Jamie Babbit broke through as a director with the indie comedy But I'm a Cheerleader, about a "sexual redirection" camp for gay and lesbian teens. Since then, Babbit has built a reputation as a go-to television director. Babbit has helmed episodes of Undressed, Popular, Ed, The Bernie Mac Show, Nip/Tuck, Malcolm in the Middle, Gilmore Girls, and Alias. She returns to big-screen features with The Quiet, starring Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle, Edie Falco, and Martin Donovan. I spoke to Babbit on July 12, 2006 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
Groucho: So, if I understand correctly, you not too long ago gave birth to a daughter. Is that right?
Jamie Babbit: Two years ago.
G: Two years ago. It has been a while. And a second independent film, with a third one in the can.
G: Do you feel you've hit your stride professionally and personally? It seems like you're having it all.
JB: Well— (Chuckles.) I think whenever you have it all, you don't really feel like you have it all. I feel very blessed to be working. And I feel very blessed to have a kid. So I guess, yeah, things are good.
G: This film, The Quiet, focuses, it seems to me, on people pretending to be what they're not. Is that a theme that you were particularly concerned with here?
JB: Absolutely. You know, for me, I really felt like—what interested me about the script when it came across my desk was that there's this kind of unspoken thing between young girls that when they become friends, the way they become friends is by trading secrets. And to me these two characters had a lot of secrets. And that's, in a way, why they were able to kind of break through each other's barriers and really become friends. And what's interesting about the relationship between the two girls in the movie, because I really do think of it as a friendship story, ultimately—I mean, there's some thriller aspects, but mostly it's a friendship story—is that basically, when you first meet these two girls, you definitely think of them as one thing, but by the end of the movie, you realize that they're something completely different. And they're so different, you know, and the ways that they're masking their lives is so different. And I think there is a universality to just people being insecure about certain things. And, you know, they're both kind of lying to protect their families, which I also think is pretty universal. I think—I definitely related to that because growing up I've had so many friends who've had so much stuff going on at home that they could never really talk about. But as their friend, I knew what was going on—and just kind of the mask and layers that people have to wear in order to get rid of all this stuff at school. It was interesting to me.
G: And of course the redemption in the movie. The lesson of the movie is that—in each other—that they can help each other through that time. Something that occurred to me while watching the film is that it is essentially a teen movie. It's a very mature one, but I wonder how you felt about—given that it's R-rated, do you think the teen audience will find this? And what do you feel about how the ratings system affects how you reach your audience?
JB: You know, I've had so many battles with the MPAA, I'm actually—just last night I watched this film called This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which I'm actually a part of, which I had never seen. So I finally got to see it last night. But I got an NC-17 on my last film, But I'm a Cheerleader, and ended up having to do some cuts. And for this movie, I did get an R rating. The thing about this film is, to me, it was very inspired by movies that I love like Heavenly Creatures. And that, to me, was a movie basically about friendship. But it was also about young women and this kind of obsessive friendship. And it's very dark, obviously. And I'm assuming it got an R rating.
G: As far as I know.
JB: Yeah. So I did kind of expect that in this film. I found Heavenly Creatures when it first came out—I was a lot younger, obviously, when I saw it. So I think young people will definitely find the film. Maybe not in the theatres, but definitely on video or whatever. But I think the movie's also just about a dysfunctional family—Edie Falco and Martin Donovan. To me, it's a really interesting relationship that those two have, and the family dynamics. So I think it got the rating that it deserved.
G: As a director, you seem very hands on, keenly involved with production design: how the sets and the costumes and the lighting are going to play into what you are doing visually. Can you describe how you developed that for this film, the kind of underwater feel?
JB: You know, it's interesting that you say "underwater" because that was definitely a big part of what I was thinking. So I was definitely trying to stay—color is a really—something that comes to mind—when I read the script, the color that just kept coming to me over and over again was this kind of blue-grey. And so I really tried to stay with that color palette, except once there's kind of blood shown in the film. Then I introduced the color of red. But before that, there's no red in the film. And it was obviously something I played with about But I'm A Cheerleader—the pink and the blue and brown in that film. And so, it's very different in this film; this film is a lot more naturalistic. And I wasn't building the sets like I was on Cheerleader—I was working in found locations. But I really was doing everything I could to keep red out of the frame. But, you know, to me it's a movie about this kind of interior life of a family. And a girl who's stuck in the secrets of her family. And just, I think when you're young—and I think, as you get older—you learn how to kind of mentally escape your family. But especially when this movie takes place; the girls are both eighteen. And they're kind of stuck underwater in this—in, you know, the kind of trap of their parental secrets.
G: But I'm a Cheerleader was a financial success. But it was a number of years before you came back from television and back into film. Why is that?
JB: You know, I was developing projects, and things take time—you know, to find a script I was interested in. After But I'm a Cheerleader, I was offered a lot of cheerleader high-school movies, which I wasn't really interested in doing. And I actually made some short films in the middle. I made a short film called "Stuck," which won a jury prize at Sundance. That was about two eighty-year-old lesbians who have a terrible relationship and end up breaking up. So I was interested in exploring darker themes.
G: Those are always the hard-sells.
JB: They're hard-sells, yeah. So it took awhile to get something. But what's interesting is when it rains, it pours, of course, because I got pregnant, and three weeks before I was about to give birth, we got the financing for the movie. And so the University of Texas said, "Hey, can you come down to Texas and make the film? We got the money in place." And my baby was like two days old. So, of course I had to—you know, I didn't really have a choice as an independent filmmaker. When the money's there, you gotta go. So I ended up going to Texas with my very, very newborn. And then, right after I made The Quiet, the money came through for my next project, Itty Bitty Titty Committee. So it's just one of those things: when it rains, it pours.
G: Right, right, right. The Quiet's subtext will appeal to a queer audience. So you get to sort of have it both ways, I think. Does this indicate your own stamp on the script?
JB: I think so.
G: Or was it there?
JB: No, it wasn't really there. I think it definitely is—I mean it's a friendship story. It's an intense friendship story between two girls. So I think, you know, as a lesbian, I definitely think that—at the end of the script, one of the girls says that she's going to move to San Francisco and become a stripper. And I think, you know—to me, in my mind, one of them definitely could have ended up as a lesbian. They're eighteen in the story, so I don't think either one of them really knows it yet. But I do think it's—in many ways, it could be a pre-lesbian film because it's two girls and their intense friendship, how they kind of heal each other from their sexual issues.
G: Right. And also, Nina's best friend—did you see her as a character in just straight-up denial or one who is looking to experiment and not finding her outlet?
JB: Umm, I feel like her best friend is definitely a lesbian. She'll become one later in life if she doesn't commit suicide before. She's just kind of a tragic figure.
G: Before we're out of time here, can you tell me a little bit about Itty Bitty Titty Committee and what we can expect from that?
JB: Sure. Itty Bitty Titty Committee is basically about, once again, a young person —for some reason I keep making movies about young people. A young girl who is very insecure and thinking about getting a boob job, and ends up at her plastic surgery clinic running into a bunch of radical feminists. And it's kind of a modern updating of Born in Flames. With—there's definitely a lot more lesbian stuff going on in Itty Bitty Titty Committee.
G: I also wanted to ask you—you work with your partner, Andrea Sperling on a lot of your films and getting your films off the ground. How is that working relationship? Is it easy or hard to work with somebody that you're close to?
JB: I think in the film business, it's really important that you work with people you're close to because your work is so intense and it takes so long. I mean, you're working on projects a year, two years. And so, what's really great about working with your domestic partner, or significant other—whatever—is that you get to spend time with them. And if I wasn't working with her on my film projects, I would never see her. So I'm very, very happy that I get to work with her. It's a blessing. And she's great at her job, so it makes me love her even more.
G: Right. All right, thank you very much.
JB: Thank you.