When Sean Baker was producing the MTV comedy show Greg the Bunny he met a lot of porn stars. “The show was trying to be ‘edgy’ and after a while, meeting these performers, I felt semi-familiar with the industry.” Baker had a thought when he was studying at NYU about “making a minimal dialogue, vérité “day-in-the-life” film following a woman doing laundry, taking her dog for a walk, hanging with a friend and we reveal near the end of the film she’s working in that industry.” What intrigued Baker most was how relatable and unremarkable adult performers seemed, and that thought stayed with him. His ‘day-in-the-life’ idea occurred to him with somewhat inopportune timing. “It was around then that Boogie Nights came out and P.T. Anderson made it epic. I thought, after that, there was no reason to touch the subject.” So he stored that aspiration away, alongside a sweet story his aunt told him about finding money and friendship at a yard sale. A few years later, Baker wrote and directed Starlet, a quiet drama about a struggling porn star who finds money in a yard sale thermos and tries to befriend the old woman who sold it to her.
The Harold and Maude vibe might hit you off the bat, though this May/December situation features something more challenging than romance. The friendship between Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (played by Ernest Hemingway’s great granddaughter, Dree Hemingway) is intelligently forced. Jane buys a thermos from Sadie, finds money inside it and, instead of returning the cash, tries to befriend the recalcitrant old woman. Sadie’s alone but not seeking connections. She resembles the people Baker met when he drove a cab in New Jersey. “When you’re a taxi driver in a smaller suburban area like where I worked, the only people you’re driving around are people with DUIs, people who have to go to the methadone clinic, or the elderly. Ever though that’s twenty years ago, my relationship with those people stuck with me and the character traits made their ways into Sadie.”
The taste of seventies sitcoms lingers, even in our phone call. He’s just up at 3 p.m., saying his editing rhythm for his new feature are forcing him to go nocturnal, and the sound of his espresso machine is overwhelming his half of the conversation. I remind him of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and the comic sequence of TV programmers listing scripts about young people befriending curmudgeonly but lovable oldies. Baker’s idea was timely, but unpredictably so. “It’s rare that somebody will set out [to make friends], especially with social media making us more isolated. So people have to make an effort when friendship or communication happens on any level.” He adds that we have few examples of how to connect, so of course connection will get awkward. “Or people won’t hear each other over the din of the coffee bar,” I joke. This is where Baker mentions he also likes Godard.
Baker’s influences seem almost pointedly old. “There’s an Our Gang short, called Helping Grandma which was a big influence on Starlet,” he says, namechecking a 1920 serial that played after school on local channels in New York and New Jersey when he was growing up. He says Prince of Broadway, the film he made just prior to Starlet, “was totally Our Gang, based partly on a short where Spanky slaps a guy in the face and we thought that was funny. It seems like my films are often influenced by Our Gang. It all started from there.”
It’s easy to presume the Starlet of the title is the film’s protagonist, Jane, and we guess this before we learn she’s a rising porn star. Starlet is actually the name of her male Chihuahua. Jane’s explanation is “I had the name already picked out.” This is one of many ways Starlet plays with the notion of surface judgments, and also hints at the old saying “You plan; God laughs.” The dog is Boonee, Baker’s own dog given to him as a gift by a crew member on a previous TV shoot. “Boonee was the first actor cast. I think we’re breaking with preconceived notions. We play with that throughout the film and do it blatantly with the title. The dog’s a driving force: he discovers the money.” Yet this interest in “not judging a book by its cover” also speaks to the prickly exchanges between Sadie and Jane. Sadie’s resistance to Jane’s friendship might be a gesture of wounded self-protection. Jane’s interest might be the result of guilt or loneliness. Regardless, our understanding of their relationship changes after we see Jane at work, which calls our attention to potential prejudices. Maybe the main character sells sexual performances for a living, but the film is very chaste about the difference between sincere and performed intimacies.
The only hot mess in the movie is the antagonist, Melissa (Stella Maeve, The Runaways). Before we know what “a performance” is, Melissa returns from a shoot and yells at her boyfriend for caring more about her loss of income than about her well being because “I BROKE A NAIL!” That character’s lack of stability exists independently from her work, in fact when she storms into the studio Jane tells Sadie is “like a temp agency,” everyone in said “temp agency” responds to Melissa’s hysterics with remove.
The cast is threaded with actors Baker has already turned into regular colleagues. “I’m dealing with a first time actor (Hemingway) as the lead, but I’m still working with Karren Karagulian, who’s been in all my films. He plays the porn producer. And James Ransone from The Wire is also in Starlet.” Actual porn stars, Manuel Ferrara and Asa Akira, make cameos in the film’s only semi-explicit shoot.
Baker was similarly selective about veracity while choosing his locations in the San Fernando Valley. “I don’t like to cheat geographically, I need to believe my own film so the locations were all accurate. That porn studio is just around the corner from the bingo hall we shot in. I don’t think people playing bingo nightly are aware what’s going on around the corner but it’s really there.” It’s worth mentioning the world of Starlet is one lacking in any obvious exploitation. Starlet takes place in a procession of McMansions and warehouses punctuated with the occasional visit to a testing center (adult performers are required to get monthly blood tests). These locations are too antiseptic and unimaginative to be seedy; meanwhile the mixing of practical details and living spaces feels anthropological.
Baker makes The San Fernando Valley look languorous and soothing, all bathed in yellow light. It’s a cinematic affectation the New York native says, “might have come from an outsider’s point of view. I felt like the sun was already in my eyes and I said to my DP ‘Listen we gotta capture the light. I’m constantly blinded and getting kind of pissed off.’ He [cinematographer Radium Cheung] said, let’s shoot towards magic hour and we decided to use anamorphic lenses that would shoot the light across the frame, which we did because of my experience.”
Baker’s earlier films, Prince of Broadway and Take Out are “very New York movies. I was very influenced by the New York cinema of the seventies so you can see a lot of Panic in Needle Park and Taking of Pelham 123, in those films. I thought I was set to make those sort of movies forever…the new film I’m working on is set in L.A. but has a lot of New York sensibilities.”
With high profile producers (Mark and Jay Duplass) but half the budget of Starlet, Bakers says the film, called Tangerine is “a wild ride, very kinetic, through one night in L.A. It looks at subcultures I don’t think have been on film yet.” About a prostitute who spends Christmas Eve hunting down the woman her pimp/boyfriend is cheating with, Baker says Tangerine definitely takes its subject seriously and treats it sensitively but at the same time, it’s a fun, wild ride.” No date set for the release of Tangerine you can find Ransone, Karagulian and newcomer Kiki Lee Key in the cast. Wherever Baker works, it seems, the filmmaker brings his friends with him.