IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Sean Baker

Starlet Sean Baker IONCINEPHILE

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. This November, we feature Sean Baker, an independent filmmaker whose fourth film, Starlet premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, then continued onwards to Locarno, BFI London and most recently AFI Film Fest before being released theatrically via Music Box Films on Friday November 9th. Below is our follow-up interview where we learn more about Baker’s process and about the films that have influenced the filmmaker. Here’s Sean Baker’s personal Top Ten films of all time.

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Sean Baker: When I was in first grade, my mother brought me to the local library where they were screening selected scenes from the Universal monster films on 16mm. I remember watching the burning windmill sequence from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN and thinking ‘this is what I want to do.’ Growing up I was very much in to genre films, especially horror and spent years collecting Fangoria Magazine and studying the genre passionately. But I was also very much in to the summer blockbuster and films like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and GREASE were the ones that I obsessed over. As a teen, Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, Carpenter’s THE THING and Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP were the films I couldn’t stop thinking about.

Lavallee: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Baker: I think my formative years ran between 10 and 27 years of age and there’s quite a span of different filmmakers and genres that I consider inspirational. When I was growing up, Hal Roach’s OUR GANG shorts would play on local NYC television around 3pm everyday. I always ran home from school to catch them. I consider Gus Meins and Robert F. McGowan to be two of the truly underrated directors in cinema history. Their work with the Rascals and Laurel & Hardy remains some of the best comedy I’ve ever seen. Both PRINCE OF BROADWAY and STARLET are directly influenced by OUR GANG shorts. “CHOO-CHOO!” has a scene where Spanky continuously punches an adult in the face… our homage is little Prince slapping Lucky in the face. And the character of Grandma played by Zeffie Tilbury in “SECOND CHILDHOOD” was the inspiration for Sadie in STARLET.

Then in high school, besides my love of horror, I began focusing on sophisticated action films such as the aforementioned ROBOCOP, George Miller’s THE ROAD WARRIOR and John McTiernan’s DIE HARD. When I left to study film at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, I thought I was setting out to become the next McTiernan. Strange the way things change.

While at NYU, I ventured over to the 6th Ave. clock tower library and a VHS box with an attractive female leg on the cover caught my attention. It was Eric Rohmer’s CLAIRE’S KNEE. I rented it and it started me down the road of exploring the French New Wave. That led to Italian Neo-Realism. Next on to British Social Realism where Ken Loach and Mike Leigh became major influences. And finally back to the American independent films of Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Henry Jaglom, and Jim Jarmusch.

Finally, I think Lars Von Trier and the Dogma 95 movement inspired me even after I had made my first feature. IDIOTERNE (The Idiots) became a major motivational force in Shih-Ching Tsou and I setting out to make TAKE OUT.

Lavallee: At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Baker: A career in filmmaking became a goal ever since that afternoon that my mother brought me to the library for those monster films. Like many other filmmakers my age, I spent my childhood making Super 8 movies and later, mini-epics on VHS. Funny that way the film to video transition was forced upon me even back in those days. I made FOUR LETTER WORDS approx. 3 years out of NYU with money I had raised shooting low budget commercials for a toy company. We purchased the remaining raw stock off of Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS, where it sat in a freezer for a year until we had the means to shoot. FOUR LETTER WORDS is a young film and although I’m proud of it because it defines a period in my life, it’s a rough one. I blame my 20′s for causing the film to have a very frustrating and drawn out post production. One doesn’t have that sense of urgency at that age… at least I didn’t.

It took four years and a drastic re-cut until Matt Dentler, who was head programmer at SXSW, championed the film. It premiered at SXSW in 2000 and had a small DVD release through Vanguard Cinema.

It was during the film’s post-production that GREG THE BUNNY was conceived. Dan Milano, Spencer Chinoy and myself created a Manhattan public access show called JUNKTAPE that featured the puppet we named Greg. We were cinephiles and took the opportunity to use Greg to parody classic films and experiment with improv comedy. This led to making interstitial material for the IFC, which led to FOX, back to the IFC and eventually a spin-off on MTV… over the course of 11 years. I’m extremely lucky to have had the project because it kept me afloat through the years and basically paid for TAKE OUT and PRINCE OF BROADWAY. I also think the improv comedy element in it was extremely helpful in the making of all the features because it was my basic training for working with actors.

Starlet Sean Baker

Lavallee: I was wondering what is the genesis behind Starlet? How far back did you and co-writer Chris Bergoch conceive the project in its most basic form, and was this naturally going to be your fourth feature after the critically well-received Prince Of Broadway?
Baker: Last part first… No, I have been trying to get a film called LEFT-HANDED GIRL off the ground for awhile. Shih-Ching Tsou (TAKE OUT) and I want to co-direct this Taipei based family drama. However it is difficult to find money for a Mandarin language film in the US. We are still trying. Plus, I worked with Victoria Tate and Karren Karagulian (both from PRINCE OF BROADWAY) on a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn story that is currently in development. I thought one of these films was going to be the follow-up to PRINCE until STARLET basically came together overnight.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

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” and it was 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 her the thermos to assess if she needs or deserves the money back. It was based on a true story that happened to a friend of my father’s. I heard the story 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 MTV’s “GREG THE BUNNY” spin-off “WARREN THE APE” together. 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 type film about the day in the life of a “starlet” focused on a day in which she wasn’t working. Chris and I started spit-balling ideas and he suggested combining my “Bric-a-brac” plot with this newer concept and STARLET was born.

I pitched the idea to Blake Ashman-Kipervaser and he came on as producer. Ted Hope, indie film producer/mentor/guru, helped us find our initial investors and the ball started rolling. It came together quite quickly over the first few months of 2011 and we were shooting in August of that year.

Starlet Sean Baker

Lavallee: Before you landed Dree and Besekda, what kind of characteristics/features were you looking for your main characters/during the casting process? Obviously you were open to casting first-time actresses but had you originally been looking for established talent? Did you have much convincing to do towards your producers or did they support this vision?
Baker: At first, our intention was to cast a real porn actor for the role of Jane, thinking that she would perform the actual sex in the film as well. We courted someone for awhile and had a rehearsal session with her however things didn’t work out. We then began pursuing actors who would be willing to have a body double perform in the sex scene. We were very open minded about casting at this point. One day, we would want a fresh face and the next day we were considering reaching out to high-profile names such as Lindsey Lohan. It was across the board. Most importantly I needed someone with a similar sensibility and enthusiasm and I found that in Dree. All along my producers and I were on the same page… looking to find the best Jane possible.

For Sadie, we wanted to cast a starlet from yesteryear and spent awhile trying to track down actresses who haven’t acted in years and may want to consider a comeback. Again, we courted someone quite famous and had her on board for a little bit. Budgetary reasons made it impossible and we lost this actress with only a month and a half away from production. It was then that Shih-Ching Tsou found Besedka at the YMCA and we had our Sadie.

Lavallee: How detailed of a back-story did you have set-up for Besekda and how much did it impact/contribute/drive her in the understanding of the emotional and character motivation content of each scene?
Baker: Besedka and I discussed a complete backstory. I believe she kept Sadie’s past in mind while shooting every scene because she would express that she was using it as motivation. For the scene in which she loses the dog, she drew from personal life experiences and her love of animals to achieve the grief she was displaying on camera.

Lavallee: The chosen backdrop (San Fernando Valley) for Starlet had a hand in informing you on the aesthetic/color palette choices you made, but I was wondering if you had some preconceived ideas for the interior shots you included (Bingo hall, living spaces, trade show).
Baker: Yes, we definitely had preconceived ideas about the look of our major locations. Our production designer Mari Yui slightly enhanced the existing look of locations but kept it accurate and true to the reality of these settings. The ‘model houses’ have a very specific look with rooms that seem to be decorated for young girls. So we shoot on location in two actual houses in the valley. For the bingo hall, I wanted an aged, almost tobacco-stained interior and I found one in Chatsworth. Surprisingly, it is located in the same block as the porn studio.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Irin Strauss (location sound)?
Baker: Irin is the best sound person I’ve ever worked with. He gets extremely clean sound in some very rough conditions. He understands that I want to remove as much of the crew’s presence as possible from the actors’ space. Irin, although I’m sure he would have wanted to, operated sound entirely solo during the entire shoot. He used a boom only when he felt it was necessary and unobtrusive. Most of the time, he would have wireless Lavalier mics on the actors. He also would grab interesting ambiance knowing that most of the time, I would rather use that than music.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Shih-Ching Tsou (costume designer)?
Baker: Shih-Ching and I co-directed TAKE OUT together so we are very much on the same page to begin with. At the time we were shooting, the high knee socks and short shorts were very much in style in the adult film world. We discussed how she would employ this style 100% with the character of Melissa (Stella Maeve) and then 70% with the character of Jane (Dree Hemingway.) Jane was new to the porn world and we wanted her to retain a tom-boyish quality about her. So Shih-Ching did a wonderful job combining the “girl next door” look with the scantily clad, provocative look. We wanted to completely transform Jane in to Tess at the Exxotica convention. Shih-Ching chose a beautiful sequin dress. Interestingly enough… it wasn’t until we were on set at the porn convention that we realized we were making an unconscious homage to Scarface. And Shih-Ching never saw the film… but I love the fact that it conjures up that image.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Cinematographer Radium Cheung?
Baker: Radium and I have a similar sensibility and 99.9% of the time, we were on the same page. From the very early stages of production, we agreed that the film should be shot anamorphic 2:35 and we just had to find a way for it to work on our small budget. While shooting, we would only require ten seconds to figure out the focal length of the lenses we wanted to use for a specific scene. Also, I wanted to share camera operation duties when it came to the handheld shots because I wanted the freedom to choose what to focus on in the moment. We began the production sharing operation duties but eventually I allowed it all to fall on Radium’s shoulders (literally) because he was nailing it time and time again. We also spent time in post-production color timing together. I can not wait to work with him again.

Eric Lavallée is the founder, editor-in-chief and film critic at IONCINEMA.com (founded in 2000). Eric splits his time between his home base in Montreal, NYC, and is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Talk to Her), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardennes (La Promesse), Haneke (Caché), Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times), Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Lynch (Mulholland Dr.), Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), von Trier (Breaking the Waves)