Swoon on Film: Sean Baker’s Starlet

by Mercedes St Clair

“Courtesans used to know more about the soul of men than any philosopher.  The art is lost in the fog of snobbism and false respectability.”
— Elsa Schiaparelli

It could be the reason I like Starlet so much is because I had a stripper mom: my family shamed her, and shamed me by association.  Because of her, I grew up fearless and came farther into my own than anyone anticipated.  Since she wasn’t around, I got used to finding my own way and had very little regard for what others thought of me.  Once I arrived in adulthood I was shunned by the society ladies I came up with for my own unorthodox lifestyle.  Somehow I was expected to sacrifice the right to be respected as a basic human in my friendships and relationships when in fact I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong.

The status quo depiction of women working within the sex industry is a familiar one: randy girls named Crystal sniffing crushed pills on a daily basis to fend off their Daddy Issues.  But that joke isn’t funny anymore.  That’s why it’s so progressive to see the aspiring actress in the film Starlet as a multi-dimensional character who evolves to find a mother figure within Starlet‘s respectfully humanistic narrative.  The film gives a cool and understated voice to a previously invisible population who not only are fascinating and complex, but also deserving of careful and compassionate representation.

With three feature films and quite a few television series under his belt, co-writer/director Sean Baker singularly creates truthful pictures that are gritty, entertaining and magnetic.  Sean’s autonomous style of working enables him to infiltrate America with a much-needed fresh perspective.  While Starlet has its memorable, shocking and lascivious moments, the value of the work lies in its emphasis on understated character, dramatic irony, and genre innovation.  Drawn in by the innocuous storyline, the film’s jarring jump-cuts catch the audience pleasantly off-guard.  Expect this film to stylistically influence a school of newcomers as well as established filmmakers looking for an edge.

Interview with director Sean Baker:

Mercedes: How was the making of Starlet different from your previous films? What gave you the idea to go in this direction?

Sean: My previous two films were done using extremely guerrilla style filmmaking.  I honestly thought it would be different this time around since we working with a budget 5 times the size of [previous film] Prince of Broadway‘s, but more money, more problems. In an effort to make this film as slick as possible for that budget, we still had to employ guerrilla tactics in order to put every dollar up on the screen.

Starlet comes from two merged ideas.  For over ten years, I had a treatment sitting on the back burner.  It was entitled Bric-a-Brac, about a 20 year old woman who finds a large amount of money in a Thermos purchased at a yard sale and instead of keeping it or immediately returning it she befriends the elderly women who sold it to her to assess if she needs or deserves the money back.  It was based on a true story I heard growing up and always wondered what I would do in that situation.

The second idea came from living in Los Angeles in 2010.  Starlet‘s co-writer Chris Bergoch and I worked on an MTV show together.  It was a comedy show that I co-created called Warren the Ape which was a spin-off of Greg the Bunny.  MTV was targeting 16 to 20 year old guys… so we ended up casting many adult film performers to please our demographic.  Some of these women became acquaintances of ours and I slowly came to see that their personal lives were about as unglamorous as the rest of ours.  I was interested in shooting a very small vérité about the day in the life of a “starlet” in which she wasn’t working.  Chris suggested combining my Bric-a-Brac plot with this newer concept and Starlet was born.  

M: Congratulations on the recognition and film festival awards, how has that experience been for you?

S: I was spoiled with my previous film Prince of Broadway.  I was able to travel the world with it and it received numerous awards.  So this time around, even though I live for traveling, I probably will cut the festival circuit short so I can get back to work.  I don’t want it to be another four years until I’m able to make a film.
But thank you, I’m happy about the film’s reception and hope the theatrical release gets the film greater exposure.

M: Besedka is amazing. How do you find new talent?

S: I love the way the cast came together because I consider myself blessed in each situation.  Dree came to us through her manager Allan Mindel, who is known for discovering fresh talent.  Allan read the Starlet treatment and thought it would be a perfect vehicle for Dree.  I cast her after an hour long video chat session.  It was clear to me by talking with her that she was perfect for the role.  Her sensibilities, demeanor and physicality sold me and I offered her the role at the end of the call.  I didn’t even need an audition.

Besedka came to us in an even more blessed way.  I wanted to cast a star from yesteryear… a “starlet” from another era.  Although we came close, we were having difficulty finding someone for Sadie (the old woman character).  Shih-Ching Tsou (co-director of Take Out), is one of the executive producers on Starlet.  She was in town for pre-production and went to the local YMCA to work out.  She texted me from the gym locker room that she thought she found our actress.  Shih-Ching spoke to Besedka and asked her to audition.  Besedka thought she was being scammed at first but agreed to meet with Julia and I.  At her audition, she expressed to us that she lived in LA for most of her life and always dreamed of acting in a film but never had the chance. Cut to less than half a year later and Besedka is receiving a Special Jury Recognition for her acting at SXSW 2012.

I’ve been a fan of James Ransone’s work since his first film and always wanted to work with him.  Very late one night in the winter of 2010, Boonee, my dog who plays Starlet in the film, had a terrible eye infection.  I ran him over to a 24 hour vet.  James was in the waiting room because of a much worse incident involving his dog.  We spoke and at the end of the night, I told him that I was a fan of his work.  We stayed in touch and thank god both dogs were okay in the end.  So I thank Boonee for bringing James on the project.

Much of the rest of the cast came to us through our very talented casting director Julia Kim.  As soon as she read the treatment, she thought of Stella Maeve for the role of Melissa.  Her instincts were right on.

M: The shots and camerawork include references to classic film-making, while the style of editing seems very fresh.   How did you evolve to this point creatively?

S: I think shooting in a widescreen aspect ratio dictated our approach to framing.  Some of it will feel “classic” because we decided to lock down the camera in certain scenes and hold on landscapes and the expanse of the San Fernando Valley.  Also, we were using vintage lenses.  This automatically gives a familiar feeling to the images.

Regarding editing, I honestly feel the editing is 50% of direction.  I know a lot of directors who don’t edit their own work may not want to hear that. But I believe an incredible amount of creative decision-making goes in to the editing process.  If you give a film’s raw footage to two different editors, you will have two very different films in the end.  Likewise, the editing process in Starlet allowed me to play with jarring cuts and revelations in the cutting that mirrors the subtext of the film.  So if there was an evolution, it just came from personally editing all of my films and always looking to have a signature in the cutting.”

Starlet is still playing in select theaters and will soon be available on Netflix.

Read the NY Times Review

Watch the trailer