Winning Pitch: How Trish Sie '90 Went From Treadmills to Hollywood Director

What Trish Kulash Sie '90 remembers most about NCS are the extravaganzas.
"We were always putting on shows as a group—a huge group, the entire class of 65 girls. We would get together on the weekends, sometimes for six weekends in a row, in someone's cul-de-sac, and plan them out," she said. "We re-created Thriller. We made an entire Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, NCS edition. We did Milli Vanilli numbers, because that was huge at the time. We did impromptu dance numbers all over the place."
A quarter-century later, Sie is still in the middle of staging shows. Today, though, she does it as a Hollywood director. In January, she will start shooting her next movie, the third installment in the popular Pitch Perfect series, starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. The film is due to reach theaters in December 2017.
"I think most of my classmates are not surprised one bit that I ended up doing this," Sie said.
But Sie's path to movie sets was anything but a straight line. In the past 10 years alone, she has been a dancer, an arts impresario, a musical educator, a choreographer, and a Grammy-winning music video director before reaching the silver screen. Her film school was on-the-job experience making commercials and short films. The common element in each of these, she said in a September interview, was "a Trish-shaped door."
The metaphor stems from a Japanese game show where a contestant confronts a wall with a hole cut into it. Winning requires one to get through the wall by arranging her body into a shape that matches the hole. "I feel like sometimes your career looks like that," Sie said. "You just have to get in the shape of the thing that's coming at you. Then you can see what's on the other side of it.
"Some of [my career choices] were very conscious decisions but just a fork in the road. You make a choice, not necessarily knowing where that road goes. ... Just know at every point along the way that you're doing something that feels like it's taking you in a direction you like and challenging you in good ways."

Searching for creative sparks

At NCS, Sie said, she "really bounced around a lot" with her pursuits. "I knew when something lit me up," she added, "but it was so wide-ranging and changing all the time that I couldn't picture sticking to something through my whole life, and seeing it through to the end."
Music was her major at the University of Pennsylvania, not because she saw it as her career, but because she had the most credits in it. She was very involved with the Penn Dance Company and, after graduating in 1994 and moving to Orlando, Sie continued with dance, becoming a ballroom dancer and teacher.
She also explored other avenues for self-expression, including: creating a dance studio that she named after the late Zebra Lounge on Wisconsin Avenue; forming a science-focused children's music project called the Snark-a-Snoops; and organizing an arts collective called the Exchange. She explained the Exchange to the Orlando Sentinel as sparked by a desire "to cross the lines—bring artists of different disciplines together to inspire each other." Early in 2005, her little brother, Damian Kulash (STA '94), rang her up to ask for something exactly like that.
Damian is the lead singer of the rock band OK Go, which had an idea for its concert encores: ending each show not by performing a song but by dancing to one. "We wanted something ... so ridiculous that people couldn't forget that they had seen it," he told NPR in 2005. "My sister is the person who is so ridiculous that no one can forget that they've seen her, so we thought we'd call her in and see what she could do."
With Sie's choreography, the band worked out a routine to its song A Million Ways, combining plenty of backup-dancer moves with a Busby Berkeley moment and a fight scene in the style of The Matrix. "We were making fun of dance videos, but if you look like you're making fun of it, the whole thing gets cankered with irony. The dancing had to be good enough, more than just silly," she told NPR.
A video of one rehearsal got uploaded to a then-new online service called YouTube, where it became a sensation. Within three months, A Million Ways had been viewed a half-million times (which is how Sie and Kulash found themselves explaining the Matrix bit on-air to NPR host Robert Siegel); after a year, it was up to 9 million views, according to Billboard. "Everybody on the planet likes to watch men dance, especially men who don't dance for a living. There's just something kinda wrong about it. People love that," is Sie's analysis.
But what had happened on a lark also created expectations for a follow-up: Could OK Go do it again?
Kulash again turned to his sister, giving her the prompt of "some sort of systems thing," he told USA Today later. Sie was up to the challenge: She'd noticed how music playing in a gym would inspire people on treadmills to march together. "They would get into a groove, and it was like they were all in this unwitting choreography together,” she told the UPenn alumni magazine in 2010.
With that idea, Sie designed a new dance video. The band learned it, she filmed it in one take in her aforementioned Zebra Room, and that, she thought, was that. She and her husband, Roe, soon would leave Orlando for Los Angeles. Her dancing days were behind her, she concluded, and California offered more possibility to break through with the Snark-a-Snoops: "I thought that my thing was going to be kids entertainment."
Then the second video came out, and everything changed.

The world discovers Trish Sie

OK Go's Here It Goes Again became a defining moment of the 2000s. It was clever, funny, and thoroughly original, and audiences couldn't get enough of it, watching it more than 70 million times on YouTube. "After that video spread all over the world, our band really started to exist on a whole different level," Kulash said in 2008.
Here It Goes Again created a Trish-shaped door, too, especially after it won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video. "I started getting calls from a lot of agencies and production companies," she recalled. Not interested, she told caller after caller; I'm doing the Snark-a-Snoops.
But one company, Bob Industries, did interest her, especially with a pitch framed as, "We just want you to make stuff here. If you're going to make something, do it with us."
Sie said she ended up "signing with them as a director, not knowing what that really meant." It resulted in commercials—an early one for Levi's, for example, that came with a $50,000 budget for a 90-second spot.
"They were getting filmmakers to make stuff for cheap, but you got creative control. I started learning that way," Sie said. "I started working with real cinematographers and learning how lenses work, how lighting works. Gradually the jobs got bigger and the budgets got better, which also meant that the structure got more kind of hierarchical and more traditional."
The relationship with Bob Industries also gave Sie license to manage her career—freeing her, for example, to choose whether to shoot a project or to spend time with Roe and their sons—Walter, now 13, and Bernard, 8.
Over the years, she has continued to work with OK Go on videos. She has now directed five, and each has been breathtakingly novel: choreographing humans and dogs in White Knuckles; teaming with the modern-dance troupe Pilobolus on the kaleidoscopic, filmed-from-below All Is Not Lost; tangoing through the beautifully filmed Skyscrapers; and, in 2016's Upside Down & Inside Out, escaping gravity. (The last was nominated this week for a Grammy Award, in the same category Here It Goes Again won 10 years ago.)
Collectively, they have established that originality and whimsy are central to Sie's directing vision. Smithsonian Magazine proposed this winter, in bestowing her with an American Ingenuity Award, that she has "revolutionized the music video" into "a little machine for producing joy." But Sie suggests that the videos have also complicated things in Hollywood.
"I think sometimes people pigeonhole me as the OK Go girl who does these stylized, intricate dances with a locked-off camera, but can she do anything else," she said. "It gives me street cred as a sort of an artist and a creator and an inventive person, but it does not give me street cred as a director who can shoot a movie. That's something I'm continually having to prove."
So Sie also created several short movies to show her range. In 2014, she landed her first feature film, Step Up: All In, the fifth installment of that dance-movie series. It did well at the box office—bringing in more than $86 million—which helped introduce her into the discussion about Pitch Perfect 3.
The first two Pitch Perfects, which focused on collegiate a cappella groups, sold $400 million in tickets, and Sie was a big fan. "I really liked its humor and all the music and dance," she said, and she was familiar with a cappella from her time at Penn. "Part of what I loved about the series was how it rings true. It's heightened, it's stylized, and it's absurd, but it rings true."
When it became clear that Elizabeth Banks would not return as director for the third installment, Sie said, "Everybody who knows me was like, 'You've got to do that. Between the sort of raunchy, ridiculous humor and the girl power-iness of it and the music and the dancing and the quirky characters, it's like there's no more perfect fit for you.' "
A summer of meetings convinced film executives as well. "It's a big job, politically and creatively and technically. You need to wear a lot of hats and so they need to vet you pretty carefully," she said. "It was pretty clear that it was going to be a good match."
Looking back over her career, Sie says she is struck by the fact that "I never, ever, ever questioned that girls could be movie directors or dance champions or owners of their own businesses or anything. NCS just empowers girls not by always telling them that they can do whatever they want, but just showing it.
"It took me a while—into my 30s, I think—before I really even noticed any sexism in the world. I'm sure it was all around me, but I traveled through my young adulthood and childhood having no questions about where girls belonged in the world. That's a pretty magical thing for a girl," Sie added. "As a woman, I appreciate it much more than I did as a girl."
by Scott Butterworth

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of NCS Magazine.
    • Trish Sie '90 in her garden at home.

    • Sie with her younger brother, Damian Kulash (STA '94), while filming an OK Go music video.

    • On the set of "Step Up: All In," her first Hollywood feature film.

    • Weightless in zero gravity while filming OK Go's 2016 video "Upside Down and Inside Out."