As scripted by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, and directed by Baker, Starlet is that rare independent feature that succeeds on many artistic levels, including dimensional storytelling, ensemble acting, and full control of the material exerted by Baker.
With newcomers Dree Hemingway as Jane and Besedka Johnson as Sadie, plus a supporting turn with Stella Maeve as Jane’s friend, Melissa, Starlet has as strong a cast as can be found in any indie film. Though it is set entirely in Southern California, Starlet, whose title has a several meanings, is decidedly not a typical Californian film.
Much of Starlet’s uniqueness is due to its starkly realistic style, a conscious choice of director Baker. “It was supposed to be more cinema verité and not as plot driven,” said Baker. “A day in the life of a starlet. We decided to add the element of this unlikely friendship. It was more of a character study.”
Of note, the aforementioned unlikely friendship occurs between Jane and Sadie, the former a youthful beauty leading a double life and the latter a retiree, whose odd bond is borne out of a yard sale. Several elements from different Baker projects coalesced in the writing process. “My co-writer Chris suggested that we combine the day in the life of a starlet with an old script sitting around with an unlikely friendship based on money found at a yard sale,” Baker stated. “It was giving it a plot-driven narrative defined by Jane’s career.”
Starlet comes across so realistically, one cannot easily decipher whether the actors are saying their lines according to the script or improvising, and Baker noted that their predilections would vary from scene to scene. “There are scenes that stand out as [being improvised] more than others – such as the scenes where they are smoking on the couch together at the beginning of the film – that wasn’t very scripted,” he said. “Other scenes are scripted word-for-word. I gave the actors homework the night before to change around the dialogue for the Art of War scene. There was a lot of riffing; if I saw something going the direction I liked and had something to contribute to it, I would add from there to give it to them spontaneously. 80% of the film was tightly scripted.”
To add to the verité approach, Baker sought to shoot with telephoto lenses in order to set the camera back from the actors’ intimate space. “These wonderful actors were able to make it so natural and always sound conversational,” he said. “Dree did study at the Royal Academy of Acting. She already had experience to be able to guide the zeitgeist. All of them were extremely comfortable on set.”
Intentionally, Baker begins the film with an extreme closeup of his lead character. But from there, the viewer feels as though he or she is voyeuristically spying on the characters. To further push that dynamic, Starlet feels almost entirely lit by natural means. “We never wanted it to look lit,” Baker explained. “The cinematographer, Radium Cheung, understood that the last thing I wanted this film to appear is lit. It was done with soft lighting and practical bounce cards to give it fill. We were never blasting light anywhere or over-lighting. It was most definitely done to not intimidate the actors, most of whom were working for the first time. I also told my sound guys to lav them with hidden mics instead of having a boom pole in their faces.”
In addition to being mesmerized by Hemingway and Johnson, we are taken by the supporting players, especially Maeve as Jane’s disgruntled housemate. One striking scene is when Maeve as Melissa visits Sadie to give her some unexpected information. “We did have time to have the actors bring stuff to the table,” Baker stated. “As Sadie was being delivered this news, Stella asked me ‘Give me my closeup, I’ll deliver, for coverage.’ As she was delivering this amazing performance, I was watching the monitor and she was right—I ended up cutting back and forth. Casting and getting the right people on board with amazing talent and a similar sensibility to me – that saved me on the film and brought me to that place.”
Among the many secrets slowly unveiled throughout Starlet are the secret identities of several characters and a hidden past by another. “You will see a lot of those hints upon second viewing,” said Baker. “That was the concept – hinting at the fact[s]. The first pass I had on this was all about little hints.”
Though Baker always covers himself during principal photography, he endeavored to shoot Starlet with few takes in minimal setups. “By the time we had a scene set, I was pretty comfortable with how it would be covered,” he noted. “Some stuff was found while we were shooting and further stuff was found during post. There were a lot of happy accidents. It was three months of living at night editing at 6pm and staying there til dawn, going to bed when everyone else was going to work. I have to completely engulf myself during the post-production process to find a film.”
With a wealth of content currently in theaters and a minimum of independent screens, all types of films need an enticement, and Starlet, its inherent qualities notwithstanding, is among them, moreover coming out during an awards season glut. “If anything, I would like people to know that there are amazing first-time performances by this talented cast,” Baker concluded. “It’s a different take on California and Los Angeles. It’s also about an unlikely friendship, and there might be a twist or turn somewhere.”