fans, and I know what some of them want, and some of it you can deliver and some you can’t. Look, this franchise exists because of these hardcore fans who just love it and have supported it. So it pains me that some people are going to be disappointed, whether it’s they didn’t get the love story they wanted or it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t enough singing or the song they wanted wasn’t in there.
Why do you think it’s important to have a female director on this movie?
It’s important to have more female directors in general, just because we’re half the population and so we might as well be half the voices out there. I don’t love the idea that certain movies should be directed by women and certain movies should be directed by men because I would hate to be told, “Oh, this is a Formula 1 movie or a movie about karate, so it needs to be a dude.” I wouldn’t want anyone telling me that, so I would hate to say, “It’s a girl-power movie so it has to be directed by a girl,” but obviously we all know the optics of this. It’s a franchise that wants to be very empowering to women, and it’s a good place to put your money where your mouth is.
Favorite movie musical?
Oooh. Probably a Fosse one. I would say “All That Jazz.”
What’s it like to be back in D.C. to screen this movie?
It’s weird because it’s so intimately familiar still to me after all these years. We were driving to my old high school today on Massachusetts Avenue, and I still know which embassies are which, because I had a summer job once driving passports around to embassies for a visa service.
That’s the most D.C. job ever.
Isn’t that insane? And my parents are still in their same house, so we pull up on their street and everything feels exactly the same, and yet it’s not — it’s got such a different smell even than California and it’s so not my home anymore.
I like the gravitas of D.C. California is so silly, and I love that, too, but when I come here it’s like, people are intellectual and serious.
Do you feel like you have to engage with the movie in a way that’s more serious for a Washington audience? Like amp up the intellectual aspect?
I think I do a little bit — I mean, I never wear blazers [motions to the velvet jacket she’s wearing]. What am I doing?
We went to my old high school today and did this little Q&A, and they’re asking these questions. I thought they would ask, like, “What size are Anna Kendrick’s jeans?” but oh no. One girl came up to me afterwards and said, “I don’t appreciate your use of pronouns. We have transgendered people at this school now. It’s not all women.”
That’s woke. Okay, weird question: Kristin Gore is your sister-in-law [she’s married to Sie’s brother]. Do you ever run into Al, like, at the Thanksgiving table?
Funny you should ask. He’s like a normal grandpa guy. He was really engaged with my kids at Thanksgiving. He wanted to talk about what they were reading for school. And we talked about barn owls. We talked about sourdough bread, because my husband’s into baking sourdough from scratch. It was just very folksy. If you didn’t know he was Al Gore you wouldn’t know he was Al Gore.
So what’s next for you?
I’m starting to read scripts. I’m writing a script. I’d like to do TV. I’d like to do something where I can mold a world from scratch. The two movies I’ve done have both been franchise movies, which is awesome because you have a built-in fan base and momentum. But I would really love now to just create something from the ground up.