An offbeat satire in the later John Waters-era mode, But I'm a Cheerleader is an upbeat teen comedy about a high school cheerleader (Natasha Lyonne) sent to a homosexual rehabilitation camp. The deprogramming, which places a premium on traditional sex roles and vacuuming, backfires when Megan, the cheerleader, falls in love with rich girl Graham (Clea Duvall). The closing-night film at this year's San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film, director Jamie Babbit's feature film debut brought down the house with the packed audience erupting into cheers and standing ovations. With the big night behind them, Babbit, But I'm a Cheerleader's writer Brian Wayne Peterson, and star Clea Duvall sat down in an exclusive interview with Reel.com to talk about their tremendous achievement.
Q: Why did you want to make a film about a cheerleader?
Jamie Babbit: Well, the reason we wanted to have the lead character be a cheerleader is because, for us, it was sort of the pinnacle of the American dream, and the American dream of femininity. The idea that girls grow up and they are brainwashed to want to be a cheerleader, you know, while, like, the guys play the aggressive sports and make millions of dollars. The girls cheer them on, you know, and make five cents, and show their legs. We just wanted it to be like this sort of stereotypical, you know, teen, teen teen dream.
Brian Wayne Peterson: Least likely to be a lesbian in the middle-American eye.
Q: Jamie, the idea for the film was yours why didn't you write the script yourself?
JB: I'm a terrible writer. Just awful.
Clea Duvall: Not terrible.
JB: Pretty bad.
BWP: She wrote some of it, too. We worked a lot on the script together.
JB: Brian's really good with dialogue and structure and I also think that, as a filmmaker, you know, some people take the road of writing, and then directing is kind of like a secondary thing. For me, I was trained as a director, and I started actually directing theater, and in theater you're always given the script and you direct it. And so for me, that's kind of the way that I came into film is, like, you take the script. You bring your own aesthetic to it and your own decisions to it and your casting and all of that, but the text is someone else's, and that's okay. I mean, obviously, I like to collaborate I mean collaborating on the script is really important to me, but you know, I need to work with other people, especially, 'cause I'm just deficient. And smart enough to know it.
BWP: Which is rare in the film industry. I mean there's a lot of people who are really self-serving, and Jamie is not that at all.
Q: How full-blown was your idea before you started collaborating?
JB: Well, I knew the way the movie was going to look before we wrote the script. I mean, that was in my head. And I knew that it was going to be about a cheerleader who falls in love with a girl who is sort of more in touch with herself and yet more afraid of the world. And I wanted the cheerleader character to be less aware of herself and less afraid of the world, so that they kind of had, like, opposite arcs to go through and they could help each other. And there were no middle characters. The third act was completely different in the original treatment. It was what was it?
BWP: From the midpoint on, that's where a lot of the changes took place.
JB: Yeah, Brian came up totally with a third act. Or actually, the editor was the one who came up with the idea of her cheering at the end, rather than singing a song. She used to take a guitar and sing a song, and then the editor said, "Well, I think she should cheer because she's a cheerleader," and I was like, "Oh, that's so much better." So I was really open to stealing the best ideas from as many people as possible to help the script. But you know, a lot of the characters are just fully Brian, and obviously the writing style is fully Brian's, and all the specific jokes are fully Brian.
Q: You've worked with Clea before. Did you have her in mind from the very beginning?
JB: Yeah. I knew she was going to play the Graham character. But she's played, in Sleeping Beauties, which was the short film I had at Frameline [the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival], two years ago. Clea played the love interest [in that film]. So I don't know, the thing about Clea as the love interest. I like to objectify Clea. As she said, "I'm the meat in all of your films." Which is not true, actually, it's just cause she's such a good actress. But Clea's energy is very different from my energy, and so my lead characters tend to be more like my energy, and Clea tends to be like the friend of the person who has my energy. 'Cause we're very different. So it's hard for me to write the part that I consider myself as Clea. So, she always is the best friend of the Jamie character.
Q: And did you worry at all about the script? It's a girl's story, and you brought it to a man to write. Did you have any qualms about that?
JB: Brian writes like a girl.
BWP: Yeah. I mean Jamie had read one of my scripts before. I mean I definitely have a gay, female kind of sensibility in my writing.
JB: He's a feminist.
BWP: Yeah, most of my characters are strong female leads, I mean maybe to a fault. You know, they always like to cut out the f**kings and the f**ks and the s**ts in your female dialogue, and da da da, so we kind of just fit, our sensibilities and our styles fit, and we both had the same idea of what we wanted to do. [To Jamie] But I think you were looking at women to begin with.
JB: I was telling someone else I wanted a woman to write it. The first woman I met with had a gay brother and I thought well, maybe she would be okay. It was important to me the person be gay and important to me she be a woman. Well, that's difficult to find, you know. So I found this woman whose brother was gay and was a woman and I met her. We were talking and she said, "I really like the idea. I'd be interested in writing it. My brother's gay and it's just so weird because I imagined him butt-f**king and it just grosses me out." Okay, you will not be writing this script.
So, then I met Brian and I just really liked him. He had written a really funny, great script. I think there are so many writers, just like there are so many directors who want to write or want to direct, but actually are too lazy or too scared to do it. The great thing about Brian is he has a plan and he follows through and so I trusted him when he said, "I can finish this in three months. I can write an entire script in three months." I believed him, and he did it. He's very structured and that is 50 percent of the battle because so many people are talented and have great ideas but they never do anything and you have to have self-motivation.
Q: Did the script change at all once you were in production? Clea, did you do any improvisation on the set at all?
CLEA DUVALL: I didn't really improvise that much.
JB: You did in that one scene you're so manly.
CD: Oh, yeah.
BWP: Which was good because we totally needed that. They had a sense of the scene, is really good. It's really perfect. Clea had a lot to do with it along the way, too. She gave a lot of feedback before we went into production.
JB: Yeah, we'd give her lines and she'd be like, "I don't think I would say that."
BWP: Although we finally got her to say "pom-poms". That was a personal victory.
Q: Did you create a back story for Graham?
CD: Yeah, Jamie and I, we had it for about a year before we started shooting.
JB: No, it was six months.
CD: No, I think it closer to a year. Okay, well we had
JB: Actually, no, because we got it financed at Sundance and then we were shooting at Sundance the next year, so yeah, it was a year. You're right.
CD: So we had talked about it a lot, a lot. Jamie would ask me questions or we just talked about it so much that so much of it came through that. All kinds of stuff that made sense, who she was, and why she was the way she was and why she did what she did.
Q: Besides Clea, did you have any of the other casting in mind while you were writing? How did you go about getting Natasha [Lyonne] and the rest of the cast? You've got that great gallery Bud Cort, Cathy Moriarty, Mink Stole who are all wonderful people strongly associated with other cult films. How important was it to get them involved and how did you go about casting them?
JB: I had Clea in mind. I never had Natasha in mind but she was friends with Clea, so Clea brought her to the table. Then as far as Bud Cort and Mink Stole, they actually both were referred to me by the casting director. I had a really talented casting director named Sheila Jaffe who had done the casting for Slums of Beverly Hills and she's doing the new Penny Marshall movie. She won an Emmy for The Sopranos. She found Clea. She was the first person to ever cast Clea from when she barely had an agent. No, you didn't even have an agent.
CD: I had that [inaudible] agent.
JB: So she's really talented and she knew a lot of the actors. The only people I had in mind were I wanted Clea and I wanted Doug Spain, the lead kid in Star Maps. I think he is so fabulous and totally beautiful and just a great actor. So I knew I wanted Doug Spain and I really liked Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures. I wasn't sure how she would fit in, but I really wanted to cast her. Everyone else was referred to me, or at least mentioned by the casting director. Then I would either think about it or immediately say definitely, I wanted to cast them.