By LISA ROSEN
Director Jamie Babbit
"Be smart and don’t be annoying.” Those are Jamie Babbit’s words of wisdom to aspiring television directors. With over 100 episodes on dozens of shows under her belt, she likens each new gig to being invited to Christmas dinner. “You’re the guest of honor. But there are all these family secrets that no one tells you about until you get there and you say the wrong thing, and you’re like ‘I didn’t know grandpa was a drunk and we’re not supposed to talk about it.’”
Babbit first made her mark with the indie feature But I’m a Cheerleader in 1999, and has directed several films since. But as much as she loved those jobs, she relishes working on TV shows. “If you love directing it’s nice to actually direct, and not just sit at your desk and make phone calls for two years while you’re getting your feature up and running,” she says. “There’s nothing I like more than working with actors, and blocking scenes, and looking at the camera. All that stuff is a huge part of television directing.”
Babbit found her way on set right after college. Faking her resume, she landed a job as script supervisor on The Game (1997), and watched director David Fincher at work. “He will move a prop two centimeters to the left from scene to scene to catch the light in a specific way, and balance out the frame,” she marvels. She does the same, but doesn’t always get away with it. “The art department on my last show gave me one of their union shirts because they said I move everything with my hands. Technically, I’m not allowed to.”
Fincher shared more than knowledge, giving Babbit leftover film stock and use of the Avid for her first short film. Called Sleeping Beauties, it’s a “lesbian retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, set in a funeral home for dead rock stars.”
Wanting to have a feature script ready in case the short got into Sundance, she came up with an idea based on her own life. “My mom ran a drug and alcohol rehab for teenagers,” she explains. “I’d always wanted to make a movie set in a rehab because I basically grew up in one. But I also was gay, so I wanted to do something about being gay.” The result, But I’m a Cheerleader, centers on a girl sent to gay rehab. Two years after her short film premiered at Sundance in 1998, she brought Cheerleader to Park City.
MIXING IT UP: Babbit, working with Bruce McGill on the TV series Rizzoli & Isles, plans to continue directing indie features as well.
That year she also had her first interview to direct for television, for MTV’s Undressed. Looking for edgy young directors, the network snapped her up. She shot five episodes in three weeks, learning on the fly. “It was very much like shooting a soap opera, where you had to be incredibly organized,” she says. “If you were going to shoot a close-up of an actor in a specific corner of the set, you would want to shoot a close-up of any actor that was ever in that corner of the set in any of the five episodes.”
Babbit next met with Ryan Murphy and his producing partner Michael Robin for the WB teen series Popular. She remembers Robin telling her that they wanted to hire a woman, which was refreshing. “I do think being a woman can hurt sometimes,” she says, especially when first starting out. “If I was just a white dude in my fifties, I feel like people inherently trust that more than a woman in her twenties walking in.”
At the same time, she wonders if it’s been a boon in some ways: “I stick out.” She hasn’t noticed that things have gotten any better or worse for women—or directors of color for that matter—but does think being gay may have helped her. “People don’t know what to make of you, so they can’t actually define you or put you in a box, which is great because nobody wants to be in a box.”
After starting on Popular as a director, she was quickly hired as a producer-director, helming 11 episodes during the show’s two-year run.
Her third interview, for Gilmore Girls, led to her directing 18 episodes. While adapting to the show’s cinematic language, she was able to include her own style as well. “I tend to stage things against windows—I’m sure a lot of directors do—but I just love the way it looks with the lighting,” she says. “And I like to shoot things with a moving master, rather than a lot of close-ups.” With Gilmore’s rapid-fire, heightened dialogue, those masters had to be word-perfect—35 takes weren’t uncommon. But they were worth it. “The days on Gilmore helped me realize that it’s so nice to keep the camera moving, and to let the jokes play on their own, because when you hit them hard with coverage, the audience resents the formula.”
Those first three interviews aside, Babbit insists that she doesn’t get everything she goes out for. She really wanted to work on Six Feet Under, but didn’t get the gig. But she mentions another quality that’s served her well: “I’ve never been afraid to keep asking for what I want, and I don’t get upset if people say no. I don’t get discouraged either.” So when she ran into Six Feet Under producer Alan Poul a year later, she reminded him that she still wanted to work for him. He hired her on for Swingtown.
Her list of TV credits goes on and on, including three episodes of Rizzoli & Isles, interspersed with indie films like this year’s Breaking the Girls. On her most recent long-standing job, Drop Dead Diva, she is once more serving as producer-director, in charge of hiring other directors and giving them the lay of the land.
She’s also working on the pilot for HBO’s The Reporters, a show about two African-American journalists in Atlanta. “As someone who grew up in an all-black neighborhood in Cleveland, I was excited about a funny, irreverent look at black culture. I think the two guys who wrote it, Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, really responded to But I’m a Cheerleader in that it was a very irreverent look at the gay community.” If it goes to series, she’ll again be the co-executive producer and hire the directors—sharing secrets with those new Christmas guests.