June 16--At first glance, it seems entirely too soon to give what amounts to a lifetime achievement award to filmmaker Jamie Babbit. She's only 42 and in the prime of her career; when reached by phone, she was in New York to shoot an episode of Lena Dunham's acclaimed HBO series, "Girls."
"I guess I'm peaking pretty early," Babbit says, laughing. "My first short film ("Sleeping Beauty," now on YouTube) played at Frameline in 1996, and I remember arriving at the Castro for the first time and the film was playing there in the girls shorts program. It was so thrilling to be in that beautiful, gorgeous theater. So I feel I've come full circle."
Despite her relatively young age, she seems a good choice for San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival's Frameline Award. Beginning with her first feature-length film -- the 1999 cult classic "But I'm a Cheerleader" -- and continuing with her latest, "Breaking the Girls," a lesbian reimagining of "Strangers on a Train," Babbit has been one of the higher-profile queer filmmakers.
Both films screen at the festival.
"I really like making movies the way I've been making them," Babbit said. "It gives you a lot of autonomy to just really follow and do what you want to do."
A good part of Babbit's work has been directing episodes of television shows such as "Malcolm in the Middle," "Alias," "Ugly Betty," "The L Word" and "Nip/Tuck."
She remembers her first day on the set of the latter program. She was to direct the episode the next week while the show's creator, Ryan Murphy, was directing the episode that was in production that week.
"My first day on 'Nip/Tuck,' he was directing while I was preparing," Babbit recalled. "I walked onto the set and he was directing a sex scene, and this woman had her legs spread-eagle, and the main actor she was supposedly having sex with was bare-bottom, and I'm like, 'Wow, this is a really edgy show for FX.'
"I said, 'Nice shot, Ryan,' and he went, 'Oh my God, look how beautiful her shoes are,' because she was wearing really beautiful high heels while she was getting bugged."
"Breaking the Girls" has been picked up by IFC Films for release in August. She'll go back to comedy for her next project, "Cleveland," about two sisters who work as maids in the city that is her hometown.
However, it is "But I'm a Cheerleader" that resonates the most in her career. A candy-colored comedy about a high school cheerleader (Natasha Lyonne) who is sent to a gay conversion camp when her parents thinks she's a lesbian (she is), it has inspired an eclectic slice of the current generation, both gay and straight.
Babbit says Dunham hired her to direct the "Girls" episode because of that film.
"It was very controversial at the time that I was making a gay comedy, that was making fun of such serious issues," Babbit said. "Those conversion camps are real. I got a lot of flak for making a comedy about something that was destroying people's lives. You felt like you were doing something really scary if you making jokes about things within our community.
"The community has gotten a lot more open-minded about explorations of queer culture."
What: San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
When: Thursday-June 30.
Where: Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater and Victoria Theatre in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.
Information: For tickets and schedule: www.frameline.org.
Opening-night film: "Concussion," followed by gala at Terra Gallery.
Closing night: "G.B.F.," followed by gala at Temple Nightclub.
Frameline Award: Jamie Babbit, "But I'm a Cheerleader," 11 a.m. Friday; "Breaking the Girls," 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the Castro.
G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen
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