This year we released our 200 Best Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer Movies of All Time and Jamie Babbit’s 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader came in at number one. Well, what great timing, because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of its theatrical release and with that a brand new restored director’s cut!
I was lucky enough to talk to Jamie about lesbian camp, horny cinema, bad reviews, RuPaul, the upcoming A League of Their Own series, and truly so much more.
Drew Gregory: Something I love about But I’m a Cheerleader is the way it joins queer cultures. There’s really a unity between gay men and gay women in the movie when I feel like our cinemas especially are often separated. Was it a specific choice to hire a screenwriter who’s a gay man?
Jamie Babbit: So I knew I wanted to do the movie and I don’t consider myself a writer necessarily. I did a lot of research on Exodus International and I took a class at UCLA extension to learn the basic structure of screenplays, but I still felt like I needed someone else to write the script. I wanted someone gay but I also needed someone who I wouldn’t have to pay. Because I had no money!
I asked a friend of mine who went to USC grad school if she knew any gay people who might be willing to write a screenplay for free and she said there was a guy in her USC class who was from Montana and wrote his thesis project about a gay football player. That sounded perfect! So we had coffee and basically he had just graduated and was working at the dean’s office at USC. I was just a PA, so I was like — Hey sorry I have no money but I have this outline about two girls who fall in love at a gay rehab and I just made this short film that’s gonna go to Sundance that stars Clea DuVall so I want to write it for her. Do you think you could have this written in three months? Because I’m going to Sundance in three months. And he was like oh my god that’s so short and I was like look I really think I can get the movie made but I have to have the script at Sundance to get the financing.
So he agreed to do it and then he FedExed me the first draft of the script at Sundance three months later.
Drew: Oh my God!
Jamie: I know it was so crazy. And I met the financier for But I’m a Cheerleader at Sundance so thank God I had that script! But honestly what I gave to Brian were these two girls meeting at gay rehab. I didn’t have the gay male characters at all in my outline and I loved that Brian brought them to the script.
I was also really focused on making sure that I wasn’t casting all white people. I wanted to have diversity of gender and race. Actually my straight cinematographer — straight white guy — when he read the script in prep he said a lot of people thought he was gay in high school because he was arty and he suggested having a character who people think is gay but is actually straight. And I thought that was so smart! So that’s where the Jan character came from — this sort of masculine presenting woman who is actually straight.
One of the things that inspired me to make the movie is I was a very female presenting lesbian and when I came out to my parents they were like cool, we don’t care, but it’s just really bizarre because we’ve never met a lesbian like you. Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Your whole life you’ve been terrible at sports and you never wanted to do anything except play with your Barbies. We’re just confused. And I was confused too! So I just saw from a very young age the absurdity of masculinity and femininity and how that really had nothing to do with sexuality. And that the binary in general was bullshit.
Drew: That’s so interesting to me, because I’m a gay trans woman and when Jan has that really great emotional moment I immediately read them as transmasculine.
Drew: When I was younger people often read me as gay, but I was into girls so I just figured I was a weird straight boy. And I totally projected that onto Jan.
Jamie: I think that’s all there on purpose, you know? I loved when Caitlyn Jenner’s daughter was like oh mom you’re a lesbian and she was like well yeah I’m kind of butch and I still like racing cars and I’m dating a femme trans woman. There’s no binary we’re all somewhere and we’re all just ourselves.
Drew: It’s also interesting in talking about abolishing those binaries to note that the movie is super campy in a way not usually associated with lesbians. I can think of a few queer women movies that have come out since But I’m a Cheerleader — DEBS, Drool, Mommy is Coming, Daddy Issues — but these are rare exceptions. Do you wish lesbian cinema in general was campier? Was that something you were specifically thinking about when making this?
Jamie: I mean, to me the movie was a combination of Clueless and riot grrrl music. So it has a badass quality but it’s also very pop. I wish lesbian movies were less based in reality. I wish there was more fantasy or just imaginative retellings of stories. But honestly it’s a pretty sexist world out there — it’s hard to get money — and I think a lot of people are daunted by the thought of making a movie that looks like Edward Scissorhands. That’s sort of what I told the production designer and she wasn’t sure how we were going to do that with less than a million dollars. But if you’re going to paint something anyway, just paint it all one color, you know? Let’s do what we can. Let’s not give up before we try. I was really influenced by Pink Narcissus. Have you ever seen that?
Jamie: Just in that it’s very highly stylized and also a little corny?
Jamie: And obviously I love John Waters. So a lot of work I’m talking about is from gay male filmmakers. Derek Jarman — all his weirdo stuff. Todd Haynes. But I think lesbians just hadn’t been given the opportunity — women in general hadn’t been given the opportunity — to have the money to make these kinds of movies. It’s just access, you know? Having the bravado of saying you’re going to do it.
Drew: It’s also really interesting you bring up Clueless, because in a queer context we think of something that embodies heightened femininity in relation to gay men, but that’s coming from, well, women. So it’s interesting that you’re talking about growing up as someone feminine presenting who played with Barbies and that’s just right there on screen in the camp of this movie.
Jamie: Oh my God totally! When I was growing up my connection to my creativity was having my Barbies with their clothes off having sex constantly.
Jamie: So putting all the actors in plastic outfits and having them make out, I was like oh this is literally my childhood.
Jamie: It was perfect.
Drew: So I’m 26 and by the time I was aware of the movie it was already celebrated and considered a modern classic. But when I looked back at the reviews—
Jamie: Oh my God they’re horrible!
Drew: I mean, largely from cis straight male critics obviously.
Drew: Did that hurt? Or did you have a “they can go fuck themselves” mentality?
Jamie: I mean, I was definitely like fuck them. I was so pissed. But thank God for the riot grrrl inside of me who was like of course these sexist cis dudes hate my guts fuck them. I’d never seen an F in Entertainment Weekly before and I literally haven’t since.
Jamie: I knew I struck a chord because if I’m getting an F? That’s not a C. That’s like really, really pissing someone off. So I kind of liked it too? I was like fuck them. But that guy is the head critic at Variety still. So, you know, those guys are still around.
Jamie: But I was okay with it. I was such an outsider anyway. I always knew I didn’t like people on the inside and it just affirmed my belief that I didn’t like them.
Drew: Did it make it more difficult to get future projects made?
Jamie: Yeah! I mean my dream — which was very quickly dashed — was that I would make a movie, it would be a big success, and then I would get to direct Clueless — a big studio movie like that. But I’m also very much myself. My parents raised a person who was very self assured, you know? I was raised to think the mainstream sucks and that they’ll always shoot you down.
But I was still surprised by the vitriol and the hatred towards the film. It was this dual reality where I went to Sundance and all the 20 somethings and younger were going nuts for the movie and then all the old people — and by old I mean my age now — who had all the power and were writing reviews were really mean to me and really mean to the film. They said I had no talent and that I didn’t deserve a career! So I realized I might have to keep making underground films for the next 20 years. And that was kind of a bummer because I’m a lesbian and I don’t have any money and I’m not going to marry money. So I was like, well I guess I’ll just have to babysit and make indie movies.
But luckily I got an agent at Sundance. He was Clea and Natasha’s agent too and he just hired me because they loved me and he thought well at least actors love her. And then my first interview I ever had was with Ryan Murphy for Popular. It was his first TV show and it became my first TV show. He hired me for the next two years and that’s how I was able to get by directing TV for so long.
Drew: I mean, your TV resume is incredible. You’ve directed so many specific episodes that I’m obsessed with. Your episodes of Looking are some of my favorite episodes of that show.
Jamie: Oh thank you!
Drew: I think most people now acknowledge that But I’m a Cheerleader is a masterpiece — at least the people who would care enough to discuss it. And also the cast — I mean the cast at the time was amazing — but looking at the cast now it’s staggering. Because you have legends like RuPaul and Mink Stole and then obviously Natasha and Clea, but then also Michelle Williams, Melanie Lynskey, and Julie Delpy. I feel like every time I watch it I forget someone and I’m like oh right they’re in it this is amazing. I don’t even know if I have a question. The cast is just so amazing.
Jamie: At the time Michelle Williams was on Dawson’s Creek but she was always really cool and soulful and better than that show. She really wanted to be the lead of But I’m a Cheerleader but she couldn’t because of the show. But she said she’d literally do any other part. She said she’d fly in on the weekend and do a cameo.
Drew: That’s amazing.
Jamie: And I took a film class at NYU with Julie Delpy, so she agreed to do it. And RuPaul I just thought would be so great as an ex-gay. It just made me laugh. And he was such a delight. I mean, he’s such a smart person. At the time, I didn’t know if he was trans because he really was a pop star who was very successful as Ru, the glamorous woman. I’d never seen him out of drag, but then he came into the office and was masculine presenting. And I think he was excited to show that side of himself. He asked who was going to play his gay love interest and when I said Eddie Cibrian he was like oh hell yes I’m doing this movie.
Jamie: He was so excited.
Drew: The movie opens with shots of cheerleaders’ butts and boobs and that reoccurs when Megan is thinking about sex. I think it’s really interesting how you take these classic male gaze objectifying images but filter them through a lesbian lens. Do you have thoughts about what it looks like for lesbian filmmakers to shoot sex scenes and to portray horniness?
Jamie: I love it all. I’m so into it. My dream is to direct porn. I feel like so many queer filmmakers don’t want to show their lust. I know there’s sexism in the world and I understand that actresses get annoyed that everyone is lusting after them and objectifying them because it’s mostly men. But I’ve gotten into fights with actors on set before where I’m doing gay desire and they want to shoot it like friends. And I’m like you’re not fucking friends. You’re not! That’s my whole junior high experience: No, I don’t want to be friends with you. I actually want to have sex with you. So it is different. And I do think it’s important for women to show lesbian desire and show that women want to have sex and that women are really into boobs and women are taking sneak peeks. All that stuff is all very real. We haven’t had the chance to display that much but I don’t think it’s shameful. It’s biology. And people should get over it. I mean the DP was like Jamie I feel disgusting you’re making me shoot up these girls’ skirts and I’m like whatever!
Drew: I love that.
Jamie: Also I was so happy about that opening song, “Chick Habit.” The French version is originally by Serge Gainsbourg who is known for all the sex he had and the fact that there was this LA female artist who had covered it was so perfect. But I had to get permission from the Gainsbourg estate and the music supervisor warned that it was going to be really expensive because Serge Gainsbourg is like the Bob Dylan of France. And obviously we had like two cents. So we wrote a letter to the estate and his family said: Look, we meet every year and read the letters and watch the films. And if we think dad would like the film then we let people have the song. Well, we loved your movie and dad would’ve loved your movie. Yes.
Drew: That’s incredible.
Jamie: I know I was so happy. I was like the Gainsbourg family is incredible. I love them.
Drew: When you were creating the sex scenes were you responding to what you were seeing? I mean, the 90s were obviously an incredible decade for queer cinema, but was there anything that you felt embodied that hornier gaze?
Jamie: Not enough and I was mad about that! The L Word came after But I’m a Cheerleader and that was something that show did super well. It really went for it! It was kind of nuts about sex and I liked that.
I actually wanted a more sexual scene in the movie. I thought there was going to be full nudity but when I got to set Clea and Natasha were like hell no you never talked to us about nudity. And I was like yeah but you’re my friends! Obviously if you’re having sex you have to have your clothes off. And they were like hell no Jamie we aren’t going to show you anything. I was so mad!
Drew: I guess it’s a good lesson that even when they’re your friends you have to ask in advance.
Jamie: Yeah exactly.
Drew: I mean, you do a pretty great job still making it sexy despite them being clothed.
Jamie: I tried. The DP suggested we light it really dark so people will think there’s stuff happening and I thought that was a good idea. I knew we were successful when the ratings board gave us an NC-17. I was so mad. I called the ratings board people and was like what is in the film?? It’s like a G rated movie! You’ve gotta be kidding me! And she said, well honestly there’s a couple things but the main problem is the sex scene and I was like, why there’s literally no nudity in it. And she said, well it’s so dark and I’m sure there are a lot of things going on in the darkness. You’re going to have to light it up and resubmit it to me so I can check the shots.
Drew: (laughs) Wow.
Jamie: And I was like well that’s great! That means people think really crazy stuff is happening. It worked. A good piece of music and some dark lighting? It was all fine.
Drew: And in this movie Graham is SUCH a heartthrob. We didn’t get that a lot twenty years ago. When you were a teenager was there anyone? Did you have a celebrity crush?
Jamie: Yes. It’s funny my girlfriend is a little older than you and she’d never heard of this movie but people my age who like butch girls were obsessed with Little Darlings.
Drew: I haven’t seen that! But I’ve heard other people reference it in this exact context. (laughs)
Jamie: You need to watch it. Kristy McNichol is like smoking fucking hot. She is Clea DuVall. Kristy McNichol was my generation’s Clea DuVall. And she later came out, but only like five or ten years ago.
Drew: So the last thing I wanted to ask you about… I know you directed the pilot for A League of Their Own and you probably can’t say a lot about it, but I was wondering if you could say anything.
Jamie: Yeah! The original A League of Their Own is so amazing and it was very intimidating to walk in the shoes of that movie at all. But I always knew those characters were queer and it was something that wasn’t explored in the movie and it’s heavily, heavily explored in the TV show.
Drew: That’s great to know.
Jamie: There is girl kissing. There is transness. These are real stories of queer people who were involved in the league in the 40s. It’s all based on the 90 year old women who were brave enough to talk to us and who are still talking to us in the development of the series. They have so many fabulous stories to tell about all these queer kids from around the country and Canada coming together for this women’s baseball league. They were all hooking up. It’s a big part of the show.
The But I’m a Cheerleader 20th anniversary director’s cut comes out on digital December 8th.