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‘Addicted to Fresno’ Director Jamie Babbit on Hiding Pregnancies and Embracing Diversity

'Addicted to Fresno' Director Jamie Babbit on Hiding Pregnancies and Embracing Diversity

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Judy Greer’s summer of tiny, thankless roles, in which she plays characters designed to be instantly forgettable in “Tomorrowland,” “Entourage,” “Jurassic World” and “Ant-Man.” 

But the beloved character actress finally gets to shine in a starring role worthy of her talents in the black comedy “Addicted to Fresno,” Jamie Babbit’s tale of two sisters in the blue-collar Californian city. Greer’s Shannon, a disgraced sex addict, returns to her dusty hometown to crash with her younger sibling Martha (Natasha Lyonne), a hotel maid who has her life pretty figured out, except for her habit of unrequited lesbian crushes. One of Shannon’s bedroom mishaps leads to the two women having to hide a dead body and come up with a whole bunch of cash fast, but their panicked hijinks seem to leave them with more dildos than dollars. (Inkoo Kang)

In a discussion with Women and Hollywood, Babbitt discussed what it’s like to have made one of the most influential lesbian comedies of all time (“But I’m a Cheerleader”), what it’s like to direct while nine months pregnant and why working with her wife and her ex-wife on “Addicted to Fresno” was the right decision for her. 

W&H: Thank God someone finally gave Judy Greer a role worthy of her talent. What makes Judy Greer so special, and why do you think she’s so underused?

JB: I had worked with Judy on “Married,” the FX show. Working with her, I realized that she is so nuanced and so original in all of her acting. There’s nothing canned about the way she plays something. She’s so funny and unique, but she can also do dramatic scenes. She’s technically perfect. She stands on her mark without even looking at it. If you say, can you cry on the third syllable of this word, she can incorporate that into her performance and make it seem seemless. She’s technically brilliant and also so intuitive. She’s amazing in sync. She’s kind, she’s on time, she always knows her lines. She’s a director’s dream. I worship[ped] her in a television capacity, and I was blown away by how good she was.

At that time, I was looking for my Shannon [Greer’s character], so I gave the script to her and said, “Would you consider doing this part?” I knew that she would bring to the Shannon character, who does awful things, a brightness and a lightness, so that she would make the character less despicable.

I think whenever you’re making a dark comedy, you’re always looking for the yin and yang in an actor. Natasha brings darkness to a bright, bubbly character, which I had already utilized in “But I’m A Cheerleader” earlier. So I knew she had the perfect combination of being able to play that peppy cheerleader type, but there’s so much darkness and interesting things going on with her that it’s not boring. And I knew for Judy, that if I cast her in this kind of dark character who’s selfish and does terrible things, she’s so funny and bright and light that she makes it a relatable character.

I think any director who has ever worked with Judy will want to work with her again, so I think she’ll be starring in an Alexander Payne movie sometime soon. She’s one of those actors — as she gets older and into her forties, she will realize that in your twenties, there are these boring ingénue parts. And in your forties, fifties and sixties — look at Allison Janney’s career, that’s really taking off. I feel like Judy has that level of talent.

W&H: Abolutely, and a similar kind of appeal.

JB: Yes, I think Allison Janney, who I’ve also worked with, and Toni Colette — all these actors are going to keep working constantly as they’re aging and in fact get more interesting parts. And I feel like all the kind of ingénue youngsters, their careers end, because the talent isn’t actually there.

W&H: Can you give us the logline description of “Addicted to Fresno”?

JB: “Addicted to Fresno” is about two co-dependent sisters who accidentally commit a crime and are trying to cover it up. It’s an exploration of these two sisters’ relationship. I really wanted to tell a love story between sisters, but a complicated love story.

W&H: In the press notes, you say that the film is about two deaths: One is a physical death, and the other is the relationship between two sisters. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JB: No, but at the end of the movie and at the beginning of the movie, she says, “Siblings can really sink each other.” They don’t die, but they kind of come to an understanding that they’re better off not being a mass. It’s better for them to have some physical distance. Martha will always visit Shannon, but she’s very glad that they’re not living together anymore.

Especially in family relationships, if you’re too close, it can sink you. My mom is a therapist; I was basically raised in my mom’s rehab. Her whole life was as a co-dependent person that was striding to help every addict in the world. People who are constantly obsessed with other people’s addictions have a worse addiction. They’re letting their own life crumble while they’re obsessed with people who are alcoholics and drug addicts. You go to an AA meeting, and a lot of people are getting their lives together and are doing OK, and you go to Al-Anon meetings, where [there are] all these Al-Anon people who are supporting the addicts and are totally obsessed with their addicts while letting their lives fall apart. I wanted to talk about that dynamic.

W&H: You worked on this film with your wife, Karey Dornetto, who was the writer…

JB: Yes, and my ex-wife [Andrea Sperling] was the producer.

W&H: You all worked together then. Talk about that, because that’s intertwined relationships.

JB: Very much. I’m probably one of the most co-dependent people around. That’s why I made a movie about it, and I live it every day. It was obviously really great to work with people I’m really close to, and I think in independent film, you’re really able to explore things in a deeper way than the short-term job of being a television director. So I developed this script with my wife over the course of two to three years. We collaborated with Natasha, whom I had worked with on “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and then we got financing from Gamechanger, which only finances movies for women. That was brought to us by my ex-wife, Andrea Sperling, who is amazing at getting movies made.

W&H: Gamechanger only finances films directed or co-directed by women. Talk about working with them. 

JB: They’re amazing. They basically finance movies that are directed by women, and they have a film fund that’s kind of like the independent low-budget version of Megan Ellison. Their focus is on trying to empower women directors by actually letting them make their movies, which is the best way to empower anybody: to actually give them money to do their job. They were awesome. They have a very intellectual approach. For a director to be able to secure financing for them, you present them with your project. It was kind of the opposite of a lot of the Hollywood douchebag meetings that I go on, where it’s these cheesy, sleazy guys with strippers hanging on them, whom you’re trying to get money from.

W&H: Is that really true?

JB: It definitely is. Especially in the indie film world, because you’re looking for independent money. So it’s a lot of cheesy guys who have money and want to be cool and get into the movie business. But as a woman director, hanging out with these douchebags and getting them to give you money can be hard. It’s a bro world. So it was really nice to have a meeting at Gamechanger, where they were very intellectual women, and you’re presenting your project in a very organized way. You’re talking about your approach to the movie. It felt very civilized and intellectual. It was almost like applying for a grant in that they really asked the filmmaker to delve into the deeper reasons why you wanted to make the movie and how it was going to happen. It was the opposite of sitting around a strip pole with some douchebags and trying to get them to give you money.

W&H: I heard a story about hiding your pregnancy as a director?

JB: It was actually in a Manohla Dargis New York Times interview she did on women directors. I told her the story. It was a little bit different than that. I was pregnant, and it was a company in Texas that was financing movies. They called me and said, hey, the money is in the bank; we need to go now on your movie. I was supposed to shoot in three months. It was actually a female producer, a woman in her sixties, running the film fund. And I said, “I have something to tell you, but don’t freak out. I will get on the plane, but I can’t get on a plane today, because I’m actually supposed to give birth any day now. But the second I have my baby, give me a week, and I will get on a plane and come and make the movie.” I was nervous because I thought she was going to say they would have to get another director, because if you’re having a baby in two days, you’re not going to be able to direct this movie. But actually, because she was in her sixties and was a single mom and had made movies her whole life, she was like, “OK, you’ll have the baby, and you’ll be here in a week.”

W&H: Another story was that you hid your pregnancy?

JB: Every meeting I had with the Texas financing company, I never told them I was pregnant. I didn’t’ want to mention it, because I didn’t feel like they needed to know. I only had to tell her, when I was like, “I’m sorry, I can’t get on a plane today.” That’s actually a good story about what’s nice about women being in power. I think anyone else would be like, “You can’t get on a plane?!” But she was like, “Absolutely, I’ll see you and your one-week-old.”

W&H: It worked out well for you, but the fact that it was such a thing that you couldn’t talk about it…

JB: No, I would never. I work in television too, and I’m a mother of two. When I was directing “Dirty Sexy Money,” I was literally nine months pregnant. I was directing “Nip/Tuck” when I was nine months pregnant with my first kid. Both times, I didn’t tell my employer; I just showed up in a puffy vest. Eventually, the crew were like, “Are you pregnant, or do you just like beer?”

W&H: You directed the seminal lesbian film “But I’m A Cheerleader.” What does it feel like to have made a film that lesbians coming of age all watch?

JB: The funny thing about “But I’m a Cheerleader” was that when I made it, I was just one of those young lesbians. I just made a movie that I would like to see. I didn’t really think of the zeitgeist of it. I do think over time — it’s been 15 years since we made that film — the movie has really showed itself as one of the seminal lesbian comedies. There never really were these happy, funny lesbian movies. It shepherded a new era, where it wasn’t about being sad that you were a lesbian and kill yourself at the end. It was a great collaboration between Natasha and me in the early ’90s. The great thing about this movie was being able to work with Natasha again. That was a real gift. One of the reasons I wanted to make “Addicted to Fresno” was actually to work with Natasha, because we had such a great time in the early ’90s. I knew how talented she was, and she was also a friend. The timing was perfect.

W&H: Do you look for certain material in what you want to direct?

JB: I gravitate towards dark comedy, because I’m a huge fan of dark comedy. I always think the most painful thing that you can laugh at is the best. I developed the movie with my wife, so from the beginning, I knew it was right for the story, because she has such an interesting relationship with her sister. I was like, “If you can get that down in a film, then it’s going to be an interesting film.” I definitely have to have some connection to the material in order to direct it, otherwise I just don’t know how you get into the mind of it.

W&H: Natasha’s character is a lesbian, and you often have different sexualities in your films.

JB: I’m interested in gay characters — not trying to sensationalize gay characters, just [representing] who are in my personal life. I’m interested in exploring my world and my friends, and a lot of them happen to be gay. That’s something I’m interested in talking about, and I feel like I have authority on the subject.

W&H: We touched on the world of female directors and how we have such a long way to go towards getting more opportunities for women. If you could tell a person who has hiring power one thing, what would it be?

JB: I would say that you should actively seek out talented women. A lot of studio people say, “We would love to interview a woman director for this job, but there are no women on the list.” Well, there are a thousand super-talented women directors. Look at Jill Soloway, look at Marielle Heller. These are both directors who won the best directing prize in Sundance. If you put these kinds of prizes on the radar, when someone had a phenomenal indie film at a festival and see that it’s not just the boy geniuses, there are also a lot of girl geniuses you can find on film festivals, start putting them on their list. Ava DuVernay. The reason they think they don’t exist is because they didn’t go to a film festival, see these women who have phenomenal movies and put those names on the list. They are just relying on the agencies pushing their clients. There are plenty of girl geniuses out there that also work. They have these platforms where they’ve made these amazing movies for 50 cents. Believe me, they can make an amazing movie for $50 million.

It’s just laziness and status quo. It’s the same thing with casting. I can say I want to cast a black actor or a butch woman. When they say, we don’t represent anyone like that, then it’s on me to find [them]. I knew who Lea DeLaria was before she was on “Orange Is the New Black” because I sought out talented butch lesbian actors who are out there. Thank god some of them have found a place. “Orange Is the New Black” — that casting director made an effort to go find them. But if you’re a butch woman who goes to an agency and says, “I want to be an actor, will you represent me?” they’re going to say no. And if you’re a blonde, white toothpick walking in, they’re going to say yes. As a director, in order to find those actors, I just have to work a little harder, and I think it’s worth it.

W&H: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

JB: I would say the most challenging part of the shoot was the bar mitzvah theme. We had a bunch of people who were extras and wanted to be entertained. It’s really boring to sit around for two days while we’re shooting. There were just a lot of moving parts of that scene. We had musical performers and we had Natasha having a choking fit. So it was a lot of different sequences, but it was certainly one of the most fun parts of the movie. The big set pieces are always a challenge.

W&H: What advice would you offer to other women directors?

JB: My advice to women directors is just to make the best work possible. It’s so hard to actually get the money to make your movie. When you actually have the chance to do it, you have to be absolutely ruthless in order to make the best movie you can make. I think women directors have to be really tenacious. In the process of trying to get the money for this project, I had 15 meetings, and 15 different people said no to me. You only need one person to say yes, so you can’t quit. You just have to keep going, because there’s always that person right around the corner.

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