A class with the legendary poet and late Columbia professor Kenneth Koch taught Jamie Babbit skills she uses each time she directs a television show. Koch would assign students to write in the style of a particular poet. “He’d say ‘write like Emily Dickinson,’ and we’d have to be able to imitate the style and bring our own creative flair to it,” she recalls. It’s the same in television; show creators set the tone for a new program, then call in directors like Babbit to direct individual episodes, a role Babbit likens to “being invited for Thanksgiving dinner as the guest of honor and you’ve never met the family before,” but one in which she feels at ease. “I find myself using that skill all the time—deconstructing the visual language that has been used and imitating it.”
Babbit has also written and directed several independent films. Her first was the 1999 satirical comedy But I’m a Cheerleader. Starring Natasha Lyonne, the movie is about an all-American high schooler whose parents suspect she is gay and send her to “sexual redirection” school. The film won multiple festival awards and landed Babbit on Variety’s “50 Creatives to Watch” list. She has since directed The Quiet (2005) and the forthcoming Breaking the Girls, and she wrote and directed Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007).
In the two feature films she wrote, gay female characters take journeys of self-discovery. “She brings a unique perspective to her movies—being a woman, a lesbian, and telling stories relevant to both,” says Andrea Sperling, a producer of Babbit’s films. The two are also former longtime partners and have two children. “She tells stories about women who have to get through, learn, strengthen themselves . . . and change people, whether it’s politically, sexually, or emotionally.”
Babbit’s own journey toward a career began at Barnard. Through the career services office, she landed an internship her first year with the producer of Dead Poets Society. A Centennial Scholar (former Columbia professor Larry Engel was her mentor), she used her scholarship money on summer film studies at NYU. She also took film classes at Columbia. But she always planned to pursue an international- affairs career and, like her father, attend Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). A semester in Ghana brought a change in thinking: She spent her spare time shooting footage of the lavishly decorated taxis common in West Africa. “I was more interested in making a movie than in doing foreign service,” she says. That footage became a film, which she handed in as her senior thesis. “At Barnard, I was able to explore all of it, then figure out what I was most interested in.”
After graduation, she landed a job in Los Angeles on the set of her first big studio movie. “I realized that an $80-million movie is similar to a student film in that it’s really just the director, photographer, and actors—you just have more support. It became demystified.” She spent her spare time writing the script for But I’m a Cheerleader. “You have to pursue two things at once,” explains Babbit. “So by the time you get a chance, you are ready.” She took the script to the Sundance Film Festival and secured funding; by the next year she showed the finished movie there.
After this break, Babbit told her agent she wanted to try television directing, a field that still has relatively few women. TV writer Ryan Murphy, who went on to create or co-create Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, among other shows, had seen her film and in 2000 hired her to direct his show, Popular. She has since directed episodes of a wide range of shows, from the chatty comedy Gilmore Girls, starring Lauren Graham ’88, to the thriller-mystery series Revenge. Babbit especially enjoys working on such shows as Bunheads and Rizzoli & Isles, both created by women and exploring relationships between them. She’s also currently writing a movie about two sisters—one of whom just got out of rehab— working as maids in Cleveland, Babbit’s hometown, so she’s especially excited about the film.
Babbit thinks her career path is one for which many Barnard graduates would be well suited. “It requires persistence and a kind of fearlessness in pursuing what you want to do, and I feel that a lot of Barnard women are fearless and persistent.”
—by Abigail Beshkin