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Adult Friend Finder: Writer/Director Sean Baker on Starlet

Dree Hemingway in Starlet.

The sun hits hard in the San Fernando Valley. It bleaches the landscape, shining deep into the lives of those who live there. Captured in widescreen, anamorphic photography in Sean Baker’s new feature, Starlet, the Valley, which for decades has been the home of much of America’s adult film industry, is no longer the ersatz Hollywood of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s-set drama, Boogie Nights. Gone are 35mm and pseudo-glamorous premieres, having been replaced by pixellated webcam shows and quickie video shoots destined to screen on chain hotel PPV networks.

As initially documented in artist Larry Sultan’s documentary photographs a decade ago, today’s Valley, reflecting the lives it contains, is a more ordinary place — which is not to say that it’s not full of human stories. Continuing the string of neo-neo-realist movies he began in New York City with Take Out and Prince of Broadway, Baker has with Startlet crafted one such tale into a surprising and warmly resonant relationship drama that may also be his break-out picture. Starlet uses the San Fernando Valley’s porn industry as an almost distant backdrop, focusing primarily on an unlikely rapport between its porn star heroine Jane (Dree Hemingway) and an older woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who Jane meets when she buys a coffee urn from her at a yard sale. Discovering inside $10,000, Jane contemplates returning the urn, but Sadie’s hostile bitterness is so offputting that the younger woman reconsiders her good deed. As the film progresses, following Jane as she attends a porn convention, makes a film, and tangles with a treacherous, coked-up roommate, the source of Sadie ‘s relentless bile becomes a mystery Jane is determined to solve.

Yes, Starlet is a film about an unexpected friendship, and it succeeds due to unforced ease with which Baker captures its unfolding as a pair of astonishing central performances. Clad in hot pants, tube socks and sneakers, the radiant, utterly natural Hemingway — daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest — plays Jane as a sweet innocent entirely lacking in guile. As Sadie, the 85-year-old Johnson is one of those unexpected discoveries you go to independent films to find. Discovered at a YMCA bingo hall by one of the film’s producers, Wilson finds layers of sadness within her character’s anger, and she breaks your heart as that anger gradually thaws. And then there’s the light, the heat of that California sun. Baker and d.p. Radium Cheung capture it with 1970s Russian anamorphic lens, giving the film a  polished look far away from the gritty handheld of the director’s earlier features.

I spoke with Baker at an outdoor cafe in New York’s East Village as his dog — the film’s eponymous Starlet — lay at his feet.

FILMMAKER: So, you’re on the Fall festival circuit with Starlet.

BAKER: I’m looking forward to traveling with the film. That’s what I see as compensation for directors on these sort of budgets. I’m actually wording that in my contract these days, that I control the festival circuit. The priority before screening fee is allowing the filmmakers — not just myself, but everybody involved — to travel to the festivals as much as we can.

FILMMAKER: I thought I’d spend a year traveling after I produced my first film. But first, I learned that festivals don’t care as much about producers attending. And second, I realized I couldn’t afford it. I had to work.

BAKER: You just have to learn how to do work on the road. I don’t think I’m going to travel as much with Starlet because I have two other projects that I want to get off the ground right away. But with Prince of Broadway, the producer and I spent a year and a half going everywhere — we saw the world. It was also necessary because we didn’t have a foreign sales rep. And we were able to make some sales.

FILMMAKER: I always think about you as a filmmaker in terms of Take Out, Prince of Broadway, and now Starlet. But you’ve actually already had an even longer career. Could you take us back to the beginning? How did you begin making films?

BAKER: I grew up in Jersey, and I’ve wanted to make films from as far back as grade school. My mother brought me to the local library where they [screened] Universal horror films. I remember seeing the windmill sequence in Frankenstein and one or two sequences in The Mummy and Dracula and saying, “This is what I want to do.” It was definitely that cliché that you hear from a lot of American filmmakers of my age: we had Super 8 [cameras] growing up, and then we got our VHS camcorders and made films throughout our junior high school and high school years. I edited the video yearbook and was head of the AV Club. Then I went to NYU Film School undergraduate, intending to make very Hollywood films — the next Die Hard. But it was while I was at NYU that I discovered the [Jefferson Market] Library over on 6th Avenue, and they had free VHS rentals. There was a box cover of this girl’s knee that looked quite attractive, so I discovered Eric Rohmer and Claire’s Knee. This was during my sophomore year, and the next thing I knew I was watching as many foreign films as I could. Then I started taking film studies courses having to do with foreign cinema. I took a Pasolini course, I discovered British social realism and I fell in love with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

Filmmaker: What happened after college?

Baker: A couple years out of NYU, I was lucky enough to get a job shooting a commercial for a small publishing company. Grandfathering all the materials from that, and buying all the unused raw stock off of 12 Monkeys, the Terry Gilliam film, we shot a small film called Four Letter Words on 35mm for $45,000. It’s a very young movie. — imagine a social realist Kevin Smith film. It’s dialogue-based and not very plot-driven — basically my take on suburbia, USA. It was originally based, sort of, on Rashomon, and it had this Mystery Train, non-linear storyteling style. In post-production it didn’t work at all. I was editing on a Steenbeck, and it took me four or five years, until 2000, to figure out that it had to be told in a linear style. [When you’re in] your twenties you don’t feel the burden of time as much; you’re not as driven to finish a project as fast as you should. The film wound up playing at SXSW — Matt Dentler was the first champion of the film — and it got a nice, modest little DVD release. I haven’t watched it in ten years, but I’m proud of it. I think it’s a very realistic look at that world of post-adolescent guys in the suburbs. And also, it allowed me to get that out of my system. That [film] was basically all I wanted to say about the world that I grew up in, and afterwards I was ready and willing to explore other cultures and other places.

FILMMAKER: How did you support yourself during the five years of making this film?

BAKER: A lot of temp work and menial jobs. And then, on July 5th of ’02, Dan Milano, Spencer Chinoy and myself were a little hung over from the night before and decided to take our VHS camcorder into Tompkins Square Park. We were making a show for Public Access, The Manhattan Neighborhood Network — a half-hour show with this puppet we had lying around. We interviewed people in the park with this puppet we called Greg the Bunny, based it around political commentary, and the next thing you know IFC is asking us to use the puppet in interstitial material. Suddenly with this puppet we were introducing these independent films that we adored and were inspired by. For the next couple of years we parodied these movies with the puppet for the IFC Channel. Greg the Bunny then moved from IFC to Fox, and then back to IFC. Two years ago we did a spin-off for MTV. So this little Greg the Bunny thing, which was basically just a comedy show in which my friends and I fooled around with puppets, has supported me for ten years. I mean, I’ve still had to take editing jobs and entertain temp work.

FILMMAKER: Has Greg the Bunny helped you launch your own very different film projects?

BAKER: It’s given me the chance to work in comedy television with actors who are amazing at improvisational comedy. And because it was such a low budget, such a casual way of shooting, it set me up in a way to use those same techniques when it came to shooting my own films. It has also given me one foot in with the Hollywood system. It’s been easier to introduce my films to the people I’ve worked with. I say, “Well, you know, I also do independent films that are very different, but take a look. I think you’ll see that there’s a similar sensibility underneath the surface level.”

FILMMAKER: So what happened with your feature career after that first wave of Greg the Bunny on IFC?

BAKER: I was a bit discouraged. I was seeing these filmmakers I’d gone to school with — Todd Phillips, Marc Forster — start to make waves. Their careers were taking off. I wanted to get back to my true love, cinema.  So, in ’03 Shih-Ching Tsou and I were living above a Chinese takeout on 20th Street. This was shortly after the Dogma ’95 movement kicked in. Digital cinema had allowed filmmakers to make films for nothing, and they were being accepted. We were barely paying rent at the time, but we decided to make a small New York film in which you see in the apartments of all these different New Yorkers through the eyes of a Chinese delivery guy. And when we actually did our research, exploring different takeouts in the city and sitting down with these gentlemen, it became a whole different thing. It became more about the plight of the undocumented worker. It was just Shih-Ching and I doing everything with our very dedicated actor, Charles Jang, who played the lead, as our third crew member. The three of us made Take Out over the course of June ’03. I think it was the rainiest June in recorded history. Every day we’d walk outside and thank God because we had a constant production design. Take Out was done and delivered to the festivals for $3,000. It got us attention on the festival circuit, but unfortunately, when we got distribution through CAVU Pictures, they couldn’t release the film because they were a little backlogged. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do but to go off and make another film. Again, I pulled the money all from Greg the Bunny and made, as solo director, Prince of Broadway. It was during post production on Prince of Broadway that I told the team, “You know, we have to get Take Out out there as well. Take Out will support Prince, and Prince will support Take Out.” So, we worked with CAVU on a hybrid [distribution plan]. I put in some money to expedite [Takeout] into theaters, and we released it as I was in post production on Prince.   The films competed against one another at the Spirit Awards, and the perception was that they were made at the same time and that I was so prolific. Actually, there had been years of frustration building up to that point. I think [those movies] just set in place where I wanted to go as a filmmaker and what sort of subjects I wanted to cover. And that led eventually to Starlet.

FILMMAKER: So, what were the beginnings of Starlet?

BAKER: I’m drawn to films that blur that line between docu and narrative. I want keep working in the genre of human drama and relationship pieces, in which human interaction is the focal point. This film about an unlikely friendship intrigued me because I’ve always wanted to befriend somebody older than me. Older people are encyclopedias, they have so much knowledge and life experience, and this is something I’ve always wanted to do. I was working on another New York film, which I’m still intending to do. It’s a Brighton Beach story, a much bigger film. While we were looking for our producers and backers, I was here in New York. I had just done another incarnation of Greg the Bunny in L.A., and [the city] was still fresh in my head. We had been doing a lot of stunt casting on that show because it was an MTV show and the demographic was 16 to 20 something year old guys. We decided to try to fill every episode with an adult film star. You know, you’re on a television set, you have a lot of downtime, a lot of time to socialize and communicate. I got to know several of these adult performers and became extremely interested in what their daily lives were like. I found that between the shoots, they were living everyday lives the same way we do. Almost mundane lives, waiting for the next adventure to happen.

So, I came back to New York, and I wanted to make something right away. I spoke with my co-writer, Christopher Bergoch: “Maybe we should make a small docu-style cinema vérité film about one of these women in L.A. working in that industry. We don’t even have to touch on that world. We can know that she works there, but that’s it. The biggest drama piece in the film is going to be a scene in which she loses her dog.” Chris suggested we make it slightly more mainstream accessible by making it more plot driven. He suggested I use an idea that I had sitting on the back burner called Lithograph. It was based on a real-life event that happened to a friend of the family in which money was found at a yard sale. And so, we combined the two ideas and came up with Starlet,. Money was found pretty quickly. Ted Hope was extremely helpful in this process. I gave Ted the scriptment, and he said, “I’m going to do my best to get you some backers,” and he did within weeks.

Writer/director Sean Baker with actress Besedka Johnson on the set of Starlet

FILMMAKER: When you say scriptment, what’s that?

BAKER: It wasn’t a full script. It was about a 70-page script, which meant that there were areas in which we allowed for improvisation on set. Some scenes were completely fleshed out like a traditional script, with the dialogue written out in Final Draft. But then, there were other scenes where it was just a paragraph: “The three sit on the couch, smoke weed and talk about the videogames.” When I approached my actors, I’d say, “Okay, this is an opportunity for us to just play on set. We will come up with a number of topics the night before and then we’ll just roll with it on set.”

Filmmaker: Was it always your intention to withhold Jane’s profession as an adult film star from your audience until the middle of the film?

Baker: Many other films that cover the adult film industry make it the A plot. It’s the most important thing, and it defines the characters. I wanted to break that convention. Nobody’s career defines them. It’s our spirit, our intelligence our humor, it’s us as human beings. I didn’t want to make this film about the adult industry, and I didn’t want to reveal to the audience [Jane’s profession] right away because in 2012 there is still a stigma, there are preconceived notions [about the porn industry] that people bring to the table. I wanted the audience to get to know this character first and then drop it on them. And to almost experiment to see how audiences would react — to the character, to Dree playing Jane, and to us as filmmakers making this movie. It’s experimenting with  the judgements people bring to the table.

FILMMAKER: You employed a consultant, an adult actress, who attended the premiere at SXSW.

BAKER: Zoe Voss. Zoe is wonderful. It was important for me for Zoe to come to the premiere and give her take on [the film]. And I’ve been actually very interested in the [reactions from the] people in the industry who have seen it.

FILMMAKER: What have they been?

BAKER: They were all very positive and thought that approached this [subject] in a very different way. They respected that. And I was happy to hear that we were pretty accurate in our portrayal. People always question why [someone] gets into this industry, and what I’ve found is that there are a million reasons. There is not just the one cliché — that they were abused when they were young. Yes, that of course is out there, but everybody seems to have their own individual story. That was one of the reasons that we didn’t really focus on [the reasons Jane entered porn]. We hinted that she had had turbulent relationships. Perhaps she was from a single-parent family. She obviously had some sort of a broken relationship with her mom. But we didn’t really want to focus on that because, number one, plenty of other films have already done it. And, number two, [because of] our research process and getting to know everybody. I thought it was unfair to say that it’s all because of one reason.

FILMMAKER: How many days did you shoot the film?

BAKER: I believe it was 24.

FILMMAKER: Visually the film has a different feel than your previous films. The L.A. environment is a big part of that, but you’ve also approached the shooting quite in a different way.

BAKER: I wanted the film to have a sheen, and I wanted to put as much of our limited amount of money up on the screen as possible. Also, I’d already done two films that were very handheld, gritty, traditional, 1:1.85 aspect ratio. I wanted to explore using anamorphic framing with real anamorphic lenses and to take advantage of the L.A. landscape. I spent two months in preproduction exploring the Valley, and I wanted to capture its expanse, and the way the light plays — it’s extremely bright, always in your eyes. I knew that using classic, old anamorphic lenses would capture these flares that I wanted to capture. And then this happy accident happened. Radium Cheung, the DP, got an email that was mistakenly sent to him from a guy in Santa Clarita. He had some classic old LOMO’s — about 100 anamorphic lens — that he got from the Soviet Union when it fell. He had them rehoused, has been renting them for very little, and they’re beautiful. They gave us a look that I don’t think we would’ve been able to capture any other way. I’m actually really happy with [the look] because even though I’ve shot the last three films digitally, I’m still one of those guys who’s not completely sold [on the format]. I’ve had to shoot that way for economic reasons, but I am still in the Christopher Nolan camp. I feel that if you can, you should shoot on film. Or at least try to do something with your digital material so you’re not just looking at ones and zeros.

FILMMAKER: What kind of lighting?

BAKER: Radium lights to say we didn’t light, but we did. He comes from a gaffing background, a gaffer background, but [we used] a lot of practicals, but also subtle, soft lighting. We had our bounce boards. We had our lanterns. We had our Par Cans for some night exteriors. With the [Sony] F3, we were able to shoot with much less light than normal, but still, there was subtlety in the lighting and time taken for that.

FILMMAKER: Tell me a little bit about maybe the challenges of working with a first-time actor who’s an older actor.

BAKER: Besedka’s 85 years old, and the amount of hours that you’re working in the hot Valley sun makes it a different situation. You have to be very aware of this. At the same time, though, she was found working out at the YMCA. She’s in amazing shape and was able to put up with the tough situations better than most of our crew. But, I have to say that well first off, she was just wonderful, ready to jump into any situation. Also, she’s always been on the fringe of the industry. She was best friends with Dudley Moore. She always wanted to pursue acting. So it wasn’t like I was working with a nonprofessional even though she had never acted before. If there was ever a real life “Maude,” she’s that person.

FILMMAKER: As in Harold and Maude?

BAKER: Yes. She is full of life, full of positivity. It was actually very difficult to get to that place where she had to be that nasty, abrasive, reclusive older woman. She didn’t want to go there. The first two or three takes of every scene, she would be way to nice to the Jane character. We would be like, “Besedka, you gotta bring up the nastiness.” There’s an old Our Gang short, Second Childhood, in which the gang’s little remote-control airplane flies through the window of an older woman’s mansion, and they end up having to work for her for the afternoon. But, their childlike innocence and sense of wonder winds up helping her. We showed that short to Besedka and said, “We want you to go to this place.” Our Gang has always been a big influence of mine, even with Prince of Broadway. The big scene in Prince where Aiden slaps Prince Adu in the face over and over again comes from an Our Gang short.

Filmmaker: What was Besedka’s on set relationship with Dree like?

Baker: Even though this is Dree’s lead debut, she came across to me as an old pro. She would help guide Besedka through the scenes if Besedka ever stumbled. We were shooting with a lot of telephoto lenses, especially at the bingo hall. When I wasn’t able to be in the actor’s space to guide them through it, Dree would. Dree was so comfortable with her improv that she would make Besedka comfortable, and if she wasn’t, she would go into “fun Dree mode” to loosen up the situation.

FILMMAKER: When you are conceiving of these kind of observational, neo-neo-realist films, what are your thoughts about their narrative needs? How much story does a film like Starlet need? I don’t want to reveal the ending, so I’ll just note that the film has a very pointed narrative reveal at the end. Was that always there?

BAKER: Yes, that was in that original bric-a-brac story I did. And so, the storyline was always going to be based on a major reveal, right? As Chris and I started working on [the script], we realized that we were also going to be revealing something major in the middle of the film — that Jane’s a porn star. And then, we just [made that concept of the reveal] as our subtext, using it on many different levels, trying to get [reveals] into the film as much as possible, whether they were minor or major. We tried to play with the idea that you never really know everything about somebody else’s life; as you get to know people, it’s all a process of reveals.

FILMMAKER: After Takeout and Prince of Broadway, how did you feel about staying within the realm of ultra low-budget filmmaking? Is it hard to stay at such low levels of budgets?

BAKER: Yes. I don’t want to come across like I’m complaining, but it’s very hard to stay at this level. It’s extremely difficult. I mean, I don’t have a family. This guy [Baker motions to his dog] is the only guy I have to support. I don’t see how I would be able to do this if I actually had to support a family. But, I think what this model of [no-budget] filmmaking allows is if you can make two of these, maybe even one if it’s extremely successful, it’ll get you to the next level where you don’t have to put your own money in anymore. With Starlet, we’re sort of three quarters there. We had backers, it was funded basically by other people, but, in the end, because of the nature of independent film, we’re all still wearing many hats. I’m still typing up time code and dialogue lists every day. We’re doing festival print traffic ourselves. So while these budgets are difficult and frustrating on a daily or hourly basis, it’s a Catch 22 because [the films are] so rewarding in the end. I’m almost worried about getting bigger with these films because I fear losing the happy accidents, the spontaneity. Hopefully my future producers will agree that we have to do whatever we can do to not have 100 percent control, you know? Money gets control, but I feel as if you still allow yourself some chaos… With all three films, the chaos and happy accidents have led to my favorite material in all three films.

Besedka Johnson and Dree Hemingway in Starlet.

FILMMAKER: Is there an example of that on this film?

BAKER: There are many examples. We almost had enough money to bring on a real starlet of yesteryear. She was very well known and hasn’t acted in a while. It was going to be her big return. But of course, not having the money to completely secure her, having to work within SAG Ultra Indie, $100 a day, we weren’t able to get her. It was through the chaos of everybody being very frustrated and upset that Shih-Ching went off to work out at the YMCA and found Besedka Johnson. Of course, there were many things on set. The strip pole scene —  the apartment that we were shooting at, it happened to be a real model house, and the guy who owned it wanted to install a strip pole. So, it’s about putting yourself in that world and sometimes allowing your environment to dictate things.

FILMMAKER: This issue of the magazine is our 20th anniversary, and I’m asking people to envision their next 20 years. How do you see yourself developing as a filmmaker?

BAKER: I feel that it’s becoming such a different world now, with the unfortunate demise of the theaters and television taking over in such a drastic way. I feel as if I’m just getting my foot in as the door is slamming shut. I’m such a cinephile, and I’m in love with the hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hour model of this art form, of cinema, that I would love to continue working in it. But of course, like everybody else, I see the genius that’s taking place in television, these long-form cable shows. I would love to work in that medium as well. Obviously it’s been for a way for directors to support themselves. They work in television, and then work in film on the side. Perhaps film will just become a very specialized art form that you can only do once in a while. Because it’s the most expensive art form, we [as filmmakers] only get to dabble in our art once every few years. That’s like telling a musician, “You can only write a song and perform a song every four years,” or a painter, “You’re only allowed to paint a painting every four years.” If I’m lucky enough to be able to get another film off the ground within a two-and-a-half year period, that’s still a long time, you know? So if digital filmmaking and this low-budget model allows for us to be more prolific,  for us to express ideas quicker—

FILMMAKER: I feel the same way as you do, and I see so many people for whom the idea of following up a successful film with a smaller feature is kind of an anathema. A lot of people have bought into the idea that a film career has to proceed linearly and upward. That mindset stops them from being playful, doing something more spontaneous.

BAKER: I’ve been battling with that right now, actually. I have the opportunity to do a smaller film than Starlet, and I probably will do that. Look at the Duplass brothers — they will jump around with their budgets. They’re not following this model of, “I have to get bigger and bigger every time.”

FILMMAKER: Do you worry, then, about being known as the guy who makes small films?

BAKER: No, but I’m thinking about how I’m going to pay the bills. However, when I look at the filmmakers who have been most influential in my life, they have always jumped back and forth between different budgets throughout their careers. Look at Ken Loach.  The Dardennes — they did a 35mm [films] and went back to 16mm and smaller budgets.

FILMMAKER: It’s interesting to think about the music business. It used to be that a musician would put out an album every two years. Now, the album is declining in importance, and people have side projects, or they release EPs, and those projects are positioned differently. They’re not viewed as “the next big thing.” I think when a filmmaker makes a $2 million film and then shoots a quick $100,000 feature, maybe the latter should be their EP or experimental side project.

BAKER: That’s exactly how I’d like the public and industry and critics to look at these things. I mean, I really respect the Safdie brothers. They’re making some short films right now. They’re being very successful with these short films and then they’re going back to a feature, I’m sure, for their next project. I don’t know if I could do that — I don’t consider myself a good short filmmaker. But, I want to experiment, and that’s a great way of looking at things.


This interview also contains material from a recorded conversation with Baker at SXSW 2012.


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