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The Flip Side of Serious Teen Angst

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Described as a comedy of sexual disorientation, “But I’m a Cheerleader,” which opens Friday in limited release after playing at the Outfest film festival, follows the topsy-turvy life of high school cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne of “The Slums of Beverly Hills”). Because Megan seems to have one too many pictures of Melissa Etheridge on her walls, her conservative parents (Mink Stole and Bud Cort) think that their “little poodle” may be a lesbian.

Quicker than you can say intervention, Megan is sent packing to a homosexual-rehabilitation facility called True Directions, which is run by a Cruella De Vil-esque homophobe named Mary (Cathy Moriarty). Though Megan doesn’t believe she is a lesbian, she finds herself increasingly interested in a sexy gay tomboy (Clea Duvall). Drag queen RuPaul, billed here as RuPaul Charles, plays a True Directions counselor.

“But I’m a Cheerleader” marks the feature-film directorial debut of Jamie Babbit, a 29-year-old who previously directed several short films including “Sleeping Beauties,” which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and played in more than 30 festivals. A graduate of Barnard College in New York, Babbit was a producer and director last season on the WB teen series “Popular.”

The young director recently talked about being gay, her love-hate relationship with rehab, and the influence of Barbie’s Dream House on her movie.

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Question: What was behind your decision to take a very serious subject and turn it into a comedy?

Answer: I have done short films before, and every one has had some sort of comedic feel to it. To me, I feel like I didn’t want it to be a message movie. I wanted it to have a political message but I wanted it to be entertaining. I was scared it would be like an after-school special.

And I thought just as far as the traditional lesbian films, the tradition of the dark, brooding subject matter of how painful it is to deal with the rejection of your parents--I have seen it a million times. We all go through our own pain when you are gay and you live in society. For me, I wanted to make people laugh and at the same time to get the message across.

Q: The surreal production and costume designs that are filled with pinks, blues and plastics really add so much to the film.

A: I really wanted to bring out the artificiality [of the idea] that you can change someone from gay to straight. So I started out the movie in all browns and organic fibers. The first time you see pink is when RuPaul’s van comes in. Then she’s taken to this world, which is totally artificial. I told the production designer and costumer designer I wanted everything to be plastic--nothing organic. The character of Mary is not interested in the biology of someone’s sexual orientation. She is interested in making something artificial--a girl can put on makeup and cook, then she’s going to be straight. The most artificial place I ever had [seen] was my Barbie Dream House when I was a kid. So I handed the Barbie Dream House to my production designer and I had her copy it almost room for room.

Q: Why did you decide to make your heroine a high school student? Was it because you came to terms with being gay while in high school?

A: Everyone else thought I was gay [in high school], but I didn’t know. The reason I wanted to do it in high school is because I wanted it to be a teen movie. I wanted teenagers to see the film, and to me the most important audience who could see the film are teenagers, because those, I think, are the people who are the most in trouble as far as dealing with their identity.

Q: Are there homosexual-rehab centers as depicted in the film?

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A: I don’t know if it is well-known or not, but they [rehab centers] are definitely well-known in the Christian community. There are a bunch in Utah. There are a lot of homosexuals anonymous groups in Los Angeles and a couple of different places to go outside of San Francisco. A lot of them are for adults who can check themselves in. One place I read about in [the magazine] Marie Claire is in Utah. A girl was kidnapped by her parents--she was 15, lesbian. They said she had gender disorder. She was basically deprogrammed and ran away. She tried to [break from the custody of] her parents and she was successful. She actually ended up going to live with foster parents, two lesbians in San Francisco.

Q: So that article was the genesis for the movie?

A: Yeah. I thought it would be a good idea for a movie. Actually, my mom runs a rehab center [in Cleveland] for adolescent drug addicts and alcoholics.

Q: Was the center actually in your house?

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A: It was down the street. She had 12 kids down the street and three kids at home. We had to spend all of our holidays together and weekends. Mostly, I was just raised with the 12 steps above my head and the serenity prayer. I wanted to do a satire about rehab just because there is such comedy [in it and] because of my love-hate relationship with rehab. But I didn’t think it would be fair to knock AA because I do think it helps.

Q: Had you worked with your screenwriter, Brian Wayne Peterson, before?

A: He had just graduated from USC grad school in writing. I met with a bunch of people I didn’t know through references who might be desperate enough to work for free for an unproven director. He was one of the people willing to do it, and he comes from an activist background and had actually worked at a mental clinic for sex offenders.

Q: How did you get into directing?

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A: I wanted to do something in theater. I had done a lot of acting in high school. I went to New York City, and I got into theater directing, which was really helpful because it is about working with actors and using a script and adding your own style to it. I took summer classes at NYU to learn film production. [For] my senior thesis, I went to school for a semester in West Africa and I did a documentary about taxi drivers there. I kept making movies and made short movies.

I had two shorts that played at Sundance and other festivals, and then I started working in production because I wanted to be really comfortable on set. So I worked as a script supervisor with David Fincher on “The Game” and Nancy Savoca on “If These Walls Could Talk.” Basically through the shorts and my experience on set, I was able to make the leap.


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