The talented American filmmaker on depicting Los Angeles, channelling Harold and Maude, and the cruelty of truth.
Sean Baker’s impressive Starlet takes a superficial world—an over-saturated Los Angeles—and presents it with considerable depth. His characters drift around the city without mooring, deluding themselves into thinking that their relationships and interactions are grounded in something much more real. The film follows the development in the relationship between twenty-something Jane (Dree Hemingway) and the elderly Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Jane discovers cash tucked in something she purchases off Sadie in a garage sale, and subsequently finds herself drawn into Sadie’s life. It’s hard to know what motivates Jane: guilt, loneliness, or desperation? But it’s also an all-too-human reaction, in a world where there is all too little human contact.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent (including the titular—but perhaps not titular—Starlet, Baker’s dog). The city itself, shot with real verve by Radium Cheung, becomes a key character. But it’s Hemingway, displaying a kind of dancer’s physicality in the role, and Johnson (who passed away a few months ago, and had made this film her feature film debut), who provide the film’s real emotional power. An impressive and assured piece of filmmaking, Starlet must surely herald bigger things for its talented director.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
SEAN BAKER: I’ve wanted to work in film since I was six years old. My Mum brought me to a local library and they had Saturday morning screenings—not entire films, but sections of—the old Universal horror movies. They would actually show the windmill scene from Frankenstein, or Dracula’s first rising from the Dracula film, or The Mummy. All of the Universal monster films. I just fell in love immediately and knew that was what I wanted to do. I had been on the road making Super 8 films, VHS films, going up to NYU, and making my little indies forever.
BG: Given you’ve been based in New York, why did you decide to make a Los Angeles film with Starlet?
SB: I am fortunate to have been part of a television show that helped support my independent film career over the years. It’s a comedy show called Greg the Bunny and it has had several incarnations. We had one incarnation shooting for MTV. I spent time in Los Angeles, about an eight-month period of time, and we had cast a lot of these adult film performers. At that point, I wanted to make a small cinema vérité film about them. I went back to New York and started writing so that I could go back to L.A. It wasn’t just the fact I wanted to tell this story, but it was also because I finally wanted to move on from New York and move to where the industry is in the States.
BG: Have you modelled yourself on the Cassavetes career of doing commercial work, and using that to fund your indies?
SB: You know, I guess I have a bit. He’s my number one in terms of influences. I have a Husbands poster on my wall. I consider him the godfather of independent film. I guess it was his acting career that helped support his independents. I think I read how not one of his films ever made a dime during his life. And that’s sort of happening with me [laughs].
BG: Starlet is interesting because it uses L.A as a character. L.A has this stereotype of being a sunny, soulless kind of place—was that an atmosphere you were trying to evoke?
SB: Most of our crew—at least the key members of our crew—are New Yorkers. I think this film had a very New York take on L.A. But I’m proud to say that most native Angelinos consider the film representative of the city, and I’m proud about that. That’s how I saw it. That’s how I saw my period of time there. I was constantly blinded by the light, especially in the Valley. Especially when I started doing research into the world of the adult film industry. There were pockets where these young people are working in this industry and they’re very transient and nomadic, and moving from empty apartment building to empty apartment building. It’s very soulless. The environment around them seems to be very clinical in a way; they don’t have time to move in properly and live in one particular place. That was what I was trying to capture. I was working with a very talented crew—Radium Cheung being a very talented cinematographer. He just knew what I was looking for and captured that.
BG: Despite the cityscape, your characters are much deeper than that. I know Renoir gets brought up a lot when talking about this film; every character, major or otherwise, has this depth to them.
SB: I didn’t want to make any films unless my characters had depth to them. I never wanted to make anybody one-dimensional or cookie-cutter. That stems down to the smallest characters. Arash, played by Kareen Karagulian, runs the porn company. I wanted to give him some depth as well, just because I found his character to be interesting, and also because Kareen is an amazing actor and I wanted to give him something to work with. I’ve worked with him on other films. I have to give props to Stella Maeve and James Ransone, who really took those roles. It could have been really one-dimensional, but because of their incredible commitment—especially Stella becoming so method—they gave them so much depth.
BG: What’s interesting about the characterisation is that the truth is the cruellest thing in the film [in a key pivotal scene].
SB: I had somebody tell me—and I won’t say who—that I should cut that scene. That was the scene they didn’t like when they read the script. And that’s exactly why I kept it. It makes you uncomfortable to read it. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. Stella made it. I owe her so much for that scene because I was going to hold the camera on Besedka the whole time, and Stella begged me to do coverage on her. I said, “it’s really not about you in this scene,” but I did it anyway, and I’m so grateful for her doing that because she really saved my ass. I realised it wasn’t just about Besedka. It was the last time you see Melissa on the camera. It was really important to see into her head a bit. That’s why I work with these actors who are smart and very collaborative. If I didn’t, where would I be? All of these actors have brought something to the table.
BG: And it’s also interesting how delusional everyone is, in terms of their relationships, their foundations. It really jars with the truth.
SB: It’s funny, that really is the cruellest scene in the movie. And I remember I was on the floor behind Besedka watching the monitor. The camera was focused on Stella over Besedka’s shoulder. We had people who were working on the set for the first time. That day, it was a few PAs and guys hanging out, and I was watching the monitor, and because I was so happy about Stella’s performance, I was giggling and laughing so hard because I was so happy about what we were capturing. These guys thought I was the sickest individual ever. Why would you be laughing at this cruelty?
BG: The thing that’s remarkable about Besedka’s performance—aside from the fact it’s her first film—is that you don’t give her anything in the script. It’s all internalised.
SB: Yeah, very much so. What I always say, she’s the real-life Maude, from [Hal Ashby’s 1971 film] Harold and Maude. She was full of energy, positivity, enthusiasm, and wonderment, but she was supposed to be playing the opposite with Sadie. I always had to say in the first week at least, “Nasty Sadie, Nasty Sadie, bring it up, embrace it.” I would have to, in the middle of takes, say, “she isn’t abrasive enough.” She would literally, after ‘cut’, turn around and apologise to Dree for being that way. “You have to get away from that! You have to get into a different mindset here,” and she really did. She was amazing. I haven’t really talked much about it, and I don’t know if they’re big here—they if they should be—but there are these Our Gang comedies [aka The Little Rascals] from the early part of the [twentieth] century by Hal Roach. There was one particular short called Helping Grandma, and it was the inspiration for that character. I think I showed her a YouTube clip, of this abrasive old woman. I know she’s one-dimensional in the Our Gang shorts, but we have to give life to this sort of character.
BG: Does this also help—I know a film like Harold and Maude did this—prevent it from becoming too sentimental?
SB: In the very beginning, that was definitely [on my mind]. I consider Harold and Maude one of the best films ever made and I never tried to hide the fact I was very influenced by it.
BG: Judging by your career, you appear to be attracted to folks stuck on the margins, and humanising them.
SB: People have said that a lot, and I try not to think of it, because if I do, it might become too calculating in the future. I’m already looking at the two or three projects I’m trying to get off the ground and they’re all very similar. I made one film called Four Letter Words, which was about guys in the suburbs—especially in the East Coast, Tri-state area—and that was kind of autobiographical to a certain extent. I’ve been exploring other cultures and other worlds. Basically, what interests me. Not in a shallow anthropological way—as in, realising the world is all one and culturally we might be different in many ways—but when it comes down to it, that we’re all dreamers and we all have hopes and dreams.
BG: You also do it in a ‘banal’ way. There’s a normality to the characters, such as Jane’s job.
SB: That’s why we went so hardcore with that scene. If we tried to shy away from it, we’d be saying we consider it too abnormal to show.