Horror fans: If you haven’t seen last year’s Starry Eyes, you are sorely missing out. Skip class, call out sick, or procrastinate any/all responsibilities you may have – just get on Netflix and watch it already! The movie’s about a young woman named Sarah (portrayed by the very talented Alex Essoe) who’s hoping to live out her dream of making it as an actress in the biz, but when she finally lands the role of a lifetime, she discovers that the price of fame is high. Very high.
The indie horror flick premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest film festival in the spring of 2014 to lots of acclaim and buzz, solidifying its position as one of last year’s most original and best genre films. Here, Kevin Kolsch, one of the film’s writer-directors, discusses where the inspiration for the film came from, the experience of working with Kickstarter, and what’s next on the horizon for him and his partner (Starry Eyes co-writer-director), Dennis Widmyer.
The Littlest Winslow: Why was writing a film about the horrors of fame and Hollywood important to you? Where’d the idea come from?
Kevin Kolsch: Dennis and I have been working together for 20 years. We’ve been at this for a long time, writing scripts in our free time while working day jobs. It really started to seem like film was an impossible industry to break into – like only the chosen few get to join the cult. So we wanted to tell a story where we could let out our frustrations. Also, being fans of body horror, we were kicking around the idea of doing a transformation film. Then we realized that if we focused on an actor as our lead character, a person who’s physicality is part of their commodity, we could combine the two. We could tell a body horror, transformation story and vent about our experiences at the same time.
TLW: The music in the film is crazy good and really helps set the tone of the movie – it feels both contemporary and retro. How did you connect with Jonathan Snipes, and how did you pin down the style you wanted for the score?
KK: Jay Shaw, who did some graphic art and posters for us, recommended Jonathan. At first we weren’t sure about the choice since all the temp score we were using was orchestral and the stuff Jonathan was doing was so different. But then as a test, we started replacing our temp tracks with some of his stuff from Room 237 and suddenly the film came alive. The scenes we added the tracks to started to pulse with this energy that was missing before. So we went with him. For the score we told him we loved his synth stuff, but we didn’t want it to just feel like an homage score. We wanted Sarah to have a theme that continued throughout the movie – that got as corrupted as she did. He did it perfectly. There’s a real emotional arc to that score. The synth instruments give it that retro quality, but the way he is composing on those instruments feels very different from what we’re used to hearing them do. It’s a very modern composition done on retro instruments.
TLW: Waxwork Records even released the soundtrack on vinyl! How did that project come about?
KK: That was Jonathan. He knew Kevin from Waxworks and reached out. I’m so happy that this happened. Like I said, Jonathan really nailed it with the score and I think it stands alone as an amazing work. Plus, he expanded upon the tracks for the record.
KK: Alex is a very talented actor. When she came in for her first read, she gave a very good performance. However, a lot of actors gave good performances. Alex stood out when we were watching back a tape of her audition. We paused it and on the frame it stopped on, Alex had her arms out and they were long and thin, and she had these spidery fingers. So we said, “Hey, this girl can play the pretty actress role for sure, but it looks like she also has the physicality to do the horror stuff.” So we had her come back in and read again, but this time we had her do a freak out scene. There was a lot of demanding stuff in Starry Eyes. Sarah goes through the ringer, so almost more important than finding someone who could deliver lines, was finding someone who understood the material and was okay with everything they would have to do in this role. In talking to Alex, we learned that she was already a big fan of all the films that influenced us and she knew exactly what we were going for with this movie. She got it. And where there were things in this film that other actors might turn their nose up at, Alex was game for it all. She was excited by the challenge. She said, “Why wouldn’t I want to do this. I get to use every tool in my actor toolkit. This character gets to go through the whole spectrum of emotions.”
TLW: How did you originally connect with Pat Healy about starring in the film?
KK: Pat Healy came through our producer Travis Stevens. Travis had just worked with Pat on Cheap Thrills, so he reached out to him about Starry Eyes. We thought he’d be great in the role, but were worried that he wasn’t going to want to do it. But Pat really liked that we were showing a human side to the guy that’s usually just the sleazy boss. That there was a person there. This wasn’t just a guy standing in the way of Sarah’s dreams. He has dreams of his own and Sarah is trampling on his dreams with her terrible work habits. Pat brought so much to that role. After working with him, Dennis and I find ourselves looking at all our projects and asking ourselves, “Is there a role for Pat here?”
TLW: What was your greatest challenge throughout the production?
KK: Oh God, what wasn’t a challenge? Making a low budget movie is a challenge in and of itself. And we were pretty ambitious in what we were shooting in the amount of time we were shooting it and how much we were shooting it for. Every day our schedule was stacked. We’d be approaching lunch and realize we were still at our first location and we had three moves still. There were days we thought were impossible. We’d be sitting at lunch going, “We’re never going to be able to get everything we need today.” And sometimes we didn’t. Some stuff got pushed. Some stuff got cut. Some scenes we edited together with the footage we had when there was supposed to be multiple addition angles. There are days when you wake up in the morning and you think of the day ahead of you and you go, “Why am I doing this again?” But then you remember that the alternative is worse and you throw yourself out of bed.
TLW: What are some of your favorite horror films? Which of them helped influence Starry Eyes?
KK: Most of my favorite horror movies are the typical choices, but they’re the typical choices for a reason: The Exorcist, The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes. I remember walking around the house as a kid saying, “I’ve seen Poltergeist 13 times!” My favorite is probably Rosemary’s Baby, along with Polanski’s other entries in the apartment trilogy: Repulsion and The Tenant. Our biggest influence on Starry Eyes was Zulawski’s Possession. We were also influenced by the Polanski films I mentioned, Carrie, The Entity, Don’t Look Now and the films of Cronenberg, as well as non-horror films like All About Eve and Boogie Nights.
TLW: How was your experience working with Kickstarter? How much of your budget did you need to crowdsource?
KK: Kickstarter is a nerve racking experience and it’s a lot of work, but it is an amazing resource that indie artists have at their disposal. It is helping people accomplish things they would not have been able to do before. Like I said, Dennis and I have been at this for 20 years. We self financed all our own projects, but more frequently we just didn’t make a lot of things. We wrote scripts and sent out queries, hoping someone would want to pay us to make one of them into a film. Today you can get indie films made so much easier with the advancement of digital technology and crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, but you have to be realistic. Kickstarter is not just a way to get free money. You don’t just launch a campaign and watch the pledges roll in. You must start by setting a realistic goal and even then, you need to be hustling everyday. Running a Kickstarter campaign becomes a full time job, but it’s one that is well worth it. We raised about 17 percent of our budget through Kickstarter.
TLW: The film paints a very hopeless and bleak picture of someone with a dream and what they will do to pursue it. Yet, the movie’s critical and overall success must’ve been very rewarding for you guys, as filmmakers. Having seen Sarah’s terrifying journey to…uh…success…what advice do you have for someone who might be chasing a dream just like Sarah?
KK: Well, I believe in the film’s message about being a “doer.” Constantly be working and don’t give up. You see how Sarah’s friends talk a lot about doing things, but they are spending their time hanging out and talking instead of doing – that’s a real fear. We’d always worry that we weren’t doing enough. We’d feel guilty for hanging out instead of working. And trust me, I get it. You come home from a day job and you’re exhausted and you don’t always have the energy to work on your own endeavors. You want to unwind with a beer. That’s why Dennis and I would always try to turn the work into hanging out. We’d get together, put on music, drink beer and work on scripts. Find time to always be working on something. I think Eli Roth said this was a longevity game. That most people leave film school thinking they’re going to just make a movie. When it doesn’t happen after a little while, they go get real jobs. The people who are successful are the ones still pushing forward. So always push forward. Even if you don’t have success, you are not wasting your time with these pursuits because they should be what you love doing. The people Eli Roth spoke of go get day jobs because the insecurity of playing this game scares them. Like I said earlier, no matter how hard a film shoot gets, you still pull yourself out of bed because the idea of not doing it is scarier. You keep working because you have to. Because it’s your passion. Because of how it makes you feel.
TLW: Are you currently working on any new projects? If so, what are they?
KK: Yes. Dennis and I just did a segment for an upcoming anthology film entitled Holidays. It’s a collection of horror shorts surrounding the major national holidays. We did Valentine’s Day. There’s some great talent on this project. From bigger names like Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart and Gary Shore to amazing indie directors like Sarah Adina Smith, Nicholas McCarthy, Anthony Scott Burns and Adam Egypt Mortimer.
Aside from that, we are trying to line up our next feature. We are up for some bigger jobs that we can’t really talk about, while banging out the next draft of our own screenplay entitled Geminia, an erotica thriller about long lost twins set within the seedy world of the fashion industry.