In Features, Issues

STARR TIME
Agent-Turned-Director Steven Starr.

By Robert Spiegel

As anyone who reads the trades knows, talent agents who "ankle" their agencies often becomes producers with cushy studio deals who proceed to develop high-budget projects with all their old clients.

Not Steven Starr.

Starr is the former head of the motion picture department of the William Morris Agency. There, he represented such clients as directors Joseph Vasquez, Whit Stillman, Arthur Penn and Amos Poe. Last year Starr surprised the independent film world by leaving William Morris to write and direct Joey Breaker, a low-budget, semi-autobiographical film forthcoming from Skouras Pictures in early 1993.

FILMMAKER: How did you enter the film business?

STEVEN STARR: I went to film school at the University of Wisconsin and I made some short films. I had a professor there named David Bordwell who has written a number of books on film and he inspired me. After I finished film school, I spent a few months in the Caribbean bumming around and went back to New York and knocked on doors at some of the agencies. I went to William Morris and the day I got there they had promoted someone out of the mailroom.

FILMMAKER: So you started in the famed William Morris mailroom?

STARR: Yes. My timing was good. I spent a couple of months there and got out of the mailroom and started to work for a television agent. I spent a couple of years on desks and was promoted to a TV agent in about two years. In 1986, I moved into film. The first film project I was involved with was Pumping Iron 2: The Women with George Butler as a client.

FILMMAKER: How and when did you decide to leave William Morris and make the transition to filmmaker?

STARR: I had spent eleven years at William Morris and, upon departure, I was the head of the motion picture department. But I didn’t want to move to California. I felt that I had sort of reached the top of the game as it relates to the business and company I was in; I wasn’t satisfied since I had gone to film school with the plan of becoming a filmmaker and I wasn’t getting any closer to that goal by being an agent.

FILMMAKER: Why did you decide to become a filmmaker in New York rather than going to Los Angeles?

STARR: I find that New York is rife with talent. From an agent’s point of view, there were fewer people competing in New York as agents, and, in the discovery process, there was always a young filmmaker, a new playwright or an actor emerging. In Los Angeles, there are certain expectations that people have of films and the talent that is attached. The equation that goes into getting a film "green-lighted" is relatively cut and dried: you get a star or a couple of stars, you have a script that conforms to certain expectations, and you go make a movie. I think that here, by nature of being removed from the mainstream of picture making, there are more diverse voices to be heard.

FILMMAKER: Tell us about Joey Breaker.

STARR: The film is about a young agent in a theatrical agency in New York who has a lot to learn and is naïve. He meets a number of people outside of his experiences who teach him that there is a lot more to life than making deals. He falls in love and has to make a decision between his career and doing what he feels is the right thing. Richard Edson plays Joey Breaker, the agent. Bob Marley’s eldest child, Cedella Marley, plays the female lead. The film is peopled with a lot of fine New York theater actors like Phil Hoffman, Sam Coppola, Gina Gershon, and Mary Joy.

FILMMAKER: Since you were once responsible for representing talent and getting a feel for the marketplace, did you ever consider going for more marketable names?

STARR: No. In fact, I knew that if I wanted to make a film for a certain price that it would be best to find actors who hadn’t "broken out" into major motion picture roles. I felt that if I could find actors who believed in the material and put them together in an ensemble then it would be easier and more effective to work with them. If I did attract actors who were names, so to speak, they would have come with some baggage, resulting in financial or creative compromises that I wasn’t ready to make.

FILMMAKER: How did you develop Joey Breaker into a feature film?

STARR: While at William Morris, I had a burning desire to write, although I didn’t know what I would write. I found the writing process to be completely inhibited by my professional obligations. Since I spent most of the time reading other people’s material, I was critiquing their work and I felt that I couldn’t be an agent and a writer at the same time. I reached something of a crossroads when I had a couple of clients who were nominated for Academy Awards and my friend, Amos Poe (who produced my film) was going out to the Caribbean. I thought that perhaps Amos could work with me there on a story that I had. So I was forced to make a choice between going to Los Angeles with my clients or going down to the Caribbean with Amos. I went to the Caribbean and spent the week with Amos bouncing ideas off of him and formed a storyline. I returned to New York and, about a week later, told William Morris that I was leaving and soon wrote the treatment and the screenplay.

FILMMAKER: How did you approach the financing?

STARR: I sold off a big chunk – about half – of the film and found two equity investors I knew and worked with in the past. I raised about seventy-five percent of the film’s budget and the rest of the money came from what I had in the bank, my William Morris profit sharing, and profit participation agreements with the actors and the key crewmembers.

FILMMAKER: How do you reconcile your former role as an agent with your current role as an independent filmmaker?

STARR: I know that there are some people who will see this as a further example of the arrogance of agents, but I don’t care since making this film was something I felt I had to do. I made a personal film that I felt strongly about. The irony is that I picked subject matter that, if I were a filmmaker coming to me at William Morris with this project, I, as an agent, would have probably turned me away. I didn’t go out there thinking that I would pick a subject matter that everybody will be totally interested in. The film deals with AIDS, gay relationships – things that are completely unrelated to commercial choices. Because of the size of the film, I had the luxury of doing just that. No one can say that this film was constructed with commercial choices. My intention is, after this film, to write a script for another small film and do the same thing again. It’s a continuing learning experience.

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