Golden Girls: Sean Baker’s Starlet

The opening shot of Sean Baker’s fourth feature Starlet is beautiful, and not just because it (eventually) rests on Dree Hemingway. Underneath dreamy, faintly menacing music by Manual, we fade up on a mottled wall cast in sunlight, with some sort of tousled mass peeking out slightly from below. That little blonde outcropping is our deceptively unceremonious introduction to Jane, who is given to sleeping in late because there’s no need in her life for an early start. As the music cuts out, she sits up, slumping against the edge of the frame and yawning the hair away from her face. She’s hardly ready for her close-up, but there it is anyway.

It’s quite literally apparent from the first shot that Starlet is a movie made by a director who is thinking on the job, as he did in his nimble New York City neorealist films Take Out (2004, about an illegal Chinese immigrant hustling to pay off his former traffickers) and Prince of Broadway (2008, a Dardennes-inflected paternity tale populated by contraband hucksters). But the cogitation is subtle enough that the sleepy-eyed might mistake it for just another L.A. story. In more ways than one, Jane is a type: within the world of the film she’s just another snake-hipped chick walking her little Chihuahua (the movie’s true namesake, played by Baker’s own dog, Boonee) around the San Fernando Valley, but she’s also familiar enough as a protagonist—the pretty young thing who goes west to either be disabused of her notions of stardom or else painfully abused in its pursuit. “I swear to God, it’s like somebody took America by the East Coast, and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on,” snarked Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), neatly encapsulating the attitude of most moviemakers towards female characters in this particular milieu—that all that’s waiting for them in Hollywood is the bed they’ve made for themselves and the entreaty to lie in it.

For Jane, it’s a futon: she’s crashing with Melissa (Stella Maeve) and her boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone), and it’s obvious that she doesn’t much like her living situation since the first words out of her mouth—after rousing Melissa from THC-induced unconsciousness on the living room floor—are “Can I change my room?” Scouring neighbourhood rummage sales for affordable feng shui props, she finds some cheap picture frames and a thermos that she thinks would make for a nice vase; Mikey and Melissa are more interested in their ongoing game of Call of Duty. So far, so Lifestyles of the Poor, Young, and Feckless, but Starlet surprises its audience and its main character in one fell swoop. The thermos contains wadded up rolls of hundred-dollar bills, and suddenly Jane—whom we already have seen donating blood, seemingly for money—is flush with cash.

“Question: Say you found like a shitload of money…what would you do?” asks Jane in a mutually glazed moment with Melissa, zoning out half-lidded in front of a rerun of Greg the Bunny (the Fox sitcom that begins Baker’s resume). “Fuck it, it’s yours,” is the other girl’s response, but nothing in Starlet is that simple, not even this very exchange, which, along with many other scenes (including the bit where Jane donates blood), will be suggestively re-contextualized later on. The thermos’ former owner turns out to be Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who, like Jane, is a type: a muttering old woman in a cluttered old house whose hostility borders on Lynchian eccentricity. The apparent unlikelihood that Jane would want to give the money back, much less suffer even a moment’s rudeness during a pseudo-reconnaissance mission to Sadie’s place, is matched by the unlikelihood that an indie drama about characters separated by six decades striking up an intense friendship could be anything but maudlin, precious, or ridiculous. But Starlet, which is extremely well-written (by Baker and Chris Bergoch) and acted, transcends both its L.A. Movie and Lifetime Movie set-ups.

Starlet also transcends—though that’s maybe not the right word—its other major narrative revelation, which has to do with how Jane makes the money she does have. It’s a twist that Baker places relatively late in the game—about 40 minutes in—but one that’s impossible to not disclose in order to discuss the film at all. Jane acts in pornographic movies: she’s a rising star(let) at a company called Rampage, where Melissa works also. (Mikey, hilariously played by Ransone, is a hybrid boyfriend/pimp/manager figure who obviously gets off on having a girlfriend in the business of getting people off, but the sleaze factor is otherwise surprisingly low.) Whether or not viewers are actually blindsided by this twist, which is hinted at many times in everything from incidental dialogue to Jane’s endearingly skimpy wardrobe (and that pitiful blood donation might really have been a job-mandated test), the real surprise is how Baker treats it. Which is to say: explicitly, matter-of-factly, as one significant component of Jane’s life but not as something that she (or we) should be stigmatized by—not even the likely to be much-discussed hardcore sequence. It’s also not really a factor in the evolution of her relationship with Sadie.

What really shouldn’t be spoiled about Starlet are the scenes between Jane and Sadie, which are lightly comic and occasionally even cute (that most verboten of modes in serious cinema), but which are also suffused with different and occasionally overlapping shades of sadness and melancholy. Jane’s burgeoning affection for her bingo-hall pal is laced with guilt and a fear of being found out, while Sadie’s defensive posture is both hard-earned and hard-edged (one early encounter ends with the younger woman getting maced in the face). The idea of two very different women who are lonely in superficially distinct but underlyingly compatible ways is powerful, and Baker keeps coming up with scenes that develop—as opposed to simply reiterate—this theme. Calling a film “generous” is an empty-calorie compliment (especially since it implies that films that don’t “love” their characters are somehow ethically suspect), but the way that Baker gives everyone, even the moronic Mikey, a fair shake in the end is rare. In another film, Maeve’s Melissa, who eventually figures out that Jane wasn’t speaking hypothetically, would have been a walking plot device; here she gets a pair of scenes that afford her just as many complex emotions as the leads, even as she tries to tear down everything that they (and the film) have built.

It’s easy enough to see that Starlet is a gorgeous-looking movie: cinematographer Radium Cheung, whose credits as a grip run the gamut from Swimfan (2002) to Blue Valentine (2010), is obviously a major talent who understands the sun-blind look of Southern California. What’s harder and more rewarding to discern is just how lovely Starlet is at its core—how it understands the difference between sentiment and sentimentality and does justice to the former while adroitly sidestepping the latter. As a showcase for two actresses making their debuts, it feels, if not unprecedented, then at least momentous. Hemingway’s famous last name (remember that her mom did the ingenue thing back in 1983 in Star 80) and supermodel status shouldn’t confuse the issue of her performance, which is unaffected, natural, and superb; the fact that Johnson is an unknown makes for good press release copy, but there’s a finesse to her acting that goes beyond canny casting. They absolutely deserve each other. And Baker’s film deserves a good, hard look rather than the half-hearted glance that a plot synopsis in a program note might seem to warrant. Yes, it’s another movie about the seedy side of showbiz, and yes, it’s a movie where an adorable dog is both used as a plot point and gifted with a few reaction shots. It’s also very, very good.

Cinema Scope: Why did you decide to make a Los Angeles movie after two New York movies?

Sean Baker: I never thought I would make a film that took place in Los Angeles. Prince of Broadway had finally been released after an extensive festival run and I was flat broke. Luckily, an opportunity came my way that helped me get back on my feet. It was a scripted comedy show on MTV called Warren the Ape. There was some stunt casting of a handful of adult film performers to satisfy our core male demographic. The porn world has certainly been explored in other films, however I never saw it tackled in a way that didn’t harp on the work side of it. I was interested in how these performers led their everyday lives: the moments between the sensational ones, the 22 hours of the day that they aren’t working. During the filming of that show, Chris Bergoch and I had the opportunity to see behind the façades and the stage names of some of these performers and, with a few exceptions, found that their lives were as ordinary as everyone else’s. At that point I was intent on making a film that followed a young starlet in her day-to-day activities, not very plot-driven, yet intentionally taking the focus away from the surface image that the world associates with these people.

I also had an old treatment that I had written close to ten years ago called Bric-a-Brac. It was about the unlikely friendship that develops between two women after one finds a large sum of money at the other’s yard sale. Chris suggested that we combine the two ideas. I fell in love with the idea because it was giving a story to someone who normally wouldn’t be given this sort of story. In the Hollywood mainstream version of this film, the character of Jane would be a barista or mall clerk. So this was something different. We jumped into a crash-writing process, for a time collaborating via Google Docs with Chris in Los Angeles and me in New York, and had our treatment within a couple of months.

Scope: Do you mean that you could have still made a movie about a woman trying not to be defined by her job if she’d been a barista or a mall clerk?

Baker: No, I was referring to Jane’s alternate professions for another reason. Starlet is ultimately a story of how chance leads to a friendship between two women and it could have stood alone as that. The addition of her being an adult film performer added layers that I wanted to explore. The first being what I said before about giving this story to someone who normally wouldn’t be given this story. In most films that focus on the porn world, the characters that work in this industry are usually defined by their job. Every scene, every plot point, and every choice are related to their work. So it was as simple as a desire to try something different with a lead character that led me there.Secondly, I have to admit that I wanted her to be a porn star for experimental purposes. I honestly wanted to play with the audience. Everyone brings their own individual viewpoints and opinions about porn to the table when watching Starlet. I want the audience to be forced to question the way they judge. Does their opinion of Jane change once they find out what she does for a living? And why? Everyone will have a different answer to this, and I find that intriguing. If there is any one thing that the film is condemning, it is the judgment of an individual without walking in his or her shoes.

Scope: Was there ever a possibility of a film where her profession was left totally vague, or only implied?

Baker: Perhaps in a very early version, yes. The original idea was a vérité film focusing on one day in which the character of Jane loses her dog. By the end of the film, she finds him and through the day, there are certain clues as to what she does for a living.

Scope: Dree Hemingway brings a fair amount of baggage to the film, and yet in order for the film to work she has to seem like somebody who hasn’t really broken into Los Angeles yet—which is another kind of movie stereotype in and of itself. How do you think that Dree navigated the gaps between herself and that character? How much of that performance (and that character) is bound up in her physicality, which is of course accentuated by the rather excellent costume design?

Baker: I see the baggage as working as a point of interest in the marketing of the film. It’s topical but ultimately insignificant. Also, this is difficult for me to answer because only Dree really knows how she navigated those gaps. As a director, what I asked for was truth. That is all that really mattered to me. If parallels existed and were helpful for Dree in achieving this truthful performance, then all the better.

Dree’s physicality plays a big part, but I believe her performance stands independent of it. I say this because there were others with Dree’s level of beauty who were almost cast for the role of Jane that didn’t achieve the truth, depth, and heart that Dree did with the character. And yes, of course the costume design is always an important element in defining a role. Shih-Ching Tsou [co-director of Take Out] was responsible for the costume design. The tight shorts and knee socks were very popular in the adult film world at the time of shooting. Because Jane is new to this world, Dree and Shih-Ching worked on making a hybrid between the flashy clothing of that world and the casual, all-American jeans and a T-shirt look.

Scope: How did you find Besedka Johnson?

Baker: My original intention was to cast Sadie with a starlet from yesteryear. We searched high and low for an actress who might want to come out of retirement and at the same time be comfortable with the subject matter. We finally got someone on board, who is quite an impressive name, however our budget couldn’t afford her and she had to pull out of the project less than a month and a half before shooting. We were panicked. Shih-Ching was in town for pre-production and was visiting the local YMCA for a workout. She noticed Besedka in the locker room and immediately texted me, “I think we found our Sadie.” She approached her and asked if she would audition for us. Besedka came in and read for us and we immediately cast her. The most amazing part of this story is that she has lived in the Los Angeles area for most of her life, and always dreamed of acting in a film but never got the opportunity. She was quite a trooper and dealt with the insanity of an indie shoot in the hot Valley sun. On a daily basis, she impressed me so much with her wit and energy. I am blessed that we found her.

Scope: You said something earlier about experimenting and testing the audience: the subplot where Melissa finds the boot with the money in it and then shows up with her car re-repossessed seems like a good example of that to me. In a way you’re prodding us to expect the worst of a character when in fact we haven’t seen her worst yet—and what’s more, we can understand her anger when it’s revealed that she didn’t take the money. It’s like there are a number of plot points that just go that one extra beat…

Baker: Yes, I appreciate that you recognize that. It was important for Chris and I to play with reveals and apply that to every character and subplot…including the dog. As long as motivations were grounded in reality, we felt comfortable with playing against type and mixing tones.

Scope: I thought that there a lot of generosity in writing Melissa like that, which is why I agreed with Mark Peranson’s article in the Pardo Live from Locarno that compared Starlet to Renoir: the idea that everyone has their reasons. But the more typical reference point for your films thus far has been neorealism—and Starlet is very much a movie about life on the margins, albeit the margins of a pretty glitzy place.

Baker: The Renoir comparison is quite an honour, and since reading that I’ve been trying to find the parallels, because you are right, my films up to this point have had more blatant inspiration from the Italian neorealism and British kitchen-sink social realism. But unlike the last two films, Starlet does attempt to ride a line between realism and poetry. Plus, I attempted to have tonal changes that could be jarring yet accepted by the audience. I find that the most emotionally satisfying films do this with ease. I think of the films of Lee Chang-dong because he is a master at delivering satire, social criticism, realism, and the mythical at the same time.But I’m not sure I even answered your question. It isn’t just implicit, although I think it began subconsciously. It’s a sign of the times. We’re living during an economic bust and stories about just getting by and staying afloat seem to be writing themselves. Take Out, Prince of Broadway, and Starlet are all centred on small amounts of money that suddenly become significant in the protagonist’s life.

Scope: Why was the dog so important at every stage of the film, beyond giving the film its double-entendre title? The lost dog thing almost sounds like something out of neorealism, actually: Umberto D. (1952) in short-shorts?

Baker: Ha, yes, it is very neorealist. But basically Starlet is Jane’s only real companion in the isolating, cold world of the adult film industry. There is a camaraderie that I witnessed in that world, but it didn’t last long and usually was limited to the moments after the film shoots. So I thought there was something telling about the fact that the closest friend Jane has is a dog. Also Starlet propels the story forward in two key moments in the film, being responsible for Melissa finding the stash of money and Sadie fearing she has lost him. The camera spends a good amount of time with him but I think his presence justifies it. It isn’t just about pointing the camera at a cute dog. However, he certainly seemed to mug for the camera and we took advantage of that.

Scope: Back to an earlier point, about Melissa’s outrage being quite understandable and even affecting and that extending across the entire ensemble, even to Mikey: Would you say that one of your impetuses as a filmmaker is to try to be fair to everybody in your films? I feel that’s a kind of common denominator in your work.

Baker: Yes, empathy with my characters is very important to me. It is easy to make one-dimensional, easily definable characters but in real life, they do not exist. Again, it’s all about not judging until you’ve walked in another’s shoes. It might be a cliché, but it’s a cliché that should be taken more seriously.