Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
Interview with Starlet director and co-writer Sean Baker
Starlet tells the story of an unlikely relationship that develops between two women - a young aspiring actress and a reclusive widow - living in the San Fernando Valley. It opens Friday, December 7, at the Ken Cinema. On Saturday, December 8, Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch will host Q&A sessions after both the afternoon and early evening show, as well as introducing the early evening show. (Check landmarktheatres.com for confirmation.) The film is a triumph of small-scale storytelling: intimate without being sentimental, sharply written and observed, and blessed with two outstanding lead performances from actresses Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson.
Matthew Lickona: So much in this film depends on the excellent chemistry between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson. Tell me about finding and casting them.
Sean Baker: Dree Hemingway's other career is as a supermodel. I knew of her, but only as a model. I had no idea she was even pursuing acting. But her agent was a fan of my previous film, Prince of Broadway, and he thought the script would be perfect for her. She was being very selective about what would be her debut lead role. She read it and really connected with it, and we did a video call on Skype. Over the course of one hour, I realized that we were on the same page. By the end of the conversation, I offered her the role; I didn't even need to have her read for the part. I knew that she would deliver.
ML: What did she say that made you so certain?
SB: There were many things. She understood the type of film I was trying to make - I wanted the audience to connect with the characters, but without providing a ton of backstory. But we still had to have a backstory in our heads, so that we knew where the character of Jane was coming from. When we spoke, Dree was already exploring Jane's backstory. She told me she knew girls like Jane. We described her: where she came from, how big her family was. We thought about what she might have gone through - possibly having to grow up faster than other girls because of a broken family unit, taking on the parental role. It told me that she was taking this seriously. Also, she told me that her favorite film from the year before was Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. That said a lot, even though I don't think Starlet is anything like Somewhere. It said that she appreciated smaller films, character studies.
ML: And Besedka Johnson?
SB: I wanted to cast a starlet from yesteryear - an older actress who had not acted in a while. I wanted this to be her return. We offered the role to several older actresses, and came very close with one of them, but it fell through at the last minute, a little more than a month out from shooting. We were all very distraught, and we decided to take a break to figure out what we were going to do.
ML: Why did it fall through?
SB: Because of budget. We pulled this film in for a quarter of a million dollars, and that was after going over budget. And we tried to put every dollar of it on the screen. The actors were working for $100 a day. Unfortunately, that didn't work for some people's budgets. But it meant that we found Besedka.
SB: Our executive producer went to the gym at the YMCA and spotted her working out there. She texted me and said, "I think we've found our Sadie." Besedka came in and read for us, and I was so impressed that I offered her the role. She had always wanted to act, but had never had the opportunity.
ML: What did your executive producer see in her at the gym?
SB: If you see an 85-year-old at the gym, you know she's keeping herself fit and together, which is important in guerrilla filmmaking environments. Second, Starlet was influenced very much by Harold and Maude, and Besedka is truly the real-life Maude. She's full of positivity and energy. Of course, I wanted the opposite of Maude for the character of Sadie; I wanted this reclusive, nasty woman. But I think the energy that Besedka had is what drew the producer to her, and then we worked with her to act in a way that was 180 degrees from who she really was.
ML: I don't imagine that a director can manufacture chemistry between actors, but what did you do to sort of make a happy home where chemistry could happen?
SB: I try to create a very casual working place, where everybody - down to production assistants - can throw out ideas and not feel intimidated. When it becomes a collaborative environment, it becomes a small family, and everybody becomes invested. I think the chemistry comes from that. When we shot the bingo hall scene, we used telephoto lenses to remove ourselves from the characters. We wanted to be observing from a distance, but that meant I couldn't be close to them. It was Besedka's first time out, but Dree had studied at the Royal Academy of the Arts, and she was able to help guide the scene. Dree and Besedka were able, I think, to really become friends over the course of shooting - the way their characters became friends.
ML: What else came out of that collaborative atmosphere?
SB: One of my favorite lines in the film was a bit of imrpov from Dree. When they were discussing Sadie's love for Paris, we wanted Jane to comment on it. We didn't want her to come across as an idiot, but we wanted her, at the same time, to be straining to get the words out. Dree came up with this wonderful line: "Well, I like the Eiffel Tower in Vegas." It gave personality to her character.
ML: Where did the story come from?
SB: The finding of the money - that actually happened to my father's friend. He found $20,000 in a hot water bottle he bought at a yard sale. That struck me as a great catalyst for bringing two characters together, and I wrote a short script called Bric a Brac that was inspired by that incident and influenced by Harold and Maude. Years later, I was working on an MTV show that was stunt casting a lot of adult film performers. I got to know a lot of them on set, and from what I could tell, their personal lives were as mundane as mine. I found that interesting, and I thought of making a cinema verite type character study, covering a day in the life of one of these young starlets. It was my co-writer, Chris Bergoch, who suggested we combine the two. I loved the idea, because it's interesting to explore stories that we can all put ourselves into even if we can't identify with the characters 100 percent.
ML: It made for a nice counterpoint: everything about Jane's life seems transient and impersonal, except for this one personal relationship she starts developing with Sadie.
SB: I found that the personal relationships in [the adult film] industry can be quite close - there is that camaraderie, there are those strong bonds - but they're short lived, because the careers are so short. You often have girls who have very few true friends. And on top of that, they're discouraged from having boyfriends; the bosses don't normally want a pesky boyfriend around. I'm friends with many of them, and if you read their Twitter feeds, every once in a while, you see a tweet going out that says, "Maybe I should get a boyfriend." I've seen that from so many of them. They're thinking it, but they're not in a position where they can have that in their lives. There's definitely an isolation, and we tried to touch on that with the line about how Jane's dog is the only significant male in her life.
ML: Well, as long as we're mentioning the adult film industry part of the story... the film has a very naturalistic feel. But then you have the scene where they're filming the porn scene. Filmed sex acts can have a way of shattering that naturalistic atmosphere; they can turn your film into an action movie. How did you deal with that?
SB: We wanted to avoid having it suddenly become a different movie. So during research, I visited porn sets with my co-writer and my producer. We wanted to capture the feel of how we saw it - little glimpses over the shoulders of people, blurry half-images. We wanted the audience to feel that it was all being captured on the fly. But if anything, that scene was the most calculated and difficult to pull off of anything. We had a body double for Dree, so we shot all the "real stuff" in the morning, and then Dree had to come in during the afternoon. We had to show her what we shot in the morning, and what positions she would have to recreate. We had an extra continuity person on board that day, because we basically had to cover the morning's shoot frame by frame and be editing it in our heads as we were shooting. It was very stressful for everybody involved, and Dree was nervous, obviously, but she trusted me. And I gave her final cut on the scene, which is very rare. She came into the editing room with me. This was her debut; I didn't want to embarrass her. I remember walking away at the end of the shoot and saying that it was probably my most successful day in terms of capturing what I wanted to capture. It was a triumph, but at the same time, I was shaking from the adrenaline and the stress.
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