Interview: Starlet's Director Sean Baker

One of the most talked about indie films from this year’s AFI Film Festival is Sean Baker’s Starlet. The film centers on young porn star Jane, who ignites a friendship with an older woman after finding a large sum of cash at her garage sale. Baker’s previous films, Take Out and Prince of Broadway both found extensive success in the festival circuits, Broadway taking home the coveted “Best Dramatic Feature” prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2008. He also created the IFC series Greg the Bunny and MTV’s spin-off Warren the Ape. I sat down with Baker at AFI this week to discuss his motivations behind making Starlet, what inspires him and his fascination with the unexplored parts of culture.

TSL: Where did the idea for the film begin?

SB: My co-writer Chris, for Warren the Ape, was kind of our porn wrangler. We started working these cameos into the episodes. I became fascinated at that point because their lives were almost just as mundane as mine; the way they took their jobs just as their career, just a professional thing. I basically told Chris we should do a character study on a girl where we follow her around on a day when she’s not working. It wouldn’t be plot driven. But Chris suggested I use a previous idea from a script I had from years ago to give it structure. I loved that idea. I wanted to give a character from this porn industry world just a narrative story we can all relate to, so that I can remove the stigma that the porn job defines Jane. We should judge her on who she is as a person. 

TSL: In Prince of Broadway you did a lot of collaboration on the script with the actors. Was the process the same in Starlet?

SB: In Prince, for a lot of the language, I had to rely on them. It was definitely not my world. I was exploring that underbelly of New York.  I’d say where the scene should go, but if you don’t like the dialogue, you can throw it out. I wasn’t married to the page. If actors feel they can make it better, I’m all for that. Even on Warren the Ape, all the writers were down for improv. Hopefully we always have something to fall back on, especially in Starlet we did. Besedka [who plays Sadie] would want to study the script more, where as Dree [Jane] knew the script, but wasn’t, in no way, memorized.

TSL: Starlet is very stylized, visually and also in its acknowledgement of LA culture. It looks almost like a moving Instagram.

SB: It’s so funny because we got one tweet from someone who watched it in London who called it “Instagram-y.” But I don’t think it is. We just shot with vintage low-mo lenses that gave it a retro look. We were able to use the palette of the valley. We let the warm colors come out and the lenses made it pastel. We didn’t need filters like we used in Prince.

TSL: You were DP for Prince of Broadway, were you on Starlet too?

SB: Radium Cheung is a great DP and someone I want to work with from now on. But it was hard giving up that, even though I don’t like shooting, I was worried it would take a signature away. Doing hand held, and not knowing exactly what you’re focusing on, I felt like the director should definitely be doing that. But in this case the camera was 60-75 pounds and we basically had to give it up. Once I gave it to Radium I realized we were on the same page. Then I knew I could really focus and not do camera operation as well.

TSL: Do you think there is a through-line to all of your work?

SB: Well, there are two things I hope. Number one that my films are based on exploring a different culture or location I’m not familiar with. It’s my own personal self-education. I always do a ton of research. For Take Out we spent a solid month in a take out, every day, before shooting. For this film, we went to porn sets and had them read our scripts to make sure it was authentic. Then also I hope, I didn’t see this till recently too, someone pointed out that they were able to laugh through [Starlet] even though what they saw was ultimately tragic. I think that’s important because in real life, in every day life, we laugh through our tragedy, that’s how we get through our life. 

TSL: So you’re inspired by location, do you have the next one in mind.

SB: Oh ya, we have three different ones. One is about the night markets in Taipei, a family drama I’m co-directing with Shih-Ching Tsou from Take Out. One is a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn Russian-Armenian story that’s a bigger project. The third one, I don’t really want to go in to yet. But all three are based on a culture or location.

Sean leaves me with a cliffhanger. With four inspiring films under his belt and three in the works (what’s the third?!?) I’m pumped. Check out Starlet opening in LA and Orange County November 9th, and you will be too.