Throughout the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as a showcase for new and emerging filmmakers from contemporary international cinema.
Fourteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions. Director David Ross is at Toronto with his feature film, “The Babysitters,” which TIFF describes as “a lurid romance between a suburban dad and a neighbor’s sixteen-year old daughter” that “ends up being a delicious dark comedy about a prostitution ring of neighborhood babysitters.”
Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
My name is David Ross. I’m originally from Southfield, Michigan. I live in Los Angeles. I’ve been working as a screenwriter for the past five years or so.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I had an interest in the arts from a very young age. My father was a painter who made his living as a restaurant supplier. His parents were Holocaust survivors who had made their way to America following the war, and it was very much a part of the immigrant culture that you worry about work and supporting your family first. Creative endeavors that might leave your family starving weren’t exactly considered a high priority for their generation. But when I came along and showed my father’s same creative tendencies, my parents felt secure enough to encourage me to do what I wanted, and worry about the rest later.
By early high school,I knew I was interested in film, as well as writing and acting (which I was never good at). Everything changed when a friend of mine introduced me to the work of the Coen Brothers. And then of course, “Reservoir Dogs” came along and sealed it for all of us. “This is what I want to do,” I said. The early nineties was, it turned out, a good time to develop an interest in film, particularly the independents.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I attended the American Film Institute from 1999-2001. I was in the screenwriting program, and in the second year I wrote the first draft of “The Babysitters.” The initial drafts, some of which never even made it out of my spiral notebook, conceived the film as much more sprawling, frequently breaking away from Shirley and Michael to follow any number of supporting characters. The original version of the screenplay was also more in the vein of a morality tale, which I ultimately decided wasn’t terribly interesting or new.
What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?
My first goal, as with many I’m sure, is to find a home for the film. A distributor willing to give it a good release and really get behind it. Those who have joined us so far; in the cast, the crew, have done so because they have a passion for the project and the material. I want to find a distributor who feels the same way.
I also want to get myself acquainted with other filmmakers, particularly those who are also new on the scene, and see what kind of interesting work is coming in from around the world.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
I had become interested in prostitution as a subject for a drama after being in Los Angeles for about a year. The alternative weeklies print call-girl ads in their back pages, right next to the numbers of psychics and offers to make thousands of dollars from home. I liked the fact that although prostitution is considered taboo, it’s understood that for some people it’s a normal part of life.
I think what really piqued my interest was the idea of people trying to separate intimacy from sex. Obviously, many are able to do this with no problems, prostitution isn’t the world’s oldest profession for nothing. But I wanted to see what happens when people who aren’t built that way try to take the intimacy out of sex. It’s just asking for trouble. I also wanted to eliminate money as a motive. True, Shirley comes from a working-class family and could use the money, but money alone is too easy. This is someone who’s always followed her own plan, but she’s coming to realize that path isn’t leading her anywhere she really wants to go anymore. She wants to feel alive, to do something different and scary, and she finds that, however fleetingly, in Michael.
I knew that I wanted the girls to be significantly younger than the men, which I thought added another layer of discomfort for the characters to overcome, but I still needed a device to hang it all on- How does this girl pull it all off? How does she get away with it? The answer of the babysitting service as a cover actually came from a joke someone made when I was at a cafe in my neighborhood. I ordered a drink called “The Babysitter” and a friend laughed at the innuendo. I thought, “That could be it.” It’s an easy way for the men and girls to be alone together, and what’s more it taps into an old (if creepy) fantasy.
The last piece of the puzzle was the decision to set this not in Orange County or The Hamptons, but in the middle of the country, specifically where I grew up in Michigan. I wanted to tell a story about ordinary, (mostly) good people who make what most people would consider bad decisions. I also didn’t want to make another scum-encrusted morality tale. I decided to approach this as a coming-of-age-story, and to do so I would tell the story from Shirley’s unjaded, unironic point of view. It was the only way to try to empathize with her decisions, however questionable we the audience might find them.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
Cora Olson, Jennifer Dubin, and Jason Dubin were the first producers on this project. They came to me years ago and told me they wanted to raise the money. We were all taking our first shot together. That solidarity is what got us through. What’s more, because of them I never had to do the song-and-dance many directors do in trying to get people to give them money.
That said, the process of raising the money obviously took some time. For me, the most frustrating part of putting the project together was the casting of Michael. We made an early decision that we wanted someone well-known for the role, especially since most of the girls were going to be new faces. We made a lot of offers over the course of a couple years, had many people show interest but kept coming up short. It was a risky project, and having an unknown director helming it didn’t help. But then we got a call that John Leguizamo had read the script and was interested. I was surprised at first because it’s not the kind of role he’s known for playing. Then again, he’s make a career of playing every kind of character imaginable, so my surprise didn’t last. I flew to New York with my producers and it was the easiest meeting I had had with any actor. He essentially said, ‘I like this. I understand this guy. Let’s do it.” It was that simple.
On the other hand, the casting of Katherine Waterston as Shirley happened very easily for me. I had anticipated this taking months of auditioning, but as it happened Katherine was the first person I met about the role. She had gotten a hold of the script through a friend, I believe, and decided that this was her role. Cora and Jen arranged for us to have breakfast, and as the cliche goes, I knew I had the right girl as soon as she sat down. We still ran through a standard audition process, but Katherine just reassured my confidence in her through every phase of it.
What are your creative influences?
I mentioned the Coen Brothers earlier, as well as Mr. Tarantino. I think Terry Gilliam is one of the masters. I was also greatly influenced, like most of my generation I’d assume, by a lot of the American cinema of the 70’s. I’d say that “Taxi Driver,” “The Shining” (I know it was 1980, but close enough), “Annie Hall,” “Jaws,” and of course “Star Wars” got the most deeply under my skin. But ask me again in a week, and my answers will be different.
In more recent years, I’ve become a big fan of any writer-director whose last name is Anderson.
What are some of your all-time favorite films? What are some of your recent favorite films?
Oh, boy. “Children of Men” was probably the best film of the past ten years. “The Last King of Scotland,” “Match Point,” “Sideways,” “Brick,” “City of God.” When I saw “Lost in Translation” I almost packed my bags and went home. I figured Sophia Coppola had made the film I always wanted to make but didn’t even know it.
What are your interests outside of film?
When I went to film school I fell in love with baseball (watching it, that is), despite never coming close to being a jock. It became my new means of escape as film became my number one focus.
I decided not long ago that I some day want to go back to school to study European History. Or at least audit some classes. I hate term papers, but I want to do the reading. Maybe when I turn fifty, I can enroll in USC or UCLA and be the oldest freshman on campus.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I’d like to have Alexander Payne‘s career.
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