May 19, 2015
Guests: Rachel Dissell - Elizabeth Banks
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many rapists who were never convicted might have been if only there had been follow-up on the evidence that was collected. When a woman is raped, she has the option of having a nurse collect forensic evidence in what's known as a rape kit, which includes evidence that might reveal the rapist's DNA.
My guest, Rachel Dissell, discovered that in her state, Ohio, thousands of rape kits, dating back to 1993, were being stored, untested, with no follow-up. Rapists who might've been convicted were free to assault other women. Dissell's investigation with her colleague Leila Atassi on sexual assaults and the backlog of rape kits led to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new kits be tested. Other states are starting to adopt similar laws and can learn from Ohio's experiences. Dissell has spent five years investigating sexual assaults and rape kits, and she isn't done yet. She is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Rachel Dissell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a description of what a rape kit is because I think most people don't really know what's in it. And we can't understand its importance if we don't know what it is.
RACHEL DISSELL: Sure. Thank you, Terry. A rape is a lot of things. A rape kit is a way to collect forensic evidence after someone's been sexually assaulted, and it's also a way to provide medical attention to someone. It does both things. But at each step, they'll ask the person if they can collect evidence from different parts of their body - from underneath their fingernails, from their, you know, genitals, if they had been bitten or scratched or something that. That evidence is collected and put inside a box.
And during our reporting, you know, we looked at some of these boxes. They're may be about the size of a small pizza box. And inside there, you would find swabs. You could find a set of paperwork that'll have notes from the nurse to say where injuries may have been, if there were any, where fluids were collected from. And they'll all be inside that box. And after that collection is done, the police will come pick up that box and take it as evidence.
GROSS: How are rape kits used? How are they intended to function in tracking down rapists?
DISSELL: These kits that are collected - often when someone goes to the hospital and they're a victim of a sexual assault, the first question they're not asking them is do you want to prosecute this case? But what they're telling them is we want to be able to collect this evidence from your body because this is the only chance that we have to do so. If we don't do it now, we can't go back and do it later. So a lot of times, the forensic nurses will explain that to people and say, you don't have to make a decision about what we want to do with this now, but we want to collect this evidence.
And it's not an easy decision to make. The process - it can take between four and six hours. It's very invasive. The kit collection itself could be very traumatic. So that's all explained to the victim, but then afterwards, when they leave the hospital, what happens is a police department will come pick it up and take it as evidence.
Now, that's kind of where we get into the story we're talking about here - is whether the kit's tested or not. If the kit is tested, a lab can open it up. It can test the swabs. It can test the - someone's underwear - different materials to see if there is semen or other bodily fluids on there that could indicate who the attacker of this person might be.
GROSS: Now, when you started investigating the story of rape kits, you found that there were thousands of unopened, never-investigated rape kits sitting around. Just give us a sense of the extent of that.
DISSELL: Sure. So here in Cleveland, we started asking about rape kits in 2009 - the very end of 2009. A colleague of mine, Leila Atassi, and I had been looking into, in general, how Cleveland handled sexual assault cases. Just about a month earlier, there had been a really horrific case where a man named Anthony Sowell had killed 11 women and buried them in and around his house on Imperial Avenue, here in Cleveland. He had also raped several other ones that had escaped.
And so as we're finding out what went on in that story, how this guy was able to do this, one of our editors came to us and said, you know, we need to know. Everybody wants to know how this happened. So as we started to look into this, there were so many different facets as to how why women who made reports weren't believed, what happened with their reports, how many of their reports - the majority that were closed with only a cursory investigation.
And the rape kits was just - was just a part of it. And it was - it started out with a really simple question that we asked Cleveland police. You know, we sent them a public records request. It's kind of what reporters do. And we said, how many of these kits do you have, and how many have been tested? And what they told us initially was that they didn't know. You know, they didn't a keep a count - a running count of how many they had as evidence in their evidence rooms. And they didn't keep a count of how many had been tested, but they were going to start.
And so they started counting the kits. And we would check back with them. You know, we would take turns calling, sending e-mails. Have you counted the kits yet? How many kits do you have? And we were pretty consistent about it. We wanted to let them know that we were going to keep asking the questions until we got an answer. And about seven months later, they had counted about 6,125 kits, and about 2,000 of them had been tested. The rest of them had not.
GROSS: That's about 4,000 kits not tested.
GROSS: So let's get back to this Anthony Sowell case. Two women who he had held captive managed to escape. They had been raped by him. Was there any rape kit testing done on them?
DISSELL: There was one woman who escaped from his house who did have a rape kit taken. She had it taken at a nearby hospital, and it was sent to a local suburban department. The suburban department did not send that kit for testing. They had some questions about the woman's story. They couldn't contact her. There was lots of reasons that they gave that they didn't test the kit.
But as part of our investigation, we looked into that case. And it was, you know, one of the many cases were other factors - you know, not money, not, you know, whether the victim wanted to report the case - many factors that came into play as to why departments chose not to test kits. And we started to kind of question those things because we kept hearing the same things over and over again, in terms of reasons not to test. But what we were seeing - and when we looked in other cases across the country and did research into this - was really what the power of DNA was.
And the power of DNA was that when you put it in - into these databases, you could often make connections that you previously couldn't make. Or cases that maybe didn't seem so strong would seem much stronger when you had a DNA connection to link several cases together. The Anthony Sowell was a little bit different because in yet another snafu, his DNA was never entered into criminal databases when he left prison. He had served 15 years in prison for another sexual assault.
GROSS: This was before killing these 11 women.
DISSELL: This was before killing these women. He served this 15 years in prison. And they were supposed to collect his DNA when he left prison, and it didn't get done.
GROSS: So what are some of the reasons why the Cleveland police had 4,000 rape kits backlogged that had gone uninvestigated.
DISSELL: So we sat down with the Cleveland police early on when we were trying to sort through this, and there were a lot of reasons. I mean, this is definitely a complicated issue. It would've been a lot easier to write stories if the answers were just they didn't do their job.
But these kits that we were looking at - they go back to 1993. And so in 1993, it was not common to forensically test kits like this. Often what they would do if they would test kits for biology. You know, is there semen here? Is there proof that there was a rape? They didn't do routine DNA testing. And in Ohio, they didn't even have a state lab that took DNA samples and put them into a database until 1998. So early on, I don't think people really understood the power of the DNA, and so there wasn't a lot of testing.
At the same time, when we would review the cases that went along with these kits - the actual reports that were taken - they got very little investigation. And one of the things that we really found is not all of them even needed DNA testing to be solved. What we most often found was that cases were closed within days or weeks. You know, detectives would say, we can't find the victim. We can't locate them. They don't want to corporate. We don't think they're credible. A lot of the victims whose cases didn't go forward and whose kits weren't tested were minorities. They were drug addicts. They had mental health issues - all kinds of things like that that just really made them the most vulnerable and the least likely to be believed.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Dissell. She's a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and she spent five years investigating the backlog of rape kits in Ohio. Her investigation helped lead to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new rape kits be tested. Other states are beginning to adapt similar laws. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're having a technical problem, so we're going to continue the interview with Rachel Dissell momentarily. So forgive us for this. This kind of thing happens occasionally. So here's more of my interview with Rachel Dissell.
This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Dissell. She's a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. And when she was investigating sex crimes in Cleveland, she discovered that there were thousands of untested rape kits that the police had collected over the past couple of decades. And her investigation helped lead to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new rape kits be tested. So how did your investigation of these untested rape kits lead to a new law in Ohio?
DISSELL: Cleveland, after we started asking questions about rape kits and started writing stories - and we were writing a lot of stories. My colleague Leila Atassi and I together I think probably wrote more than 150 stories over a several-year period of time. We just kind of decided to hammer away at this issue. And one of the reasons that we did that was because when we started looking into the issue of sexual assault after the Anthony Sowell case, we ran across some stories written by our predecessors that talked about how rape was handled and some problems with it. And the stories had been written a decade ago. And we had a really good conversation, and we decided that we didn't want some other reporters, a decade from when we started, to read our stories and then be writing the same stories again. We wanted this to be the last time we had to have this conversation about why women were being raped and nothing was being done.
So we wrote a lot of stories, and some of those stories got noticed by Ohio's Attorney General, Mike DeWine. And so we talked with his folks. He really picked up on the issue. And in 2011, he kind of issued an open call to the entire state, and he said, I want all police departments to send me all rape kits old and new. We want to test them all. And he started really encouraging people to send rape kits in in any case except for ones where they really, really thought that no crime was committed. And that should be the very slim, slim margin.
And so there wasn't a law passed right away, but he started asking for those kits to be sent. And over the next, you know, two or three years, law enforcement across the state sent more than 9,000 kits to the state labs to be tested. During that time, there was several different laws proposed to try to address some of the problems, and then finally in December - last December 2014 - a law was passed that required all of the older kits that had not been sent to be sent in and all of the newer kits to be sent in within about 30 days or so of testing so that they could be tested and there would never be a backlog again.
GROSS: So now that the rape kits are actually being tested, what kind of information is coming out of that testing that is enabling law enforcement to track down rapists, even rapists who committed crimes years ago?
DISSELL: One of the things that we didn't think about when we first started talking about rape kit testing was what would happen after the rape kits were tested. And there wasn't a lot to look to for that. When the testing started, they ramped it up slowly, but the hits or the DNA matches in these cases just started pouring in. We didn't realize that there would be this secondary onslaught of investigations that needed to be done. You know, we were just thinking, test the kits; test the kits. And so as of now, here in Cuyahoga County where Cleveland's at, they've had to reinvestigate more than, you know, 2000 rapes so far based on the hits.
There's a task force that's comprised of the county prosecutors and the Cleveland police and the county sheriffs and some state agents, and right now today, they have 1,696 investigations in progress. They've already completed 906 of them. And I think the biggest surprise to all of us nobody - nobody foresaw this - was that 224 serial rapists or potential serial rapists have been identified. And that number, I think, really blew us away. We just didn't think that that was what would come out of this. I mean, we knew that the DNA could link cases together, but how many is still really a surprise to us.
And we've learned other things from the testing. I think there were - there was a thought, you know, among investigators before that if someone was going to rape strangers, that was who they were going to rape. They were going to snatch someone off the street. And if someone was going to rape acquaintances, they were, you know, going to pray on someone they knew or go into a bar and, you know, get someone drunk and rape them.
But what we found as these cases have been tested and linked together was that people were committing all different types of these crimes and not being caught, that there were so many chances before to link together these crimes, to prevent other rapes, that were not taken, you know, chances that were really missed opportunities. And so I think that's a big focus now, is trying to figure out what are the lessons from these cases that we can learn so that we don't miss the opportunities to prevent crimes like this.
GROSS: Are there other lessons that you think have been learned from investigating these rape kits?
DISSELL: Yeah. I think that one of the things that people really underestimated before was the amount of support that a victim or survivor of rape really needs so that they can go forward with a process like this. You know, in the past, when you talked to detectives that would work on cases before, they were completely overwhelmed. There's always very few detectives in the sex crimes unit, sometimes, you know, 11, 12, 13 of them handling hundreds of rape cases a year. And these victims had gone through a trauma. And the marching orders that these detectives had was to try to contact the victims once or twice, and if they didn't call back, then they would close the case.
And what were - what we hear from a lot of the victims was that, you know, in those first, initial days after they reported a sexual assault, they were just going through so much. They had so many emotions. They didn't know what they should do. They were traumatized. They didn't really have any support. So someone calling and just saying, you need to come downtown for an interview, that just was not going to work for them.
And so when I look at it, I think about it, you know - if the city of Cleveland or any other police department was running a business and nobody was coming, they would try to figure out what they were doing wrong so they could get people to come, but that is just not the way it worked with this. People just decided or assumed that these women who had gone through this process, who had, you know, laid on these tables, who had had this evidence collected from their body all of a sudden just decided to opt out. And you know, in some cases, that may be true. Someone may have made a choice to change their mind. But I think a lot of people just didn't know how to do it. They didn't know how to come in and go through this process, and they needed someone by their side to help explain it, to help - you know, sit through it with them because it was a very traumatic thing to go through. And you know, it still is for many of them today.
So I think that's what is being added in that was not added into the process before, you know? They're trying to have support and victim advocates on hand. They're trying to have places they can refer victims to where they can get help for the other problems that they have, for the - with family members trying to explain to them what happened. And I think that that's really making prosecuting the cases a little better the second time around.
GROSS: Rachel, can you tell us the story of one of the women who you interviewed after her rape kit was actually tested years after the sexual assault was committed?
DISSELL: One that really sticks with me is a woman named Allyssa Allison. And when I spoke to Allyssa, she was pretty frustrated because they had finally identified the man that raped her, and he was dead. And she was overjoyed that she no longer had to look over her shoulder, that she could kind of put this awful, awful incident of this man who broke into her house and drugged her and raped her kind of in the past. But yet, she didn't get to confront him. She didn't get to address him in court.
And for her, there was two things that were hard. One was that she had tried to tell the police that she thought the man who raped her was her landlord because of how he'd gotten into her house through a window that only this guy knew was broken. And they told her, no, no, you're wrong; you know, he's got an alibi, and it's not him. And she was pretty insistent about the fact there was a couple reason she thought it was him. And it turned out it was him. She had been right all along. And the hardest part for her, in our conversations when we talked, was that she found out that he also raped several other women, you know, before he died. He was a serial rapist. And that was so hard for her.
GROSS: He raped other women in that same apartment building.
DISSELL: Yeah. He raped another woman in the same building. And so that was so difficult for her, thinking, you know, what more could I have done to prevent this from happening to someone else? So I mean, these cases bring up such a swirl of emotions. I mean, there's just so much there.
And you know, as a reporter, that's difficult because, you know, we really thought, we're championing this. This is so great. But it's taken such an emotional toll on some of these women personally. And so for me and for my colleague Leila Atassi, we would talk about just the enormity of that, the enormity of how many cases - you know, we talk about Cleveland being 4,000 and Detroit being 11,000 and Houston being 6,000.
GROSS: Backlogged cases.
DISSELL: So many cases that - where kits weren't tested and so many women who, as these cities start test, are going to be getting these phone calls and getting these detectives knocking on their door and getting this trauma brought up again 20 years later, you know? They may not even want it.
GROSS: My guest is Rachel Dissell, a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. After a short break, we'll talk more, and we'll hear from actress and producer Elizabeth Banks who directed the new comedy film "Pitch Perfect 2." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She's been covering sexual assaults and rape kits for the past five years. Rape kits contain forensic evidence collected from a victim's body after the attack. The evidence can be tested for DNA, which can help identify and prosecute the assailant. Dissell discovered that in Cleveland, as in many other places, thousands of rape kits collected over the years had been put in storage, untested. Her investigation led to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new kits be tested.
The statute of limitations is 20 years. There's been a fight in Cleveland over whether to extend that in cases involving previously untested rape kits. What have been the arguments for and against extending the statute of limitations?
DISSELL: Yeah, so the statute of limitations is actually expected to be extended probably by the end of the month, if not early next month. And it's been an ongoing debate for about two years. And on one side of it, you have people who say it's very unfair that these kits are being tested and that we could get evidence of who committed a crime, but we can't prosecute them. It's unfair to the victims. It was not their choice to have their kits not tested.
On the other side of it, you might hear from some defense attorneys who say, is it really fair to be prosecuting someone 20 and 30 years after the fact? It's not the defendant's problem. It's not the suspect that made the police not test the kit, that made them not investigate the case, that made them not get the evidence. And how are they supposed to come up with witnesses or alibis 20 years after the fact, when people have died and memories have faded? So there's that part of it.
And then there's also some people that have argued that by extending a statute of limitations, you're making a disincentive for police to investigate cases swiftly and to test evidence swiftly. So that's kind of another part of the debate. But where the Ohio legislator has really landed was that they're going to extend the statute of limitations in Ohio by five years for all cases. So going forward, it'll be a 25-year statute of limitations. But in cases where there is DNA that's discovered that's an identified person that's an actual suspect - those cases will have a five-year window to be prosecuted. So once that DNA links to an actual person, the prosecutors will have five years.
GROSS: You write that some prosecutors are starting to prosecute John Does because of the statute of limitations. Why don't you explain that?
DISSELL: So in Ohio and in several other states, what people started to do and what prosecutors started to do was kind of a novel approach to these cases. They would have someone's DNA. So the kit would be processed. They would have someone's DNA profile, but they wouldn't know who the profile belonged to. It would just be kind of a series of letters and numbers that you get for a DNA profile - different markers that would show someone's unique profile.
And that person was unidentified because they weren't in the other part of the database that meant they had committed a crime or been arrested. Their DNA had been collected through a swab on their cheek or in prison. But they knew there was a pretty good chance that this was their suspect because they would go back and talk to the victim. It wouldn't be a husband. It wouldn't be someone else. They would always test and make sure that it wasn't that person first if there was another partner.
So what they would do is they would go to a grand jury, and they would ask the grand jury to indict that DNA profile. You know, they would say, we don't know this person is, but when we find out, we will replace the indictment with that person's name. And so in Cleveland now, they've done that, I think, more than 70 times. And what they do is they hope that that person will either commit another crime or that they'll get arrested, and then they'll figure out who they are. And that has happened in several cases.
GROSS: That also gets around the statute of limitations because you've started prosecuting before the statute of limitations runs out, even though you don't know the name and identity of the person you're prosecuting. You just know their DNA profile.
DISSELL: Yes. You can do that with an indictment, or you can also do that with something called a DNA warrant. So they can kind of issue a warrant for someone's arrest. But they've decided to go with the indictments because that's really in the public record, and it won't get lost, you know, if someone happens to get arrested. You know, you always hear about warrants. You know, they're not getting served. They're getting lost. So they decided to go with the indictment as the strongest way to have a record of that that person can be held accountable.
GROSS: So now that Ohio has a new law mandating the testing of rape kits, are other states looking at Ohio and trying to come up with similar laws?
DISSELL: Yeah, I think so. And here in Cuyahoga County, our prosecutor, Tim McGinty, has been pretty activist about this. He's flown to a couple places across the country, sent prosecutors to testify in other states. And so he's kind of sent people to kind of spread the message. You know, he likes to go around and talk about how these kits are a goldmine. He'll say over and over again this is a gold mine of information. You know, we can track down people. We can hold them accountable. And so I think that that is happening in more and more states. I think Illinois was one of the first ones to require it, but Ohio has really taken a front seat to figuring out not only how to require it, but how to follow through with it.
GROSS: Rachel, you've been writing about sex crimes for at least five years. What's the emotional impact on you of having covered the subject for so long?
DISSELL: The individual cases can be really tough to deal with. I mean, I remember at one point, I - I have a son who is four years old now. But at the - right when we were kind of at the height of doing this research, my colleague Leila Atassi and I were reading hundreds of rape reports. And I remember sitting on my couch, and I had a stack of them sitting on top of my belly. And my husband was really disturbed by this. He wanted me to stop just reading these all the time. He thought it would somehow have some type of effect on our child.
So there is that part of it. There's that weightiness to reading these. But at the same time, I think the hardest part is the volume. I struggled most with going how could thousands and thousands and thousands of cases just not be properly investigated? And then the, you know - the effect of that - the effect that there are so many of these women who were raped that did not have to be raped. You know, if their cases were properly investigated in the first place, that person would have been in prison. And they would not have been out there to attack somebody else. I think that's the hardest part. You just - you question how that could happen.
GROSS: The serial rapists...
DISSELL: Yeah. That's not the way we're supposed to operate. We're supposed to make sure that people are safe and taken care of. And this is what really bothers me - is that when you really looked into these cases, it's the most vulnerable women - you know, the ones who were minorities, who lived in poor neighborhoods, who had mental health problems, who had drug addictions - they were the ones being prayed on.
And nobody in society - not the police - nobody could step back and say these are the most vulnerable victims. And rapists - the serial rapists - they knew, and they benefited from it. You know, they really outsmarted everybody. They knew if they chose the most vulnerable women - the least likely to be believed - that they would never get caught. And I just don't know how that happened. How did we let them outsmart us for all that time?
GROSS: Rachel Dissell, thank you for your reporting, and thank you for talking with us about it.
GROSS: Rachel Dissell is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Coming up, actress and producer Elizabeth Banks, who directed "Pitch Perfect 2." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, Elizabeth Banks, made her directorial debut with the comedy "Pitch Perfect 2," which opened last weekend and was No. 1 at the box office. Banks is best known for her roles in the "Hunger Games" films, "W" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and the TV shows "30 Rock" and "Modern Family." Her production company was instrumental in getting both "Pitch Perfect" films made. She found the book the first film is based on and brought on screenwriter Kay Cannon. In both films, Banks plays Gail, an a cappella official, announcer and podcast host. "Pitch Perfect" was about how the college women's a cappella team, the Barton Bellas, went from underdog to champion. In the sequel, after a wardrobe malfunction at a performance, attended by President Obama, they lose their title. Now they're underdogs again and facing an international competition. Elizabeth Banks spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a scene in which the Bellas, led by Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, meet up with their main competition, a Germany team, after a performance.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PITCH PERFECT 2")
BIRGITTE SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Barton Bellas, you came here to see us? Is it because you are - what do the American kids say? - jelly?
BRITTANY SNOW: (As Chloe) We are so not jelly.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) We should really thank you for making this tour a reality, you know, with your bumbling ineptitude. We should send them something - fruit basket?
FLULA BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Yum, yum.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Or would you prefer mini muffins?
ANNA KENDRICK: (As Beca) OK, we didn't come here to start something with you guys. We just wanted to check you out before the Worlds, where we're going to kick your a**.
ESTER DEAN: (As Cynthia Rose) That's right.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) You? You are the kicker of a**?
KENDRICK: (As Beca) (Laughter) Well, yeah.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) You are so tiny, like an elf - or is it a fairy, sprite? (Foreign language spoken).
BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Troll.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) That's it. You are like a troll.
KENDRICK: (As Beca) You are physically flawless.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Thank you.
KENDRICK: (As Beca) But it doesn't mean I like you.
BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Your team is like - how do you say that? - a heated mess. You know? A mess where heat is applied to it so what once was a little messy is now even messier.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Pitch Perfect 2." Elizabeth Banks, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ELIZABETH BANKS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BALDONADO: Now, you were instrumental in getting the first "Pitch Perfect" made and obviously the second one you've directed. Can you tell us how you got interested in this project?
BANKS: Well, actually what happened was my husband, who wrote a book a long, long time ago about fantasy football, his book agent sent us a book proposal for a book called "Pitch Perfect" by Mickey Rapkin and thought, you know, we might think it's a funny movie idea. And we went to the University of Pennsylvania together, where there are a bunch of a cappella groups. And the way my husband tells it is he thought it was such a fun, sort of niche world where people are completely self-serious about something that's sort of ridiculous because making music with your mouth is a particularly nerdy thing to do. It's a really nerdy side of singing. And I think partially because of our movie, over the last few years, it's become a lot less nerdy (laughter). But definitely when we first read the book proposal, we thought, wow, this is a really fun group of oddballs who like to make music with their mouths. This could be a fun idea.
BALDONADO: I think one of the things that people relate to in the films is that the main characters are this group of young women. And another thing that people relate to is the music, and a lot of it is current pop and hip-hop but also songs from the '80s and '90s. And I'm going to play a little clip from "Pitch Perfect 2." This is from a scene where the Barton Bellas go to an underground, hip-hop sing-off - private sing-off. And is this something that's in the book? Does this exist anywhere - underground riff-offs?
BANKS: Well, the - no, the riff-off idea even in the first film was inspired by my collegiate experience of being a nerdy musical theater kid and going to house parties where we would all stand around a piano with lyric sheets and just sing and show off and go back and forth and sort of throw it to each other. That was the inspiration for the riff-off in the first film. And I knew in this one I wanted it to feel like a fight club.
BALDONADO: Yeah, so when you were in college when you were doing those sing-offs, what kind of music did you guys sing?
BANKS: It was much more like musical theater tunes (laughter). It was a lot of Sondheim, really geeky stuff, really total nerdy stuff.
BALDONADO: Well, let's take a listen to this scene. Like I said, the Bellas and some other a cappella groups, including the group that is the big, evil group this time around, the Germany group, Das...
BANKS: Das Sound Machine.
BALDONADO: Das Sound Machine. And they are in this underground sing-off hosted by this eccentric a cappella fan, played by David Cross. And it's a final battle between the two of them. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PITCH PERFECT 2")
DAVID CROSS: (As Character) All right, come on in. Let's do this face-off style. OK, let's take a look and see what your final category is - '90s hip-hop jams. OK, y'all, take a second to think about it. Time's up, go.
BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) (Singing) This is how we do it.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) I'm kind of buzzed and it's all because...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is that we do it.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) South Central does it like nobody does.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is how we do it.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) To all my neighbors, you got much flavor.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is how we do it.
SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) Let's flip...
DEAN: (As Cynthia Rose) (Singing) Girls, you know you better watch out. Some guys, some guys are only about that thing, that thing, that thing.
BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) (Singing) That girl is poison. Never trust a big butt and a smile. That girl is poison.
REBEL WILSON: (As Fat Amy) (Singing) Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's, what's, what's the scenario? Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's, what's, what's the scenario?
BALDONADO: So that's a scene from "Pitch Perfect 2." I have to say, I love that scene. When I saw - when that clip was released before the movie came out, I was like, yes, this is what we want to see again. But you were the producer on the first "Pitch Perfect," and you acted in it. How did you come to be the director of the sequel?
BANKS: (Laughter) Well, it was, as with most things in Hollywood, the stars sort of all aligned. As we were developing the script for the second film with Kay, we were very hopeful that Jason Moore, who directed the first film, would come back for the second one. But he was developing a movie for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the same time. And then it just sort of lined up that he was going to go make that movie and be unavailable to direct this one. And I kind of was just standing in the right place at the right time, you know? I had made the first movie, worked very closely with him on it and had been working towards directing a feature. I was actively looking for a feature to direct. So when Jason fell off, it was just sort of - I got a call that said, we think a young female director should take over the helm. And I said, I'm so glad you think she's young.
BALDONADO: (Laugher). I was thinking about the different directors that you've worked with and how they must have very different styles. And I think one film that a lot of people saw you in first was "40-Year-Old Virgin," the Judd Apatow film. And I want to play a scene from that. In this movie, Steve Carell is a 40-year-old virgin. And one of his friends, Seth Rogen, is trying to convince him to talk to the woman who works at the bookstore next door that's played by you. And Seth Rogen's character tells him that women just want you to ask them questions. So Carell's character comes to you in the bookstore and his technique is just to start asking questions. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE 40-YEAR-OLD-VIRGIN")
BANKS: (As Beth) Can I help you?
STEVE CARELL: (As Andy) I don't know, can you?
BANKS: (As Beth) Are you looking for something?
CARELL: (As Andy) Is there something I should be looking for?
BANKS: (As Beth) (Laughter) Well, we have a lot of books. So maybe it depends on what you like.
CARELL: (As Andy) What do you like?
BANKS: (As Beth) We have a great section of do-it-yourself.
CARELL: (As Andy) Do you like to do-it-yourself?
BANKS: (As Beth) Sometimes (laughter). I mean, if the mood strikes.
CARELL: (As Andy) How is the mood striking you now?
BANKS: (As Beth) What's your name?
CARELL: (As Andy) What's your name?
BANKS: (As Beth) I'm Beth.
CARELL: (As Andy) Andy.
BANKS: (As Beth) Andy. Don't tell on me, OK, Andy?
CARELL: (As Andy) I won't - unless you want to be told on, Beth.
BALDONADO: That's a scene from "40-Year-Old Virgin" with Steve Carell and my guest, Elizabeth Banks. I read recently that Judd Apatow shoots the equivalent of over a million feet of film, which is four times more than a regular comedy. And that just means that he shoots a lot of improv, alternative versions of scenes. Can you describe working with this kind of style of direction and did any of this scene we just heard come from improv?
BANKS: Yes, that entire scene came from improv (laughter). There literally was a sign hanging in that bookstore that said do-it-yourself. That was a section. I just looked at it and read it. That's how that happened. I think people think we make it seem so easy. Like, oh, you can just show up and, like, just improv. But, you know, you have to - you have to cover improv very technically so you get both sides of a conversation. Typically when you're shooting a movie, you shoot one side of a conversation. That person says theirs lines. Then you turn the camera around. You shoot the reactions of the other person and their side of it. But when you're improv-ing, you need to catch it in the moment when it's happening - both sides of the conversation - because improv takes that exchange. It's not one person doing a monologue. It has to be sort of a conversation, a back-and-forth. And so Judd, when I was working on "40-Year-Old Virgin," was really figuring out how to do what we now call in the business - have always called in the business - cross coverage. And cross coverage was something that was very important to me when making "Pitch Perfect." I love improv. I do it with my co-star John Michael Higgins in both "Pitch Perfect" films. So we had to do a lot of cross coverage. So I learned a lot about that technique working with Judd - and just also the impetus to do it. You know, luckily for us, that style, that improv style, and wanting to shoot cross coverage and wanting to shoot alternatives to what's scripted, we're much more able to do now cost-effectively because we don't shoot on film. We shoot digitally. And so I think his way of doing things has actually beautifully dovetailed with the sort of turnover in the technology.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview that Elizabeth Banks recorded with one of our producers, Ann Marie Baldonado. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with actress and producer Elizabeth Banks, who directed "Pitch Perfect 2."
BALDONADO: I want to ask you about growing up. I read that to you were an athlete, and an injury kind of early on led you to your first school play.
BANKS: Yeah, I played softball. I was on an all-star team. I traveled with the team. I loved it. We were actually just practicing. We weren't even playing, which is sort of depressing. We were practicing, and I broke my leg sliding into third base. I spiral fractured both my tibia and fibula and had to surgery and was in a giant full-leg cast for quite some time. And, you know, I was a latchkey kid growing up, so my parents always made sure we had something to do after school so we weren't just hanging around watching "Santa Barbara," which is what I wanted to do.
So I was encouraged to try out for the school play. They were doing "Jesus Christ Superstar," and I didn't get the lead, which is a theme in my life, I realize. I'm always the bridesmaid. I'm never quite the bride. But I played Pontius Pilate. And I wore long robe over my walking cast that I ended up in. And that became my afterschool activity instead of sports.
BALDONADO: You just said that you feel like you never get the lead. Can you elaborate that - the lead role in a movie? Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
BANKS: (Laughter) Well, I - you know, I haven't played a lot of lead roles in my life, and very early on in my career, even with, you know, "Wet Hot American Summer" being the very first time. I auditioned to play the role that was ultimately played Marguerite Moreau. And, you know, David Wain said, I don't know. You just - you seem too pretty to play, like, the lead role and to be in love with Coop, so would you want to play Beth instead? And, of course, I just wanted a job, so I said, yes, of course, I'll play Beth.
You know, I had an audition for Mary Jane Watson in "Spiderman" and ended up playing Betty Brant in that series. I auditioned for Amy Adams' role in "Catch Me If You Can" and, you know, ended up playing the bank teller. So there were a lot of times early on where I felt like I was always sort of the bridesmaid, never the bride - never quite right. But it's - you know, it's just sort of how it's played out for me (laughter).
BALDONADO: Why do you think that is?
BANKS: Oh, it sort of sad when I say it out loud.
BALDONADO: (Laughter) Oh, no.
BANKS: I don't know. I don't know. You'd have to ask the people doing the hiring. I mean, I was always given a reason. And it's always some sort of backhanded, weird compliment, like, well, you're too pretty. Or, you know, it's stuff - I was too old for Spiderman, for sure. That was for sure the answer on that one.
BALDONADO: When you graduated from grad school at the American Conservatory Theater, which I guess a sort of classical training for the stage or dramatic training, what did you think of your career would be like when you left school? Like, did you think you'd be more of a dramatic actress? Or were you already interested in comedy?
BANKS: I wanted to - I was very pre-professional. All of high school, I couldn't wait to get to college and sort of get on with my life (laughter). You know, I grew up sort of lower working class. And I just didn't want to have the money struggles that might parents had. You know, I could just - as loving an environment I grew up in - and I grew up in a great home, a very loving home - but, you know, we had that stress. We had that stress in our life.
But I had no idea. My expectations for my career changed. You know, I sort of - honestly, when I graduated from graduate school, I just wanted to make money as an actor. I sort of told myself I was only going to give myself a couple years, and if I - if I was a waitress who occasionally acted, I was not going to do it. I was going to give it up. And when I got to New York, within the first couple of days of being in New York, one of my first auditions was for a soap opera, and I got offered a two-year contract of that soap. And one of the hardest decisions I ever made - I called my mom, and I said, I don't think I'm going to do this. But, you know, it was so much money. I could have paid off all my student loans. Like, it - I would have been set.
But there was something inside me, and I actually signed with the agent who said the same thing, which was I don't know. I've been here a day. Let's see what happens tomorrow. I mean (laughter), like, all of a sudden, the thing that I thought I wanted, which was wealth - steady work on a soap opera, sure. But then the minute I got it, I thought, well, what else can I get, you know? I mean, it's sort of how I ended up directing. You know, I kept acting, and I just keep asking myself, well, what else can I get? What else can this business give me?
BALDONADO: In some of the articles about you, they talk about how persistent you are in getting things like the "Pitch Perfect" movies made and getting roles like the role of Effie in "The Hunger Games." Is that something that all actors kind of have to do these days?
BANKS: You know, I'll say that one of the great lessons I've learned in my life is that you don't get what you don't ask for. And I do think that, you know, there's all this sort of research out to now that women like to be asked to do things, that we have hard time sort of raising our hand because we're just culturally not taught to do it, you know? We're undervalued sort of from day one. I just - I raise my hand a lot. I don't always get what I'm asking for. But if I didn't ask for it, I definitely wouldn't get it. And I just feel like what's the worst that can happen? Someone can say no.
BALDONADO: Well, Elizabeth Banks, thank you for coming on to FRESH AIR.
BANKS: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Elizabeth Banks, speaking to FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Banks produced and directed "Pitch Perfect 2." On the podcast edition of today's show, we have an extra featuring Banks talking about co-starring in the comedy film "Wet Hot American Summer," which has been adapted into a Netflix series. Tomorrow on our show, something very different. I get interviewed by Marc Maron, the great comic, star of the TV series "Maron" and host of the famous podcast "WTF." Our conversation was recorded on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it got kind of personal.
MARC MARON: You have to understand that, like, a lot of us have created a life for you, Terry. And this is all...
MARON: This is exciting information. This is exciting stuff to me.
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