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Keep Your Eyes Open

Journalists-turned-first-time-directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus talk about the impetus, production, and intended takeaway of "Sexy Baby." There were several horror flicks at TFF 2012, but this provocative documentary might just be scarier than all of them combined.

Tribeca: Tell us about Sexy Baby. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Jill Bauer: Whenever we get asked this question, we chuckle, because its synopsis really isn't a simple one-liner. But here’s my attempt at an elevator pitch (but let’s pretend we’re in the Empire State Building elevator): Sexy Baby is a complex weave of characters and themes that explores the hot-button issues of sex, sexiness, self-image and today's newfangled click-of-the-mouse pornography.

We think it's the first film to put faces to a seismic cultural shift. Our characters—Nakita, 32, Winnifred, 12, and Laura, 22—show us how social media, digital photography/videography and easy-access porn have altered the way young women portray themselves and how both women and men perceive and have sex.

One of the rewards (and drawbacks) of making an agenda-free film (which is what Sexy Baby is) is that the takeaway message is nuanced. It's oftentimes easier to present issues in a black-and-white format: “This is good for you” or “This is bad for you, and here are 20 experts who will tell you why it's good or bad.” We were interested in showing people what truly goes on in a teenager's life nowadays (and in the lives of two other women whose stories thematically dovetail with Winnifred's) so that viewers can bring their own ideas, values and feelings to the table. Viva la difference, and let's talk about it—finally, and in an honest way!

Watch the trailer:

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? I have a feeling this is a good story…  


Ronna Gradus: We met working at the Miami Herald: Jill was a reporter, I was a photographer. One night I had an assignment that involved photographing in mainstream clubs on “college night out.” Most of the clubs had stripper poles in them and girls were gyrating on them. I was taken aback, not because the behavior was shocking (I saw my fair share of wild behavior in my clubbing days), but because they were trying so hard to get attention and to be sexy—all the while looking like they weren’t having any fun at all.

I called Jill the next day to see if she could help me articulate what it was that I witnessed that I found so disconcerting. She looked through my photos, and what struck her was the fact that as half-naked as the girls were, the guys standing around seemed un-phased, like: “Been there, done that, see it every day.”

The two of us were fascinated by the topic, and we decided there was some type of story in it. Initially we pitched it to the newspaper as a feature story, but after doing a bit of research and pavement pounding, we realized there was a film in it. And then Jill pushed us to actually do it! We soon moved to New York, since we didn’t think Miami was a good base for tracking mainstream cultural trends.

Tribeca: How did connect with your subjects? They come from such diverse backgrounds. Did they immediately warm to the idea of opening their lives to a documentary?

Jill Bauer: Ultimately, our film is about three very different women, and their families and friends play supporting roles. Though we address a few central themes in Sexy Baby, we always knew we wanted our characters to narrate the film. And as journalists, we knew the only way to connect with characters would be to spend a lot of time with them, to get to know them and to allow them to get to know us. So we basically cultivated several long-term relationships in the process of making Sexy Baby.  

Winnifred, Nakita and Laura are the film’s central characters, but the supporting players were equally as important. So we spent a lot of time with Winnifred's parents and her siblings, Nakita's husband Dave, Laura's mom Terry, and also Laura's surgeon, Dr. Stern. I think we can safely say that we now have lifelong friendships with each of our main and supporting characters. At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships and connection, and we hope viewers connect with our subjects so deeply that they feel like they know everyone in the film by the time the credits roll. 

Did our subjects immediately warm to the idea of having their lives documented on camera? The short answer is no. But I love getting to know people, and journalism is the one career where you get paid (albeit, oftentimes not very well) to indulge yourself in human bonding. When Ronna and I started teaming up while at the Miami Herald, we soon discovered that we both had a passion for getting to know people: Ronna does her connecting through the lens and I do it with words (and by asking a lot of questions). We soon realized while working on stories together that people opened up to us in a big way. So the long answer is, it was our responsibility to warm our characters to the idea of opening up to us.

The one huge difference between print journalism and documentary film is that the camera is a constant witness, so as directors it was really important to us that we oversee the editing process in order to portray each of our characters in a fair, balanced and compassionate way. Our greatest reward would be that we accomplished that. 

Tribeca: So I have been talking about this movie obsessively ever since I saw it a few months ago. I had vaguely heard the term “labiaplasty,” but I was not at all in the know about what really happens. (But now I am!) How pervasive do you think this procedure is? I so wanted the young woman in the film to save for college instead…

Ronna Gradus: It has been impossible for us to find any satisfactory statistics. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery does not chart the amount of labiaplasties done in a year—they include those numbers under the umbrella of “vaginal cosmetic surgery,” which includes many other procedures. The UK, however, reported in the British Journal of Obstetric and Gynecology that there was an increase of 70% between 2008 and 2009. Dr. Stern, the surgeon in Sexy Baby, says that in his personal experience, there is an increasing demand for these surgeries—and by younger and younger women who have an increasing awareness of  “what they should look like.” (He says the prevalence of online porn is contributing to this.) Also, Jill and I have heard from several gynecologists (one in Australia, even) that their patients are inquiring about labiaplasty more and more every year.

Tribeca: Winnie seems to have a solid head on her shoulders, but it’s really terrifying to see what she and her peers deal with on a daily basis. What do you want parents—and teens—to take away from your film?

Jill Bauer: We are extremely grateful to Winnifred for letting us tag along with her and for putting up with us constantly peering over her shoulder with our camera—and ultimately, for trusting us. She has gifted us all with a first-hand account of what kids are now exposed to everyday. She let us follow her around New York City and witness her day-to-day life—sometimes exciting and sometimes mundane. Winnifred is seldom without her iPhone or a computer nearby, so there was often some kind of virtual drama unfolding in her teenage life, to which we were privy.

And though she has a solid head on her shoulders, she is far from impervious—in fact, we think that no kid is impervious to the onslaught of technology and rapid-fire sexual images nowadays. As Winnifred’s parents say in the film, “It's everywhere.” And Winnifred, in all her wisdom, can't escape the 24/7, hyper-connected world she's been born into. “We are the pioneers,” she says early on in the film.

And yes, this bombardment is oftentimes terrifying, and that's exactly why we made Sexy Baby and why Winnifred takes up so much screen time. In Act I of the film, Winnifred is seen acting in a teen play, and at the end of one of her scenes she says, “Keep your eyes open.” That is our film's takeaway message to parents, teachers, teens and basically everyone living in today's easy-access culture. The genie is out of the bottle, so the only solution is to be aware, to have genuine conversations with your kids and with one another.

Tribeca: This is the first movie for both of you. Did you always know you wanted to direct? As first-time filmmakers, what’s the biggest lesson you took from the experience? Any advice for those following in your footsteps?

Ronna Gradus: This is our first film and I don’t think either of us ever intended to become filmmakers. The topic of what eventually became Sexy Baby is what led us into this medium. And because it was the two of us on the ground doing it, we became the directors by default.

As journalists, we found ourselves pretty comfortable being a filmmaking duo, and our approach to making a documentary was the same as our approach to a long-term newspaper feature story would have been. We learned a new lesson every week! The biggest one was probably that you can’t wait for someone to become interested in your project before you have something to show them. Making a trailer was key—we didn’t get our first penny of support until we had one to show.

Also, once you get one ounce of encouragement from a notable person, advertise that fact like crazy: “Hi, Person A. Person B said she thinks we’re doing something really important!” And then just keep building on that.

The other crucial thing was to find an editor who understood what we were trying to accomplish—your editor becomes the most instrumental person in bringing your idea to life.

Another very practical tip: if you live in NYC and want to make documentary films, attend Stranger Than Fiction at IFC Center every Tuesday night. The top talents in the field attend the series, and it’s a great way to access them in a casual environment: everyone goes to a bar after each week’s film. It was there that we literally met the majority of the people that became our team: editor (Brittany Huckabee), creative consultant (David Zieff), composer (Paul Brill) and sound mixer (Margaret Crimmins). Additionally, Thom Powers—who runs the series—became a great mentor, along with filmmaker Doug Block, whom we met there, too.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

Jill and Ronna: Thelma & Louise, but with a camera and boom rather than a gun and cigarettes?

Tribeca: What makes Sexy Baby a must-see?

Jill Bauer: Our movie's tagline is “Sexiness and the Cyberage,” and we made Sexy Baby for one reason only—to create an honest dialogue. We feel that Sexy Baby is a must-see documentary because there is a huge need and demand to have these conversations already! There is so much talking around these topics but very little straightforward dialoguing. We believe we are, for the first time ever, puncturing the hot air balloon and showing you, the viewer, what truly exists in a teen's life. We present you with real parents navigating this new world and afford you an opportunity to judge them—for better or for worse—and decide for yourselves how you want to talk to your own kids.

Jill Bauer

Ronna Gradus

Jill Bauer is a Hearst and SPJ award-winning journalist who has written for and edited Esquire, The New York Times, and more. She launched Smart Kid, a national parenting magazine. Ronna Gradus graduated from NYU and was a staff photographer at The Miami Herald, covering several assignments in Cuba and Hurricane Katrina. Sexy Baby is their first film.


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