“There are so many opinions about queer people in sports”: Devery Jacobs and D. W. Waterson on their new cheerleading film
Backspot, which premieres tonight at TIFF, is executive-produced by Elliot Page and follows the story of a teen girl in a high-pressure cheerleading competition
Move over But I’m a Cheerleader—there’s a new queer cheerleading film in town. Helmed by power couple D. W. Waterson and Devery Jacobs, Backspot follows Jacobs’s character, Riley, as she struggles with the pressure of being tapped to join an elite cheerleading squad just weeks before a massive competition. Jacobs and Waterson, who directs, are no strangers to high-intensity situations—they had just 17 days to shoot the film in Toronto this spring before making a quick turnaround for festival season. It didn’t hurt that they had some extra star power in their corner: the film is executive-produced by Elliot Page through his new company, Page Boy Productions, and features Evan Rachel Wood as Riley’s prickly cheer coach. Ahead of the film’s world premiere at TIFF tonight, Waterson and Jacobs spoke with us about their own brushes with cheer, depicting cheerleaders as both hard-core athletes and regular teen girls, and why queer sports movies so often become cult classics.
This movie has been a long time in the making—it began as a short that came out in 2017, which you then developed into a feature film. Where did the idea come from?
Waterson: Devery and I were actually together, in a taxi on our way to a TIFF event. I’d been wanting to make a movie that explored sport and its effect on people’s relationships and their bodies. At TIFF that year, it felt like every movie I saw had a cheerleading sequence or somebody wearing a cheer uniform. The universe was telling me something. So I said, “I think the film I’m trying to make is a cheer film.”
Jacobs: At that moment, I was like, “Oh, I actually used to be a competitive gymnast.” I knew I’d be able to do all my own stunts if I had some notice to get back to the gym.
Waterson: Of course I was like, “You have to be in it.”
Jacobs: That conversation was the seed that became Backspot.
So you’re not veteran cheerleaders yourselves?
Jacobs: I was actually asked to be on a cheer team once, the kind that travels to Florida for competitions. I almost said yes, but life was taking me in another direction. So, in a way, I’m finally living out my cheer fantasy. But I’m not a teenager anymore, even though I’m playing one, and it’s a very youthful sport. Mostly I had to be very careful that I didn’t get injured.
D. W., you’re also a DJ. I hear you’ve been known to throw on a cheerleading outfit during your sets.
Waterson: Ha—it started when I dressed as Gwen Stefani one Halloween. Something happens to the human brain when someone’s wearing a cheerleading uniform. People get extra hyped. Plus, I liked the juxtaposition of being in a cheerleading uniform while banging on these big drum sets.
Backspot’s depiction of competitive cheerleading isn’t as glossy as Bring It On fans may expect. There are a lot of gnarly bruises and blisters. Why was that something you wanted to zoom in on?
Waterson: It’s a side of cheerleading we don’t often see. Most of the references to cheer in film and TV are comedic and low stakes. I was like, Where’s the respect? I wanted to approach it in the same way a male director would approach a gritty football movie. For five years, our writer, Joanne Sarazen, and I would go to practices and cheer camps. That helped us get that sense of reality. I also loved the contrast of the girls throwing one another in the air and being hard-core athletes and then just acting dumb and dancing to Cardi B, so we tried to incorporate that as well.
You’re both producers on Backspot. Does having multiple roles change the way you approach a project?
Waterson: Totally, and with an indie film, it’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck scenario. We didn’t have a huge crew, and we shot the whole thing in 17 days. So, yes, lots of putting on different caps. Everybody’s just trying to make the best movie they can.
Jacobs: Working in different positions also gives you more perspective. My time working in writers’ rooms helped me understand the story better, which shaped my outlook on development as a producer on Backspot. That, in turn, helped shape the arc I knew I would be playing as an actor. They all bleed into one another. But, yes, like D. W. said, in indie films, all bets are off—you’re doing every position you can possibly can.
Shooting a feature film in 17 days is quite a feat.
Waterson: It felt like we became the cheerleaders: we were going through this gruelling experience. It was great—it was worth it. We performed, we hit our marks, we won the competition.
What was it like working with Elliot Page?
Jacobs: It was incredible. So often, you have an executive producer on a project and you just never hear from them. They’re not involved at all. But Pageboy Productions was so hands on. They had producers with us every day and were so instrumental in making this film happen. Elliot has been such a champion of ours, which is mind blowing because we both grew up as fans of his.
Evan Rachel Wood was also on board, playing Eileen, Riley’s tough-to-impress cheerleading coach. Hopefully she’s not as intimidating off-camera as she is in the movie?
Waterson: No, she’s awesome. There was one point, after we wrapped, where she let all the girls lift her up in the air like one of the fliers. I’m sure that photo will come out at some point. She was lovely and such a pro.
Jacobs: Her character is so tough, but as soon as someone yelled “cut,” she would just laugh it off. She’s got this big, booming laugh. I think queer viewers are going to be into her character in very specific ways.
Big “mean is hot” vibes.
Devery, you said recently that you were “excited to take on a character who just happens to have a girlfriend and for whom queerness is not the problem.” Was that something that was important to both of you?
Waterson: Definitely. We don’t see positive queer relationships often—usually the main conflict in the story is queerness itself. I really wanted to move past that, so I was very protective over Riley’s relationship with her girlfriend during the writing process.
Jacobs: And that doesn’t have to mean that there’s not conflict. Conflict happens in relationships—walking through life as a queer person doesn’t mean I suddenly have no issues. But, often, I have issues that have nothing to do with being queer. Instead, we wanted to show queer characters of different ages coming together and exploring ways to bridge the generational gaps between them. For instance, Riley and her assistant cheer coach, Devon. He takes on that role of queer elder, where he’s guiding her but also telling her to get her shit together. It helps that we had so many queer collaborators. Everybody understood what we were trying to do.
Movies and TV shows with queer characters and sports teams often develop cult followings—I’m thinking A League of Their Own or Yellowjackets. Why do you think people are so drawn to that crossover?
Waterson: Queer people are competitive, and sports are fun. Sports can also be campy. Even just the change room can, for queer people, be a whole different experience in and of itself, and we don’t see that explored very often. Plus, right now, there are so many people with opinions on queer and trans people in sports—who gets to do what and in what category. It’s insane, and it makes it really challenging to just exist in the sporting world. So maybe access to that is part of the appeal.
Jacobs: There are also such crushable characters—I mean, Geena Davis in A League of Their Own? Come on. And femme queer folks especially have been so starved for representation in film and TV. Among the many reasons why these series are successful is the fact that we’ve been so hungry for them for so long.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you both about But I’m a Cheerleader, which is the queer cheerleading movie. Was it a source of inspiration?
Waterson: Obviously, it’s a cult classic and a pivotal film in the queer canon. But, to be fair, there’s not a lot of actual cheerleading that happens in that movie. We definitely took a few steps in a different direction.
Jacobs: We love that movie, though. I was recently on a Hollywood Reporter panel with Natasha Lyonne, who starred in it. Afterward, we were in an elevator together, and I was like, “I just have to say that I’m such a big fan of But I’m a Cheerleader.” She just said, “Yeah, that movie really has legs.” I told her that I’d just produced and acted in a different queer cheerleading feature. She was psyched about it.
You two co-run a production company together called Night Is Y, which is based in Toronto. What made you want to set up here?
Jacobs: For me, being Mohawk, there’s something about being in Haudenosaunee territory that just feels right. It’s where I draw inspiration from in terms of storytelling. There’s a magic in Toronto that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere, especially during these heatwaves and this part of the summer.
Waterson: I love Toronto. There’s such an incredible art scene. Unfortunately, we lose a lot of talent to other countries, so I really want to bring it back home. And it’s like, why aren’t we setting up shop here? We have a great tax system, a great grant system. Let’s tell our stories and be aggressive in making room for new, younger voices.
Both of you have been to TIFF before. What’s it like being back this year?
Waterson: TIFF always has a special energy. With the Hollywood strikes, I feel like there’s this new spotlight on indie films. We’ll see what happens, but I think we’re seeing stories that maybe wouldn’t have gotten as much emphasis in past years.
Jacobs: I’ve been to TIFF a couple of times now, with many different projects, but this is my first time being here as a producer, which feels special. It’s the same for D. W., who’s been part of the TIFF Filmmaker’s Lab but hasn’t had a project in the festival until now. So it’s very cool to be able to celebrate this together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.