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Jamie Babbit has an unusual perspective on the premise of her first feature, But I’m a Cheerleader, in which Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, a high-school cheerleader sent to a “homo rehab” camp when her parents and friends conclude she’s a lesbian. “My mother runs a rehab program for adolescent drug addicts and alcoholics,” explains the director, who visited Washington last month for a Reel Affirmations screening of her film. “So I grew up with the 12 steps above my bed. When I was 5 years old, I knew the Serenity Prayer. I spent a lot of my weekends and my holidays with my mom’s rehab kids. I wanted to do a comedy that addressed a lot of the stuff I grew up with and the issues of treatment and the absurdity of those programs.”
Babbit hastens to add that she thinks 12-step programs do help substance abusers. But the lesbian filmmaker doesn’t believe that similar techniques can or should be used in an attempt to alter sexual orientation. “I think the whole Homosexuals Anonymous movement is pretty absurd,” she says. “A lot of people who worked on the film and some of my friends have been to ex-gay [groups]. I think most gay people know people who have been through some kind of conversion process at a young age. I knew people who had grown up with that kind of self-hate. It was definitely something that really scared me.”
In her research, the director found things that alarmed her, but also much that she found humorous: “There was one article about a woman who now claims she’s straight. She’s married and has children, and her husband is a former drag performer. She’s like this really butch woman who now looks like a lesbian in denial. The way she knows she’s straight now is that every day she reaches for the moisturizer.”
A highly stylized low-budget farce, Cheerleader plays the activities of its sexual-reorientation center for just that sort of stereotype-tweaking giggle. “I didn’t want to do a documentary-style movie,” Babbit notes. “It’s definitely a light comedy, but there are some edgy moments. There’s a girl carrying a sign that says, ‘Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks,’ which is like the meanest, most horrible thing. I actually saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said that. That put me in such a rage. I was so offended. But something was very cathartic about being able to put it in a film and laugh at it.”
Babbit’s award-winning short films have focused on such fictional characters as an animal activist fighting for frogs’ rights to cross busy roads and a funeral-home makeup artist who
keeps her lesbian desire in check by falling in love only with corpses. “All my work in the past has been about extremists and used comedy as a way to deal with things that are really uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s just what I’m interested in.”
One of Cheerleader’s central jokes is that her uptight parents (played by camp-flick veterans Bud Cort and Mink Stole) and self-denying counselors (Cathy Moriarty and a de-dragged RuPaul) are right: Megan is gay even if she doesn’t realize it.
“The thing about Megan is that she’s definitely a lesbian from the first scene in the film,” Babbit states. “In my opinion. People can have other opinions; I just made the film. But she is a lesbian. She just doesn’t know what that means. Especially if you grow up in a small town and you’re not butch and you look not necessarily lesbionic”—a description that fits the Ohio-bred filmmaker—”it’s more difficult to label yourself as that. Just because you don’t know that what you are is what a lesbian is. Megan doesn’t know that’s the name for what she is. I never meant for it to be a movie about a girl who isn’t a lesbian and then becomes one.”
Although the movie’s scenario is Babbit’s, the director hired first-time feature scripter Brian Wayne Peterson to write the screenplay. “I don’t consider myself a writer,” she says. “I’m terrible at dialogue. I only wrote my shorts out of desperation. My worst nightmare is sitting in front of my computer for four months by myself. So I actually prefer to work with writers.
“I didn’t know Brian,” she continues. “I just met him, and he was interested in writing the script. He was very political on gay issues. He wrote all the male characters, and he brought more of a camp sensibility to it.”
Although Cheerleader’s course was buffeted by a distribution drama—negotiations with initial distributor Fine Line broke down just two months before the planned April release date, but then Lion’s Gate picked it up—enlisting producer Andrea Sperling was easy. “I was super-lucky, because my girlfriend actually produced the movie,” allows Babbit. “She had produced other movies before, like all of Gregg Araki’s movies. But she [had] never produced a lesbian movie. She liked the idea, and then the first person she gave it to [to] finance ended up financing it.”
Enlisting the cast was more complicated. “I thought about people who would be good for the film and then was just very persistent,” Babbit says. “I called agents and said, ‘Please have your client work in this film for absolutely no money. You know you want to!’ They all said no, and eventually, after I’d called so many times, they’d give the script to their client. RuPaul read the script and really liked it. Cathy Moriarty says I stalked her, which I guess I did. Clea DuVall, who plays the kind of tough girl, was in my shorts, and she was friends with Natasha Lyonne, so that’s how Natasha ended up in it.”
In part, Babbit notes, Cheerleader owes its pink-and-blue look to Mattel. “I wanted the art direction to talk about the themes of the film,” she says. “To me, all the things that they teach at these camps are so ridiculous that I wanted to mirror the artificiality of them with the production design. So I wanted the world as archetypal as possible. One of the best places we found was the Barbie dream house. We copied so much of its color palette into large-people form.”
The filmmaker decided to go a different direction with the score, which opens with April March’s cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Chick Habit” and includes songs by such riot grrrl or girl-pop acts as Lois, Dressy Bessy, Saint Etienne, Go Sailor, and Sissy Bar.
“The music was kind of a trial-and-error process,” Babbit reveals. “I actually started out with more of a ’50s feel, but it didn’t feel contemporary enough and it had already been done. I’m a really big fan of riot grrrl music, which also happens to be cheap—which was good.”
Gainsbourg is long dead, but his heirs decided the French pop provocateur would have liked Cheerleader’s attitude. “All of his living relatives had to give permission for the song, for no money at all,” says Babbit, “but because he was French and they heard the premise of the movie and they just thought it was funny, they said OK.”
The filmmaker will return to satirizing people whose outlooks are not so different from her own with her next project. “It’s basically a comedic look at an extreme feminist, sort of based on the riot grrrls in Olympia [Wash.]. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of shit for it.”
Ironically, Babbit’s regular job is as a producer and director of Popular, a WB show she describes as both a high school high-glamour series and a parody of the genre. She may not be preaching salvation through moisturizer, she laughs, but “I’m teaching girls to wear Wonderbras.” —Mark Jenkins