It doesn’t take much to imagine the suited executives of the entertainment industry as sinister otherworldly creatures, yet one of the most impressive features at Frightfest (2014) supplanted these stereotypes into a Faustian body horror about an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who will do anything to secure her next part. With an incredible performance from lead Alex Essoe and an eclectic cast featuring Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills), Amanda Fuller (Red White and Blue) and Noah Segan (Deadgirl), Starry Eyes is an incredible psychological study of the desperation and desire for fame – treading the star studded promenades of Mullholland Drive in its stylish, disturbing deconstruction of Hollywood culture. Meeting up with co – directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer before their host of Frightfest 2014 screenings, Flickfeast probed the gents on the exploitative realities of the film industry, a peculiar ‘collaboration’ with David Lynch and the thematic potential of ‘body horror’ in reflecting everyday experience.
FF: How did the project originate and how did you develop it.
DW: It originated basically through what we call a ‘directors reel’ where as directors we come up with a very simple concept. So the concept was a Faustian tale where someone sells their soul and that felt very familiar to people so they could wrap their heads around the plot. Then as directors we could dance a little bit, try different things and we wanted an idea to go on, to have a really performance from the lead and to experiment with body horror and special effects. So really the movie was us sitting down and deciding what we wanted to do next as filmmakers.
KK: Also as far as the specific idea we came up with we were speaking about areas we always wanted to explore such as ‘body horror’ and as we work in this business and we have had lots of failures and false successes, we know what’s it’s like to work a job you don’t like and to try and get a film made. We were wondering how we would put this into a movie from an industry perspective so we decided we wanted to look at the people on the other side of the camera in relation to their physicality and commodity. ‘Body horror’ is a very good way to tell what we are all feeling right way with this ticking clock of getting older while we are trying to start our careers and needing to work a job that is paying the bills. We tried to put a lot of what we were going through into the film.
DW: The frustration of it all too just crashing at the surface for so long and not feeling like you are really getting anywhere. Then all of a sudden you are in your mid-thirties and for an actor it is their mid-twenties. When you are an actor you turn twenty five and you suddenly feel like you are fourty and every day you are getting older and your face is slowly changing. You put a concept like that in a movie like this and suddenly it becomes very scary. In that respect the whole movie is a just a metaphor for that frustration of wanting to break into the industry and get on with your life.
FF: There is a quote from a casting agent in Starry Eyes ‘You will either make a lasting impression, or blend into the sea of thousands of girls who pass through these halls’. From both your experiences as filmmakers and industry insiders have you ever experienced casting agents, producers exploiting people in this way, especially in the film as you touch on the degrading Hooters type titty bars and the importance of relinquishing control.
DW: It absolutely happens. We have never had any of that happen on any of our films but you hear stories and people get reputations where people are exploited for roles. As far as the titty bar stuff that what us wondering what would be the worst situation we could put the character in like a themed restaurants where she would have to wear some ridiculous costume every day. Just a job where it really sucks going to work and it is so demeaning. We also liked the idea of making fun of Hooters and a job that would almost feel similar to acting but where you would feel similarly exploited
KK: She also says in the movie ‘I feel like I’m selling my soul anyway so why not for something I love’ so it’s kind of helped push the character Sarah in the direction she needs to go when she is trying to chase her dream. When she goes to this other job where she is getting paid shit and she is not getting close to her goals and feels like she is being exploited anyway, so it’s not that far of a leap when she ends up going on that journey where if she is exploited at least she might win some awards too. She does some horrible stuff so we wanted to put her in place where the character was ready and her next choice wasn’t that difficult.
FF: It must have been extremely important to get the casting right for the lead actress. How did you choose Alex Essoe and how did she take and develop you material from script to screen.
DW: The success of the movie rested on the casting for sure and not so much to get a talented actress but someone who is physically willing to go there, to trust us as directors and give in to the role. We met Alex through the traditional casting sessions with about 75 other people. She came in and she was beautiful and had talent and the second time she came in we asked to her to repeat the scene in the movie where she freaks out in the audition in a meta way. We did that to see if she could really let herself go. You also don’t want to be on set with actors who are scared to bawl a pool, laugh, scream or have special effects make – up. She was up for everything and was not only challenged by it but excited by it. She saw the role as a type of role where every scene she gets to go from a 1 to a 10 emotionally. From very confident to very insecure then very happy to destroyed and crying. As an actor that’s all you every want and you have trained for. She was very appreciative of that and as directors we were grateful that she was amazing and elevated every scene she was in and every other actor had to rise to her level.
FF: The rest of the casting is incredibly rich from Noah Segan, Amanda Fuller, Pat Healy and even Louis Dezseran, most having experience in quite high – concept horror from Dead Girl, Red White and Blue and Cheap Thrills. Was this intentional in filling out the rest of the cast.
DW: Yeah that is funny. It was our producer Travis Stevens so we were able to get a lot of these really established actors that have been in these festival favourites. So it was kind of like a family reunion making this movie together and ironically Amanda and Mark from Red White and Blue were never in one scene together and the same thing with Amanda and Pat from Cheap Thrills but they saw eachother on set.
FF: Having toured many of the major genre festivals how does it feel to be at the main screen at Frightfest? How do you hope audiences will take it?
KK: We arrived Thursday and we are liking it. First we have been trying to get acclimated and there is an 8 hour time difference from LA and an 8 hour flight and we haven’t slept yet. Now I have been waking up at 6am. We have got used to it and been having a great time here going to the parties and hanging out with people
DW: It’s an amazing city and the pubs are great
FF: Have you managed to bump into Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street) yet?
DW: It’s funny to kill time we watched the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again which was about 5 – 6 hours long. So after spending about 5 hours staring at Freddy Kruger we were checking into the hotel Robert Englund was checking in front of us online and we were like holy shit. That was a funny moment.
FF: How was the experience as filmmakers and writers lampooning the very industry you work in? Were you exorcizing any personal demons through satirising industry decision makers as literally satanic?
KK: Shall we tall him the story (speaking to Dennis)
DW: He has brought it upon himself
KK: Ok so a bunch of years ago we were trying to make a feature film that we had a script for and we were meeting with possible financier and holding casting sessions at the same time. We didn’t have any money yet and were working both sides and hoping something would click. We were holding auditions and this guy comes in and he basically says I loved the script as that time we were idiots and would let people online read the whole script.
DW: We had the whole screenplay online and we would never do that nowadays
KK: The whole time he was talking about how much he loved the script and he had a Brazilian accent and was meant to lose his accent as he was playing a character from New York. He was reading the script and struggling through and trying hard to concentrate and lose the accent and was getting frustrated. So we said thankyou and he was a really nice guy but he started calling us and asking how he did. We felt really bad for him and he was such a nice guy about the script and had come over to America from Europe to start his career so we offered him some little parts in the movie. He continued to call saying you promised me the part and we said we haven’t made the movie yet and then one day some guy from David Lynch’s website contacts Dennis and said Lynch is going to make your next movie and we were like what? He said some kid did an interview saying he got cast in David Lynch’s new movie so we go check and there are all these articles in Portuguese which we can’t read. So we translate them online and it turns out this guy has went back to his home country and starts fabricating this story about how he got cast in this movie and has had all this success and getting cast in a David Lynch movie. There was no David Lynch movie and he used the plot from our script and basically afterwards told us the way David Lynch casts is he just shines a spotlight in your face recounting ‘after I stood and stared at the spotlight for three hours David Lynch lowered the light and said you have got the part’.
DW: This was all bullshit and none of this happened so we basically had to call him and not threaten to sue him but say this is a copyrighted screenplay and you are fabricating the story. He had to post a statement on the website saying it was all bullshit and created a whole fake movie out of the premise from out screenplay
KK: When you were also talking about personal stories we used this actual spotlight scene from this David Lynch story in Starry Eyes but and we do have some personal stories but generally we were looking at the desperation in putting everything on the line, struggling to make it and facing up against a wall.
FF: Psychological transformation and deterioration being expressed through body horror has been done many times before from Cronenberg’s The Fly, In My Skin and more recently the indie Contracted… but Starry Eyes takes things to a whole other level. How did you approach the practical effects production from an aesthetic direction and what influenced you?
DW: We were definitely influenced by early Cronenberg and definitely Zulawski’s Possession (1981) and they were huge influences definitely
FF: In British documentary Starsuckers (2009) Chris Atkins delved into the kind of psychological addition people have for ‘fame’. From reality TV to the stereotypical pilgrimage of people who flock to LA chasing and the dream of stardom, do you think the thirst for fame is a problematic, even horrific aspect of popular culture?
DW: I just think everybody wants to be remembered. Everybody is so concerned with legacy and wanting to leave their imprint on the world and I think that’s a lot to do with fame. That’s why in the movie she has a shrine on her wall of 40s golden age actors because she wants to be remembered in the same way they are. At the end of the film she wants to be one of those faces.
WW: It’s funny because even her friends in the movie who are not achieving the success she is but through the movie they are all talking about their own attempts to make an imprint through social media etc and they all want to become mini – celebrities.
FF:What is next is the horizon for both of you?
DW: We are working on an erotic thriller as a follow up and have a lot of other things we are working on
WW: We also have a few scripts and some specs we need to work out work and we hope they will be a nice evolution and follow up to our previous work.