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August 12, 2013 | by  | in Arts Film |
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The Things I’ve Sean

Sean Baker is the writer and director of Starlet, playing at the NZIFF. The film centres on the friendship between 21-year-old adult-film actress Jane and elderly Sadie. Formed after Jane finds a large stash of cash in a thermos she buys at a yard sale of Sadie’s.

 

What first got you interested in film?

That goes way back, I’m talking way back to when I was six years old perhaps. My mother brought me to the local library where they were showing old 16 mm black-and-white clips. They were from the old universal monster films, Frankenstein and Dracula, and it was way back then when it was like wow, this is what I want to do; and throughout growing up, I made films on Super 8 and knew that I would want to get into that eventually, video came out; and I got into that and then I went to NYU for film.

Did you come from a family that was interested in film?

My mother was a pre-kindergarten teacher and my father is a lawyer, so no.

And where were you from?

I’m from New Jersey, right outside the New York City.

So you got most of your film education from NYU, or was it mainly self-taught?

I think self-taught, like a lot of other people my age, we had home video. VHS had such a major impact on the home-entertainment world in the ‘80s. That’s where we got most of it, I believe. I mean, when I went to NYU, it of course had a few cinema-studies courses, but it was one day that I went over to the local library, and I picked up a VHS box and it was a woman’s knee on the cover and I was like, “that’s a nice poster”; well, it was Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee. That was my first introduction to the French New Wave and all of that. That got me really interested in European cinema. So it has generally been more about me seeking it out.

Would you consider the New Wave a major influence?

Yes, French cinema. Growing up it was all genre stuff, very much like Peter Jackson. That sort of thing, bad-taste stuff. In high school, I remember getting that and flipping over that. It was definitely once I got to that point and discovered world cinema that my tastes went more towards I would say Italian Neorealism, and probably more so within British Social Realism and like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and I realised that that’s the sort of stuff I wanted to tackle.

So do you try purport realism in your films?

I find that realism is just as hard to accomplish as like the biggest CGI films you know. Because capturing something that really is truthful is a lot harder than it seems sometimes, and the filmmakers that are impressing me the most today are those who are still based in that. You know like Ulrich Seidl. Do you know him?

I don’t think I have heard of him.

They have his films here actually, the Paradise trilogy, which are wonderful. Paradise: Faith I think is the best film of the three.

So are they your idea of realism?

It’s realism, of course, it has a little bit of style to it. But that’s cinema.

You are always looking through something, right?

Exactly.

Do you use professional actors?

A mix. I think, usually taking someone with experience and throwing them in real environments or into scenes with people who have little experience. It helps both sides, you know. I’ve done that with all of my films so far and I’ve been very happy with the results. I don’t like to call them non-professionals because, actually, I did on my last film. I kept calling (when we were doing PR for Prince of Broadway, which is the film I made before this), we kept saying non-professionals for our lead, and suddenly it hurt him in terms of business because agents didn’t want to sign him and they felt we just got him from the streets; they thought by non-professional we meant unprofessional, but no, that’s not it. It was just his first time.

Just not professionally trained?

Yes, but that doesn’t matter because it’s about people who just can. It’s very black-and-white between the people that can and can’t act. For example I cannot act and therefore I will never put myself in any of my films. I won’t do the Tarantino cameos.

Do you have the actors stick to a strict script or do you encourage improvisation?

I always ask for improvisation because I am just more amused by that. It’s a selfish thing; I also edit the films, so I want to be refreshed in the editing room and not bored of my own words, so we do script stuff out. But we always say if you can do this better or if you don’t feel this is working for your character, then throw it out the window and let’s just discuss how we can make it better or perfect.

So how did you go about casting the film?

Everyone came differently. We did have a casting director, and she brought Stella Maeve to the picture. Who played Melissa. Which I am so happy about. Because Stella, she doesn’t get as much attention as she should for this job. She has actually fooled people in that adult-film industry. They would say, “Who is this girl, why haven’t I worked with her?” She’s so great, she is so what they call ‘method’. She actually became that character for a month, did a lot of research.

Everybody else came in different ways. I mean PJ Ransone, because we were acquaintances and I said, “I think I have a role for you, I’m going to write something for you”; Karren Karagulian has been in all my other films. He played Arash the porn-producer guy, and then Besedka and Dree came because because Dree’s manager reached out to me, which was great. And I didn’t even know about Dree. We had looked at so many, we had considered so many different people for this role. Some unknowns, we were like seeing who the latest Nickelodeon craze was, or Disney or you know, one of those. We were thinking maybe even go with someone who had been around for a little bit like a Lindsay Lohan, but we didn’t really know what direction to go. Then I cast her over the phone. We had a video Skype call, and talked for an hour. She was in New York, I was in LA, and over the course of that hour, I realised that right off the bat her physicality worked, and her appeal and her persona. But it wasn’t just that; over the course of the hour she won me over with like realising that her sensibility was right for this, and she was willing to take risks, and she was also willing to collaborate with me to try and flesh out the character more. So as soon as I heard that, I was like of course, and then I offered her the role by the end of the phone call.

Besedka came to us as we were looking for somebody. We were going to cast the starlet from yesteryear, like somebody perhaps from like the silent-film era. Or maybe we were actually recording somebody for a while and this would have been her return; unfortunately our budget didn’t allow for it. It fell through and we were all very distraught; we didn’t know what we were going to do, and Shih-Ching Tsou—who is the executive producer on the film—she went out to the gym to work out and she saw Besedka there, and was like, “I think we found our Sadie”. And she texted me and I texted her back, and I said, “Well, you know, approach her gently and don’t scare her off”, and she did, and she came in and read for us, and Boonee is my dog so he was the first to be cast.

How did the topic/story come about? Is this something you have always been interested in?

Well it all came about. That whole side of the story that’s about finding and the relationship came from an old idea I had called ‘Brick O Brack’, which was based on a true story that happened to my father’s friend. He found a bunch of cash in a hot water bottle at a yard sale, and then my father, being a lawyer, he approached him and asked him the legality of keeping this thing, and my father advised him. But it was something that just stuck with me over the years as a nice catalyst to bring the two characters together; I had told Chris about it but it just sat on the back burner. Then, years later, we were working on a comedy show together, in Los Angeles, and we met a lot of adult-film performers because they were being cast as like cameos and stuff. It was like a comedy show, so you had a lot of that stunt casting and I was always very intrigued by their personal lives. Because they’re, if you think about it they’re… This is the first I’ve ever thought about this, articulated this, but its like the most intimate part of their lives is so public. I was wondering what the other, like, what they considered private is. I thought maybe we should do a little cinéma vérité film that follows one of these girls around and just we watch her intimate moments, but it’s no more than just her doing laundry and talking to her mother who’s in another state. The biggest drama in her life is when she loses her dog for an hour, but finds the dog. So I pitched that to Chris and he really liked it, but he said, “Why don’t we make it slightly more narrative so we can make it slightly more accessible to the mainstream?” and he suggested I take that old story and combine the two; and that’s what we did, and I was really happy with that idea, because it was giving a story that could happen to almost every one of us.

The juxtaposition of the lives was really interesting, and the way they came together as characters that probably wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise. Did you do much research into the porn industry?

Oh yeah we did. We had consultants. We had the support of the industry. They let us shoot in the actual places, the houses that the girls lived in; we shot on a real porno set, we used real adult-film performers for the supporting characters and cameos. There was a book out called Girlvert and it’s written by Oriana Small a.k.a. Ashley Blue; she goes to my gym, so I saw her and brought her in early and let her read the script, so I brought a lot of them in early to read and tell me whether it was like authentic or not. So yeah, there was a lot of research done. It’s kind of nice to know that some of the times we did intuitively go and make stuff up we would pass it by them and they would be like, “Yeah, this is accurate”. I guess we got to know that industry enough that we could start writing for the characters, and in the end it was nice to know that. Now that it’s gone on Netflix in the States, it’s getting finally seen by a lot of the industry and we are getting nice comments from them.

So they are supportive of it? That’s quite important.

Yes, it is actually.

What are you planning for next? Are you working on something at the moment?

I’m trying to get financing for a few independents; again, they are character-driven pieces, so it’s tough these days. So if any of your readers have any money and they want to be a producer… Seriously though, we are looking for financing. One is a slight drama movie that takes place in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the Russian/Armenian crowd, and the other film we are trying to do in Taiwan. Then some more mainstream stuff, because I also come from a comedy background with that show I worked on.

Oh, what show was that?

It was called Greg the Bunny. You could youtube it, you’ll see tons of stuff on there. It was big in Australia; I don’t think it made it here.

A lot of stuff doesn’t quite make it here.

I have heard! So it had like a ten-year run on different networks and it was sort of what kept me afloat, not only in terms of my everyday living but also it helped me support some of that independent filmmaking.

Cool, so this is what you really want to do [independent films]?

Well, I love comedy. I absolutely go to comedy clubs all the time. I think comic actors are the most gifted.

As they say, if you can do comedy you can do anything.

Often they are not given the chance though, because they are typecast in just comedic roles. But I don’t know, I haven’t seen the movie yet; I can’t wait to see what Andrew Dice Clay does in the new Woody Allen film.

Which film is this?

The newest one, this Blue Jasmine one.

Okay cool, I am a huge Woody Allen fan.

So I know that he would do something interesting with it.

Yes, I would be very interested to see how that comes out. Here, we didn’t even get the most recent one until a couple of months ago here—To Rome With Love.

Oh wow!

How did you go about financing Starlet?

Thank God I didn’t have to finance on my own. We got a bunch of different financiers—Maybach and Cunningham, came right hot off the heals of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Has that even been released here?

Not that I know of.

So that’s with the Olsen girl.

Oh yeah, the youngest one, Elizabeth?

Yeah, that was like her big break.

I think I have heard of that movie actually. A lot of films come here just for the festival but don’t quite make it to general release, or if they do it is ages later. Although now people tend to just find things online. We do miss out on quite a bit. So what are your views of the film industry where you live, is that California?

Yes, I am currently living there. I lived my whole life in New York, and then just recently moved out to make Starlet and stayed there. I could tell you it’s a little bit to do with business, because you are ten minutes from a meeting. However, I think it’s mostly to do with just comfort and weather and lifestyle. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I don’t just think it’s there. I mean, I hear it with the film festivals from all over the world. However the difference is that in many other countries there are film funds and there are commissions that have (even though it’s a lottery, at least it’s there) and it’s money to be given to independent filmmakers. We don’t have anything of the sort.

You have to raise all the funds yourself?

Basically yeah, like get wealthy families to want to invest. And it’s not a good investment.

I guess now though, people can make films on a super-low budget. I just talked to this director earlier who made his film on a handycam.

And I may do that again, I don’t want to do it again. But to tell you the truth, I’m sick of waiting around. And I saw my first (two films back) a film I made called Take Out, only cost $3000, and that was done in that style of the Dogme 95, it was shot on standard-definition video.

Did you make it as a Dogme 95 film?

No, there were some things that wouldn’t have allowed us to be. But it ended up for me getting a lot of attention on the film-festival circuit and getting a lot of distribution in different parts of the world. I can’t be scared of doing that again. Its just that with filmmakers, you’re always looking to move forward and get more money, because money means freedom.

Well, that depends…

Well yeah [laughs]. I’m not talking about the $200 million, you know, excessive. I’m just talking about what I would like to at least get. Well, we shot Starlet for a quarter of a million, which is tiny for that.

It just seems crazy, the amount of money it takes. How did you immerse yourself in the industry, how did you start, like right from the bottom or…?

Well, I was lucky enough to get that show. But I actually funded my first film on my own by getting a commercial or two. There’s so much money in the commercial world. One commercial will pay for a film, well a $50,000 film. We did that first one. It’s been a long, slow road.

Do you feel more of a pressure to do something bigger and better now that you have made this film that has done so well and is receiving international release and the budget was a bit bigger etc?

It’s weird, because I thought there would be like one major break, but I think it’s more going to be a collective thing.

Or maybe it’s coming?

Maybe. Actually, if you look at a lot of filmmakers that are really prominent, the big guys, the auteurs, playing at Cannes all the time. They had like six pictures before they got recognised. Kim Ki-duk, he made like 12 films before he got recognised, so you just have to keep going and just hope that it’s before you are 75 years old.

I guess once you do become more widely recognised, people look through your back catalogue and start to appreciate those films that didn’t get the recognition at the time.

Exactly, and you have to be diligent about keeping those alive too. And we do that by constantly trying to get whatever deals we can do to get the film out to television. Even if its $1000 for something, just to keep the DVDs out there and to keep them going so people can access your old stuff easily. We do also a lot of social media. I still have the Twitter account for my last film as well, and a Facebook page for everything. Keep the followers knowing that it’s alive, and they will tell somebody and that will keep people on board.

You said you have this film on Netflix; do you have your others on there too?

Yeah, in the States, yeah.

Recently in New Zealand, many people have found a way around and are using Netflix. It has been such a huge change!

Yes, I have heard about this. I think if you look it up, only one is streaming; you have to have it streaming in order to get it here, right?

Yeah.

Starlet is streaming and so is Take Out. I think Prince of Broadway is only on DVD. Eventually, I’m going to talk to them about that.

Yeah it’s a pretty cool site. Is this something you always wanted to do [making films], something you have been aiming toward?

Yeah, I mean, for the most part. I don’t know what else I would do. Maybe a barista or something [laughs].

So you did a Bachelor of Arts? What was your major?

I did. I majored in Film and Television. I wish I did a minor or a double major in Business, but I didn’t.

More useful in the industry?

Very useful for the industry. Listen, I’m not going to give people advice, but I would say if I was doing it all over again I would probably go to school for Business and Finance, and then just self-educate myself with Netflix and going out and shooting stuff.

I guess a lot of it is just exposing yourself to things you like and refining your taste. Finding out what you want out of your films.

And it’s not just watching the good films, it’s watching the bad films too. They say you always learn more from watching bad films, and I have watched a lot of bad films.

Is there anything you made in the past that you aren’t very proud of?

That first film I made. It’s called Four Letter Words and it was very much like… Is Kevin Smith known here?

Sounds familiar but I can’t place the name.

He made Clerks?

Ah yes, of course! I have seen that.

Well, it was sort-of like that sort of movie, but slightly more serious. It’s not wonderful, it’s competent I guess you could say, but just recently, people have been discovering it again because of these new films, and I’ve gotten some decent feedback about it. It isn’t like an embarrassment. Thank God I don’t have something with my name on it that’s a true embarrassment. Knock on wood.

Well you always learn from the bad anyway.

Exactly.

Many great filmmakers have made a few bad ones. Woody Allen comes to mind.

I know, I was just thinking about that on the car ride over. How old is he?

Late 70s I think?

Yeah, and he is right there still making amazing films. It’s nice that he can be that prolific throughout his career.

Yeah, one film a year I think, since the early ‘60s.

Oh my God. I just don’t even see… He must just have the best team around him.

He has said he just never tires of ideas. Do you feel similarly?

There are a bunch of films I want to make. It’s just about getting the opportunity to.

Did you have a student magazine/publication at the university you went to?

No, not when I was there. Maybe there is one there now, I bet it’s like a blog or something.

Is student media much of a thing over there?

I don’t know, I was just talking about that on the car ride over here as well. I don’t want to bad mouth NYU, but I didn’t see the difference between NYU and every other university. Its all about who’s there (meaning your fellow students); that’s the most important thing. I’m still working with the same guys I went to school with. And that’s been 20 years. It’s about who you decided to work with and went to school with.

So for you, the biggest benefit of university was the people you met?

Yeah and also it was… it’s hard to define. I have no idea what NYU is like now.

When did you graduate?

Oh, I’m so old; I was supposed to graduate with the ’92 class but I graduated ’96. So I graduated with the likes of Martin Foster and Todd Phillips. So they were like the two guys in my glass who were probably… there were one or two others. Eli Roth was like right under me, and right ahead of me was like Brett Ratner. We all went to NYU wanting to be the next Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and Scorsese, and none of us are doing that. I want to see that, I want to see that quality come out of films, and I think it’s happening now. Now that we are in our 40s, we have enough life experience where we can make serious films like that.

More settled in your taste, do you feel as though you know what you want more now?

Yeah exactly, there’s more life experience and there’s just more confidence, and when you’re in your 20s… I’m just saying that there is so many talented people in their 20s, definitely. But when I was personally in my 20s, I didn’t have much to say except [puts on stoner voice]: “This is the way that guys hang out in the suburbs.” That was the movie I made, because it’s all I knew. But then after you travel the world and experience relationships, you’re in and out of love, you’re this and that, then you have stuff that’s more universal.

So what you made in your 20s was more personal, than what you are doing now?

Yeah, which is always what’s encouraged, it defined the New Wave, right? Personal films about life experience, but when you’re in the US, America’s kind of… it’s not culturally rich you know.

There’s just little hubs of culture, and then there’s like middle America.

Yeah, suburbia is interesting in like a three-minute song that Rush sings, but it’s not really the most incredible thing to focus on. Except now it is, it’s funny the more I’m removed from it the more fascinating I find it, because, well I think cinema loves youth and right now I’m addicted to Vine, do you know it?

Yeah.

I’m addicted to Vine, and all my favourites, the people that I’m following, are mostly high-school students. Because they are freaking hil-AR-ious. You know, the skaters that are just causing chaos and abusing their parents, it’s like this is the stuff that still makes me laugh and I’m in my 40s. Actually, you know, I think Vine could be the revolution, because it’s introducing kids to the ways of getting a point across in such a short amount of time. I bet the best Viners could eventually become the best commercial directors, because they will know how to get a point across in a millisecond.

Just going back to when you were talking about suburbia in your films. There is this suburb in Auckland, Massey, that is just full of all these clone houses. They all look the same, and it’s very beige and bare and empty. The house in Starlet reminded me of them; all the houses were so big but there was nothing on the walls.

Are they like developments?

Yes, that’s it. Sort-of like the houses in Edward Scissorhands.

Thank God I didn’t grow up in that environment. But I had friends that did. I grew up just right outside of a few of those developments, and yeah, I always wondered what life would be like in those. It seemed like if your surroundings are cookie-cutter, do you become cookie-cutter? I mean, obviously you don’t.

Yeah, I found it interesting with the porn stars in their big houses, but what is there below the surface. Obviously there is quite a lot.

There’s a lot of that. But also those girls are transient, all of those houses and model houses are almost like hostels, like hotels. So they almost can’t get too personal and personalise them. The friendships are short-lived in that industry, and their careers are short-lived. Nobody stays in that industry; it’s a rarity if somebody stays in there for ten years, it’s a rarity.

Yes, like what do you do once you stop being a porn star? I imagine it would be harder to go out and get an office job, your name will always have that attached to it.

You can’t really. It depends, they probably become dancers for a while and then they get some sort of menial job. They can’t work in anything that… If there’s a corporation, you know, they won’t get hired because of their whole image, so it’s really sad. They’re at an age though, where they’re young and they’re not really looking that far ahead.

 

Do you have any advice for the budding young filmmakers out there?

No, I would just say just go ahead and do it and don’t wait. Even if it means shooting stuff on an iPhone. Just remember you have to decide on whether or not you want to become, whether you want to make ‘films’ or whether you want to make ‘movies’. You have to really choose who your audience is and then just go after it at full force. I think that it’s a cliché, but it really is just about doing it and fast and doing it now. Every one of my films I had somebody say, “don’t do it, just wait, save your money,” but for what? So if you’re interested in making films that are going to be playing film festivals, study film festivals and see what types of films are getting in, and what sections and who the programmers are, and start forging relationships and start interning. You guys have such an amazing thing right up there, you can work for Peter. It’s incredible that you
have that, it’s really really incredible. That’s like if I grew up in a city where Spielberg was up on a mountain.

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