It’s weird I go after these challenges
Interview with Sean Baker, director and writer of Starlet
by Roberto Rippa
from Rapporto Confidenziale numero36
Sean Baker is a New York native and a graduate of NYU film school. He directed the award-winning and Spirit Award nominated films Take Out and Prince of Broadway. The latter was named one of the best films of 2010 by the Los Angeles Times. It won Grand Jury Prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Woodstock Film Festival, and Special Jury Prize at Locarno International Film Festival. Lee Daniels (Precious) presented the film. Baker’s second career lies in mainstream comedy television.
He co-created the FOX and IFC series Greg the Bunny, and most recently directed, wrote and executive produced the MTV series Warren the Ape.
Roberto Rippa: First of all, I’m very curious about what inspired you in writing such a peculiar story.
Sean Baker: I co-wrote it with Chris Bergoch, who I worked with on a comedy television show that never made it outside of the States. It was a comedy show on MTV, so you can imagine it was targeted towards the male demographic 16 to 20 years old…
RR: Greg the Bunny!
SB: Greg the Bunny, yes! So we were doing stunt casting and we were having cameos by adult film stars. We thought it would bring interest to the project if we did little cameos with these women and sometimes with the guys. So we got to meet them while we were shooting, became acquainted with them. I was always fascinated on a personal level what their lives would be like, what their lives were between shooting, between work, their everyday lives: is it normal as any other else’s? Is it mundane? Are they hanging out with friends? Are they lonely? Are they bored? That sort of thing.
I was actually thinking about making a small cinéma vérité film that just basically followed one of this girls through one day. The most dramatic thing that would happen to her during that day was her dog getting lost and then her finding it. And that’s the film. A very small film. Probably along the lines, in therms of character ark, it may have looked like a Dardenne brothers’ movie.
But then it’s hard to raise the money in the States, there’s no Government support for films and you have to find investors, and so it’ s very hard to make that sort of movies without a plot, a very strong narrative. And also you need to go after stars, to a certain extent, or names that are important. So my friend Chris Bergoch, who i co-wrote the film with, said: «Let’s take this up a level and give it a narrative. Do you have any other narrative that you’re thinking of, something a little more popular?». And I mentioned that I had this old idea based on an event that happened to my family in which somebody found money at a yard sale and faced the moral dilemma on whether to return it or not. I thought it would be the perfect catalyst to bring two people together and then I thought one of this two characters would be this adult film star (In “Starlet”, the main character buys a thermos at a yard sale to find out later that hidden inside there are 10’000$. Editor’s note).
I was very happy with this project that moved forward. We wrote it over the course of winter 2010 going into 2011. We shot one year ago, in the summer of 2011, one year ago today. Oh yeah, we started production on the 10th and we shot for 25 days in the very, very, hot San Fernando Valley with a dog that was overheating and a 85 years old woman, Besedka Johnson, who we had to be very careful of because of the heat. But we were very happy. It was a tough shoot being that there was little money, but we’re very happy with the results, and we had fun making the film.
RR: Going back to the depiction of the porn industry – in the film it’s a small-time industry – that’s a thing I really appreciated because you showed it in a very realistic way. There are no stars, nothing exceptional, just people working. I also liked the difference between the two characters: Jane, Dree Hemingway’s character, very quiet and sunny, and her colleague Melissa, who appears to be much more problematic. About the choice of showing the porn performers, what made you decide to make everything so normal, as people wouldn’t expect it to be.
SB: Well, you know, as you said it’s a very small, close group of people and once you break into that world and understand it, it’s a small community, they support one another, they hang out with one another. Because unfortunately there is a taboo in society, they are sort of outcasts to a certain extent, so they need each other and what I found – somebody may say I’m wrong about this – from the research I’ve done, they basically socialize with one another. But to the point of why I decided to go this way, when you explore any group of people, it’s important to go underneath the surface layer and everybody is very much alike, if you think about it. I mean, no matter what culture you’re in, you all have the same dreams, hopes, aspirations, fears, to a certain extent. So I thought: «This is the way that I want to see a movie depict this culture, this industry». Because it really hasn’t been done so much before. You know, Boogie Nights was a period piece, a different time. Actually, back in 1996, I wanted to make a film about this industry and Boogie Nights came out and so I thought: «I can’t touch this industry anymore!». I thought I could never touch this argument, not even attempt to, because Paul Thomas Anderson has done such an epic look at that industry. So I didn’t even think it was necessary. But then, years later, I saw what the differences were as for the state of the industry between 2012 and the early 80s and I thought it would be worth revisiting. It’s really about capturing real life and there’s a very casual state when you go to the sets. That’s why we decided not to make it such a dramatic story, it’s not about that, it’s very much like any sort of filmmaking. It’s not always formal as you would think it is and that’s why you see the director taking a phone call in the middle of a shoot. That’s quite normal. So I just thought that this would have been something worth to be shown. Because you’re putting a human face on this characters so you have to make every scene and all the dialogues and the interactions human.
RR: That’s what I liked. In fact, usually there’s a lot of drama in the depiction of the porn industry and here you made something different and much more believable.
SB: That’s what we saw on a regular basis, when we would go there, on the sets. We were actually more interested in after the scene, the porn scene. They hang out, outside, they smoke weed ad talk. I saw that all the time. Everytime I went on a set, they would be underneath a tent to shelter themselves from the hot San Fernando Valley sun. It was really the social interactions and the jokes, the bonding, that I thought were most interesting. That scene in our film where the actors talk outside the set is actually much longer. We had them going on for a long time. But of course we had to cut stuff down for timing purposes. And I was very, very lucky, by the way, to find the two number one porn actors in the world, basically. Two very important ones and they came to us by chance. Manuel Ferrara and Asa Akira they both agreed to be in the movie after I just ran into them by chance and said: «It would really enhance the film, bring it to the next level and validated it if you came into this». I was blessed once again that their performances are so great. And Asa was so funny! She could be in the mainstream if she wanted to.
RR: I was surprised because I just discovered later that they were both porn performers. I thought they were actors…
In fact it’s been happening lately that an adult star succeeded in the transition to mainstream. There’s this actress, I don’t remember her name right now, who was in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and then in a few episodes of Entourage. I think she’s still doing porn.
SB: Sasha Grey, yeah. But Cronenberg did the same years ago with Rabid (Adult star Marilyn Chambers was the main actress. Ed.). And there have been others. You know, everybody, if given the right opportunity – well, not everybody but especially those folks that are already comfortable in front of a camera – could do a good job. We often associate them with bad acting but that’s because they are given horrible scripts. But those movies aren’t about the acting and they sort of know it. But when I spoke to Asa and Manuel, and said : «I wanna make this as realistic as possible, I want you to communicate the way you would in your everyday life», they got what we were going for. By the way, they are both cinephiles, we were talking about Korean cinema that day. So I just said: «Let’s play this real, I don’t want this to be stilted in any way». And they were just flowing. You can see Dree looking around like she had no idea.
RR: Speaking about Dree, you seem to like challenges: you chose two unexperienced actresses for the main roles.
SB: I know, I know… it’s weird I go after these challenges. In my last film Prince of Broadway, that played here in Locarno, we had a real kid and a first-time actor playing the leads. I don’t know… I just have faith in things coming together if you cast right. If you have faith they’ll be able to catch the persona you need. And also it’s about communication and making everybody comfortable. As soon as everybody is comfortable, their performances will come naturally. And Dree won me over during a video Skype call. I was in Los Angeles, she was in New York and I offered her the role by the end of the hour because we bonded. She told me her favorite film that year was Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere and I knew that sensitivity was correct for this film. Not only that, she told me about her training, she joked around, I could see she had a sense of humor – we were on the same page with that sense of humor – and the look. So I knew she would be absolutely fine. As for Besedka (first time actress Besedka Johnson. Ed.), I was a little more worried about. Besedka required Dree’s guidance a little bit. So I was very happy with Dree’s patience. Besedka is amazing but she’s not that character. She’s so not that character! It’s funny because Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby film from 1971. Ed.) was a big influence on this film and she’s like Maude. She’s a very positive woman, she loves life and she’s always very philosophical. She’s in no way Sadie. Sadie, the character she plays, is reclusive, that is not Besedka. So it took her a while to allow herself to go to those places and we would have to say all the time: «Besedka: nasty Sadie! Nasty Sadie!». Dree helped in many ways to get to that point.
RR: I was deeply surprised when I discovered she wasn’t a trained actress. I thought she was a very experienced actress from the old school.
SB: Oh yeah, we were blessed!
RR: How did you work with them both? When you hired them both, the script was already the one you used for filming?
SB: Yes, we had an approximately 70 pages scriptment, that how we call it, it’s kind of a treatment-script. And we had the dialogues flashed out for many scenes. Then there were other scenes in which we said: «The three kids would sit on the couch, smoke weed and talk about videogames and anything but the porn industry». We wanted them to talk just about life and we just let the camera roll for two hours and if they came up with an idea that I liked but that needed to be flashed out a little bit more, I would say: «Expand this». And then maybe I came out with another idea and we just rolled for the afternoon. PJ was great, he was guiding everybody because he was the most outspoken of the crew and he was very helpful in guiding the conversation.
RR: So you left room for improvisation.
SB: Yes. Especially in scenes like that. For example, it would be like this: Stella Maeve (Melissa in the movie. Ed.) started to improvise about the dog being a little Mexican dog. That was her thing. And then she goes: «You should call him Carlito!». And then I said: «Dree, Starlito!» and she would go: «Starlito!». It was really just about feeding each other back and forth.
RR: Starlet is also a very complicated movie, more than it seems at a first look. I read it also as a long journey from – let’s call it so – an emotional numbness to an awakening at the end, when she discovers the truth about Sadie. Is this exactly the story you wanted to tell?
SB: Yes. I didn’t feel like going too deep into Jane’s past because, to tell you the truth, every girl, every guy, in the industry has its own story and it’s not just cookie cutter. Sometimes people say: «She has no father, that’s why she’s in porn». That I found out not to be the truth. I found out that sometimes it has more to do with the mom. Or, sometimes, there’s an exhibitionist attitude towards life. Or sometimes they think about porn as a sexual revolution, to be changing the US sexual mores, in a way. So there are many reasons. I’m not in any way downplaying that there is a dark side. There is. But what’s important to know is that is not all about the dark side and everybody has their own reasons. So, as for the character of Jane, I felt we were responsible filmmakers and storytellers by saying that there’s probably something there. But we didn’t want to harp on it because that’s not the focus of the film. The focus of the film is the relationship Jane is having with this woman, this unlikely friendship. Maybe there are hints that she’s having issues with her mom and her mom has some drugs problems. But to go any further into that would have been – I feel – stereotyping.
RR: Since you are talking about it, what’s the state of the morals in the US?
SB: I feel that it’s so crazy that we can show such over the top graphic violence in films but we shy away from anything graphic when it comes to sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense to me and it’s a very sad state of affairs we’re in. I have a feeling, from what I’ve seen there’s less of that outside the US but US has a strange hung up on exploring sexuality. It may be a generational thing that’s changing but, for example, with my parents we didn’t have open conversations in any way. We had that initial “birds and bees” conversation – one time! – and that was all! My parents, or at least my mother, doesn’t not believe in pre-marital sex. Growing up I had just one point of view and suddenly I reached my 18 or 20 and realized…
RR: … maybe that’s not the only way to go…
SB: Yeah, maybe it’s not the only way to go! Actually it’s very close-minded and what it does is that it makes sex a dirty thing, it makes it negative. Often, when you see sex depicted in movies, it seems negative. This doesn’t apply to Starlet because the film is really about the porn industry, where sex is a business. But back to the point of the actual depiction of it in movies, it is very often depicted in a very negative light. There’s no loving sex or completely lustful, animalistic sex. That’s changing a little bit on television. I feel that the new wave of cable television is changing the way to depict sexuality, and that’s great. I haven’t seen it all but what Lena Dunham is doing in Girls (2012 TV series produced by cable network HBO. Ed.) is a funnier exploration of sex.
RR: Will it be difficult for your film, for the rating, to be distributed widely?
SB: Yes, it’ll be difficult. But we’re working at a budget level where I think it’s OK to take that risk. We’re with a distribution company in the US called Music Box Films, they released The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor, 2011, Niels Arden Oplev. Ed.) and some other successful foreign imports and we are one of the first American films they’re releasing. So yes, of course there’s a limited amount of risk but I feel that all independent, art-house, films are on the same level of competition in getting on the screen, getting on DVD. So I don’t really think it’ll affect that much: If anything it’ll bring more attention to the project. I don’t know about outside. There are some countries, obviously, where they won’t allow us to show the film the way it is but I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not going to say: «I don’t want it to be cut». And at the same time I’m OK if they have to black bar some scenes. If they can’t play it – for example I hear they can’t play it in Korea without the black bars – that’s fine with me, as long as the audience knows that the real one exists.
RR: The film has a very soft cinematography, with a prevalence of pink, purple, fades and shades. Was this your choice or Radium Cheung’s, your cinematographer?
SB: My last two films were very NY oriented and I would never thought I would make a LA film, because NY has such a texture to it, so the production values are there, in every corner. So I didn’t know whether we would be able to make LA look interesting on a low budget. But then, as soon as we started doing our researches and location scouting, we realized that the Valley has a very unique look to it and there’s an expanded landscape. There I thought: «We can capture this and make it look very unique and very beautiful at the same time». So Radium and I we decided first to shoot anamorphic, widescreen, and second that we wanted to use the light of the Valley. Because you feel blinded by the light there, by how bright it is. So at first, quite honestly, we shot it with natural lighting and decided that we were going to test in our postproduction how we would color it. At first I went with a more NY look, you know: the greens and the greys… We played with that but it seemed too forced. So we allowed those oranges, those purples to come out. It felt real to us, more truthful. So it was more about capturing those landscapes and find the proper locations. And allowing the light to take over.
RR: In fact, sometimes it’s kind of blinding.
SB: Yeah! And Dree is so beautiful she can be shot from every angle. You never have to worry about this. You just have to move her to be against the proper light and it’ll compliment her.
RR: She’s a real surprise.
What will happen now? You just said that in the US there’s a great competition for independent films to be seen.
SB: I just found out this morning that the film will be released late October. So what’s great is that it’ll have a theatrical run. The film will be shown in NY, LA, Chicago and slowly in other cities. And, to be true, I really don’t know what the reactions will be. I know that probably many people will see the film in streaming, VOD or Netflix and that’s a good thing for me and that’s the way my last couple of films have been getting exposure. So it’s a good way. And, you know, Dree as well as Stella Maeve, as well as James Ransone… those three are blowing up. And Karren Karagulian, who played Arash. He was in Prince of Broadway and now he is starting to break out and work in other people’s movies. So, I feel that the four of them will just go through the roof very soon. It’s going to be interesting to see what their future popularity will bring to this movie.
RR: One last question: money. Was it difficult to find the money to produce the film?
SB: Yes, but we did find it so I can’t complain. There are so many filmmakers out there who are still looking. But even though it’s a struggle everyday – still right now there are some bills to pay – we were able to finish the film and bring it to the festival. Basically, the way it came about is Ted Hope, who is an amazing independent film guru. He’s a producer and he’s been a mentor for so many young filmmakers – he produced In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001), Ang Lee’s early films, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin) last year: He loved my last film and asked: «How can I help you?». So when we were ready to make Starlet he helped us find some key finances. So, without his help we wouldn’t have been able to find that initial amount of money we needed. ■
Locarno, August 10, 2012
STARLET review in RAPPORTO CONFIDENZIALE
Photo: Alessandro G. Capuzzi (Sette Secondi Circa)