Writer/Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, Producer Travis Stevens, and Star Alex Essoe talk Starry Eyes [INTERVIEW] [SXSW ’14]

I saw Starry Eyes relatively early into South by Southwest, and I knew I really liked it as soon as I walked out of it. The further away I got from having seen it, the more I liked it. When I finally spoke to the filmmakers, they pointed out some inspirations and references that hadn’t even dawned on me yet, solidifying the film as one of my favorites of the entire festival. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have some big concepts and high standards, so expect to see more really cool stuff from them in the future. Travis Stevens was producer on two of the biggest festival hits of last year, Cheap Thrills and Jodorowsky’s Dune, so I know his hot streak is only going to continue with this and future films. Alex Essoe was vulnerable, empowered, frantic and confident in her performance as Sarah, an actress questioning how far she’d be willing to go to obtain her dream. Guys…just go see the fucking movie. There’s no official release date planned, but keep you eyes out for it. It…gets real weird, and in the best ways possible. I think you’ll understand that once you read this cool interview! Reading it will even make you cooler!

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WolfMan: I had no idea what to anticipate last night, and I still don’t entirely comprehend everything I saw, in a good way. There were a lot of elements that felt familiar from movies that I loved without it feeling like anything was lifted from another movie. What were your inspirations?

Dennis Widmyer: I’d definitely say Possesion by Zulawski. Kevin had seen it before I had and told me I needed to see it. He said it was a “horror film about divorce” and that was what made me interested to see it. Not the body horror, but the metaphor of something very real done in a horrific way. As writers, we like to explore psychological issues and character traits through a genre lens. We wanted to tell a story like this and we looked at movies like that for inspiration.

Kevin Kolsch: As far as you saying it didn’t feel like we ripped anything off, the thing is that you have influences that form the style of film that you might want to make, but as long as you’re telling a story or a character that’s coming from somewhere within you, you have something unique you want to say, it’ll make your movie stand apart from other genre films.

Travis Stevens: If you’re pushing to make it more original. You’re going to have influences, but you make it your own. We had a joke about “updating the occult”. Are we going to have dudes with torches or are we going to try to find something a little more original?

WM: And that’s what I enjoyed. It was a cult but you didn’t make it anything we had seen before. Alex, did you have any idea what you were in store for when you signed on for this movie?

Alex Essoe: I don’t know if I fully realized the gravity of what I would be doing, but I enjoyed it all the more for it. After reading the script, it was one of those “Alright, time to go balls out”, to use the parlance of our time.

WM: As the kids are saying.

AE: Balls all out in the breeze. It was nice because you so rarely get the opportunity as an actor to do that.

KK: You don’t get the opportunity to go balls out all that often? (laughs)

AE: Yeah, the balls normally have to stay in place and it’s no fun that way. No really, especially at this point in my career where I’m completely unknown, I get Girlfriend, Girl Next Door, Streetwalker, Model Number One.

WM: Well at least you’re number one. It didn’t hurt that you do look familiar to Jessica Harper that it helped with the Suspiria vibe.

DW: Oh yeah! I never noticed! You do kind of look like her.

AE: I’ll take that as a huge compliment. I love Jessica Harper. Phantom of the Paradise is one of my favorites. It’s so good.

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Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes

WM: Phantom of the Paradise is very near and dear to my heart. I was talking to someone about Starry Eyes after the screening and I mentioned how there were themes of being a commentary on Hollywood and I took away from it that it was just the setting, and this person from L.A. said it was really heavy in those metaphors. Being an outsider of the industry, it was cool how I could take it more at face value and people from L.A. could dig deeper.

DW: That’s good though. We didn’t want to make a film like this where it was a Hollywood you had seen a hundred times. The person walking on Hollywood Boulevard and palm trees and the Hollywood sign all shiny. We wanted to make the town feel ominous, like a character that could crush you and crush your dreams. When you go to L.A. the first time, you think you’re going to see something like Pasadena or Santa Monica, but that’s not the L.A. where this film was really happening. L.A., where the studio was, was a more desolate, apocalyptic place most of the time.

TS: Reality-wise, you go there expecting something. Your dream is to move to L.A. and you say, “I’m gonna DO this!” and within a year you say, “This SUCKS!” Then all of a sudden, this town you rode into is a place you fucking hate.

AE: It doesn’t help that so many people in L.A. just want to discuss their resumes and throw their accomplishments in your face at every chance they get.

WM: Hey, you were just bragging about being Model Number One.

AE: It was pretty huge, I’m not gonna lie. Everybody wants to feel special and they think they can do that by wearing what they’ve done on their sleeve instead of just being cool people.

TS: That’s another thing that we tried to do. Everyone’s seen the story of the town that corrupts you. You can watch the movie that way and I think you go into it expecting that’s what the story is. This poor, innocent girl gets corrupted by these dark forces. Then three-quarters of the way through, you realize that’s not what’s going on.

AE: And that’s what I really liked about the character. It wasn’t all these things that just happened to her. It’s something she seeks out.

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A bunch of Creeps in Starry Eyes

WM: Right off the bat, just from the title card alone, I thought “This is going to be fucking awesome.” That and the amazing music really helped nail the tone. Could you talk a little bit about the music?

KK: It seems like everyone I’ve been talking to really loved the music. When we had temp tracks in the movie, we had a variety of things. From classical composers to tracks from other movies. We didn’t have one cohesive voice throughout, which is very important. We knew that when it came down to the score that it wasn’t going to be something all over the map. We were going to have to pick one. We had to pick one style. Even when we were first considering music, I remember thinking if the 80’s synth thing through the entire movie would be too much. When we started getting back tracks, it was amazing how it was capturing that 80’s synth feel, paying homage to that, and at the same time it was still so modern and current and fit with what was going on in the movie.

AE: There was so much variety, too.

TS: See that’s another example of influences. It was a good starting point, but how do you make it fresh and original? When we started looking at composers, our poster designer Jaw Shaw said, “You know who should do this score? It should be THIS guy (Jonathan Snipes). I know him.”

DW: You and I were saying, “That’s interesting.” Then we started listening to his stuff and we dropped some of his tracks from Room 237 and right away it was like, oh fuck, seeing what could be done to the scene.

TS: And I don’t know about you, but for Room 237, you have this YouTube video of how he did the music and there’s this room of all these synths and cables everywhere. He collects antique synths from the 60’s and 70’s. He buys them on eBay. I’ve been in his studio. It’s loaded with equipment.

WM: And I’m glad you said “from the 80’s”, because I didn’t want to limit it to that.

DW: The instruments he’s using are from that era. They don’t sound like that anymore.

KK: And it’s easier to throw out “The 80’s”. It really started in the late 70’s, early 90’s.

WM: So you have synth from the 80’s and Alex’s character has pictures of actresses from classical Hollywood that most audience won’t recognize anymore and then the story is a contemporary setting. It ties it all together. You’ve created a timeless masterpiece is what I’m saying.

AE: We did it guys.

KK: It’s funny that you say that because that’s exactly what I was going for. I don’t know about you guys, but I set out to do it.

TS: We got it.

WM: The original title of the movie was “Timeless Masterpiece”. Going along with the cult stuff, it was unique stuff that we hadn’t seen before, so if there a background to this group or does this group have a future? Will we ever know more about them?

DW: Well, with Starry Eyes 2…Starrier Eyes. (laughs) We liked that they had this public face of the company and then on the other hand, there was more stuff behind the scenes. It would be interesting to see more of that world.

TS: The copyright actually lies with the production company.We thought that was a funny little wink. There were versions that went into it a little bit more, but like you said, we already know enough about them. Let’s focus on what’s important. Everyone gets the iconography, let’s stick with what’s interesting.

KK: And it’s interesting that you say that because it goes back to what we were talking about before. We see some familiar things, but it doesn’t feel like a copy. The familiar things, we use them to our advantage at times. You take things that people know or have seen, and it’s familiar to them so you don’t need to go explain something that’s not really the focus of the movie. We can spend time with her and her journey. There were versions where we spent more time explaining the cult or what their motives were, but we knew people would get it. What the cult was and what their motives were, so let’s focus on the heart of this character. Using the familiarities of the genre to really zero in on what we wanted to focus on.

WM: Were there any particular performances that inspired you? You were fantastic in the movie. Was there anything you had to use to get you in that frantic mindset?

AE: I was really inspired by Isabelle Adjani in Possession. Mostly because of her recklessness in that part, it was very inspiring. I watched that and I knew it was what was required. I needed to go full hilt like that. When we were doing the first audition scene, it was weird, we had been filming for a while at that point and you kind of get this momentum with a character that you’ve been wearing for a while. I was so anxious and I felt unhinged. Which of course is the character, it’s how she goes through life, constantly restraining herself. I had to go into my trailer and scream into a pillow for a while, and wouldn’t have been able to do it. My dad came to set that day. Out of all days, it was my big freakout scene.

DW: And he got emotional, right?

AE: Yeah, he teared up. It broke my heart. He was asking if I was okay and I said, “Yeah Dad, it’s just this thing.”

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Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes

WM: You guys were making this movie in Hollywood and you said you connected with this character and what she was going through, so how similar were conditions on set with these guys as to what your character went through on the movie?

DW: We’re gonna get that question a lot.

AE: Completely…

WM: The same. Got it.

AE: Dennis and Kevin are wonderful to work with. They took excellent care of me.

TS: Notice she didn’t say anything about me.

AE: Travis was a rock. He really was. But specifically with the directing, their notes were always really great.

DW: We were always worried about you and checking in to see if you were okay.

AE: And I’d say, “I’m just acting”. Doing a little acting. They were really great to work with. Their vision was something I really connected with and respected. My goal, my main goal, was to honor their writing. Make it truthful. It’s all we can really do.

TS: When you’re doing something this dark and intense, you have to keep a fun, light, family vibe so that everybody feels safe.

AE: The crew was amazing, too. Everyone was so cohesive.

TS: We had cookies every day.

WM: Seriously? I ordered cookies during the movies last night. It was raining and I knew I deserved warm cookies. That’s awesome. We should all get snacks sometimes.

KK: And Travis and I would like to say we formed an Oreo addiction on set, but technically it was a “chocolate cookie sandwich” addiction on-set. We had Oreos on day one.

STARRY EYES – SXSW Teaser Trailer from Parallactic Pictures on Vimeo.
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