Recently making her spot directorial debut on advertising’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl, Jamie Babbit has put her signature on varied filmmaking disciplines over the years. A three-time Emmy nominee for Silicon Valley (two nods for Outstanding Comedy Series as an EP, one for Best Directing for a Comedy Series), Babbit has directed shows ranging from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to Russian Doll, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, Girls, Ugly Betty, The Orville, United States of Tara, The L Word, Sorry for Your Loss and the new Amazon pilot, A League of Their Own.
Babbit’s first feature--But I’m a Cheerleader, a romantic comedy starring Natasha Lyonne and Michelle Williams--debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Later Babbit directed The Itty Bitty Titty Committee which took Best Feature Film honors at the South by Southwest Film Festival. She then returned to SXSW with her Addicted to Fresno featuring a cast that included Lyonne, Judy Greer and Aubrey Plaza. And Babbit’s latest feature, The Stand-In starring Drew Barrymore, was to have rolled out at Tribeca this month but didn’t when that fest was postponed due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
Babbit also has several shorts to her credit, including Stuck which was honored at the Sundance Film Festival.
Yet while her body of work runs the gamut, Babbit sees a universality to it in terms of her approach. “It’s all storytelling. My process doesn’t really change if I’m on a TV, commercial or film set. My love of directing remains the same, controlling the frame, telling a story, using shot construction to convey emotion, connecting with actors--all those things are part of my daily vocabulary.”
At one point, though, Babbit wasn’t sure her lexicon would extend to the ad arena. She recalled Wieden+Kennedy reaching out early on in her career at Sundance where her aforementioned short Stuck was well received. But breaking into commercialmaking at that juncture wasn’t in the cards as Babbit’s focus turned to opportunities that opened up for her in features and TV.
Finally, though, commercial directing came to pass for Babbit with this year’s alluded to Super Bowl ad for P&G’s Olay out of agency Badger & Winters, produced by Independent Media. Inspired by the first all-female space walk in 2019, the Olay spot starred Lilly Singh and Busy Philipps who take a trip into outer space with retired astronaut Nicole Stott. Their space mission is overseen by Mission Controller Taraji P. Henson and reported on by news anchor Katie Couric.
Part of the brand’s commitment to inspire women to “Face Anything,” the Big Game spot had a title, “Make Space for Women,” which Madonna Badger, chief creative officer of Badger & Winters, said combined “a bit of wordplay with the very serious world of science and technology--a world, by the way, that continues to exclude women in large numbers.” Badger went on to note that the Olay message on Super Sunday was designed to help change that, adding that Babbit was among the many talented women behind the camera for that project.
Babbit brought some of her comedic sensibilities honed on Silicon Valley to the Olay piece. Silicon Valley, she explained, carried a lesson for her of trying to maintain a delicate balance--on one hand “being very controlled in the way you direct while also giving actors freedom for the comedy. We had brilliant actors who thrive with their ability to play.”
That same dynamic applied to “Make Space for Women” as Babbit noted that “even though we had very controlled storyboards, (cinematographer) Janusz Kaminski and the whole Badgers & Winters team were very supportive,” facilitating an environment that enabled half of the piece’s comedy to emerge out of improv from Singh and Phillips.
Babbit has wasted little time in bringing her storytelling range to the ad fore as on the heels of the Olay project she just directed a forward-thinking piece for Audible which had not yet aired at press time. Suffice it to say that the project provides quite a contrast from the Super Bowl comedy with an emotionally moving look at a father-and-son relationship in which the former has an epiphany about tolerance that enables him to reach out to his boy rather than continuing to retreat from their differences. This commercial too was lensed by Kaminski, a two-time Best Cinematography Oscar winner (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) who is also on Independent Media’s commercial directing roster.
Babbit said she valued the experience of getting to work with Kaminski as her DP and having Independent Media as her ad roost, citing the production company’s managing director/executive producer Susanne Preissler who has an affinity for matching film and TV directors with creatively inspired commercial/branded content projects.
Another part of commercialmaking’s appeal to Babbit is the opportunity it affords “to micromanage the frame, to make it as beautiful as possible.” Babbit said she doesn’t have that same luxury in television as she can be tasked on a show, for example, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with “eight pages of dialogue to shoot before lunch.” But she embraces the varied challenges. “From a director’s point of view, it’s so much fun to be able to dance between TV and commercials as well as features.”
That dance on the long-form narrative score has most recently yielded The Stand-In, which Babbit described as being inspired by and a mesh between Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Barrymore portrays a famous retired actress ensconced in her Sunset Blvd-style mansion in the suburbs of New York. She’s urged by her stand-in, also played by Barrymore, to get back into the movies. But the star has too many business interests and other pursuits to seriously consider returning to Hollywood. The two end up trading places, resurrecting and then some the stand-in’s career in this doppelganger storyline penned by Sam Bain, an eight-time BAFTA Award nominee for the U.K. hit Peep Show, winning the award for Best Situation Comedy in 2008. (Peep Show was created by Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Andrew O’Connor.) Babbit said she was drawn to Bain’s funny, dry sense of humor and their shared love of The King of Comedy. Babbit’s fandom of the movie was only intensified by her early career experience as an intern for Scorsese.
Babbit said The Stand-In also provided her with a visual effects education as new technology was deployed--along with masterful work by camera operator Jim McConkey--to seamlessly put Barrymore’s performances in scenes side by side as the movie star and the stand-in. McConkey earlier this year won the Society of Camera Operators’ honor as best camera operator of the year in television for his work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Babbit said that McConkey’s artistry had him replicating the exact camera moves he made the day earlier to help bring Barrymore’s two performances together though they were in fact 24 hours apart.
As for her immediate plans, once the coronavirus crisis is behind us, Babbit hopes to maintain a window to delve deeper into commercials and branded content. She looks forward to not only the creative challenges of shorter form content but also the opportunity to bring her TV and feature collaborators--as well as her experience such as doppelganger dexterity should an ad project call for it--to bear. Those collaborators, for example, could include the likes of McConkey and the DPs she’s worked with over the years--including Chris Teague who shot Russian Doll for her, and M. David Mullen, who lensed her Sundance-winning short Stuck as well as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Mullen’s work on that series, specifically the “Simone” episode helmed by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, earned him a best cinematography Emmy last year. It was Babbit who recommended Mullen to Sherman-Palladino. He has since lensed the lion’s share of that series’ episodes.