A lyrical and often transcendent exploration of grief and regret set against the backdrop of the end of the world, Al White’s Starfish is a beautifully crafted story about how one young woman (Virginia Gardner from 2018's Halloween) sets out to try to save all of humanity one mixtape at a time. Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to chat with White about his highly ambitious project, and he discussed how his own experiences fueled the story of Starfish, collaborating with Gardner on the challenging role, how and why he paid tribute to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters in his latest film, and more.
Congratulations, Al. I had the pleasure of getting to see Virginia in the new Halloween, and I fell in love with her there, so I was very excited to see that she was in this as well. Can you discuss the inspiration behind this idea? Because you have this girl who's finding mixtapes and she's trying to get through the grief process, but you frame everything within the context of this apocalyptic event, and it was so lovely.
Al White: Yeah, I wrote it out of necessity, basically, because I was going through a divorce and then my best friend died of cancer. So I wrote a script to deal with the grief, and I really didn't expect to do anything with it. Then, my producers looked at it and we had a different movie that was sort of scaling too much out of our budget, so they looked at doing this instead. It took about another year to start to get it into a place where it was vaguely watchable, because originally it was way too depressing because it was at a point of grief where there was no hope in the movie at all.
Because of the metaphorical journey and literal emotional journey that the character's going on, my DP [director of photography] and I decided that there was no idea that was too crazy for the film, or for us to at least put on the table. So, we had lists of hundreds of ideas for different scenes and different ways we could break as many rules as we could with this. We started to take them off the table by relating them to the character's journey and it took quite a long time, to be honest.
Because you're working at the indie level, this is a hugely ambitious project, especially with the creatures. There were parts of this movie that reminded me of this movie from a few years ago called Monsters, which I really fell in love with. That was a movie that wasn't made for a ton of money, either, but they really did a lot with their budget. So, I am curious, was that the biggest challenge coming into this film? Because when you're putting literal monsters on a screen, but you're not working with a $20 million budget for visual effects, it can be tough to take on that kind of challenge.
Al White: I love that you mention Monsters, and I am going to ramble a bit here because you mentioned it. So, I had always wanted to do film. I went to film school a long time ago, but I was too shy at film school and I'm old enough that when I was at film school, film was all there was. There weren't digital cameras at that point. So, I went into music for many, many years until I saved up enough money and digital came around. I saw Monsters at FrightFest in London at its premiere and fell madly in love with it, but I was also slightly annoyed with it because it was exactly the kind of film I'd always wanted to make [laughs]. But I met Gareth Edwards and talked to him and he was the one that said to me, "Look, you need to just go buy a DLSR camera and make a short film to find out if you can do this or not." And there's a thing at the end of this film, which I'm gonna put into every film, where I thank Gareth because he really gave me the confidence to try doing what I'm doing, and he's still very kind to talk to me occasionally and support me with things. So that scene that you're talking about is actually a literal nod to him, and you’re the first person I’ve seen even mention that so far.
So there’s definitely a little bit of his design in there. I had to fight to keep that scene in particular because, like you said, that's an expensive scene. We had very little budget to work with, and it took a huge chunk of it. There were so many times when the FX artists would come back to me and say, "You realize how much more we could do with the other scenes if you would just cut this one scene?” But I was adamant that it stay in there because it is a science fiction movie, so you do need to have those moments of spectacle. I was terrified, though, because I wasn’t sure what we were going to do if we had put in all this effort, really killing ourselves to make a film, and the effects didn’t work right, and it could ruin the whole movie. I was paranoid about that, and I'm still a bit paranoid about that even now, to be honest.
So, for Virginia, because she's pretty much in every single shot of this movie, and that's a lot for one actor to carry throughout an entire movie, can you talk about your process with her in terms of getting into the mindset of Aubrey?
Al White: I was very lucky to meet her. She was on my initial list of people that I really wanted to consider for this. My only worry was that she was going to be too young, not to understand this, because that's condescending, but to have the experience to connect to some of the things I wanted to explore in the movie. But when I met her, she auditioned for us and we loved her. I met her for lunch and she just completely floored me with how connected she was to the material and how much she understood it.
Because the film is very, very weird, but also in a literal way, autobiographical, I basically gave her all access to talk to me and ask me anything. So we spent every day discussing stuff, and she'd ask incredibly difficult questions and I'd have to be completely honest and blunt with her about these things I had been through. And then it became about finding the way she could take my experiences and relate them to something in her own life, so that she had something to pull from. I am honestly still just amazed at how connected someone that young could be with such heavy material. She did a phenomenal job.
With your background in music, the music in Starfish becomes such a huge driving force in this film, and I really hope you guys release a soundtrack, because there's some really lovely stuff in here. Can you talk about blending both of these creative facets in your life together for this project?
Al White: When I left film school, I was in a band and I started doing okay and that was just the easiest way for me to just have a career for a while. I did that for about eight years on its own, and realized the indie music scene is a horrible place to be. No one helps anybody. So I really jumped when I had the opportunity to go back to film, which was where I'd always been dreaming I'd one day get back to.
I think what I loved so much is that realization that film isn’t the most pure art form, but it is the most collaborative. And when I start all my scripts, I begin by putting together a playlist of songs I think the lead character would be listening to before I can write the script, and then I get to listen to that again and again while I'm writing. For this film, that playlist became very literally ingested into the movie. And then I was crazy and stupid enough to do the score on this one as well, so that was something that I took on.
I know it was partly because of the budget, but because this film was so personal, I didn't feel right having someone else do the score with this. I knew I'd make someone's life a nightmare if they handed stuff in and it wasn’t right. That was kind of a tortuous process. We left it so late that we only had about eight days to do it. But I've got a few other scripts that we're trying to get made right now and music's important in all of them.
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