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Interview: Director D.W. Waterson & Star Devery Jacobs Show Off Their Passion For Cheerleading In The Very Queer Sports Drama ‘Backspot’ 

IN Magazine talked with Waterson and Jacobs leading up to the world premiere of their new film brought to life by their production company, Night is Y…  

Actor Devery Jacobs has made waves on television as one of the stars of Reservation Dogs. Now she’s hitting the festival circuit with her bold transition to film with a leading role in D.W. Waterson’s Backspot. Transporting audiences to the competitive world of professional cheerleading, the film is aided by a stellar supporting cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood as a tough queer cheerleading coach that becomes a mentor to Jacobs’ character, Riley. The drama unfolds as Riley’s anxiety gets the better of her when she joins the elite squad known as the Thunderhawks, combined with sharing the spotlight with her girlfriend. 

A commentary on mental health and what it means to be an openly queer young woman in sports, Backspot doesn’t hold back on what it takes to be a winner. Ahead of the movie’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was honoured to screen the film and discuss its influence with the director D.W. Waterson and star Devery Jacobs. 

D.W., what a great feature film directorial debut for you! What drew you to Backspot?
Waterson: I think there’s this kind of synergy between queer people in cheerleading for some reason, and so I feel like that naturally was there for me. I came from kind of a sports-dominated household growing up and so I was always interested in how much sports influenced the relationships in my house and just in general. I also think queer people in sports is not a conversation that is had, and if it is, it’s usually if they should be allowed or not, and comments on bodies. All those things were kind of brewing in one pot, which ultimately led me to going for the grit in cheerleading.

Did either of you have any experience with professional cheerleading prior to production starting?
Jacobs: I didn’t have any experience with professional cheerleading or cheer in general, but I was a competitive gymnast growing up, there’s a lot of overlap. I know a lot of my peers in gym ended up becoming cheerleaders and we competed in Daytona, Florida. We traveled around and I was asked to be on a team once upon a time, and it didn’t end up happening, but I was able to fulfill these cheer dreams of mine with Backspot. I’m actually a little bit on the shorter side for a backspot, but we were able to take some of that with movie magic. Usually backspots are much taller. It took quite a bit of training to be able to get ready for the film, but it was a world that both of us were really excited to dive into. [We] have spent the past five years learning more about and working closely with Cheer Fusion All Stars, the only black-owned cheer squad in all of Canada. They were a part of our proof of concept back in 2017. They were part of our team as The Thunderhawks and even their gym name was featured in the movie Cheer has been something that we’ve been actively involved in for the past couple of years.

Forgive me as I wasn’t as familiar with professional cheerleading going into this film. I now think of a backspot as the support of the team, especially with the flyers specifically. Do you think Riley has the support that she needs, especially when it comes to her anxiety?
Waterson: Yeah, I feel like what drew me to Riley being a backspot is that, you’re right, it is like the backbone of the team. Everybody’s always thinking about the girl going up in the air, but nobody’s really thinking about the person it’s landing on. Approaching the writing from a perspective of Riley’s: [She’s] a bit of her mom’s backspot. She’s that support for her mom. We see that relationship and I think Riley is also in search of that mentor or that queer elder that she can rely on like her backspot. Which is the journey we see her go through.

I love the Evan Rachel Wood coach character, Eileen. She is queer in the film and at a certain point she’s speaking to Riley and tells her, “I’m not your mother.” She can be a support system, but maybe in a different way than Riley’s seeking out at that time. Was that a specific choice that you made in the writing process for that character to be distant rather than nurturing right off the bat?
Waterson: I wanted to explore how queer people interact with each other from different generations in different times. I feel like every generation kind of has their own monumental traumatic things, unfortunately. Kind of based on some experiences that I’ve had with an older queer person, “Oh, my God, this is amazing, they could mentor me.” It was always very exciting. But there’s sometimes a lot of bitterness and a lot of resentment that maybe younger people have it better or easier, when truly it’s just different, unique challenges. I really wanted to explore that inner friction in the queer community of what different people in different age ranges are going through.

As much as the film is about queer people in sports, it is also about mental health, specifically anxiety and trichotillomania. The act of pulling hair out of your eyebrows and eyelashes, which Riley does in this film quite a bit. How important was it for both of you to accurately portray that type of anxiety disorder and the obstacles that Riley has to face in order to actually overcome that anxiety in key moments?
Waterson: Totally. I think sport is a pressure cooker. When you’re a young person, you’re kind of feeling all of these emotions for the first time. That anxiety and that pressure all take form in different shapes and in different ways. I think trichotillomania is something that I’ve experienced and I’m very close with. I read somewhere that it’s like 50% of young women have experienced it, whether it’s picking of skin or hang nails or chewing on certain things. It’s what our bodies do to protect ourselves from overcompensating for the anxiety and the stress that we’re under. I knew I really wanted to use macro lenses and really give the audience a perspective of going through it with Riley rather than just watching an actor perform. I think Devery does it beautifully by taking on those intimate and nuanced moments.

I completely agree! Devery, how hard was it to prepare for those intense scenes?
Jacobs: I don’t know that it was necessarily more challenging than other scenes in terms of preparation, but I think what I was more so concerned with was getting it right, to make sure that the feeling of self-soothing is conveyed. I don’t know that a lot of people fully understand the anxiety disorder of trichotillomania. Some people have put other things on top of it. Not understanding and thinking it might be self harm, which is just not the case. It’s actually a way of trying to release that anxiety and that energy. We approached some doctors in the field who studied trichotillomania and they said to us that [our portrayal] was a really great representation of it. For me, in terms of preparing for this role, it was more so about getting it right.

Both of you wear a lot of hats in this film, not only directing and starring, but you’re both producing alongside Elliott Page. Can you tell me a little bit about your production company, Night is Y, and your experience as producers now that you have a feature film under your belt?
Waterson: I feel like in indie films, we have to wear multiple hats because it’s what you have to do to kind of get things started. Devery and I started collaborating five years ago and just really hit it off in terms of the ideas we wanted to bring to the table and the stories we wanted to tell. Night is Y: “During the day” is predictable [because] you go to work, you can predict most things but it’s at nighttime where the magic happens.This is when the unique things happen, at night, and I think that that’s where we wanted to generate it and look for stories in that area.
Jacobs: We have come together as collaborators and we have a bunch more projects that we’re looking to create and many different mediums through the Night is Y umbrella. It’s something we’re both really excited to be able to move forward with, representing both of our stories and our perspectives as queer people in the city. In terms of working with [Elliot Page and Page Boy Productions], I had a general meeting with them and I had asked my team, “Hey, is Elliot going to be on this call?” They said no, it’s just going to be his producers. And it turned out Elliott was on the call and I’m such a fan. I don’t usually get starstruck by people, but at that moment, I was like very, very much starstruck by him. I essentially talked about Backspot. They were not even specifically meeting about it, but had pitched it purely from muscle memory. I guess that I did something right because they were interested in learning more about the project. We had sent the beautiful script written by Joanne Sarazen, who we’ve collaborated with for many years. They said they would love to be involved. All of their insights into story development have been really keen and everyone at Page Boy Productions is significantly more involved than we ever thought they would be. So often, you’ll see celebrities just come on and will become executive producers to help boost a project up, but the producers from Page Boy were literally on set with us every day. They were helping us through all of the day-to-day fires that happen on indie films. So just working with Elliot, who has been such a huge champion of ours, has honestly been so great. 

That’s awesome! How about working in Toronto? Does having the world premiere at TIFF mean a lot to the two of you to be able to be there, shoot in the city, and make it a very specifically Canadian production?
Waterson: Totally. This is kind of the home team coming back with a film. I was in the TIFF filmmakers lab last year and Dev was a Rising Star a couple of years ago. We have a bunch of other TIFF alumni in the film as well. I love this city. I love to shoot here. I’m so happy we get to start Night is Y here and develop more projects here. There’s just so much amazing talent that goes to other countries to pursue their dreams, but why not hunker down here? We have the talent. We have the star power, so let’s make some great content. I think also having Backspot premiere at TIFF is so fitting because it’s such a Toronto project. We both have been such fans and patrons of the festival for so many years.
Jacobs: This year marks 10 years since I was in a film that premiered here called Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which was my first film festival ever. So it only feels right that we’re bringing Backspot back to TIFF and get to celebrate with the city that we love so much. 

That’s amazing. What does the future look like for Backspot?
Waterson: Backspot will come out on Crave and be on CBC. Our hope with Backspot is to sell the film internationally at TIFF.

Fantastic, well thank you both so much for talking to me today. Good luck at TIFF!
Waterson and Jacobs: Thanks!

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