There are many directors for whom you could say “filmmaking is a family affair.” But few could lay claim to that phrase more literally than Jamie Babbit, the director behind the cult comedy But I’m a Cheerleader. She’s working once again with that film’s star, Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) in Addicted to Fresno, which plays the Brattle this weekend. And when this interviewer asked about the film’s scribe—who doesn’t have any sort of biography on iMDB, damn it—he found that she was more than just a writer-for-hire, too.
“Addicted to Fresno was actually written by my wife. She had actually never written a feature-length screenplay before. And she said, ‘I want to write your next movie,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s figure out what it’d be about.’ And she said ‘I have a great idea about drug smugglers coming into the country from Mexico.’ And I said, ‘Um. No thanks.’ Too many episodes of Breaking Bad, I think.”
What they ended up writing might actually be bleaker than Walter White’s misadventures. Lyonne stars as Martha, a workaday maid at a dead-end Fresno motel, who makes the mistake of getting her sex-addict sister Shannon (Judy Greer) a starter job at the same place. As it often does, a relapse follows the release. What follows the relapse isn’t so usual: Martha catches Shannon mid-coitus with the motel’s most repulsive regular. Shannon, embarrassed, falsely cries rape. Then she strikes the guy over the skull. Then he dies. And then they’re stuck with a body to get rid of, because—even if you believe Shannon’s story—that’s a better option than going to the cops.
The humor is as aggressive as Shannon’s sex drive. Insults fly about at screwball-speed. “Your wife sucks,” one character barbs, before adding: “everything but your dick.” Babbit maintains a manic pace, and she’ll be at the Brattle tomorrow evening—for the 7:30 and 9:30pm shows—to talk about her work. Prior to her trip, she spent a Sunday morning rapping with us on the phone—about the artists, family members, and communities who shaped her twisted vision.
On screenwriter Karey Dornetto: So my wife [Karey] ended up pitching a bunch of ideas that I wasn’t into. And then she said, “What if I wrote something about my relationship with my sister?” That was interesting to me. Her character in the screenplay is the Natasha Lyonne character, the lesbian. And the Judy Greer character is Karey’s sister. I knew it would be funny. But I needed to be sure that the movie would have a center.
On how the film follows up on her past work: But I’m a Cheerleader was about growing up near a rehab—my mom ran a rehab in Ohio in the mid-80s. And I think Addicted to Fresno is about what happens when someone comes back from rehab—it’s about the way that the family needs to recalibrate. So though it’s a very different movie than But I’m a Cheerleader, it feels like a “second step” to me, in that direction.
On the family member that influenced the film most: My grandmother was a sex addict. She told me, “In the 1950s, I would walk down the street, wanting to have sex with everyone I passed by. And I would.” And that was before birth control! My grandmother had a lot of kids. She had six husbands. She went to Radcliffe. She was a lawyer. She was a brilliant, amazing woman, with a horrible addiction. Even in her 70s, she was still dealing with that—it wasn’t cured. I wanted to speak to that with the Judy Greer character; the idea that you’re never 100% cured.
There are so many things that my grandmother did like a man: law school; the sex habit; she was never married for more than a year. She was having a lot of hookups and a lot of children but she was mostly single through that. That made her a fiercely independent woman. But men have problems too—and she had the same problems that lothario men have. She was also an alcoholic, but both my grandmother and my mother agreed: the sex addiction was worse. Because being the child of a sex addict, there’s just the most random dudes around, all the time.
On an artist she feels a kinship with: John Waters and I both grew up in underdog cities: him in Baltimore, and me in Cleveland. I’m 30 years younger than him, but I do think there’s a lot of artistic sensibilities that have crossed over between us. We’re both queer kids growing up in crappy cities.
On whether or not she’s aiming to offend: I really feel that the most interesting filmmaking comes from the specificity of who you are. So I try to be as specific to my point-of-view as I can. And I always laugh at really messed-up stuff—that’s also a huge part of who I am. But I’m a Cheerleader, when I made that in the late 90s, the gay community was deeply offended by it. But I’m part of that community. I’m an insider. And I feel like I have a right to satirize that community.
On the downsides of screening a dark movie on a bright day: I remember the day that gay marriage passed as a federal law, we had a screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. So the Castro was totally insane. Everyone was going nuts. And there’s thousands of people there, most of them lesbians, many of them fans of “But I’m a Cheerleader.” And there were speakers, and everyone was cheering… and then I thought, “oh God, my movie is playing now.” This is a dark comedy. It’s about co-dependency, and sisterhood, and it’s not a political film, certainly not in a “celebrating gay marriage” sort of way.
So I went up in front of thousands of lesbians who are all excited about coupling and marriage. And I said, “Hey guys, it’s so great that gay marriage passed,” and everyone cheered. “I was married to the producer of this movie,” I told them, and everyone cheered again. Then I said, “and then I got gay-divorced!” And then I pointed to Karey [Dornetto,] and said, “and then I got married to this woman!” And everyone cheered again. “And because we’re co-dependent, we all worked on this movie together. Because we’re lesbians. And lesbians are co-dependent!” To which everyone responded… “um… yay?” That’s where we left it.
ADDICTED TO FRESNO. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FRIDAY 10.2—SUNDAY 10.4. JAMIE BABBIT AND KAREY DORNETTO Q&A’S AT 7:30 AND 9:30PM SHOWS ON SATURDAY 10.3. UNRATED. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR SHOWTIMES.