‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ Director Jamie Babbit on the Queer Classic 20 Years Later: ‘I Wanted to Make a Gay ‘Clueless”

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The first time director Jamie Babbit heard the song “Both Sides Now” on the radio, it immediately felt familiar.

She realized she knew the song, not from Joni Mitchell’s expansive library of hits, but because it had been sung at the drug and rehab center her mom ran in Ohio, with different lyrics meant to amplify the perils of addiction.

The revamped lyrics went: “I’ve looked at drugs from both sides now. And still somehow it’s drug delusions. I recall, I really don’t like drugs at all.”

“Growing up, I always thought, ‘Wow, that’s a fun song.’ I didn’t think about the lyrics. But obviously my mom was singing it because it was a drug rehab song,” Babbit recently recalled in an interview with Variety. “And then I heard the Joni Mitchell song on the radio and it had totally different lyrics. I was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s so crazy.'”

That realization inspired a scene in Babbit’s first film, 2000’s “But I’m a Cheerleader.” The movie centers on a lesbian high school cheerleader (played by Natasha Lyonne), whose parents send her to a conversion therapy camp to cure her homosexuality. In the aforementioned scene — which Babbit deleted from the movie’s original theatrical release — the camp director, portrayed by Cathy Moriarty, gathers the campers and breaks out a guitar to croon re-worded songs about people becoming straight.

Audiences will finally be able to see the amusing musical bit in the director’s cut of “But I’m a Cheerleader,” available on demand starting Dec. 8 in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary. “I had cut it out because it didn’t really have a plot point, but I always loved it so much. One of the rules of making a film is you have to cut out your babies,” Babbit said. “I’m so happy it got back in the film.”

Critics skewered “But I’m a Cheerleader” when it premiered two decades ago. They took issue with (among many things) the intense blues and pinks that filled the screen, in a way that can only be described — by Babbit herself — as “Barbie Dream House” meets “Edward Scissorhands.” But over the years, it has become a modern cult classic, particularly among LGBTQ+ audiences.

And the movie helped launch the careers of Lyonne, Clea DuVall, and Melanie Lynskey, who got their breaks alongside a campy combination of seasoned actors: RuPaul, Moriarty, Bud Cort and Mink Stole. After “Cheerleader,” Babbit went on to direct the horror movie “The Quiet” and the comedy “Itty Bitty Titty Committee,” and episodes of dozens of popular TV shows, including “Russian Doll” (reuniting her with Lyonne), “Gilmore Girls,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The L Word” and “Silicon Valley.”

Ahead of the release of the 20th anniversary director’s cut, Babbit spoke to Variety about the film’s enduring legacy, the progress Hollywood has made in the decades since “Cheerleader” was released — and improvements that still needs to be made.

“But I’m a Cheerleader” was your first feature film. What did your career look like at that time, and how did you get the film made?

My career was nowhere. I was working on other people’s movies on the crew and making short films, learning my craft. I had met Clea DuVall at a coffee shop and thought she would be great for my short film, “Sleeping Beauties.” We made that short film together, and I was like, “Oh, it would be so great to do a feature with Clea.” So I started developing “But I’m a Cheerleader” with Brian Peterson, who wrote it.

We hustled the script together in time to bring it to Sundance when my short film was debuting. I was able to secure the financing from a producer I met at Sundance. I was very excited about doing my first feature, but I was nervous because I had really big ambitions. One of the fun things about the 20th anniversary release is I was able to look back at the footage and see scenes I had always loved that I cut out. I was so nervous that people would be bored, and so I just made it the leanest machine ever. It clocked in at, like, 85 minutes. Now that I have a little more experience under my belt, I was like you know what, these are really good scenes. The movie can be 90 minutes.

Jamie Babbit on the set of “But I’m a Cheerleader.” ©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Co

Do you feel like critics “got” the movie? Reviews, Variety’s in particular, were pretty harsh. 

Reviewers were older men in their 50s, 60s. At all the big publications, like Variety and Entertainment Weekly, I basically got the equivalent of an “F.” I knew I struck a chord because the reviews were so mean spirited. They were so angry that I knew I had done something really audacious.

Honestly at the time, there really hadn’t been lesbian comedy. And I think the community was so devastated by AIDS that there wasn’t a lot of comedies going on in gay cinema. I think it upset people that I had made a comedy about a really serious subject matter. I also made the film when I was in my 20s, and I also was part of the community and felt like there was room to laugh at things. I wanted to skewer not only my community, but also just the absurdity of gay conversion. I also wanted to tell a romantic story and be revolutionary where the lesbians actually end up in love and alive at the end of the movie, which had not really been told at the time — everyone always, like, died or were killed. I was surprised that older people hated it so much. I knew all the 20somethings, and people younger than me, wanted a movie like it. Over time it’s been celebrated, which is really nice. I’m glad I lived long enough to have people enjoy it and not just have really mean things written about it.

What is it like to watch the movie 20 years later? Has society progressed?

It’s funny, because at the time, the whole idea of gender constructs in the binary was all very new. “But I’m a Cheerleader” is really making fun of the binary as much as anything else. It’s ridiculous to say that just because you become more feminine means you’re going to be less gay. I always wanted to tell a movie about a girl who really embraces her lesbianism, but she doesn’t ride off on a motorcycle at the end. She’s still a cheerleader, girly girl at the end — and just separating the idea of gender from sexuality. I feel like that is very much a conversation that’s happening in the world right now. But at the time, it was strange.

The trans community has been much more accepted and is much more vocal in the community now. Although those ideas are in the film, there’s not a real trans character in the movie. So I think in that way, it shows its age. It’s still a really fun, funny movie, which is always what I wanted it to be. I loved “Clueless,” and I wanted to make a gay “Clueless.”

When you were promoting “But I’m a Cheerleader” in 2000, you said there was racism at every level of making movies. Do you think it’s still as prevalent today?

For sure — and sexism and homophobia. But the most systemic problem is racism. It really comes down to filmmaking. Entry level positions for filmmaking pay so low, and the jobs are so short, and there’s no advertising of them. So the only way to break in is to work for free or to know someone. In order to work for free for a couple years, you have to have someone helping support you. Or you have to know someone in the business, and most minority communities have never known anyone in the business because there have been so many barriers to breaking into it. I don’t really see the crews getting more diverse. I have seen a lot of progress for women, especially in the camera department and directing. But we still have a long way to go.

What are some of the roadblocks?

A lot of it is access. I remember I was working on a TV show in Atlanta, and I said, “I need an assistant.” The producer said, “OK, I have a list of people who have been assistants before. We’ll just reach out to those people.” And I said, “I don’t want to do that. I want to put an ad on Craigslist. I’m sure I’ll get like 1,000 resumes. But let me see what resumes I get.” All the resumes I got were like people of color in Atlanta, who were way overqualified and would love to do the job. I hired an amazing assistant from Craigslist who was much better than all the white people that I had been offered who had been assistant before on other projects. I really try to advertise for jobs in a way that’s fair, because there’s just so much elitism in the film industry. It’s crazy.

You made a point to make sure there was gender parity and diversity on both sides of the camera for “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

I think a lot of that comes from growing up in Shaker Heights, [Ohio]. I grew up going to a high school that was 50-50 [in terms of] diversity. When I was casting the movie and hiring people behind the camera, I was like, “This movie needs to reflect the diversity that is the queer community and the world.” The script never said, like, “Dolph, the wrestler, is Filipino” or “Jan is African American.” I also was very influenced by my mom’s real teen rehab and the truth of addiction. Growing up, I saw really it affects all communities: rich, poor, Black, white, Asian, it doesn’t matter. There’s addicts in every community.

The movie was initially given an NC-17 rating, and you had to cut scenes to make it rated R. Do you think it would have gotten an NC-17 rating if it were made now?

I think if the movie was rated today, it would have gotten a G — which is what I thought I deserved. I remember when I got the NC-17, I said “I want to call them and ask them specifically why.” A woman [ from the Motion Picture Association of America] in Orange County said, “I’ll talk to Jamie.” And I said, “Why? This is a G-rated movie. I made it for teenagers, and I want it to be like ‘Clueless.’ There’s no nudity. There’s little swearing. What are you talking about?” She said, “Well, the love scene was very dark, and I’m sure there’s terrible things happening in the darkness.” And I said, “Well, how about I lighten it up and show you that there’s literally nothing happening? I made it dark because nothing was happening.” She said, “OK, fine.” Then she said, “You have to cut out any mention of a woman going down and another woman.”

Was that sexist?

It’s so sexist because she never asked me to take out the lines about guys going down on guys. But I agreed to do it. I honestly think that [movie ratings] have gotten better. So thank God. There’s been a lot of scrutiny for the [MPAA] ratings board, and hopefully that’s pressured them to allow positive queer films to be accessible to teenagers so that they feel good about themselves.

Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne in “But I’m a Cheerleader.” ©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Co

I read that your first choice for the lead role turned it down for religious reasons, and other cast members were cautioned by their agents against playing gay characters. I feel like that’s less likely to happen now.

I don’t know. Do you think that’s true?

I guess maybe I’m being optimistic. Are gay actors still being dissuaded from playing gay characters? 

I think it’s better, but there’s a lot of homophobia in the acting realm and that agents would still advise some of their clients not to take gay roles, especially if their clients is gay and in the closet. As someone who makes a lot of queer content, I still see a lot of closeted actors who don’t want to play gay roles because they feel like they won’t pass or something. We still have a lot of work to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.