With the onslaught of Oscar contenders that debuted last November, there’s a good chance that a little-seen indie gem, “Starlet,” managed to fall off your radar during its short, theatrical run. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 SXSW film festival, “Starlet” explores the unlikely friendship between a cheerful, aspiring actress (played by the winsome Dree Hemingway) and a cantankerous, elderly widow (the late Besedka Johnson).
Buoyed by magnetic, understated performances from Hemingway and Johnson, director Sean Baker’s fourth feature is a light and engaging character study that packs an unexpected emotional punch – guaranteed to linger in your mind far longer than any superhero blockbuster or bromance comedy you’ll see this summer.
The East Valley Tribune had the immense pleasure of speaking with Baker ahead of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release on Tuesday, May 7. Bear in mind, a few minor spoilers lie ahead (so if you haven’t seen “Starlet” yet, what are you waiting for?).
Q: To begin with, many critics likened this film to a contemporary “Harold and Maude.” Aside from that, were there any other films that you watched while writing “Starlet” that influenced the story in any way?
A: Not other films, no. I would say the actual story – the plot of the younger girl finding the money at the yard sale – was based on a true event that happened to my father’s friend, having found money at a yard sale and really contemplating whether to return it or not. That actually was something I saw as a nice way of bringing the characters together, and at the time, “Harold and Maude” was definitely – and still is – one of my favorites.
I just thought I could explore a relationship between two people from different generations through the use of that story of my father’s friend. You know, I didn’t set out to make a homage to “Harold and Maude” but I think it’s obvious to people that the influence is there and that’s why I definitely mention it.
Q: In reading about your research process, you mentioned that in many of the porn stars’ homes you visited, their bedrooms would be decorated like children’s rooms. Could you tell me a little more about your research process and – aside from the rooms – what else you might have learned that really struck you?
A: Chris Bergoch, whom I co-wrote “Starlet” with, had access to that world to a certain degree. We worked together on the show “Warren the Ape,” which is where we initially got the idea for doing this, and because it was a MTV show and the demographic was young men 16-25 years old, we had cameos with adult film stars and we would have to contact them, whether it was through their managers or even through social media tracking them down.
We actually spent a lot of time in the Valley. I always do that with all my films, I take a nice, unhurried amount of time to actually get into the world – whatever kind of world I’m exploring – and take time to get to know the people and make sure they’re represented correctly on film. In this case, we were spending time with several young people – young women and young men – who either acted in the industry or directed in the industry.
We actually got to go to these model houses where these young women come and they usually rent it out for a certain period of time. They’re young so they don’t really have the means to rent apartments properly in Los Angeles because they don’t have the money or the credit to get leases so basically, they rely on these model houses that the industry has set up.
When we were visiting them, I found that they were very similar, in a way: they were decorated in a certain way and it was meant to make them feel at home and comfortable, even though it was very much decorated for a child, which always struck me as very odd. If anything, to answer your question, what struck me?
You know, I think what struck me is that everybody at the interviews had distinct reasons for being in the industry. It was never one; they were never that cliché or a typical answer. We felt like that’s why we didn’t want to completely flesh out Jane’s or Melissa’s back story. We felt like that would be making blanket statements about porn stars and we didn’t think that was fair.
With porn stars, a lot of people just assume that they were abused or arrested or came from a single-parent family. That was true in some but not all, and I thought that was very important that we didn’t make those blanket statements about these young women.
Q: I understand that you found Dree after her agent contacted you and the two of you spoke over Skype. Was there anything in particular that she said or did during your conversation that really drew you to her and made you certain that she could carry this film?
A: It was really about noticing that her sensibility was on the same page as mine. She basically told me that her favorite film of the year was Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and that says a lot about somebody. You can kind of tell from that short answer what someone’s tastes are and what they’re looking for in terms of what they want to do.
So that struck me as something, and also her total enthusiasm and her willingness to want to work with me. It wouldn’t just be a showing up on set, filming her scenes and leaving; it was her willingness to take the time in production to flesh out the Jane character and really find her, work with me in fleshing out the scenes and improvising. It was really just that total willingness to want to collaborate that really won me over.
Q: How long did the shoot last and what were some of the challenges you faced during that time?
A: Twenty-five days, and it wasn’t one of those tear your hair out, working 20 hours a day sort of things. We took our time because No. 1, it was Besedka’s first time ever acting and I just wanted to make sure she was comfortable and we had time to work together.
I have to say that altogether, of course there are, like on every film – no matter how small or how big – you’re always going to say, “Oh that was so tough.” But when it comes down to it, it’s not brain surgery. Of course we had rough days, but everybody has rough days at work. I think that it was stressful sometimes, especially with our subject matter, but I wanted to have the trust and confidence of my actors and make sure we were doing the right thing, especially with the hardcore sequence. And that was of course stressful for me as a director, but besides that, with the limited amount of money that we had, I think we actually had quite an easy shoot, looking back on it.
There’s always going to be a daily disaster – or two or three or four or five – but in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too bad, they never shut us down. I think if anything, they resulted in compromises and those compromises, because I had such a dynamic and hardworking crew, those compromises often would work out better than what was originally planned.
I have to say it was a real family vibe; it was a small crew, it was a small cast, everybody knew each other, everybody liked each other. And of course there was Boonee the dog, who was basically just everybody’s toy; they just passed him around all day. He also, I think, brought a fun vibe to the set and then he was just so tired from playing that when we actually were rolling, he’d just fall asleep in everybody’s arms. It seems like he was asleep the whole thing but actually, when we weren’t shooting, he was running around and entertaining everybody.
Q: What sort of look did you wish to achieve with the film’s cinematography, and do you have a shot or sequence you’re most fond of?
A: Well Radium Cheung and I really took time to do something that was different from my last two films, where we didn’t want to go strictly handheld, docu-style. We do employ that a lot but we wanted to elevate it. In terms of the cinematography or the actual look, we definitely went about trying to capture the light of the Valley and having it actually hit the lens and flare the lens.
A lot of those shots to me are really quite beautiful, especially the end sequence, which for me, is visually my favorite sequence. I mean you have – a little bit of a spoiler here – Dree in the graveyard, in the cemetery with her hair being blown in the wind and at the same time, you’re getting the flares from the setting sun. You have a nice and I think very confident handheld sequence, so I think all those elements together, it was quite a beautiful sequence for me in terms of the look.
Q: I personally went into this film cold turkey with no prior knowledge of what to expect, and found it quite refreshing that you don’t come out and say what Jane’s profession is until midway through. Was there a particular reason you decided to do this and how do you think it changes the audience’s perception of the character?
A: Well that’s exactly why we did it. I wanted to see how the audience’s perception would change; it was almost an experiment. We were dealing with the themes of perceptions and preconceived notions in the film. I was working with that theme already, so it’s not only about how Jane was judging Sadie and Sadie was judging Jane and the feelings of their characters about one another, but I wanted to bring that to the next level and have the audience sort of participate in that and the realizations of characters.
Also, just working in that world definitely carries a social taboo, and that is something that is part of that world and there’s no way around it; it’s just a social stigma that we have about women who are sex workers in any way. Knowing that’s true and that everybody has a different opinion on the subject, I wanted to explore that. If I presented to the audience in the first 30 seconds what exactly she did, I think that the audience would have formed their opinion about her and that would’ve been the end of it.
I wanted to actually play with the audience, in a way, and see what they would think of her once we got to know about other aspects of her life. I think we have to get to know her as a person as much as we can in an hour-long narrative form, and once we got to know her and we reveal other aspects of her life, then I think it’s up to the audience to question, “Oh, what am I thinking here? Has my opinion about her changed and if so, why?”
Q: And to wrap things up, what are some of your favorite films that you’ve seen recently?
A: My favorite film of last year was “Rust and Bone” by far. It was the one film that I thought was just a really complete, totally accomplished vision and I just… it’s just one of those films where as a filmmaker, you just throw your arms up at the end and be like, “Why am I even continuing to work in this industry?” All of the performances were outstanding and the narrative was quite special. As much as I like these friendships as you can see with “Starlet,” I also like unlikely love stories; I think those are even more powerful to me. So that was one of my favorites.
And then No. 2, which everybody is always like, “Really?” I really enjoyed “Magic Mike” a lot. I just laughed straight through it. I thought the performances were so genuine and there was so much heart in them. I much rather watch “Magic Mike” again than many of the major Oscar contenders because I just found it to truly have a lot of character and a lot of human warmth about it.
Q: Well that’s pretty much all I have but is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Just that we’re very excited about the home entertainment release; we know that most people will see the film this way. Music Box is not only putting the film out on VOD, but also (this month), we’ll be having our DVD and Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray will have a lot of wonderful extras that will actually show what it was like on the set because I’m just realizing now – while we’re putting all these extras together – how we documented the film. Everybody was shooting behind-the-scenes footage on their phones or their flip cameras. There’s just a lot of great material that’s as fun as the actual movie. I’m just excited for the film to get out there.
“Starlet” is available on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, May 7. It has not been rated by the MPAA; it includes an explicit sex scene.