A Director’s Story

By Beth Friedman-Rommell

Director Jamie Babbit

Jamie Babbit (SHHS ’89) is the embodiment of the old Nike slogan, “Just do it!” Without a film school degree or inside connections, Babbit worked her way up from the bottom of her industry with sheer determination, ultimately establishing a successful directing career in television and film.

She has directed dozens of TV episodes for shows including “Gilmore Girls,” “Girls,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “United States of Tara,” “Ugly Betty,” and many more. Her 1999 groundbreaking indie comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” was instrumental in broadening the depiction of gay characters in the movies. Committed to supporting other aspiring filmmakers, particularly women, Babbit also maintains a strong connection to her hometown, returning frequently to visit family and friends, and mentor Shaker High theatre students.

Jamie Babbit with spouse Karey Dornetto and actor Natasha Lyonne

Jamie Babbit with spouse Karey Dornetto and Natasha Lyonne, the star of “But I’m a Cheerleader” and “Addicted to Fresno.”

Jamie and her brothers Ross and Rider were raised in Shaker by an attorney father, Harold, and a psychologist mother, the late Nikki Babbit. While both parents were interested in the arts, Jamie’s fearless, singleminded pursuit of an artistic career often bemused her Midwestern father, who favored a more conventional life path.

Jamie’s mother undoubtedly embodied tenacity, creativity, and courage for her daughter. In 1980 Nikki founded New Directions, a local addiction treatment center for adolescents, one of the first in the nation. Like Jamie, Nikki “was never interested in working on something that was already established,” Jamie says. “Her motto was: Learn how to do things, and go out and do them.”

Staying in the Moment

Jamie credits her early training at Shaker Heights High School’s Ensemble Theatre program for developing skills that she draws upon every day in her work.

“The key to being a director is being a good listener. I learned that from Ensemble,” she explains. “The most important thing for me as a director is staying present in the moment for the actor, for what adjustment they need to open them up to a better performance.

“Ensemble wasn’t about singing, it wasn’t about memorizing lines, it was about seeing the world from an artistic perspective, and also about the connection between the body and the mind. It was like yoga training, breathing, being in touch with yourself, opening yourself to creative expression. That program really helped me to begin to know myself as an artist.”

(One way in which the Babbit family preserves Nikki’s legacy is through the Nikki Babbit Memorial Award, awarded yearly by the Shaker Schools Foundation to a graduating senior who has done outstanding work behind the scenes in the Shaker Theatre Department.)

Jamie and her father, Harold Babbit.

Jamie and her father, Harold Babbit.

In addition to acting and working behind the scenes n the theatre department, Jamie also made her directorial debut while at Shaker for Terry Pollack’s history class. Jamie and two classmates scored second in the U.S. National History Day competition for their experimental treatment of the theme of the Alaskan frontier.

Jamie recalls they “wowed the judges” with their unique, minimalist approach. “But we picked a boring subject, so that’s why we lost,” Jamie laughs. “I learned from this experience that you can be a great director, but if the source material is kind of a dud, it’s hard to take it all the way.” Jamie soon found more interesting subject matter to pursue. While an undergraduate majoring in West African Studies at Barnard College, she traveled to Ghana, where she made her first film, an undergraduate thesis project on taxi-driver art. After graduating, Jamie cobbled together her own sort of graduate school in film, taking some classes at NYU and UCLA while working on as many film projects as possible, in order to learn every aspect of her craft.

“I think film school is fantastic, if you can get there,” she says.

“But I was worried about the debt I’d take on with graduate school.” Instead, Jamie worked many side jobs to make rent while she developed scripts, saved money, and learned from professionals – both good and bad – on sets. She also kept track of talented people with whom she’d like to work once she landed in the director’s chair.

At a Crossroads

According to Harold, Jamie finagled her way on to the sets of films directed by the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, and David Fincher, through her unique blend of “aggressiveness and charm.” She was named script supervisor for Fincher’s “The Game,” starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, in 1997. She was next offered the job of script supervisor for “American Beauty.” But she had second thoughts because her career was at a crossroads.

“If you don’t work on your own material at the same time as other people’s, you’ll always be an assistant. I was worried I would work on other people’s movies my whole life. I’ve seen lots of people compromise once they’ve made a niche for themselves – they’re good union jobs,” she explains.

So at age 24, Jamie turned down the six-figure assignment on the big-budget movie, which went on to win five Oscars, including best picture, in order to make her first independent feature film, “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

“I’ve never made a dollar to this day for Cheerleader. I was very nervous to quit the union to go start being a director. You make money from the jobs you get after your breakout film. It’s a long investment in your future,” Jamie says.”But I’m a Cheerleader” is a sunny, absurdist parody of so-called conversion therapy, a now-discredited practice that aimed to turn gay people straight. Jamie says she was inspired to make the film both by her mother’s work founding New Directions, and her own desire to share a positive perspective on being a lesbian.

“I did a lot of Internet research about Exodus International [a defunct organization that practiced reorientation therapies] and I found so much humor, so many ridiculous claims from the people who had been there – it made them more nuanced liars! So I thought, I gotta make a comedy about this.”

In addition, Jamie had grown up learning about rehab first hand through New Directions. “I thought I could actually talk about what it’s like to be in rehab day-to-day, bring a black comedy to it….Ultimately I wanted to make a love story that was hopeful and funny, infuse it with my general optimism about life, my excitement about being gay.”

Jamie believes her film tapped into a hunger for self-representation among young LGBTQ people, which has grown substantially in subsequent years. “In 1999, we didn’t have ‘Glee,’ we didn’t have any clear representation in media,” Jamie reflects. “I would like to think Cheerleader was one of the first things that brought those stories to the media.”

While Jamie states that she did not know she was gay until toward the end of college, she makes an effort to speak to members of Shaker’s Gay Straight Alliance whenever she gives talks at Shaker High. “It’s really great to talk to the GSA,” she says. Even at Shaker High, LGBTQ students may struggle with acceptance of parents or peers. “They tell me, you have such an easy life, you’re married, you have kids. Life in California is easier, it’s harder for us.”

Sharing the Passion

Jamie’s wife and artistic collaborator is screenwriter Karey Dornetto, whom she married in 2014. They share custody of their two daughters with Jamie’s previous partner, producer Andrea Sperling. Jamie divides her work time between directing TV shows, which pays the bills, and her passion for making independent films such as “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” and “Addicted to Fresno.” She says that motherhood has increased her awareness of creating a legacy, a body of work that will “say something important…that my daughters can watch and feel close to me.” She compares this legacy to New Directions, which she views as a tribute to her mother’s vision, energy, and commitment.

“She started New Directions from the ground up. It’s like making a film – you raise the money, you raise awareness, you get excited about the vision, the passion. She never considered it a job, it was a life passion. I feel blessed to have the same thing in my life.”

Jamie is excited to share her passion and foster it in others. Theatre department faculty member (and former chair) Christine McBurney marvels at Jamie’s support of Shaker students. “She volunteers to talk at school, she gives kids her email, she mentors them,” says McBurney. “She tells them, there’s lots of jobs in Hollywood, go out there and get one! She’s very nurturing.”

Davionne Gooden (SHHS ’16) met Jamie when she was inducted into the SHHS Hall of Fame in 2013. When Davionne introduced himself as an aspiring filmmaker, Jamie gave him her email address. She has since advised and supported Davionne in many ways, offering to help him visit California and even contributing to fund his short film, “Roxanne in Wonderland.”

“I was having trouble editing my last movie, before Roxanne,” Davionne says. “I told her I had a bad reel in my hand, what can I do? She gave me tips for editing, adding narration and music, and the actual movie turned out a lot better than I thought.”

Even more than her technical support, Davionne appreciates Jamie’s faith in him. “One of the things I learned is not to be afraid to ask for help. A lot of people in this world want to help you. It’s a pretty nice thing to discover.”

Originally published in Shaker Life, Fall 2016.