The Chosen One

Jamie Babbit sounds off on 'The Quiet' – Burnt Orange's first national release – and its discomfiting implications

Jamie Babbit
Jamie Babbit

Jamie Babbit's The Quiet is the first film from Austin-based Burnt Orange Productions to secure national distribution – via Sony Pictures Classics – a coup for both the UT-affiliated company and a decided change of pace for both director Babbit and producer/star Elisha Cuthbert, both of whom are known, to the mainstream filmgoer, certainly, as artists with a background in more humorous outings.

The Quiet, with its backstory of suburban sexual abuse and the limitations, depredations, and hormonally befouled thunderheads that threaten to engulf what on the face of it would appear to be the ideal American family, is anything but light fare. It takes Joe Jackson's "In Every Dream Home (A Nightmare)" and reposits it for the screen, managing in the bargain to be one of the more powerful and unexpected teen-angst powder kegs to come down the pike in years.

The Chronicle spoke to Jamie Babbit about the production and rigors of shooting screenwriters Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft's emotionally exhausting story as fusillade No. 1 in the Burnt Orange canon.

Austin Chronicle: This is the first film from Burnt Orange Productions to receive a national release. How did you end up under their banner?

Jamie Babbit: We approached them, actually. I had made But I'm a Cheerleader in 2000 and had wanted to do something different. I wasn't really getting any opportunities to stretch myself in the studio world, and so I was trying to find a script to do another independent film. An actor friend of mine from But I'm a Cheerleader had two friends – Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft – who had a script that went to the Sundance Writer's Lab, and they were looking for a director. I read the script – at that time it was called Dot – and thought it was really interesting. I was reading a book by the writer Phoebe Gloeckner at the time – she's kind of an R. Crumb-type graphic novelist who writes a lot about her sexual abuse – and, so, when I read Dot, I was really intrigued about that whole aspect of it. And, basically, I ended up getting the movie to a bunch of producers and then some agents to try and attach actors and began to take meetings.

AC: Who came on board first?

JB: Elisha Cuthbert, actually. From there, we went to several financiers, among them Burnt Orange, and told them we had this project with myself attached as a director and Elisha Cuthbert attached as an actress and asked them if they'd be willing to finance it. And Carolyn Pfeiffer and Tom Schatz read the script and really liked it, and that was it.

AC: Was Elisha in your mind from the beginning for the role of Nina?

JB: She was. I had gone to see The Girl Next Door, and I thought she had a great face; she was a good actress, and in my mind's eye, that was what the character of Nina looked like. And then when I met with her, she actually wanted to play the role of Dot. And so I ended up, during my first coffee with her, trying to convince her that she should play Nina.

AC: Good call. It's tough to visualize her as Dot.

JB: No way. When I met her in person, I thought, "Not only does she have a perfect look for Nina, but she's also sort of a tough cookie," and I needed an actress who would make you think that this girl has been through a lot; even though she's only 17-18, she's an old soul. I think that's very true of Nina. Somebody who's encountering this much abuse at home is bound to be a tough girl, and Elisha was the perfect combination of everything I needed for Nina.

Camilla Belle (l) as Dot and Elisha Cuthbert as Nina
Camilla Belle (l) as Dot and Elisha Cuthbert as Nina

AC: It's nothing like any previous role she's attempted.

JB: Yes. It was a leap of faith to think she might be able to pull this off actingwise because I've never seen her carry a movie that had so much going on. I mean, she had to be good. Although I thought she did a great job with The Girl Next Door, the part wasn't as complex as this part was. We did two weeks of rehearsals with her and Martin Donovan; we did a lot of improvisational rehearsals where we tried to kind of build their history, you know, "build their love, their inappropriate love." And she totally kicked butt.

AC: As does Camilla Belle in a role that's almost entirely body language and facial expressiveness. How did she come on board?

JB: I had seen The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and, in a way, the story of that film is kind of the precursor to what Dot's character is going through with that sort of obsessive relationship with her father. And at the end of that movie, her father dies, and at the beginning of this movie, her father has died and she's going to live with a foster family. When I saw The Ballad of Jack and Rose, I knew she could play Dot. She has the face, she had the expressions, and, coincidentally, she's also a concert pianist. That film convinced me she'd be perfect for Dot.

AC: It's hardly the sort of story anyone who only knew you from, say, But I'm a Cheerleader would think of as your sort of work, dealing as it does with themes of sexual abuse and the darkest of familial secrets – how was the atmosphere on the set, day-to-day? I can't imagine it was often less than grim.

JB: It was definitely intense to shoot the movie. There were issues between Elisha and Martin Donovan. There were no problems at all for the scenes that didn't involve them actually being in bed together, but the scenes where they were in bed together were very intense. I actually decided to shoot those on the last day just to protect myself and to kind of get them as warmed up to each other as possible. I think it was tough because, you know, there is a big age difference between them. Martin was really scared, as a person, that people were going to hate his character, and Elisha was really scared, as a person, to be victimized by Martin. So it was tough. I had to kind of be the go-between for them, telling Martin on the one hand to just play it like a love story. He loves her, there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, you love her, you love her, you love her – because that's the point of view of his character – and then, for Elisha, telling her, look, you love your daddy, but you need to get away from him. So I was trying to play both sides. But that's the job of the director.

I should also add that I loved making the movie in Austin. We got so much support from the Austin film community working on the film – Robert Rodriguez helped us out, and it was just an awesome, awesome time.

AC: Have you had a chance to see the film with an audience yet?

JB: I did.

AC: How'd that go?

JB: We got a lot of uncomfortable laughter. We had some people come up afterward, people who had been sexually abused, people who had dysfunctional secrets in their family. It was kind of what I expected.

AC: How do you think the mainstream is going to receive it? Obviously, it's not your standard teen drama.

JB: I hope anyone who appreciated Heavenly Creatures or American Beauty would be interested in seeing it. I loved Heavenly Creatures because it was just such a dark, twisted tale about these two girls. And that's what I like about The Quiet, as well. end story

The Quiet opens in Austin on Friday, Sept. 1. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.

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Burnt Orange Productions, Jamie Babbit, Elisha Cuthbert, The Quiet, Camilla Belle, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, But I'm a Cheerleader

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