Five Lessons We Learned While Making STARLET

by Blake Ashman-Kipervaser (producer)

As a film producer I find that each production I work on has its own unique set of challenges and the process can feel a bit like a roller coaster ride at times. Yet somehow things always seem to work out, and hopefully after its done you feel you've learned something or become stronger at what you do. With STARLET undergoing finishing work and getting ready to be released later this year I've thought back on some of the recent close calls and other experiences we survived during the making of the film and how fortuitous many of them seem to be in hindsight.  Here are five examples which I hope will help other filmmakers in some shape or form. 

1. The right place at the right time 

While developing another project STARLET director Sean Baker,

executive producer Shih-Ching Tsou and DP Radium Cheung shot tests with a DSLR camera and a vintage Iscorama anamorphic lens adapater Sean had purchased on Ebay. The results looked promising. We thought we’d be able to use the adapter on the STARLET shoot even though we'd changed cameras to the Sony F3. As it turned out when we finally had a chance to test the F3 with the Iscorama adapter the results were not acceptable. This left us in a major bind scrambling at the last minute to find a set of anamporphic lenses that a) were available and b) were affordable. Both equally challenging!  The risk being that if we couldn’t find anything that worked we'd have to compromise by shooting the film in the flat 1:85 format instead of scope 2:35 which Sean and Radium had always envisioned.

A year earlier while researching options online Radium found a person who appeared to rent and sell anamorphic lenses. We got back in touch with him and it turned out he was living in a trailer park sixty miles north of LA and had one set of lenses available for rent. When we visited him at the trailer park we looked at the lenses and sure enough they were the real deal.  Russian lomos from the 70's but in perfect condition.  Despite the fact that they weighed a ton they were great lenses.  He explained to us that he had acquired a stockpile of Russian lenses just after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Sort of a right place, right time situation. He was introduced to the right contacts in Moscow and went back several times to purchase more. He'd been making a living off renting and selling them for the last 20 years. We were lucky he had this one set available. When we went back to him during post for a reshoot he had already sold them.

 (l to r) Shih-Ching Tsou, Sean Baker, and Adam Kolkman at the trailer park testing a lens.

2. There are others out there just like you

Our script included a few scenes in which some of the main characters play a first person shooter style video game. We needed to find a game that would allow us to use their footage in the film, and for a reduced price. Because STARLET does contain some explicit content we tried to only approach companies that wouldn’t have a problem with this. We had an ally who is well connected in the video game industry help make the initial calls for us. After receiving rejections from the first couple companies approached we learned of one that seemed excited about working with us. They gave us permission to use their footage and we filmed it off the monitor during production. Contractually we agreed to show them the scenes with their footage in the final edit before they signed off so they could be sure we weren’t depicting their game in a derogatory way. Very deep into post-production we sent them clips of those scenes and everything seemed to be ok. They sent an executable copy of the agreement to our attorney which I signed and sent back.  Then all of a sudden they came back and insisted we show them the entire film. Once they saw the sex scene in the film they pulled out (no pun intended).  Due to the corporate nature of their business they just couldn’t be associated with something so risque.  Ironically, they create games for adolescents that revolve around killing everything in sight.

As you can imagine this was an extremely stressful situation for us. We were warned by our contact in the game industry that we wouldn't be able to find anyone else. However, we refused to believe that as we knew that the game community has just as many independent creators as the film community. It had to be a good opportunity for somebody!  We searched Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for crowdfunding campaigns and sent messages out. Within a couple days we connected with Jason Welge of Panzer Gaming Studios who responded enthusiastically to our request. He was psyched about having his game ‘Left to Rot’ appear in the film. And it worked perfectly for us. It was a win win for all.

3. Dreams do come true 

Our co-lead character Sadie is an elderly woman living in the Valley. Initially we wanted to cast an aging starlet for the role. Along with our casting director, Julia Kim we approached several famous actresses for the role. We got one of them on board. It was an exciting moment in our pre-production. But just as quickly as we got her attached, she dropped out.  Ultimately, we weren’t able to meet her budget needs. Around the same time our executive producer Shih-Ching Tsou was exercising at a YMCA in West Hollywood when she discovered Besedka Johnson. When she approached Johnson and asked her if she’d ever acted, Johnson’s eyes lit up and she responded “I’ve never acted but I’ve always dreamed of it.”  A few days later we auditioned her for the role and she immediately won us all over. We cast her and the rest is history.  At SXSW she was awarded a Special Jury Recognition for her performance. She told the audience at the premiere "Dreams do come true". 

4. Strike quickly when opportunity knocks

During pre-production while we were out scouting one of our locations, Talent Testing Services, a very well-known adult film performer Manuel Ferrara was on his way out as we were walking in. Sean had been considering him for an important role in the film and had mentioned this to me a few days earlier. Shortly after Manuel exited the clinic, Sean leaned over to me and whispered “That was Manuel, should I go follow him and talk to him about the film?”.  I nodded yes and Sean chased him down in the parking lot.  When Sean returned a few minutes later he gave us the good news that Manuel said yes. 

5. Divine Intervention

One of our greatest challenges during the making of STARLET was finding a car for our lead character, Jane.  We wanted something with some character, a little beat up, and a little outdated, but nothing over the top or quirky. It also had to have working air conditioner as we were shooting in the Valley in August which is hot as hell, and it needed to be automatic for our actress. That last condition we failed to make happen.  We spent several weeks searching used car lots, rental places that specialized in renting damaged cars, as well as asking all of our friends if they knew of anything.  Finally we found something that worked. A late nineties Saturn. We paid too much but by that time we were desparate. And we had exhausted all our other options. We later found out it had a lein on it too but that’s another story... 

The car lasted us a couple good weeks of shooting before it broke down, erupting with heavy smoke while I was driving to set on the 405. We were exremeley aggravated at the thought of throwing more money into trying to fix it, after already having spent too much to begin with. Later that day, while shooting a scene, our DP Radium Cheung was framing a shot, looking into the lens when he saw an identical looking car stopped a red light in the deep background. He yelled “That’s our car!!”  I literally ran into the intersection and pitched the female driver the possibility of renting it to us for the rest of our shoot. Amazingly she agreed! If that hadn’t happened I’m not sure what we’d have done. 

As these stories suggest, filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. Those 5 lessons only scratch the surface of what we’ve had to overcome to make STARLET. One final lesson is that sometimes, even when the stars align, you still need help to get to the finish line.  We were very fortunate to have premiered the film at SXSW and received positive responses from audiences and critics alike. This led to a N. American distribution deal with Music Box Films – a company whose work we admire and who believes in our film. It also led to Rezo Films acquiring the film for international sales. Both of these companies are taking a risk on STARLET and will have to work hard to ensure that it finds its audience. There is no easy path for true independent films.

That is what brings us to Kickstarter. We have been short on funds for a while as we’ve tried to take the film to completion.  Due to lack of time and money we screened the film at SXSW before having done a proper sound design and mix, and color correction. We licensed only festival rights for the music. We went into debt just to be able to attend the premiere. And now we need your help. We will be able to get this film out there in the way that we also intended if we are able to meet our goal on Kickstarter. We hope that you will be interested in supporting our project and our future filmmaking efforts.

Blake Ashman-Kipervaser is an independent film producer based in New York.  STARLET premiered at SXSW 2012 and will be released later this year by Music Box Films. They are currently raising finishing funds on Kickstarter. Please visit their page here: to support the film.