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EXCLUSIVE CLIP & Interview with 'Starlet' Director Sean Baker on Keeping it Vérité with Dree Hemingway

Thompson on Hollywood By Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood November 9, 2012 at 2:04PM

Sean Baker's second feature, "Prince of Broadway," a micro-budget vérité film shot in New York City's wholesale fashion district, won a slew of festival awards after its debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2008 (winning Best Narrative Feature) and landed on many Best of 2010 lists...
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Starlet (TOH! exclusive image)
Sean Baker's 'Starlet'

Was your process different than "Prince of Broadway?" How has your guerilla/vérité directing style evolved?

The process was actually very similar to "Prince." And honestly, it was a tougher shoot, which I didn't think was possible. As far as the guerilla style goes... it may have been even more guerilla style... meaning, I didn't have an Assistant Director, crew members wore many hats, and we had only a certain percentage of control over every shooting situation... which always welcomes chaos and at the same time happy accidents that make it all worth it.

The one big change is that I did not shoot "Starlet."  My wonderful cinematographer Radium Cheung took that burden away from me and gave "Starlet" a look in which I never could have achieved on my own.  We shared camera operating duties at first because I thought that shooting hand-held at close proximity with the actors would lead to an intimacy that would spark ideas.  However, by the end of the shoot, Radium was doing most of the hand-held camera work because he knew exactly what I was looking for.  And I was still able to remain within a few feet of the actors.

We also shot this film with real anamorphic lenses without the luxury of seeing it un-squeezed until we were in the editing room a month later.  This led to us being very particular about our framing and un-squeezing it in our head before rolling camera on every take.  We used the 2:35 anamorphic framing to be more thoughtful when it came to composing shots and sequences...something I did not have the opportunity to do with my previous films.

How did your stars, Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson, come onboard?

Our casting director, Julia Kim, and I were searching awhile for both roles.  I wanted a fresh face for Jane and was considering "stunt" casting for Sadie. We auditioned several young women for Jane, even using YouTube to try to find new faces, but to no avail.  For the role of Sadie, I wanted to cast a star from yester year... a "starlet" from another era.  We came so close to casting a very big name but it didn't happen for various reasons.

Then two miracles happened at the same time.  Allan Mindel, Dree's acting manager, saw our casting call for the character of Sadie and asked if we had cast for the role of Jane yet... and if we hadn't, if we were interested in Dree.  I didn't know Dree was making her move in to the acting world so had never even considered her for the role.  I watched every YouTube interview there was with Dree and was 80% convinced she could embody the character of Jane.  Then I had a 30 minute Video Skype call with her and asked her to be in the film by the end of the conversation.  There was no doubt in my mind she had the humor, sensibility and appeal needed for the role.

Besedka came to us in an even more blessed way.  We were having difficulty finding someone for Sadie. As I said before, we thought we had landed a very impressive name when that fell through.  We were pretty distraught because we were only 3 to 4 weeks from production.  Shih-Ching Tsou (co-director of "Take Out"), is one of the executive producers on "Starlet."  She was in town for pre-production (she was also doing costume design and continuity on the film) and went to the local YMCA to work-out.  She texted me from the gym and wrote "I think I found our Sadie."  Shih-Ching spoke to Besedka and asked her to audition.  Julia Kim and I met with her and were immediately impressed.  What was more amazing is that Besedka (86 years old) lived most of her life in LA, always wanted to act but just never had the opportunity.

With "Prince of Broadway" you used many "non-actors" - was that also your goal with "Starlet"?

Well honestly, in retrospect, when I referred to the actors from "Prince" as non-actors or non-professionals, it was actually a great disservice to them.  The fact is that they are all actors and should be viewed that way by the industry.  It was our casting process that was non-professional.  We went to the streets or to friends to cast the film.  It was simply a non-traditional way of finding actors because a majority of them did not have formal training.  But to this day, Prince Adu as well as the other performers from "Prince" are pursuing acting and should be taken seriously by the industry.  Karren Karagulian, who co-starred in "Prince," is actually on his fourth role now as Arash in "Starlet."  He's an actor's actor if there's ever been one.

So basically the percentage of actors with formal training to those who don't have formal training is about equal in "Starlet" as it is in "Prince" and "Take Out."  Stella Maeve and James Ransone obviously have the most clocked time behind the camera but this is Dree's lead role debut and Besedka's first time on camera...so again, it's about mixing it up.

Did you stick closely to a script or did you improvise? In "Prince of Broadway" you gave actors a lot of freedom in the moment...

Just like "Prince," the actors were allowed to go off page anytime they felt inspired to do so.  Chris and I were proud of the dialogue we had written, however, we were never married to it and always open to hear how the actors brought their own voices to the written word.  Then there were times when we would riff an entire conversation on camera and I was blessed to have such a talented group of actors who were comfortable doing so.  I would frequently turn to Dree, Stella and James and ask them what they thought of a particular line.  If they liked it, we would shoot it.  If they didn't, we would take the time to write something new on the spot.  I believe the collaborative process is what keeps a film shoot fresh and exciting every day.

Where is "Starlet" going after SXSW?

Not sure yet where our international premiere will be.

What's your next project?

It's a toss-up between "Left-Handed Girl," a Taiwanese family drama to be co-directed by Shih-Ching Tsou and another NYC story that I've been developing for some time with Karren Karagulian and Victoria Tate ("Prince of Broadway").

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Sean Baker, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), SXSW, Directors, Genres, Indies


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