We continue the LFF Final Word feature with co-writer and director Sean Baker, whose fourth feature Starlet, starring Dree Hemingway, played in the LFF’s ‘Love’ category.
Why a career in filmmaking?
I went to the local library when I was in first grade – my mother brought me there one afternoon, and they were showing a Universal monster film. They had James Whale’s Frankenstein, Browning’s Dracula, and whoever directed The Mummy. They were showing the pivotal scenes from all three of them: the windmill scene in Frankenstein, and it basically just stuck with me. I knew from that moment on I wanted to make films.
So I did the whole cliché thing of doing Super 8 films growing up, and then doing VHS, and then I applied to NYU and went to school in New York. It was there that I changed my focus from wanting to make very mainstream Hollywood films to… I just got very influenced by European cinema, French and British cinema, and surrealism, all of which eventually led back to American independents and Cassavetes. I just knew from that point where I wanted to go.
It was based on a true story. A friend of my father’s found $20,000 cash in a hot water bottle, in a yard sale. My father is a lawyer, so he approached my father and asked him the legal ramifications of keeping it. He didn’t know until he got home that the $20,000 was in there, so my father advised him that basically, “You’ve purchased it and it’s yours, and it’s really up to you whether you find it right or wrong to keep it.” It always stuck with me as something that was the perfect launching pad for a plot-driven narrative, and a catalyst to bring two people together.
Originally I wrote this treatment called Bric-a-brac,but instead of a romance, it was an unlikely friendship between two women, a twenty-three year-old and an eighty-five year-old, and it sort of just sat on the back burner for years; since the late nineties when I wrote it. Then years later I was working on a comedy television show on MTV and part of the casting of that was to throw in an adult film star in every episode, because our demographic was sixteen to twenty-four year-old young men. It was just our immature way of putting puppets and porn stars together. Being one of the directors on the television series there was a lot of down time, so I got to know a lot of these stars, and I was fascinated with their private lives.
Every time the industry is portrayed in films, most famously in Boogie Nights, it’s about the actual industry and the work and their rise or fall, how they get into the industry. I didn’t want to cover the ground that had already been covered a million times, but I was fascinated by their private lives – about maybe a day in which they weren’t shooting, and I wanted to make a small vérité film, very much like a Dardenne Brothers film, where it would just follow a girl round doing her laundry and buying groceries, with subtle hints that she may work in the industry, but not making it in anyway significant. Then the biggest drama in her life is losing her dog somehow, and that’s about it, a day in the life.
But my co-writer said let’s make this a little more plot driven, lets combine the two ideas. I loved that idea because it was giving this accessible narrative to a character who normally wouldn’t get that. So I was ready to jump in, and that’s how it happened.
One of the interesting things about Starlet is the age difference between the two main protagonists.
You know, I just thought that it was about the connection that eventually develops throughout the film. It becomes sort of a mother-daughter thing, and what I was trying to explore was those relationships that you have in your life which you realise in hindsight were actually valuable, because they help you or save you. That’s what I wanted to explore and I didn’t feel like it had to be multi-generational, but I just found that to be the way I just wanted to go with it. Also, I frequent a lot of yard sales. It’s true. Living on the East Coast, I would go hunting for vintage stuff, vintage furniture and bicycles and I always had the most fun going to the ones that were run by some cranky old woman. It would be like a character study. You would have to haggle with them, and you would lose every time, so maybe that’s part of it.
You’ve got a young actress in Dree Hemingway, and Besedka Johnson a mature actress is cast opposite her. You’re talking about heritage in a way, with what Besedka’s Sadie represents, and then you’ve got Dree Hemingway coming from this absolutely wonderful heritage, great granddaughter to one of the great American writers. That in itself makes for quite an interesting correlation between film and the real.
She definitely brings all that baggage to the role. It’s even more than that – also her mother Mariel Hemingway, so there was that sort of connection as well. Yeah, the Hemingway name is obviously… well, we are using it as you can see right on the poster, but what’s wonderful about it is that Dree… I just read it in a review today in which they didn’t make the connection. I don’t know how they didn’t make the connection, but whoever wrote this review didn’t realise until five days after the fact that she is his great granddaughter. It didn’t matter because she transcends all of that; she is so good on her own that she makes it her own, she is her own-person. So that was wonderful to hear because I already knew that, but it’s great to hear that actually played out in real life, that she was able to completely carry it just on her own ability and talents and the Hemingway name was just a perk.
Talking about his past features Sean mentions that his feature debut received practically no exposure outside of the U.S. He explains:
Well, I didn’t even understand the festival circuit when I was that young. It was a very young movie. I made it right out of school.
That in itself is an accomplishment.
Yeah, I guess so. I am proud of it.
It’s kind of a baptism by fire.
Yeah. The second and third though, the one I co-directed was the second one, and the third one was Prince of Broadway. Those are way more accessible. I paid for all of them up to Starlet, and then with Starlet I was able to find financiers.
Having now completed four features, hopefully these will help to finance your future projects? Are you working on anything in particular?
Yeah, there are some much bigger films, which would hopefully allow me to go and break that million dollar mark, but I’m talking much bigger, thank god. Then I might also be dabbling in the same budget level as Starlet. No matter what, there are two or three projects that I’m about to jump into, and it really all depends on where the money comes from first.
You’ve experience of low budget filmmaking, and you have aspirations to work with bigger budgets, to give you obviously more scope. Do you think that there is a part of you that even if you got access to bigger budgets, you would want to return to smaller budget productions? I have heard director’s talk about low budget filmmaking encouraging creativity that is sometimes missing when you’ve got a budget to throw at a problem.
Because I have done four already, plus I’ve done a television show, which was pretty low budget, it had certain incarnations that spoilt me a little bit. I’ve always continued to think about how to cut costs, because I don’t want to waste it at the same time; there’s no reason to just throw money away. There are those times, like right now; I wish we had an additional $500 to make another dub of the movie. It’s very hard to make clones of the film without money. You need something, but anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I think I’m already in that mind-set and it will be very hard to break.
For example, while making this film – this is one small example – I would help the production designer instead of us going out and buying or renting very expensive props. We’d go on eBay. I got many of the props for this one scene just by doing my eBay stuff, so I think that I will always be thinking that way. Eventually no matter the size of the budget you have, well maybe if you’re James Cameron the $100,000 area is different, but when you are doing anything under $15 million, any money that you can save you can put on the screen or put towards the publicity.
So it’s there that the money helps, getting the film out there for audiences to see?
My last film cost more to publicise than to produce, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that unless I had won some awards. They were all cash awards, so thank God that happened, but to rely on that is unrealistic.