Last year's Starry Eyes was a gem of a horror picture. Referencing as it did moody atmospheric pieces of the '70s like Rosemary's Baby, while also commenting on the age-old struggle for Hollywood success, the film's a modern horror film that feels timeless. Co-writers and co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer put together a Kickstarter to fund the film last year, and thanks to some extra funding from Dark Sky Films, were able to get the film a slightly larger budget. As it is, Starry Eyes looks nothing like a small-budget independent film, making use of each and every penny.
The film's out next month on DVD and Blu-ray, and we spoke with Widmyer and Kölsch by phone from Los Angeles about the film, its production, and their future projects.
STARBURST: The Kickstarter was what really brought the film to the attention of a lot of people. Was that $50,000 the entirety of the budget?
Dennis Widmyer: In the beginning, it was going to be. We went in the Kickstarter kind of all-or-nothing. We were planning on doing the film for that amount of money, with Kevin and I wearing a lot of hats. Obviously writing and directing, but editing, producing – we probably would've been shooting it ourselves. And, you know, it would've been a very different film, bit we were trying to capture a sort of raw energy and that film might've worked on its own, as well, but it would've been extremely difficult to do. But, we just went for it, and what happened was that we already had our producer on board: Travis Stevens. He was having a good year. He had had Cheap Thrills come out, and Jodorowsky's Dune, the documentary, and we were always hoping in the back of our minds that he'd be able to find us more money. But, he was always of the mind of doing the Kickstarter, regardless, because the money we would've gotten from there would've helped, anyway, and would've given the film a lot of exposure – kind of given the film a platform. So, if we were going to attract more money, we would have something to point them to. That's what ended up happening: we got to our goal. Actually, we went a little over. We raised $53,000 out of the $50,000 we were trying to get. Shortly after that, Dark Sky Films came in and put in a little more money themselves. The film got a smidge bigger, but it was still a very micro-budgeted film. We were able to do the film different than how we were going to. Still very small, still very micro-budgeted, but Kevin and I didn't have to work the cameras. We were actually able to afford a crew.
Despite it being a micro-budgeted picture, it looks like every penny was used exceedingly well. To what extent did you go to make sure that every cent counted?
Kevin Kölsch: Well, if you take it to the extreme, it means that no cents went to me and Dennis . But, I mean – we put all of our money into the film. This was our passion project. We’ve made other things in the past; smaller things and DIY things. This was the film that we wanted to put everything into. Hopefully, it would get out into the world, like our earlier DIY films didn't. That's what we were going for: we took everything that we had and put it onto the screen. There were even times where me, Dennis, and Travis would want certain things, like the underwater shot, and we were like, “We want the underwater shots. It's going to look so great. It's going to be so beautiful. It'll add production value.” But an underwater rig was not in the budget, and so me, Dennis, and Travis came in with checks of our own and we paid out-of-pocket for having an underwater shoot. That's how we went toward making all the pennies count: we forwent any money for ourselves, and even spent some out-of-pocket money when there were scenes where we thought it would raise the production value of the film.
Another thing I think raises the film's production value is the Jonathan Snipes' score. I'm curious as to how you came to use him – was it through his work on Room 237?
DW: It was kind of a combination of things. I was one of the editors on the film, and it took about seven months to edit the film. It was just a really difficult film to edit. We had a lot of footage, and a lot of scenes that ended up becoming good scenes, but we had to delete them because we had too much film. Pretty much through 75% of the editing process, we were using a very orchestral temp score, and we weren't using anything electronic or synth-based. Our mind just wasn't going there. And then, Jay Shaw, who's a great artist who did our South by Southwest poster, and did a lot of art design for the film: he's the first one to suggest using Jonathan Snipes. Up to that point, we had gotten used to what the film was, and it was getting kind of stale. The film needed another level, another life boost. It needed to feel more progressive. So, we started to look at Room 237, and started to drop some of the cues from that movie in as temp tracks, and instantly, it transformed scenes. We said, “Oh, wow. Okay, we were wrong. This could absolutely work.” Then we reached out to Jonathan and met him for coffee. He loved the script, he loved the temp cut that he saw, and at that point, he had not done another feature since Room 237, so he was really itching to do a narrative feature. It ended up being a match made in heaven. He came on board and, I think in three weeks, did the entire score. He spent about two of those weeks just doing the main jingle for Sarah, the lead character, because we all felt the film score needed a real melody. It couldn't just be soundscape-y, it had to have a theme to it. We wanted you to hear the music on its own, and be able to hear the themes of the movie, and hear the arc of the main character. So, we were really, really happy with what he came up with.
Alexandra Essoe in Starry Eyes
Speaking of the character of Sarah, Alexandra Essoe's performance is kind of the lynchpin of the entrie film. But, you also have these performances from the likes of Noah Segan, who was in Deadgirl and Cabin Fever 2, along with Fabianne Therese, who was in John Dies at the End, and I'm kind of curious if you went with these actors and actresses because they had some genre experience, or if that genre work is just a symptom of being a young performer in Hollywood?
KK: You know, that's a good point. I think a lot of it just came out of Travis Stevens coming on board, and him having a history based on some genre films. Again, talking about trying to elevate the production value, we were trying to get some actors in there that people had seen before and have been in other things. So, like, a lot of these people were just people that had worked with Travis in recent years. Fabianne Therese was in The Aggression Scale, Pat Healy was just in Cheap Thrills, as was Amanda Fuller. And just, even some of the other people, like Marc Senter, weren't people that Travis had worked with, but that he knew. Still, we had liked Marc's performance in Lost. We liked Noah in Brick and Looper and Deadgirl. But, like you brought up, this is just kind of like how young actors in Hollywood might be, just like Sarah herself is up for a role in The Silver Scream. You can't make a movie about making movies without there being that slight meta bent, regardless of whether you mean for it to be there or not.
The movie itself does reference B-movies or exploitation cinema of the '70s and '80s. With Astraeus Pictures in there, that studio could just as easily sub in for American International Pictures as it could for Cannon, allowing the film to exist outside of time. Was trying to keep the film from being too modern or too retro a goal you had?
KK: Yeah, we were feeling a certain '60s and '70s vibe, whereas Jonathan Snipes' synthesizer score – more people liken that to '80s horror. And here you have Sarah, who aspires to be an actress, and she looks up to all the classic golden age actresses. She has that whole mural on her wall. She still has this idea that she's going to be a star like Rita Hayworth. It was, yeah, trying to make it feel timeless with elements from many different time periods in there. It was just trying to be a story that could happen at any time in Hollywood. As Astraeus says, “We've had many people pass through here.” And, going way back to when MGM had people under contract, they kind of owned them, like how Astraeus is going to own that, we had to have elements from all different periods of cinema, so the film doesn't feel grounded in any one time.
Widmyer and Kölsch
My final question is: what's on-deck next for the two of you? I'm sure that you already had things in the pipe by the time the movie was finished.
DW: Kevin and I have been writing together for about 18-20 years, so we're thought of us as writers, but we wanted to direct, but we wrote a handful of spec scripts before we did. We come from our own pedigree of wanting to write our own stuff a lot. Ever since signing with a manager and an agent, we've just been writing a lot, sending things out – things we want to direct, things we don't need to direct – and we've just been taking a lot of meetings on potential directing assignments for screenplays we haven't written. Right now, it's up in the air. There's a lot of things we're considering. There's our own projects that we're developing. We have an erotic thriller called Geminia that we would love to make, that we just turned in a draft of recently. Then we have a contained thriller called Precipice, which is sort of like The Grey meets Lord of the Flies. And, like I said, we've been considered for a lot of films we can't announce yet, because we don't know if they're going to happen or not. One thing we can announce is that we're going to be doing one of the segments for a new anthology by XYZ Films called Holidays, where it's going to be 8-10 holidays, 8-10 filmmakers, and 8-10 short films. That'll be fun. We're really excited about that. We actually start shooting in the next couple of weeks.
Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch's film, Starry Eyes, is released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 16th.
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