SXSW ’14: Desperation, Transformation and The Occult in “STARRY EYES”
The stink of Hollywood desperation. The sight of body horror. The aura of the occult. STARRY EYES kind of sells itself. Then there’s its cast, including Pat Healy (CHEAP THRILLS), Noah Segan (DEADGIRL), Amanda Fuller (RED WHITE & BLUE) and Travis Stevens, a producer who stormed 2013 fests with CHEAP THRILLS and is clearly demonstrating an eye for thrilling, emerging genre talent. It’s not so difficult to see why then, in a frankly stacked midnight lineup at a major American film festival, STARRY EYES is one to watch.
Both traditionally financed and partially crowdfunded last year, STARRY EYES seems a terror tale from the trenches of the entertainment business. In it, determined actress Sarah Walker spends her days working a dead-end job, enduring petty friendships and going on countless casting calls in hopes of catching her big break. After a series of strange auditions, Sarah lands the leading role in a new film from a mysterious production company. But with this opportunity comes bizarre ramifications that will transform her both mentally and physically into something beautiful… and all together terrifying.
Kicking off the first of our exclusive SXSW previews, FANGORIA spoke to directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer about the horror they’re bringing to Austin…
FANGORIA: STARRY EYES is described as a horror story explicitly about desperation for working in entertainment and the sinister nature of it that can transform you. It’s clearly a passionate film and subject for you guys. Is it a result of working in the trenches, or were there specifically trying, terrible experiences that led to it?
KEVIN KOLSCH AND DENNIS WIDMYER: It’s definitely a combination of both of those reasons that inspired us. From a purely genre standpoint, we wanted to do a movie about transformation, both mentally and physically. But we weren’t interested in doing a ‘creature feature,’ or something in the vein of a vampire movie.
We spent a long time trying to cast a feature about ten years ago that never came to be, and during that arduous process we saw hundreds upon hundreds of actors. You come into a little white room, stand before strangers, and bare yourself for 5 to 10 mins. As a director, it’s a very humbling experience to see that time and time again. There’s something almost masochistic about what actors have to endure during the whole casting process. So we have the utmost respect for the profession, and yet, you see a dark side to it as well. We’ve seen desperation and how it can fuel ambition.
So because we wanted the film to operate strongly as a metaphor, we fused that idea of ambition becoming a sickness, and celebrity becoming monstrous.
FANG: How did you come to funnel that theme into the concept of making what seems to edge on body horror?
KOLSCH AND WIDMYER: Body horror is such a powerful sub-genre for us because the horror stems from within. There’s no running from it. There’s no exterior element hunting the character(s) down. It’s your own body that is against you. And this seemed to be a worthy villain in a film about an actor; someone trying to make a living in a field that puts heavy focus on looks. And everyone can relate to that because everyone knows that at some point in their life, their body is going to start to turn on them. So when dealing with a theme about struggling to achieve a dream, the body horror elements serve as a reminder of death. That every day that passes is one day closer to the end. One more day of life gone. And that is horrifying when you know exactly what you want to do with your life– to watch another day tick by where you’re not doing it.
FANG: As genre really seeps into the biggest of American festivals, it’s spread throughout the lineups. What do you think makes STARRY EYES specifically a midnighter?
KOLSCH AND WIDMYER: From the conception of STARRY EYES, we set out to show Hollywood in a different light than audiences might be used to. A dark, stormy, claustrophobic Los Angeles. Something that feels dismal and ominous. A character out to get you and crush your dreams. To us the atmosphere has that dark HOUR OF THE WOLF sort of feel. Something that should be viewed in the middle of the night.
FANG: There’s an occult aspect to STARRY EYES. Occult is interesting in horror because it’s often on a fine line of imagery genre fans love and feel familiar with. How did you approach it to make it unsettling?
KOLSCH AND WIDMYER: In most films that deal with the occult, it is clearly the source of horror. It is a negative force at odds with the protagonist. We wanted the film to have the feel of a person being seduced by a cult. The allure of it and the promise of good things, but the whole time there’s also this off-putting feeling that something is amiss.
We wanted to put the audience right beside our main character. So that they understand her desires and motivations. So that when the film does dive into the occult, what’s unsettling is that you’re not sure if what’s happening is bad or not. That there’s a good chance that if you were our main character, you might be in the same situation. And that’s what’s unsettling. The uncertainty. If the occult were treated as strictly evil, audience would be yelling at the screen, “Don’t do that! Run away!” But we wanted the audience to be right there with our character, ignoring the warning signs. Blinded by the glamour. Realizing once you’re past the point of no return that you might just have gotten yourself in trouble.
FANG: The midnight lineup is stacked, outside of your own premiere, what are you most excited to check out at the festival?
KOLSCH AND WIDMYER: This will be our first SXSW, and the schedule is a little overwhelming. Being big horror hounds, we’ll probably aim to see as many of the Midnighters as possible. INSIDE is one of our all-time favorite films, so AMONG THE LIVING is high on our list of must-sees. Also pumped for THE GUEST, THE RAID 2 and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. And of course, all the BBQ and beer.
STARRY EYES premieres Saturday, March 8 at 11:59pm at the Alamo Ritz in Austin, TX. For more on the film and SXSW, head here.