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AND FURTHERMORE: Sean Baker and the Making of His Indie Hit, Starlet

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Writer-director Sean Baker may not (yet) be a household name, but his fan base is growing exponentially with his latest effort, Starlet, a cinematic gem.

The film follows the forging of an unlikely relationship between a bristly octogenarian, Sadie (newcomer Besedka Johnson), who harbors an unfulfilled, girlish dream of visiting Paris, and Jane (the radiant Dree Hemingway – yes, that Hemingway’s great-grand-daughter), a 20-something porn star.  Jane’s sweet, breezy way offers a funny counterpoint to the crabby closed-off Sadie.

Here’s the set up: After purchasing a thermos at Sadie’s yardsale in sun-saturated Los Angeles, Jane finds a whopping wad of cash that amounts to $10,000 inside it.  When she attempts to return the container and its small fortune, Sadie tells her all sales are “final,” rebuffing further conversation. Driven by guilt, curiosity, even loneliness, the long-legged Jane, with her adorable Chihuahua, Starlet, court Sadie’s friendship with insufferable–and yet, endearing–persistence.  What ensues is a beautiful, unexpected, and poignant rendering of their quirky journey together.

Like Baker’s previous films – Prince of Broadway and Take OutStarlet is a tour de force of cinéma verité. His trademark is turning ordinary situations upside down and inside out, often exploring the social fringe with such sensitivity and nuance that he shatters our expectations and erects new ways of feeling and thinking against convention.

In Prince of Broadway, he introduces us to the intimacies and struggles of Lucky, a sweet natured immigrant from Ghana, who hustles designer knock-offs, and clumsily parents a two-year-old left to his care by an ex.  In Take Out, Baker shows us a day in the life of a Chinese delivery man, who must amass $800 in tips before the day’s end to pay off a life-threatening debt.  With Starlet, which grapples with secrecy, loneliness, and loss, he depicts the porn industry with such refreshing neutrality and non-judgement that it’s a shock.  Playing at select theaters around the country, the offbeat indie drama recently won Special Jury Prize at SXSW and nabbed two Independent Spirit Award nominations.

When The Slant caught up with the award-winning director, who also dexterously dabbles in television (Fox’s Greg the Bunny and MTV’s Warren the Ape), he walked us through his creative process, illuminating his rationale for including the film’s graphic sex scene, cutting a hard-earned shot, and naming his movie after Jane’s canine companion.

We heard that you left NYC for L.A. Did you move there for professional reasons? Tell us about the differences between working as a writer-director on the West Coast and the East Coast?

I lived out here briefly while working on Warren the Ape.  It was during that time that I not only became interested in exploring the adult filmmaking industry (in a narrative film), but also fell in love with the weather.  So when I came back out to shoot Starlet, it was a permanent move. Quite honestly, indie filmmaking is the same no matter where you live.  Right now, I’m simply wrapping things up on the release of Starlet and attempting to find money to make my next film, so I could be doing this from any place on Earth with an Internet connection.  It’s really just my social circle, the weather and the presence of the industry that keeps me here.

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece, you said you split your time working as a television writer and filmmaker. Is that still the case?  We’d like to know how the two genres of writing influence each other?

That is no longer the case. The Greg the Bunny incarnations seem to have come to an end. We had a wonderful ride and it supported me for a few years while I was making my last few indies. I would say that the style of directing Greg the Bunny had more of an influence than the writing the features. We had the freedom to experiment with comedic improvisation on Greg the Bunny. The puppeteers and actors were encouraged to riff on the ideas that were presented in the scripts. Often, there were “scriptments” (a half script/half treatment). I used this model while making Prince of Broadway and again in a slightly more structured way with Starlet.

You told Indie Wire that you got the idea for Starlet while working on Warren The Ape.  You said: “MTV was targeting 16 to 20 year old guys…so of course we were casting a lot of porn stars to please our demographic.  The more we worked with these women and glimpsed behind the facade of their XXX personas, we slowly came to see that their personal lives were about as unglamorous as the rest of ours.  I had the idea to shoot a very small vérité type film about a day in the life of a ‘starlet’ focused on a day in which she wasn’t working.”  Will you tell us about your affinity for telling the story on the character’s “day off,” when the drama isn’t high?

I am always impressed with films that can simply be character studies (without any obvious narrative structures) that can still hold your attention. I wanted to attempt to make one of these, but when co-writer Chris Bergoch suggested a more plot driven approach, I recognized the potential to reach a wider audience, plus a subtextual reason for the narrative.  The other version of this film would have been a meandering meditation on a young woman trying to make it in the world. It would have been interesting, but I’m very happy with the direction we took.

We’re curious about the title of the film. What was behind naming the movie after Jane’s dog, Starlet?

It’s about playing with the idea that things aren’t always what they seem to be and also that there is always another way of looking at things.  One can see the title as representing what she does for a living or the name of the dog in the film.  That’s up to the audience.

The scene where Sadie breaks down while searching for Starlet was amazing and excruciating to watch.  Can you talk a bit about the symbolism behind Sadie’s search for a lost Starlet and how it relates to other themes in the movie?

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the film yet, please stop reading. Ha ha! I think that once we find out that Sadie has had tremendous loss in her life, the scene becomes more meaningful. The way that my co-writer and I see it, Sadie is not only afraid that she has lost Jane’s dog, but that this will result in her losing Jane as well. I think this is a revelation for Sadie. Through losing the dog, she realizes what Jane means to her. This is why Sadie continually says to Jane that she can’t handle their friendship when Jane comes to pick up the dog.  What she is actually saying is that she can’t handle losing another person she cares about.

Variety noted that the explicit pornographic scene in the movie could have put you in ratings trouble in the U.S. and some reviewers felt that the scene was gratuitous.  Will you share with us the decision behind including Jane’s explicit sex scene on the set of her latest porn flick?

There are many reasons I decided to make this scene as graphic as it is. What it comes down to is that (besides ratings) I couldn’t come up with a reason why not to include it.  This film was always intended for mature audiences, so I felt mature audiences could handle seeing sex on screen. It always puzzles me that American audiences are so much more comfortable seeing graphic violence than graphic sex.

You mentioned in an interview that while your film didn’t cast the porn industry in a positive light, it was a non-judgmental rendering. But we thought your portrayal was even more subversive, and one might say progressive: It demystified and almost normalized porn as a professional choice as morally neutral as, say, becoming a receptionist. Does your film intentionally challenge the notion that the decision to pursue a career in porn is necessarily a disempowering or morally fraught decision for a young woman?

One of the themes I wanted to explore with Starlet is how we judge others without ever having walked in their shoes.  We are all guilty of it. So the last thing I wanted to do with this film is judge Jane in anyway. Part of being non-judgmental in the writing was to avoid making broad statements about the industry she works in.  I personally don’t think that the choice of working in this industry is in any way morally fraught, and perhaps, by making her career a b-story, I was challenging that notion. That being said, there are some critics who feel that I should show the negative consequences of Jane’s decision to work in this industry. My response to that is that we already know that the social stigma that is imposed on these young women can have long-term negative effects. Why do we need to be presented with that information yet again?

At a post-screening Q&A session, you mentioned having a very small budget, and many volunteers to help you make the film. If you’d had an unlimited budget, what different choices would you have made in making this movie?

Well first off, everyone involved would have been properly paid for his or her efforts. I don’t want to make another film in which people aren’t fairly compensated. And without getting into too many details, there are some scenes that I would have re-shot. Plus, I could have spent more money on post-production: Our coloring was very basic.  Thank god my cinematographer, Radium Cheung, shot the film so beautifully that not much high-end color correction was necessary.

We’re curious about the editing process. Tell us about some beloved scenes that you were sure you’d include, but for some reason you cut?

Editing is very important to me. In my films, so much of the film’s style is found in editing that I consider it fifty percent of direction.  We were already playing on the themes of secrets and revelations. And the editing process allowed me to continue playing with those themes in post-production.  In the sequence where Sadie loses Starlet, the dog, we had planned on ending that scene with Sadie finding Starlet in the L.A. River basin. It was a very difficult shot to pull off. We needed the dog to be by himself several hundred feet away down the basin. We pulled it off with an extra long telephoto lens and were very happy with the shot.  It was one of our proudest moments of the shoot.  Months later, during post-production, we realized that we were revealing too much to the audience and the shot was unnecessary. Keeping the audience in the dark for a bit longer was more in line with the film’s style. So we ended up cutting the most ambitious shot of the production. That said, I’m actually quite happy with the final edit and almost wish I could find another couple of minutes to cut. At this point I feel that every scene is valuable and contributes to the film.

As writers, we’ve both experienced regrets once a piece has gone to print — sentences that could have been better, points we wished we’d made, anecdotes we wish we’d shared–did you experience any regrets after this movie came out?  What might you have done differently on second thought?

There are entire scenes I would have re-shot because as director I will always see flaws.  I try not to dwell on them, but it’s difficult.

So do Sadie and Jane ever make it to Paris?

Oh, well, that’s up to you to answer.  All I can say is that they probably have a very interesting conversation once Jane gets back in that car.

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