Sean Baker's Starlet stars Dree Hemingway (Ernest's great-granddaughter) as Jane, a 21-year-old "girl next door" porn performer whose off-hours are spent getting high in the Valley house she shares with fellow "starlet" Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa's small-time impresario boyfriend (James Ransone). The story in the movie, which screens at AFI Fest before opening in theaters on November 9, is the stuff of company town cliche: A newcomer arrives in Los Angeles, floats without a permanent address and gets mixed up in porn. That's also what happened to Baker behind the scenes.
In 2010, Baker decamped from New York to L.A. to work on Warren the Ape, an MTV-produced spinoff of the IFC/Fox cult puppet television show Greg the Bunny, which Baker co-created. His plan was to use his salary from the gig to support the theatrical release of Prince of Broadway, his social-realist dramedy about a West African immigrant hustler in Manhattan's counterfeit-purse business, which won the grand prize at the L.A. Film Festival in 2009 but had long languished without distribution. So instead of renting an apartment, he surreptitiously crashed at work.
"That entire eight months, I was living on the floor" of the Warren production offices, Baker recalls. "Every morning I would pack up and try to make it look like I had just got into the office by the time the writers came in.'"
The script, co-written by fellow Warren producer Chris Bergoch, was inspired by Baker's time spent with porn stars who were cast in cameos on the MTV show.
Baker says he's "always interested in individuals who live on the fringe and don't follow social norms." In this case, he became fascinated by the porn stars' off-set lives. "From what I saw, it was very mundane. They were looking for connections and love and friendship, just like all of us."
His movies are hybrids of anthropology and entertainment, combining highly accessible, almost Hollywood plotlines — in Broadway, for instance, a man-child bonds with the baby he didn't know he had — and documentary-esque realism. Starlet is a funny and touching story about a seemingly shallow girl whose life is enriched by her relationship with a grandma surrogate (played by first-time actress Besedka Johnson, 85), but it's also an authentic insider glimpse into the XXX industry, complete with a graphic depiction of a porn shoot.
Baker's secret weapon is to employ, as actors and advisers, members of the underground communities he's seeking to depict. A crew of adult film industry personnel consulted on Starlet, giving script notes and appearing in cameos. One of those advisers, veteran performer Scott Lyons (whom you may recognize as "Morecock" from the A-Team porn parody), even lent his home as a shooting location.
"Both of those houses where Jane lives in the film are real 'model houses,' located in the Valley, from which transient girls come and go," Baker says. "It does feel like this sort of underground network, this underbelly. To be able to get the opportunity to actually shoot on location in those places was fascinating. We were actually using the rooms that had been decorated by the boyfriend-slash-pimps who lived there."
Another memorable scene, set at a porn convention, was shot guerrilla-style, with Hemingway signing autographs and taking photos with fans who assumed she was a real XXX performer. "The second they walked away, they'd be hit with a SWAT team of assistants with pens" and releases, Baker recalls, laughing. "'Oh, we just recorded all of that. This is actually fiction. Do you want to be in our movie?'"