INTERVIEW: Happy Camp-er, Jamie Babbit, Comes Out with "Cheerleader"

by Aaron Krach

Jamie Babbit has come along way from her undergraduate days at New York's Barnard University studying, of all things, West African Studies. Feisty and outspoken, the 30-year-old director now lives in sunny Southern California, working as a director and preparing for the release of her debut feature, "But I'm a Cheerleader," (July 7th in New York). The satirical romantic comedy stars Natasha Lyonne as a high school cheerleader unaware of why she doesn't care for boys like the other girls do. Her parents, played by Mink Stole and Bud Cort, think they know why: She's a budding lesbian. Thus they ship her off to a gay-to-straight camp for wayward youth. "Cheerleader" may carry a message, but the film is played for broad laughs. No wonder the producers of "Popular" (WB Network) tapped Babbit to start directing the teenage-themed program after catching a screening of "Cheerleader."

Since its premiere in Toronto last fall, "Cheerleader" changed distributors, screened at Sundance and several gay and lesbian film festivals gaining considerable buzz for the remarkable on-screen chemistry between Lyonne and co-star Clea Duvall, ("The Faculty" and "Girl, Interrupted"); all of which Babbit talked about with indieWIRE during a recent conversation.

indieWIRE: Fine Line picked up "Cheerleader" at the Toronto Film Festival and now your film is being released by Lion's Gate. Can you talk about what happened?

Jamie Babbit: It was basically, well, Fine Line was the only person who had put in a bid at Toronto, where it premiered, except for some straight-to-video options. I was really excited that we went with Fine Line, but the financier (Michael Burns) was not that excited because the money was never good. It was a low-ball bid. He was pushing for something else. A lot of people are skeptical about movies making money in the theater, so he was hoping to make money in video. There was no video deal in place with Fine Line at Toronto and unfortunately, Fine Line procrastinated. They didn't draw up the paper work until three or four months later. By the time they had done that, the financier was still disappointed.

"We can't complain that all the films in gay festivals suck if we aren't willing to play our own films there."

When they started to negotiate the video deal, Fine Line was not very giving because they didn't have to be, as far as they were concerned. So it went back and forth and back and forth. Meanwhile I'm still working with Fine Line to get ready to get the movie out and basically the financier walked away. He was able to walk away because he was pretty confident that he would be able to distribute it at Lion's Gate, because he had just become a vice president there. Lions Gate has done a great job too.

iW: How many gay and lesbian film festivals will "Cheerleader" play this summer?

Babbit: All of them. We were the opening Night of New York and D.C. and then we are closing night of San Francisco. That's why we're doing a kind of tiered release, because of those festivals. After opening NY, we're opening there first (on the 7th). We open on the 14th in San Francisco, right after their festival and then the 21st in every other city.

iW: In your experience, how do you think distributors feel about gay festivals? Do they see it as a significant publicity coup to have a film open or close a festival?

Babbit: Yes, Lions Gate does. I know certain distributors or even directors feel -- I know Greg Araki hates gay festivals -- but I would always push to play in them because I really love them. I think they are important. We can't complain that all the films in gay festivals suck if we aren't willing to play our own films there.

iW: The gay-to-straight camp in your movie is called True Directions and your mom runs a halfway house for teens with drug and alcohol problems called New Directions: Is that as autobiographical as the film gets?

Babbit: I didn't have any personal experience, like I've never been to an ex-gay camp or anything. But at the same time, I'm gay and I can clearly think about those issues. A lot of the ex-gay camps are religious based, Christian, Mormon or Scientology, and so I really wanted to make the camp in the film based more on a twelve step program. There are Homosexual Anonymous groups; I don't know if they have a camp but I know they have meetings like AA meetings.

iW: You needed to find several young actors willing to play very gay. Did you have any trouble finding actors not only comfortable, but also confident about their roles?

Babbit: By the time I actually got to the final cast, they were all totally accepting and fine. But I did have some difficulty finding people along the way. Clearly the people who weren't into it, didn't end up in the cast. There were a lot of actors that didn't feel comfortable with the material. That was mostly the actors I talked to about Megan, (Natasha Lyonne's) part. What was interesting, though, was that of course I'm going to go on and make movies and I'm sure some of them won't be gay movies. It was kind of a good way to learn about all the up and coming young teen talent and who is homophobic and who is not.

"I didn't want to make an entirely camp film. I also wanted straightforward emotional scenes. I really fought for those scenes. I also wanted a romance. I believe in love at first sight and true love forever. That's just the way I am. I'm not cynical."

iW: Oh, now you know who to not waste your time working with?

Babbit: Exactly.

iW: You've used the phrase, "the feminization of camp" to describe a combination of "hyper-real" setting with "real feelings of the characters." What exactly do you mean?

Babbit: I guess that statement came out of a lot of people saying, "Oh, she wishes she was John Waters. Ooh, she wishes she was as bitter and biting as John Waters." I can't tell you how many times I heard that and how irritated I am by it. That was a response. I think it's true. Let's think about camp: Who made camp an aesthetic? Gay men. Okay, let's think about what I wanted to do. I didn't want to make an entirely camp film. I also wanted straightforward emotional scenes. I wanted a counterpoint. I really fought for those scenes. I also wanted a romance. I believe in love at first sight and true love forever. That's just the way I am. I'm not cynical.

iW: You've made shorts ("Sleeping Beauties" and "Frog Crossing") worked as a script supervisor on several films (David Fincher's "The Game", Alex Sichel's "All Over Me") and now you've got a gig directing for television -- which do you think helped you more in your career?

Babbit: "Popular" came after the feature. I got it based on the movie because the aesthetic is kind of similar. I love doing it. I think the combination of being a script supervisor -- as far as being comfortable on set and knowing the good and bad parts of being a director -- was really helpful. Also, making shorts is really important in developing your voice. You can't develop your voice being a script supervisor. But you need to do both. When script supervisors I meet say, "I want to make a feature," I say, "you might want to start by exploring your voice in a smaller form."

[Aaron Krach is a regular contributor to indieWIRE.]