You may not know Jamie Babbitt’s name, but you’ve probably seen her work.
Even if you haven’t caught any of her features, including THE QUIET and her 1999 cult film BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (featuring this film’s co-lead, Natasha Lyonne), if you watch TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of the many episodes she’s directed. Doesn’t matter if you have specific tastes; she’s done everything from NIP/TUCK to GILMORE GIRLS to BROOKLYN NINE-NINE to RIZZOLI & ISLES. Still, she’s been lucky enough to squeeze in a feature every few years, and for her latest, she decided to work with her screenwriter partner, Karey Dornetto.
Dornetto (a vet of TV shows like COMMUNITY, THE KROLL SHOW, and PORTLANDIA) and Babbitt have attempted to bridge a dark, wacky comedy about an accidental murder with a sentimental story about two sisters (played by Judy Greer and Lyonne) who are both learning to take control of their lives. Oh, and one of those sisters is an irredeemable sex addict.
Even though they rounded up a great cast that also includes Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, Aubrey Plaza, Ron Livingston, Alison Tolman, Kumail Nanjiani, and Jessica Sinclair, it’s still brave to tackle a subject like sex addiction or lesbian dating with this kind of careful balance of over the top comedy and straightforward seriousness. We talk about how they maintained that balance, why they wanted to make this story so bad, and why they cast Judy Greer as the nastiest character she’s played this side of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
VINYARD: I’ll start with you, Karey, ‘cause you wrote it. I know you said the script was somewhat autobiographical, right?
KAREY: Sort of. I have an older sister, so it’s autobiographical in that we have a complicated relationship, and I kind of was thinking, “What if I still lived in my same hometown and we were in this sort of a meshed relationship, like a co-dependent relationship?” That’s kind of how it started, just with that. She’s not like a sex addict or anything like that. But it kinda started as the story of two sisters.
VINYARD: This is your first produced screenplay, but I’m assuming this isn’t your first written screenplay.
KAREY: Actually, it is. Jamie and I are a couple. I’ve said this before. (to Jamie) Is that okay to say?
KAREY: When we were first dating, I had written on COMMUNITY and a bunch of other TV shows, and she was like, “Have you written a screenplay?” And I was like, “No I haven’t, I’ve just been writing TV. That’s kind of been all I concentrated on.” And I’d done stand-up, and that kinda thing. And she said, “You’re not really a writer.” So I was like, “What? Yes I am! Just ‘cause I haven’t written- I have friends who are writers in TV who haven’t written a screenplay!” And she was like, “Well, I don’t know if that’s true.” So I was like, “Fine! I’m gonna write a movie, and you’re gonna direct it.” So that’s kind of how it came about. And it was very collaborative. I pitched her ideas, and we settled on this one, like it being about two sisters in a co-dependent relationship, and watching this relationship play out over the crime. That’s kind of how it came about.
VINYARD: There’s a heavy theme of sex addiction in the movie, which is pretty topical.
KAREY: Yeah, I like the idea of having a woman- like it’s not just men who get to have sex addiction. I feel like those are the people you hear about, like celebrities, like…
JAMIE: Tiger Woods, David Duchovny…
KAREY: And I just know there are women who have these same issues, so I thought it would be cool like, “Instead of having it be about alcohol and alcoholic addiction, what if it’s about sex addiction?”
VINYARD: You said that the script was originally called CLEVELAND.
KAREY: Yes, ‘cause Jamie’s from Cleveland, and I wanted to put it in a place where…first I liked the idea of it being dark and bleak, and they’re just stuck there, and it’s cold and it’s wintery, and just you don’t want to be there, but then we realized we couldn’t film in Cleveland, because we don’t have enough money to film in Cleveland, we were gonna film in California. We were like, “What’s the city that people want to get out of the most in California?” And I had a friend who I worked with someone a long time ago, and she was Fresno, and she was just like, “I wanted to get out of there.” It’s just like smack dab in the middle of California. You have cool cities around it, but then the idea is you want to get out of it. It’s like literally in the middle. You got the beach, but it’s like hours away, and San Francisco…
JAMIE: It’s also the most polluted city in California. Like Cleveland…
KAREY: It’s actually one of the most polluted cities in the country. So I was like, “No one wants to live there.”
JAMIE: And it smells like dead animal, which we mention in the movie, because it’s the center of meat production. The delightful industry of meat production.
KAREY: They call it “animal rendering.” I did a lot of research on that. We couldn’t shoot at any of them. It’s illegal.
JAMIE: It’s literally a felony to shoot any of the animal rendering plants which are all over Fresno. We tried to get in.
KAREY: We tried.
JAMIE: It’s because animal rights are so up in arms, because they’re horrible. And the city does smell like dead animal. But it’s so heavily fortressed. Foster Farms is like the biggest chicken producer, and they kill all the animals in Fresno. We tried to get into Foster Farms.
KAREY: We were like lurking around.
JAMIE: And there’s like cameras, and barbed wire…but the biggest job market in Fresno is the animal rendering plants.
VINYARD: The scene where Molly Shannon’s character pulls up, that’s…
JAMIE: That’s Foster Farms. She got out of the guru business and now she’s working at Foser Farms. “It’s good for Foster Farms, but bad for gurus.”
VINYARD: Other than the meat rendering thing, was there anything else that you added when it moved from CLEVELAND to FRESNO?
KAREY: I’m trying to think…I mean a lot of it took place in the hotel, so it was mostly just talking about the town. We didn’t do too many changes to the script. It was more of them saying, “I want to get out of this town,” and making sure it was a town that they wanted to get out of.
JAMIE: And I grew up in a town that I wanted to get out of, so I related to characters living in crappy towns. Judy’s from Detroit too, so she related to that. That’s the other thing we wanted to add, though. That Fresno is actually beneath Detroit, so the Fred Armisen character, his hope and dream is to go to Detroit.
VINYARD: I love the line, “You can buy a house for $800!” What about the casting? You have Fred, you have Alison Tolman from FARGO, there’s just this parade of great comic talent. Kumail Nanjiani, Jon Daly- and I was wondering, why the decision to pepper the film like that? I guess you’ve worked with most of them on TV?
JAMIE: Yeah, ‘cause I’d worked with all of them. Whenever I’d gone to set in the last 10 years and worked with a genius actor, I would write them down in my little list of like geniuses to go back to. When we were making the movie, when you have 50 cents, agents are not excited to get their clients involved and get paid nothing, so we just personally reached out to all of the friends that we know that were working. And we know huge comedic talents.
KAREY: I worked with Jon Daly on THE KROLL SHOW, and Fred on PORTLANDIA, but the rest of the cast, Jamie had worked with.
JAMIE: So there were no auditions, we were just reaching out. There were not auditions necessary, ‘cause I had personally worked with them and knew they were amazing.
KAREY: I think the only audition was Malcolm. Malcolm was the only audition. The only person that we didn’t know.
JAIMIE: Originally, we reached out to someone that we knew for that part, but they got a paid job so they couldn’t.
VINYARD: They’re all gifted improvisers, but I think you said last night that the film was pretty close to the script.
JAMIE: Although some of the biggest laughs in Kumail’s scene were improv. And Jessica Sinclair did a ton of improv also. Shooting Natasha stayed pretty close, although actually the scene in the laundry room-
KAREY: That was very improv-ed, actually.
JAMIE: The second half about all the toilet paper was improv-ed, just because Judy started stacking the toilet paper and it just looked ridiculous, so Natasha just went for it. But I will say that the editing was more challenging, just because we had so much footage and we had a lot of improv. Culling through it, and also screening it for people, because you forget what’s funny, just to remember.
KAREY: And then because we had all those good people in it, let’s let them improv because they are so funny.
JAMIE: Like the blowjob with Jessica Sinclair, her favorite flavor being Yoplait Cheesecake flavored yogurt was 100% improv. And “You’re the Maya Angelou of dicksucking,” that’s Jessica Sinclair. They had a lot to say about blowjobs.
KAREY: They did. More than I could ever say, or would ever want to say. So I was like, “You guys go for it. I haven’t given a blowjob in I don’t even know how long.”
VINYARD: The description of a climax as “shooting into the stars” I thought was great.
KAREY: Judy Greer, that was all Judy Greer!
JAMIE: It was a much longer scene, but we had to cut it down. “Those straight girls need to stop talking about blowjobs.”
KAREY: I wanted it longer, but that’s okay.
VINYARD: You worked with Judy on MARRIED, right?
VINYARD: But obviously, as a completely different character. What made Judy pop out in your mind? Both Natasha and Judy are against type, but particularly Judy.
JAMIE: I had worked with Judy and just known how incredible she is. Anytime I ever fed her direction in any scene, she just takes it so wonderfully and beautiful, and she’s just so easily adaptable, so I know she’s truly a chamelon and she can play anything. I just wanted the Shannon character to be adorable, because she’s just irredeemable in many ways. I just needed a bright light behind the darkness of her character. She was written on purpose as an unlikable heroine, and I needed a likability so that the audience didn’t turn their back on the character.
As far as the Natasha character goes, she’s kind of the bright light and a bright western sweet lesbian enabler, which I think I am, and she played that so beautifully in BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER because there is an inherent darkness and complexity to her. So even when she’s playing like a cheerleader, or happy-go-lucky, there’s a layer of sadness underneath it, because it makes the character more complex.
VINYARD: And you snuck in a little BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER reunion.
JAMIE: Yeah, with Clea (DuVall), yeah.
KAREY: That’s because she actually is into scat.
JAMIE: She is not! That’s horrible.
KAREY: Yeah, we should say that. Clea is really into scat.
JAMIE: We wanted to celebrate that in this film.
VINYARD: Since BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER, your work has been divided between TV and movies.
JAMIE: Yeah. I’m not interested abject poverty, so I decided to embrace getting paid in television, and that sort of supports my feature film habit. As a member of the queer community, I feel that a lot of the movies are terrible, and I have to give back and make them better. That’s kind of the balance I’ve struck in my life.
Also, another thing about the movie in a joke is the fact that lesbians are poor.
KAREY: They always are, they always will be.
JAMIE: So I knew I’d have to find a job that paid me also, which would not be in independent film.
VINYARD: Why the decision to make Natasha’s character a lesbian?
JAMIE: Just ‘cause I’m a lesbian and I just forced her to play myself. She speaks for us peoples. No honestly that was it, ‘cause Karey was writing a story about her sister, and she’s a lesbian.
KAREY: I’m the younger lesbian sister, and my sister…bangs guys. So that’s kind of where that came from. It was just like I’ll write stuff that I know, and not have it be a big deal that the character’s gay. It is who she is, and it is who we are.
VINYARD: What were your influences?
KAREY: I like dark comedies like WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and those types of movies.
JAMIE: BOTTLE ROCKET too, ‘cause it was about two brothers. It’s actually my favorite Wes Anderson movie. It’s about two brothers, and like weirdness happening, and not going very well. That was definitely an influence for the writing of it. We both were obsessed with BRIDESMAIDS, so we just liked the idea of just having a bunch of female comediennes come together to make us laugh. ‘Cause we worked with them, and we know they’re so funny, so we just wanted to have a vehicle for them.
The thing I loved about BRIDESMAIDS was that it was also about a circle of friendships, because I do think women have really intense friendships. You break up with your best friend, and then the jealousy of the new friend. I love that that was the core of that story, but it was totally played out in a broad, wacky way. We basically wanted to tell the story about the relationship between two sisters and how kind of screwed up and weird it gets, but do it in a wacky, funny way.
VINYARD: Was it tricky balancing the tone?
JAMIE: Totally. Yeah, that was very hard. A lot of that was just making choices in the editing room. Cutting back on the drama, and allowing the comedy to play and lot letting the comedy get too insane, although we let it get pretty insane.
KAREY: Yeah, we let it get pretty insane.
JAMIE: It was definitely a line of like drama and comedy.
KAREY: But we also picked Natasha and Judy ‘cause they can both go to every extreme.
JAMIE: That was actually one of the big things in casting, was getting someone who could keep the movie grounded. Even though these great wacky and weird things are happening, making it real and not making it seem like too over the top or surreal.
KAREY: But we didn’t want to make it totally real either.
JAMIE: Not totally real, but they play it very grounded because they’re really good actors.
VINYARD: You mentioned before that Judy’s character was meant to be unlikable and you needed to cast her specifically to ease that up a little bit. Was there ever a concern that…
JAMIE: She’s a sociopath? Yeah, that’s why we put that line in there too, like “I’m not a sociopath! I feel things!” That was actually Judy’s first question for me when she read the script, she was like, “I really like the part, but am I a sociopath? Is that what I’m saying?” And I was like, “No you’re not! You’re just playing a complicated, fucked up, interesting character.”
As far as the sex addiction goes, my grandmother was actually a sex addict. She was openly in recovery for it. She also had a lot of other addiction issues, but growing up, she always told me that the worst addiction she had was sex addiction, as far as just being really destructive to her life. I think that was something I always found interesting, and devastating, so I wanted Judy to bring some reality to that struggle, because it’s pretty intense.
KAREY: It is something that doesn’t seem like it’s a real addiction, but it really is. How does it actually kind of ruin someone’s life, that was sort of kind of our starting point.
JAMIE: And mostly their family! It’s all fun and games for their friends, but for their family watching that is painful.
VINYARD: Last question: there’s a history of having guys as sad sacks or curmudgeons or whatever, but I think that’s a lot less common for female protagonists. Do you think there’s an aversion in the industry towards female characters who are “unlikable” or promiscuous?
JAMIE: I do think there’s less representation of promiscuous women, and I do think there’s less representation of flawed, unlikable characters, but I think it’s because there’s less female writers. It’s not like we set out to do anything subversive. We just wrote from our brains and our experiences knowing women as unlikable, flawed people, and not shying away from that and feeling like women always have to be great people, because they’re not. A lot of women do have sex compulsions, that’s just the way it is. We’re just reflecting what we see.
KAREY: In the studio or TV world, if you’re pitching a show or a movie, and the character is that unlikable, they’re gonna want you to change it. It’s just the way that they see female characters and how they’re supposed to be is usually likable, at least in the TV network side.
VINYARD: Have you experienced that, where you pitched something darker than they were willing to do?
KAREY: 100%. That’s the note you always get: “make them more likable.” Which, for a show that’s gonna be on at like 8 o’clock that like everyone’s gonna watch, I don’t think they’re gonna wanna watch necessarily someone who’s like, “This fuckin’ sucks!” And say that every minute. So I don’t blame them for that.
VINYARD: That’s kinda Aubrey’s character on PARKS & REC.
KAREY: Oh yeah, that’s true.
JAMIE: That’s true. Also, I direct GIRLS, and Lena’s character gets to be very unlikable and narcissistic, but that’s HBO.
KAREY: It’s true about Aubrey’s character in PARKS, but…
VINYARD: She’s not the lead.
KAREY: She’s not the lead, that’s the thing. Having the lead be that character is kind of what I like to write.