Writer-director Sean Baker.

Sean Baker's fourth feature, Starlet, follows Jane (or Tess, her professional name, played by up-and-comer Dree Hemingway), a young actress in the adult film industry who stumbles upon a large sum of money, which leads to an unlikely yet sincere friendship with an 85-year-old woman named Sadie. We spoke with Baker about what led him to make a film about the business of pornography, the importance of location and space, and his thoughts on objectification of men and women in the greater film industry.

Can you tell me a little bit about the spaces in Starlet?

It was all dictated by real environments that we researched. We shot in real locations. The two places that Jane lives in in the film were real “model houses,” which are boarding houses for girls in the adult film industry who are coming in from out of town. These are young women who don’t have credit yet so people in the industry put them up and they pay rent. Sometimes the agencies own the model houses and sometimes they are run by other porn stars, like in the film. Those were real locations and, of course, our production designer enhanced them, but we found them during the research process.

It's kind of creepy and disturbing, but the girls' rooms were often decorated like little girls' bedrooms. There is obviously a psychological motivation behind keeping these girls in a pre-adolescent environment. It was really strange, but I saw it in every place I went to. There were bright colors—pinks and yellows—and teddy bears everywhere. I didn’t see a lot of women in their early 20s who, let’s just say, had their lives together. They’re surrounding themselves with teddy bears and dolls and other symbols of youth. It was disturbing to see that. Our production designer used that and it dictated what the rooms looked like.

The spaces were also very stark. They were temporary because girls come into the industry and their careers aren’t evolved and they usually get burnt out within three to four years. These were stark, temporary spaces. The actual porn studio was a real one up in Chatsworth (a neighborhood in Los Angeles), which we didn’t do anything with in terms of production except for lighting. We maybe moved some sets around, but that’s exactly how it looked. And I was very lucky to find that bingo hall. There are several bingo halls in The Valley and I kept saying to my producer that I wanted a vintage, retro bingo hall. I was hoping to find it and after five different places I found this one and it was, surprisingly, on the same block as the porn studio in Chatsworth. They knew what was going on just 100 feet away. So a lot of people caught on camera in the bingo hall are actually regular participants. Not only did we get their cooperation, but they embraced the film. It was great to get both: a wonderful locale and the people with it.

A lot if the process was really about getting to know the San Fernando Valley and realizing that there were a lot more hidden places out there and a lot of undiscovered or unexploited locations. In the original scriptment I wrote, with my finite knowledge of the industry, one scene took place outside of Circus Liquors, which is the most overused location in The Valley. Penelope Spheeris, whom I respect and adore along with her films (like Suburbia) read it and commented on that: “This is a little cliché, you should do more research. Circus Liquors? Really?” [Laughing.] In May and June of last year, while scouting locations, I drove around taking pictures and I found all these unique locations that haven’t been exploited.

Tess (Dree Hemingway) with her boss (Karren Karagulian). 

Can you talk a bit about shooting the sex scenes?

It was quite a unique experience because I shot the real sex in the morning and then Dree came in that afternoon and we showed her everything and I said: “We’re going to be recreating this, and you have to get into this position with Manuel.” It was very calculated and edited. When I was actually shooting it in the morning, it was the opposite of titillating and erotic. It was quite fascinating because, in a way, I was a porn director for that morning. I was directing sex. It was very strange and extremely clinical. I was shooting it in a clinical way: “Hey guys, hold on, I know you’re in the midst of that, but let me run around over here with the camera and get this angle. Ok. Thank you.”

I really haven’t thought about this since, but there were moments where I could see Manuel (Ferrara) and Zoe (Foss, Hemingway’s body double) share an intimate moment.  If I was resetting my camera or running around to get a different angle, they would take the time to kiss one another and caress one another. I thought that was really interesting because it's a job for them, but in order to keep the attraction level between them going for an hour of shooting they have to separate from us. We didn’t have to separate from them, but they had to separate from us, which I thought was fascinating. I was probably a foot and a half from Zoe and I could tell from the way she was holding Manuel that we weren’t there to her. That’s how they become comfortable performing sex in front of cameras.

Dree's character Jane is very warm, but also very distant. Is that part of the same porn star reality, the nature of the job?

Where the industry becomes heartbreaking is that these girls are regular girls. We all just want to connect and find people to love and to love us and these girls are not getting that. The bosses, the guys who run the porn industry, do not want boyfriends around because then they can’t control the girls. These girls really become alienated, not only because of the spotlight, but because they also have to put up the image that they are available for anybody. They can’t publically announce that they have boyfriends, first of all, and secondly, even behind the scenes they are discouraged from having significant others, which is really sad. This is very telling, but I found that a lot of these girls are bonded with their dogs. So that line, which was scripted even though there was a lot of improv, where Sadie says: “Is Starlet the only man in your life?” That came from my research.

Interesting. In a certain way the film avoids the common theme of the objectification of these women, instead presenting the everyday life of porn stars. Did making the film change how you think about the industry?

I knew this would happen and it's one of the reasons I wanted to explore this and make the film. Yes, there is a major level of objectification and in seeing these girls and guys perform sex they definitely become objects. How do you avoid that? That was one thing I wanted to explore. I knew that once I got to know people in the industry a lot of the stereotypes would be shattered and that was part of my goal. I wanted to do that on a personal level. I wanted to explore past that idea of objectification because I worked with a lot of these people on a comedy show that I worked on for MTV (Warren the Ape). When I started hanging out with them, like Zoe Voss, I got to know them as individuals and I found out they all have different backgrounds and reasons for coming into the industry. There are some clichés that remained true, but when you really break it down there is not one story that represents everyone.

For example, we all think they come from a single parent family—totally not true. There are many examples of alternative family lives or broken family units, but for every one of those there is the “normal” family story. It’s impossible to answer the question of why women voluntarily enter a sex trade. It’s a question that people have been asking forever. There is never going to be one answer and to keep asking it is ridiculous. So I didn’t even want to go there with this film and all the eventual consequences of being lured into the industry. That's already been explored many times in masterful ways, like Boogie Nights

I agree. I also like how your film, in itself, reflects elements of pornography because you don’t leave us guessing too much; you give us a level of satisfaction that we would also experience watching pornography, perhaps.

That’s funny. I never thought of it that way. [Laughing.]

Dree Hemingway as Jane and Stella Maeve as Melissa.

There’s a lot of anger in the film, particularly from the character of Melissa. The anger seems to stem from the systemic issues of being on the margins of society. But Melissa was automatically angry about something that you would think could just be talked about or discussed.

Right. In Melissa’s case, she’s probably been let down in the past. She’s probably never had a true friend so she reaches out to whoever is around her. In the end she says: “We were best friends!” But they were never really that close. Good friendships are few and far between in that world. Even though there is a camaraderie and loyalty in that world there is also a lack of true, long-lasting friendships because the careers are so short. Personally, I had a few performers say to me that having a friend in the industry is very difficult. Melissa is someone who has probably been hurt by friends or family and she is continually being let down in her own head. Her boyfriend is using her and she saw Tess as someone she could have a connection with and then Tess goes and has a much truer, much deeper connection with this old lady. Then jealousy kicks in and entitlement kicks in because Melissa’s being very protective of herself. It also stems from her drug use. She’s dulling some sort of pain by taking Oxy, which is an opiate. It’s not an upper, it’s a downer, and she’s taking clearly taking it to escape. 

On a lighter note, what can you say about Starlet or the dog who plays Starlet?

[Laughing.] It’s Boonee. B-O-O-N-E-E. He’s literally sleeping next to me at this moment. He’s a wonderful little dog—a rescue from Los Angeles County. He grew up on television sets that I worked on so he’s really comfortable and he could care less about a camera.

He certainly seems it.

Yeah. It really came down to two things: One, it was sweltering hot in The Valley so he was lethargic, and two, he really couldn’t care if someone was running around with this big object on their shoulder because he’s seen it so much. He never looked at the camera because he already knew what it was. You would think the boom mic pole would’ve attracted him, but he never cared about it because he had seen it growing up.

See Boonee on the big screen as Starlet in Starlet, opening today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Director Sean Baker will be in person for a Q&A at the 6:45pm screening!