“I Heart Jenny,” a heart-wrenching and beautiful documentary by producer and director Blake Babbitt, had a special screening this December at the New York Film Academy’s recently opened New York City Theatre. The film follows Babbitt’s close friend Jenny Rie Vanderlinden as she struggled with and eventually succumbed to a rare form of ovarian cancer. More importantly, the documentary focuses on the powerful positive spirit Jenny embodied, inspiring her friends, family, and eventually total strangers with her optimism and zestful love of life.
In a piece written about Jenny, the Huffington Post wrote, “Jenny doesn’t seem terrified of this thing that is so far beyond us, this thing that none of us can now see… Instead, she’s investing her unconquerable energy in living the spectacular life she’s always lived—skiing, canyoneering, rafting, traveling and raising four amazing children—with a bit more urgency.”
“I Heart Jenny” started documenting Jenny’s journey over a year after her diagnosis, and followed her right up until her untimely end, a death she refused to allow to shadow her life. Babbitt was inspired to make the documentary after seeing the “I Heart Jenny” stickers their mutual friends began posting frequently as badges of support.
The initial idea of the documentary came to Babbitt during a pitch session that was part of his curriculum while attending the New York Film Academy’s Evening Producing workshop. From there, he started a years long journey, utilizing the skills, resources, and colleagues he met while at NYFA. “I had never made a film before,” said Babbitt, “but I was able to use the resources at NYFA to get my feet underneath me. At NYFA I was surrounded by people who really knew what they were doing. I felt supported by NYFA the entire way.”
Shooting the film took two years, and was in post-production for another three—a long, laborious process that is not uncommon for documentaries, especially works of passion and as personal as “I Heart Jenny.” During this time, Babbitt not only applied the skills he learned at NYFA, but also used the connections made there to help his film see the light of day. In addition to being a distinguished alumnus, Babbitt is also currently the school’s Associate Director of Recruitment. With this notable position, he is able to guide incoming students as they look to grow as artists and filmmakers in their own right.
As a result of the relationships formed at the New York Film Academy, Babbitt was able to recruit a strong, talented crew for “I Heart Jenny”—many alumni and staff from the school—including:
Kathleen Harris – DP/Producer
Brad Gallant – Lead Editor/Producer
Zena Wood – Associate Producer
Mike Diaz – Editor/Story Producer
Chris Hayes – Editor
Mike Walls – Camera Operator
Shani Patel – Sound recordist/2nd Camera Operator
Lexi Phillips – Colorist
It was only fitting then that “I Heart Jenny” had its initial preview at the New York Film Academy. Babbitt continued, “It was an honor to be able to host my first screening in our stunning new screening room.”
Andrea Swift, New York Film Academy’s Chair of Documentary Filmmaking, was in attendance, and was very impressed with Babbitt’s debut film. “It takes extraordinary passion, commitment, and talent to make a film like this.” She added, “This film can do real good in the world.”
The specific cancer that took Jenny’s life was related to the BRCA gene, a sequence of DNA that has become more and more noted in recent years for its ominous relationship to many types of cancer. While making “I Heart Jenny,” Babbitt linked up with Jonathan and Mindy Gray, founders of the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center at Penn Medicine. The Basser Center is the first of its kind to focus specifically on BRCA-related cancers, and Babbitt has tied his film to their worthy cause, helping to raise donations for further research (click here if you’d like to support the Basser Center as well.)
While it’s been a long, winding road for Babbitt and “I Heart Jenny,” their journey is far from over. Babbitt’s goal is to get the documentary into the Telluride Film Festival, based in Colorado where Babbitt is from and where he first met Jenny. According to Babbitt, “If it gets in, she wants me to bring a cardboard cutout of her—LOL!”
In addition to submitting the film to as many festivals as possible, Babbitt is also hoping to get distribution, hoping the more people who see the film, the more they will take home its poignant message and look to support the fight against BRCA-related cancers. Babbitt continued, “We’ve had so many supporters along the way, and anytime I felt dejected or lost in the process, I would just think about our supporters and Jenny. I knew I couldn’t let her or them down.”
The New York Film Academy is proud of Blake Babbitt and “I Heart Jenny,” and wishes him the best of luck as he continues the legacy of Jenny Rie Vanderlinden and her powerful story.