Getting the opportunity to make feature films is hard when your movies occupy the cultural space that Jamie Babbit’s do. She’s never made a film that cost more than a million dollars, and movies full of queer feminist themes are rarely box office breakouts. But Babbit and her wife, screenwriter Karey Dornetto, found an opportunity to pursue their next project in an unexpected way: they answered an ad.
Babbit is the definition of a working director in Hollywood: Her career started with the 1999 cult hit But I’m A Cheerleader, a John Waters-esque dark comedy about gay conversion therapy with Natasha Lyonne, and in the fifteen years that followed, she’s made two additional films–2005’s The Quiet and 2007’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee–and signed on to direct episodes of everything from Malcolm in the Middle and The Gilmore Girls to Revenge and 90210. Her imminent return to movie projects was heralded by a notice from Gamechanger Films, the for-profit film fund launched in 2013 to finance movies by female directors. Once Gamechanger announced the organization was seeking projects, Babbit and Dornetto reached out to them to see if they’d be interested in what became Addicted to Fresno.
That film, out this week on VOD and in theaters next month, reunites Babbit with Natasha Lyonne, and also gives Judy Greer–who you’ve seen very briefly as a protagonist’s mom/wife/etc this summer in movies like Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, and Entourage–her meatiest film role in some time. Fresno also stacks the deck with appearances from Aubrey Plaza, Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, Ron Livingston, and more funny people as it tells a story about two sisters–one a fuck-up, the other straight-laced–who find themselves in the same place, and with a big, big problem. It’s the sort of story that people who lament the sameness of Hollywood often talk about wanting more of–and here’s what goes into getting there.
Most movies don’t get made because an established, working director saw an ad, but when you have a story as offbeat and idiosyncratic as Addicted To Fresno, you’re not making most movies. Dornetto recalls seeing an ad placed in the trade magazines about Gamechanger Films, and wanting to get in on the action.
“We were like, ‘Wait, her project–this is perfect,’” Dornetto recalls. “So we actually just emailed them and said, ‘Can we have a meeting? We have a project.’ And they met with us. We had a couple of meetings, and they have a very formal application process, like getting a grant or something–it was just such a cool bunch of ladies that are making that come true. So many people talk about wanting to empower women’s voices, and truly, you just need cash. And they’re providing that, so it’s awesome.”
The idea that all it really takes to empower female voices in Hollywood is money is deceptive in its simplicity–but when those voices come together the way that Dornetto’s and Babbit’s do on Addicted To Fresno, they unleash something special.
“We came together through sex,” Babbit laughs when asked how she and Dornetto, who’ve since gotten married, began their collaboration. “We were dating. Karey’s a writer and I’m a director, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m looking for my next project–why don’t you write it?’”
Dornetto’s got an impressive resume–she started her career as a staff writer for South Park, continued on to Arrested Development (which also starred Judy Greer in a recurring role), and more recently wrote a number of episodes of Community, Kroll Show, and Portlandia. But Addicted To Fresno is her first movie.
“I wanted to write it,” Dornetto says. “I had just done TV, so I was like, ‘I want to write a movie, and I want you to direct it,’ and that’s kind of how it started. Then it was just me starting to come up with ideas, and then us liking the same one.”
In developing the idea, which Babbit describes as “a high-stakes way of telling a story of two sisters who are in a co-dependent relationship,” she and Dornetto looked to another story about a co-dependent pair of siblings who spend a lot of their movie in a hotel: Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket.
“That’s how the murder-comedy plot came about,” Babbit says. “We wanted to kind of a crime comedy, but we wanted the main theme to be co-dependence.”
“Murder-comedy” isn’t the most mainstream of genres, and Babbit and Dornetto had some unique challenges in exploring the theme of co-dependence within the context of a murder, while still making the movie funny. Some of that comes out in the scenarios that Lyonne and Greer find themselves in–at one point, they end up stealing a bunch of dildos–but balancing what plays, at times, like a drama with what needs to work in a comedy is something that Babbit and Dornetto spent a lot of time on.
“It was a struggle,” Babbit admits. “We had a lot of much more dramatic scenes in the film, and in the editing process, we were trying to pull away a lot of the drama to keep the comedy alive. It’s always just a really thin line that you’re walking of not getting too enamored by the dramatic scenes and not getting too enamored with comedy moments.”
Balancing the two, without being inconsistent, is an interesting challenge, and it’s one that Fresno pulls off by focusing on its characters when the situations they find themselves in get too over-the-top.
“The idea of having this relationship play out over this murder that happens–I thought that was an interesting way to do a lot of funny things, and then while it’s happening, all this stuff about their relationship and how they deal with it comes out,” Dornetto explains. “That’s the way to keep the comedy going, but then it’s also about something.”
Of course, all of those character moments work best because of who actually plays those characters. Natasha Lyonne has been experiencing something of a career renaissance since her turn on Orange Is The New Black, getting out of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie ghetto and into hip projects like Fresno, Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris, and episodes of Girls and Inside Amy Schumer, and Judy Greer’s talent–coupled with her tendency to be passed over for leading roles–makes her an obvious choice for a star turn.
“I always wanted to do another movie with Natasha. I actually wanted to do one right after But I’m A Cheerleader, but then she kind of disappeared into the fog of addiction,” Babbit says. “When she came out of that, I was so excited that she was alive, that she was around, that she was back acting, I just knew I wanted to work with her. I always loved her optimistic, against-type portrayal in But I’m A Cheerleader, and I wanted to keep that alive, and let her play the bright-light enabler, not the dark, edgy girl.”
Meanwhile, Greer is the best friend/mom/ex-wife-who-just-wants-what’s-best-for-our-hero in any number of movies–and Babbit relished the opportunity to cast both Lyonne and Greer against type.
“That was definitely intentional,” she says. “Even when we were having the initial conversations with the financiers, they were like, ‘Oh, Natasha’s clearly playing the messed up one?’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s actually Judy.” To me, as an enabler who is the optimistic lesbian in my own life, there’s a lot of pain and darkness behind the smiles. And Natasha has so much of that, that to put the smile on top of it instantly makes it a more interesting character. And Judy’s such a bright light, and a happy Midwesterner, that to put the darkness on top of her makes her redeemable, so you don’t just hate the character. Karey wrote a very dark character who’s not a sociopath, but she’s everything but that. So I needed a bright light to keep that character.”
The rest of the cast draws on other significant talents–Fred Armisen, who Dornetto knew from Portlandia; Molly Shannon, who grew up in the same hometown as Babbit; Jessica St. Clair, whose show Playing House Babbit has worked on, as well as Aubrey Plaza, Ron Livingston, and more–to round out the cast. “Literally we gathered all of our friends that we work with, that we have a deep respect for, and that respect us–and that would work for 50 cents, and we brought them together,” Babbit laughs.
For a broad comedy that’s also a personal, important story, that’s an impressive group to assemble, and Babbit may have a sense of humor about how they were all recruited, but she’s also thoughtful when she explains what she thinks that appeal is. “I think you have to come up with your own material when you want to tell something that’s both funny and also about something,” she says. “I think within the studio world–and in the TV world, too–there’s a lot of comedy out there, but we were interested in doing both. I think the actors gravitated toward it for that reason, too.”