It was last August that I first got to view STARRY EYES and since that early Saturday screening at Frightfest I have been completely smitten. If you look closely at the packaging on the UK DVD, which is released on the 16th March you might spy some familiar stars and quotes, a proud moment in any writer’s life but it is even more special when it is a movie that truly stole your heart. Needless to say that when an opportunity to interview co-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, I jumped at the chance.
Widmyer and Kolsch have been working together for a number of years, producing short film IDENTICAL DEAD SISTERS and feature ABSENCE before going onto make STARRY EYES with the help of Kickstarter funders. STARRY EYES chronicles a young and determined actress, Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) as she goes to the darkest of lengths to achieve her Hollywood dreams. The film has a very old school Hollywood vibe – you know, when the true starlets like Grace Kelly, Bridget Bardot, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner were in the pictures. It also takes horror back to it’s slow-burning, big payoff roots, something that has been distinctly lacking for most of the last decade or so.
Our talk with both Kevin and Dennis covered a whole host of topics including how important Kickstarter can be to a hopeful filmmaker, just how gutsy leading lady Alex Essoe really is, and the truth behind trying to make it in Hollywood. Read on for all this and much more:
THN: Where did the idea come from for STARRY EYES?
Kevin Kolsch: It didn’t necessarily come from one place. Dennis and I have made a feature film years ago that was really DIY and then we had done some short films in the years in between, and we just felt that we were ready for our next feature. We were discussing the things that we wanted to do and we were talking about how we were really into body horror but didn’t want to tell a transformation tale. But at the same time there we were on Kickstarter, Kickstarter is a way to raise funds outside of the traditional Hollywood source. So here we were thinking about doing that process; running a Kickstarter is hard, really hard. It came along with these frustrations, the reason we were going about it this way is because we’d been trying the other way for somewhere near twenty years and its such a tough industry. You find yourself banging your head against the wall trying to get in and you just scratch the surface, never getting further. So we started taking all those things that we were feeling in that moment, trying to make a film outside of the system, without anyone else’s support and kinda also wanted to tell a transformation body horror thing, and those two things came together. We always like our films to be saying something or be about something at the core. So we took everything that we were going through at the time and all our feelings about trying to get into the industry and turned that into a transformation body horror.
Is there more pressure from knowing that members of the public have put in their hard-earned money?
Dennis Widmyer: Yeah, we had done a Kickstarter for a short film a few years before that, for that film we were only trying to raise $2000, and even that I found difficult. You have to almost become like a politician running for office, you’re stomping everyday. But with this (STARRY EYES) we were trying to raise $50,000 and we weren’t sure we could do it but it was all or nothing. We were prepared to make the film to that budget, we had to. We did a lot of planning, spent about a month on the video. We really wanted to make sure that we got that down. We spent a lot of time on the interviews with Alex Essoe who was cast at that point, and really what made it so difficult was the anxiety of it. Everyday you’re getting updates on your phone about donations, and you’re looking at your phone and it’s saying ‘you got a dollar from so-and-so’ and it’s like ‘argh we need more than that.’ We started off strong, it was a big surge in the beginning but as it always does dips in the middle part of the campaign. We were sitting there going ‘damn we need like another $20,000’ in seven days I think, and then it just surged towards the end. But what’s so difficult about it is you really have to whore yourself, you’re asking all your family and friends for money and you can’t just hope that they do it, you have to stay on top of people. Then you start fearing that people were getting annoyed by you and you’re being too persistent. You have to really find that right balance of being pushy but not being you know irritating to people. In the end we pulled it off and it ended up being a really good thing for us because we were then able to raise a little more money after that. That $50,000 that we raised went into the budget, but then we were able to get more beyond that and I think one of the reasons why we were able to get more money after was because of Kickstarter harmonically. I think the company that ended up going in on the film, Dark Sky Films, was able to look at our Kickstarter and see all the interviews and we actually shot concept footage, music and different actors to show people what it would look like. It was sort of like handing someone the ultimate brochure, and saying this is exactly what our influences are, what we like, this is what the films is going to look, sound and feel like, are you interested? It created a platform to show people something beyond words on a page.
KK: And also when you ask about whether their was more pressure knowing that it was the public’s money, we spent last weekend sending out our DVD’s and Blu-rays to donors now that the film’s out on Home Video [in the US]. It just felt rewarding to say that ‘yeah, all you people donated to our film, and you backed it, and there is actually a finished product that you are getting’. Because a lot of times people take people’s money on a crowd funded thing and even though they’ve got the money the project still doesn’t follow through to completion.
DW: They just flake out on the filming.
KK: So it felt very rewarding that people are actually getting a copy of something that they helped make happen.
DW: An end to the whole arduous process; about a year and a half, two year process.
How did you guys cast Alex, was it a long process or was she one of the first?
DW: We were casting for like three months over the summer of 2012. We shot the film in the spring of 2013 so this was about six months earlier than that. We went the pretty traditional route where we just hired a casting director, put out an ad on Backstage and probably saw anywhere between 50 to 75 lead actresses come in to read for the role. She was amazing, she stood out, she was gorgeous, she was talented, so we said we’d have her back, the second time we had her come in we wanted to really test her. So we had her do the scene where she has her freak out in the audition, sort of a meta-audition. She was doing the audition scene for us in an audition. She freaked us out. She brought that level of intensity that you see in the film which you don’t always get from actors. A lot of the times they don’t want to bear themselves or be too vulnerable or raw on screen, they don’t wanna bear that stuff. We absolutely needed someone to be beautiful and very ugly at the same time. She was able to do that perfectly. We met her for coffee and spoke to her for a few hours about her favourite films and our influences and really told her straight up what the film was going to be and wanted to make sure that she understood what she was getting herself into and how gruelling the process was going to be, and we really had an ally in her. She was completely challenged by the role of course as an actor, but she was also really excited about it, kinda like giddy with anticipation to wear a bald cap, and be covered in mud and have six hours of make-up everyday she was completely onboard with the whole trip. It was perfect.
She definitely seems committed when you watch it. I read somewhere that she actually put live bugs in her mouth for one of the scenes. Did you really make her do that?
DW: She wanted to that!
KK: We didn’t make her. (Both Laugh)
DW: I had a way, I was like ‘I’m not gonna ask you to do that’, we actually had a way through editing to fake that to where you would think she did it. It was an easy enough thing to hide and she said ‘No, no I want to do it’, I was like ‘really are you sure?’, we kept asking her in the lead up to the film if she was going to do it or not and she kept saying ‘Yeah I’ll do it’, and then how did that day on set go? (Laughs)
KK: Yeah, that wasn’t a fun day.
DW: She had a hard time with it. She did it, and it’s real but she had a really hard time with it. That was the one thing that almost temporarily broke her. She had to take a twenty minute break and walk it off.
KK: We had a hard time. (Both Laugh)
DW: Yeah we weren’t even doing it and I couldn’t even look at the monitor. I was like ‘Oh God, I want no where near that bathroom right now’.
So you won’t be applying for Fear Factor any time soon?
DW: Not for me, (to Kevin) I don’t know about you.
KK: Yeah, no, no.
DW: I can’t handle, you know I’m a boring eater. I have a hard time eating squid.
KK: I once had a dream that I ate a tunafish sandwich that had maggots in it. (Dennis recoils) I didn’t eat tunafish for a couple of years after that.
DW: I didn’t know that.
KK: (Nods) Yeah. (All laugh)
DW: I had a dream two weeks ago where I bit into a banana and there were like these green, caterpillar slug type things in the banana and I dropped the banana on the ground. When I woke up the next day I was worried about eating a banana. I was like wait, do bananas have things inside of them? I guess they do.
The make-up as you’ve already mentioned was quite intense in places, I guessing that that took up a significant portion of your shooting time when it was already quite a tight schedule how did you guys work around that?
KK: It was tough working around it. The thing is, normally if you have somebody in make-up you’ll go shoot different scenes, or shoot out other actors, but we were telling a very personal story, it’s a very subjective film. It really is Sarah’s story so Alex is in EVERY scene of the film. There wasn’t really anything else we could go shoot. Basically all we could do was give them pre calls where the make up team and Alex would have earlier call times by a couple of hours than everybody else, and they would hopefully get ready in makeup before people were showing up. Obviously it was such intense makeup that when the crew did show up, still a couple of hours later she still wasn’t ready. So then it was talking to her while she was in makeup, really going over the scene with her there. Then going and talking to the people she was going to be acting with and going over the lines with them, and talking to the DP, going over the shots. It did slow down the schedule when you have somebody in makeup but there wasn’t anything else we could shoot so we had to wait on it. It did give us that time to sit in with her in the makeup room or talk to the other actors or go through the shots with the DP and it was actually really good. When you’re on a low budget film and you have a tight schedule normally people are like ‘Go! Go! We gotta move! We gotta move!’ and you don’t usually get as much time to train with or to rehearse with the actors, or to go over all the specifics in the shots. I think that the makeup was actually helpful in that way. While we were waiting for our makeup it gave us time because everyone knew we couldn’t shoot until she was ready so it did give us time to sit with her and really go over the lines and talk to the DP. I think it really helped because for a low budget film are saying how it looked above it’s budget level and they are saying the performances are really good and a lot of that extra time to go over those things did come from waiting for that makeup.
STARRY EYES has a very old school Hollywood vibe to it, what were your influences?
DW: As far as the golden age of Hollywood films like THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, Kirk Douglas, ALL ABOUT EVE is a great film about competition, about acting. Then we were really inspired by a lot of the golden age of horror films of the 70’s, late 70’s CARRIE obviously, REPULSION (to Kevin) that was actually 60’s right?
KK: Yeah 60’s.
DW: Late 60’s. THE ENITY, Barbara Hershey is a great one, just a lot of female-driven horror films. I think Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST was nominated for an Oscar for that? I think she might have been. But movies where women were really getting to do everything emotionally as far as just completely baring themselves. I think that kinda went away for a while in horror, so we’re really influenced by that phase of filmmaking. Definitely POSSESSION; Zulawski’s POSSESSION which is early 80’s, with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil, that was probably one of the biggest influences on the film just as far as the raw performance that Adjani gives in that film. Alex really studied her performance and was a big fan of that film, and really tried to channel that aggression.
KK: Honestly I think REPULSION was early 60’s [To clarify REPULSION was released in 1965 so bang in the middle of the decade] because late 60’s we’re onto ROSEMARY’S BABY, which is another big influence.
DW: Yeah I think they are some of the bigger ones.
The film within the film, The Silver Scream, is touted as being a gateway role for Sarah, in many ways STARRY EYES has become Alex’s gateway role. Where do you guys see her career going?
DW: Anybody who works with her would be lucky to get her, she was a Godsend for us. The easiest person we’ve ever had to direct. This total immense talent. So we know that ever side STARRY EYES she’s be going to a lot of auditions and she’s probably going to be in some movies coming out [soon]. I think she’s just very unique, there’s really no one like her. I think she’s going to go far.
KK: Yeah I think so too. I think it’s one of the things that a lot of people who like STARRY EYES, or pretty much everyone who likes STARRY EYES are pinpointing is her performance. The film hinges on her performance and she does a great job.
DW: The entire movie is like a casting reel for her. It’s like one great audition video for her. You can give a person the film and she’s in every scene. She’s amazing.
You guys show a very different side to LA, one that we, the audience, aren’t used to seeing. A darker side to the Hollywood dream was that intentional? Are you trying to scare people away? Or open their eyes to what it’s really like?
KK: (Both Laugh) Yeah , like I was saying before it’s hard enough to get into this business, we don’t want the competition.
DW: Yeah keep everybody away. (Both laugh) The whole film is a cautionary tale of stay where you are, we’re good.
KK: It’s just like we watch a lot of films like we brought up ROSEMARY’S BABY and then there’s great things like (THE) ADDICTION, there was like that whole New York City independent vampire wave in the 90’s.
DW: Yeah HABIT.
KK: It was just kinda like we’ve seen a lot of great New York horror movies and like you said we’re not used to seeing LA like that. Even when you have horror movies in LA, day scenes are still these bright sunny day shots. We wanted the whole thing to have a real foreboding feel. We didn’t want it to just be like horrific things are happening to this girl in sunny LA, we wanted the whole film to have this atmosphere. It is about someone trying to make it in Hollywood so to her Hollywood is the oppressive thing that is crushing her in the beginning. It is some of the villain, so for me it had to kinda look like…
DW: A terrible place.
STARRY EYES has been a critical success, everyone I know who saw it really adored it. What’s next for you guys?
DW: We are doing a short segment in this new horror anthology that XYZ films is doing called HOLIDAYS. Which is cool because no-one’s done it yet. It’ll be eight to ten, probably ten, holiday shorts with ten filmmakers, eleven including Kevin and I. We are doing one of the segments for that and we’re actually filming it in a few weeks. I think the plan is for some sort of release in the fall. That’s the next immediate thing we have and then we’ve just been writing our butts off. We have a lot of features that we’re trying to develop to get made. We’ve been reading a lot of scripts from other writers too. So hopefully we’ll get something that sticks in the next few months that we can announce.
Have you picked your holiday yet?
DW: We have but they’re not letting us say. We’re dying to say it.
KK: I think they want to save that for the next announcement. [Just days after conducting this interview the news broke that the pair will be directing the Valentine’s Day portion of the anthology.]
DW: It’s one we’re really excited about, we’re working on it now and are pretty excited about it. It definitely feels like the same guys who made STARRY EYES, so if you like STARRY EYES it feels like an evolution of that, our vision for lack of a better word.