Recently, Father Gore (a.k.a C.H. Newell) talked with director-writer-musician Al White about his debut feature, Starfish, which is available as of today on VOD. The film’s story follows Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) in the wake of her best friend’s death, which just so happens to coincide with what appears to be the end of the world. The luck, right?
Starfish is a stunning vision of the apocalypse, wrapped up in a heartbreaking tale of a woman trying to put her shattered world back together before it’s all lost. Gardner does a lot of heavy lifting, seeing as how we spend the entire film with her and in her perspective. Apart from her performance, the film hinges on atmosphere and surreal visuals, ranging from eerie, otherworldly creatures to an animated sequence to a scene of metafiction that’s as unexpected as everything else that comes before it.
Let’s not waste any more time. Dig in.
C.H. Newell: I got to see Starfish recently, and luckily, with the screener, I was able to watch and digest everything a couple times. It’s heavy, in a good way. There’s a lot to dig into, so thanks for chatting with me.
I’m a big fan of allegory, it’s what I write about usually when I write about film. The apocalypse is a fantastic allegory here because when you lose someone close it feels like the end of the world. The grief [in the film] obviously comes from a real place, the story’s emotion is very palpable and very personal. Did Starfish come from your own experience with loss?
Al White: Definitely. We were working on a different feature, and realised we didn’t have enough money for it. During that period, my best friend passed away from cancer, and I was going through a divorce, as well. So I kind of shut down. I wasn’t sure how to process it. I normally process those things doing music, but I didn’t have any access to doing music at the time. I was in the middle of writing two other scripts, and my head was just in that format. I went away to a cabin in the snowy mountains of Colorado and locked myself away for two weeks.
I wrote it not expecting to turn it into anything. It was cathartic necessity. The first draft was unfilmable— [Aubrey] never left the apartment, it was all very insulated, far too depressing to actually make [Al laughs]. I left it alone for about a year until I was in a different space. I came back to it and re-wrote it as something more cinematic. A little more traditional, in some ways at least.
But yes, it was very much a way to cope with what I was going through at the time.
CHN: I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost a best friend of mine before too, under much different circumstances. Difficult to deal with, either way. I think the film’s a beautiful tribute to your friend. Very existential, and that’s a moving thing to dedicate to somebody.
You mentioned music’s a big part of your life, and clearly a huge part of your movie. I’m old enough to remember making mixtape cassettes for my friends— mostly girlfriends. I love that the mixtape plays a role in the plot. Do you think that kind of intimacy through a medium’s somewhat lost in the digital age?
AW: Absolutely. My friend and I shared playlists all the time— mostly CDs, at that point. But I remember the days of cassettes, and I used them in the film because it just translates better visually. I’m really into tangible media.
I think, despite some things going on in the world right now, we’re gradually getting better as we progress technologically. We communicate better. I do feel there’s a lot of romanticism [in going digital]. We’re losing tangible experience. Unfortunately, I don’t think romanticism goes hand-in-hand with progress.
I have friends who’ve come to me and said, “Make me a playlist.” I go to do it excitedly, then I remember, I’m not personally on Spotify, so if I do that on iTunes and send it to them, they have to be on iTunes too, they’ll have to buy all those songs, then I’d have to tell them what order to play them in, like you’d do with a CD or a tape. Years ago, you’d just say, “Here, I put it on a mixtape for you.” You could even have a microphone and say something nice in the middle of the tape. I do feel it’s become both much easier to access music, but also much harder, in ways, to share it with others.
I also feel that reflects peoples attention span these days, particularly with music. Years ago, if someone made you a mixtape, you’d listen to it over and over and over. You didn’t have access to everything. Whereas now, you have access to everything. The attention span’s shorter because of it.
CHN: Like I said, I love that you’ve used the mixtape as part of the film, it makes everything, again, more personal. I wouldn’t call myself a musician anymore, but I can play the guitar, and I used to play in bands years ago. Even people who aren’t particularly musically inclined, just people who’ve made music a part of their lives in some way will gravitate towards this aspect of the film. It’s that romanticism of a different time in our lives.
AW: Yeah, and it’s history. I still have those tapes. Like tapes my girlfriends gave me when we were teenagers, and letters with their perfume on it, stuff like that. And, you know, if I play those tapes, they’re going to work. No one from this generation’s going to have any of that by the time they’re in their thirties or forties.
CHN: I think you do a great job of also visually interpreting the way music transports us to different places, times, or, in this case, worlds. There’s that late scene where Aubrey’s piecing together the tapes, and she’s listening to songs that literally take her across different landscapes.
What I really found compelling is that the score has an existential feel to it, too. At first, you hear the piano and it’s fragmented. Then, as we go along the journey with Aubrey, it comes back together, repairing itself.
Could you tell me more about how you crafted that musical element?
AW: I left the score very late. When I wrote it originally it was a year until the second draft, and then you’re later in that year before you’re in pre-production. Then it’s shooting. We’re a very indie film, so we made a lot of mistakes [Al laughs]. Post-production drags on twice as long as it should have. So you’re many, many years out from when you first come up with the concept. But you’re always trying to keep the film in that essence of mind you were in when you first wrote it.
Doing the score terrified me. I knew I’d have to go back and get into that mental space I’d been trying to tear myself out of, so we left it until we had about 9 days before we had to turn over copies for festivals. I was in London. I shut myself away with a stupid mini-keyboard, which is the worst possible way to write strings, it just sounds terrible. I had 3 days to write it, without sleep, then I had 3 days to record it, then 2 days to mix it. It was not fun. A really terrible experience, for everyone involved, I think [Al laughs.]
We had to come up with rules, because I really wanted the music to, like you said, reflect the journey. For me, it’s a very quiet film. Every note of the score, you want it to tell you things. Hopefully not too on the nose. We had a quartet of strings, and a piano. We knew we wanted the piano to represent Aubrey. The guy I worked with, who’s a sound engineer, I’ve worked with on my band’s albums, so I had a good relationship with him already. We did some cool things to make the sounds feel strange, we only affected the strings when Aubrey’s in the signal. I really wanted to get that analog feel, so we literally re-voiced it all through tapes and manipulated the sound more. We had to make sure it didn’t sound too messed up, either. Then it gets clearer as the film goes on.
My favourite bit was with the strings. We re-voiced them through a larger tape-to-tape reel at one point and I would hit the spools on it to make artefacts and warp it a little. When Aubrey’s having that dream state and she’s punching the wall, there’s blood everywhere, if you notice the strings go completely bizarre in the end, the whole tape sounds like it’s rewound. That wasn’t an effect [Al laughs]. It was me hitting the spools in this beautiful studio. I got a bit too into it and hit it so hard the entire thing came off, broke the deck. All of the reel-to-reel went spilling over the floor. Soon as we had that, and thought “Hopefully we don’t owe them lots of money,” we knew 100% it had to go in the film because it sounded so fucking cool.
CHN: And that’s awesome when something unexpected actually works out in your favour when you’re shooting, which isn’t always the case.
AW: That’s part of the magic I love about film making. You can plan as much as you want to, but things are going to go wrong, and it depends on how you can work to use those things to make something better. You can’t plan for stuff like [the tape-to-tape sound], you can’t decide it’s something you want and then go create it. It just has to happen.
CHN: I dig that, so much. I’m a big fan of all the other effects, too. The visuals are incredible. One of my favourites is clearly the animated sequence by Tezuka Productions. I’m crazy curious to know how that collaboration came about originally. Was it always a sequence you had in mind?
AW: People either love or hate that bit, like the meta section later in the film. That came up very, very early on. We had a rule there was no idea too crazy, so long as they correlate with Aubrey’s journey. A lot of the film involves dissociation— one layer’s removing yourself from other people, another layer’s removing yourself from yourself— and I was trying to figure out what were the most visually arresting ways to show how that felt for me at the time.
Some people felt it was a gimmick. For me, those moments crystallise what the film’s trying to talk about. I went to animation school many years ago. I’m huge into anime, I like all types but Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is one of my absolute favourites— very realistically animated, muted palettes. I was particular about the style I wanted, and we knew we wanted real Japanese animation. My business partner’s Japanese and he worked very hard for about a year and a half, going to studios, lots of independent people. We didn’t have tons of money for it, and gradually we were figuring out the costs to do animation, being a little shocked [Al laughs]. There was a point we thought we didn’t have a scene. There wasn’t enough time for anyone to animate it properly. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
I can’t remember how, but [my business partner] somehow got connected with Tezuka. They were lovely. They opened their doors to us. They’ve got incredible heritage, and they don’t do much animation nowadays, so it was a true honour for them to get involved. It was one of those fun bits for me. We storyboarded for them, and then they’d send over different designs for the style. We’d pick which we liked the best. It was kind of great because I didn’t have to do anything and they’d just send us clips. We’d watch them and say, “This is amazing. Could you maybe change this other little bit?” and they worked their magic. I didn’t have to stress. We got really lucky, if I’m honest. Very grateful.
CHN: I’m not even big into anime and I love that sequence. Like you mentioned, it does crystallise certain themes in the film, which is why it affected me so much. And you don’t see many animated sequences in movies nowadays. Plus, you get some of the effects we already see in the film re-done through animation, like the scary creature, the guy with the hole in his face.
Then there’s the monsters! I couldn’t get enough of the creature design in the film. Tentacled monsters and cosmic horror are often automatically linked to Lovecraft. Was a connection to his work intended in any way, or is that something other people projected onto it? I sense I already know the answer.
AW: I’ll be totally honest, Chris— it’s definitely something other people have projected onto it. Like, I think I may be a fan of people who are fans of Lovecraft? I’ve never read any of his work myself. Obviously I’m aware of him. My connections to Lovecraft are probably film adaptations, or weird video games.
I’m very deep into genre. I hadn’t really heard of cosmic horror before. So I definitely wasn’t approaching it like that. It’s something that organically my aesthetic just enjoys. The references and touchstones we had for creature design were the original Silent Hill video games, and other things that have some roots in Lovecraft. By osmosis I took that in. It wasn’t on purpose.
CH: I am a fan of Lovecraft. I didn’t see much of him in there. What I really love is you included stuff like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the quick shot of a Galileo quote, and you’ve got the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling making an appearance.
AW: I love how you noticed that. Kipling was a big part of my childhood. Every single night before I’d go to sleep when I was a child my mother would read me the “If” poem. And it instilled something in my brain. I asked the art department to find a way to put it in there. And then in the edit, I wanted everybody to be able to read every line. And everyone was like, “Al, we have to move on from this shot” [Al laughs]. So it’s quick, but it means a lot to me that it’s in the film.
CHN: Again, it speaks back to the story being personal. You can feel that honesty in there with things like the Kipling poem, the mixtapes. To some, it’s a throwaway moment, to others it’s a super cool reference. I come from a literary background, so when I see Melville and these things incorporated it gets me thinking.
I don’t know if it’s at all intended this way. Aubrey feels like Captain Ahab in that she’s got this White Whale from her past she’s chasing down, this memory she’s trying to confront, the pain she’s facing. More than that, there’s a bunch of sea imagery and also star imagery. I thought of the sea and the sky as these vast, unexplored spaces which kind of fits with Aubrey exploring that kind of space in herself. Is that reaching?
AW: No, no, I mean, that’s why we worked so hard to put these things in there. And not many people have mentioned the Moby Dick thing, other than in passing. As far as Melville goes, I loved the rich language of it when I was young. It’s a very evocative novel. And it’s a useful trope when you’re writing something to parallel your character’s journey with another story.
With Moby Dick, I was thinking about the metaphorical journey. For me, the White Whale was more the burden of her depression, and how that can be something you’re obsessed with, trying to overcome it by destroying it. But also how that can maybe not be the right way to tackle that, either.
The Galileo quote was just a quote I love. A beautiful quote.
CHN: And going back to the idea of the film feeling personal, it’s great that when you have a semi-abstract story, you can include these elements that don’t have to be overly explained and people can draw what they want out of them, making it more personal for them in the process.
With the whole film centring around grief, I was wondering if there are any other movies on that subject that influenced Starfish, or just any you find particularly affecting?
AW: I was the only real genre fan when we were developing the film, which I was happy about— I didn’t want this to be purposely targeting genre. I prefer genre to be the space around the story. You know, I feel like every film should be a drama at heart. So I was bringing a lot of novels and things to Virginia [Gardner] on set. We didn’t do much rehearsals, mostly working on character to get in the mindset. I’d send her all these things, and say, “Look out for this.”
There were specific things, like the Three Colours trilogy, particularly Three Colours: Blue was a big one for us. I made sure Virginia paid attention to how grief was handled in that movie, because it’s one of the best, in terms of grief. When it came to genre stuff it was like, Solaris, or Donnie Darko, things like that. We tried as much as we could to stay in the dramatic realm, rather than taking on influences of genre things that have been done before. For better or worse, we’d rather make something that has less parallels. If it already exists out there, I’ll just go and watch that movie. I don’t need to waste effort in trying to make it.
CHN: You’ve succeeded. People will definitely draw parallels to other films, but you’ve created unique images. And there are things I’ve been thinking about, visually, since I watched the film for the first time days ago.
I’m also wondering about the soundtrack— which includes the wonderful Sigur Rós song at the end— and how your process for writing went. Did you include some of these songs out of personal meaning? Or were they just songs that fit well when the time came?
AW: When I’m writing, first thing I do is come up with the character, and come up with, really, the ending. Then I create a playlist of songs, and I listen to it over and over while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll switch things out, if it’s organic in the process while I’m writing. When I’m sending it to people to read, I include those tracks. With this film, I did use songs that I sent to my friend, and they became baked into the story.
Another thing is, it’s a quiet film, so people are going to pay attention to any words that are spoken in the lyrics. So I had to be careful with what each song was saying, how much I wanted to back up the story with that. I didn’t want to be too on the nose. That’s a process in its own, finding the right song for things. I was a bit worried also because most of these songs are sort of, my generation. I didn’t know how people would respond. Then, at the festivals, I met people who came up and said they liked specific songs in the animation scene, or this one, or that, and my worries weren’t really relevant anymore.
Obviously the important one for us was Sigur Rós. From the beginning we were listening to it, and when we were doing those shots we were listening to it to get in that headspace. So we were scared we wouldn’t get it. But the band was really lovely and let us use it.
CHN: I was planning to ask that, if there were any issues trying to get that song.
AW: No, it just took a long time. The band were excellent to us. We have a deal with them, which worked well for both sides. It’s mostly a lot of paper work. You have to fill in how many seconds the song’s used for, if it’s prominent or in the background, all these things. You get to the prominent question, and it’s like, that’s the only sound you hear. How long is it? It’s longer than the song is. We had to elongate that track to make it work. So, not only are we paying for the full duration, we’re adding money [Al laughs]. The band were great, it was just a long process— months and months.
CHN: That scene’s breathtaking. I love Sigur Rós anyway, so together with the visuals you put together it’s a real spectacle to close the film. Powerful stuff.
AW: Thanks so much, man. Without that track there was no film for me, really. One of my favourite reviews— it wasn’t even one of our best, at all— was when someone said the movie was like that Sigur Rós song, “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense because they’re singing in a different language, but it makes you feel a lot of things.” I liked that.
CHN: Funny as it is, that’s perceptive. It’s an emotional film. The whole story’s touching, and weird, and there’s a bit of horror, some science fiction. Although parts are abstract, it’s got this strong plot at the core. You don’t necessarily have to understand every last little thing that’s going on to feel the emotion.
AW: Thank you. That’s great. [Al laughs] Definitely with my next movie I have to prove I can do something with a traditional narrative structure, while still having something personal to say. We were lucky to have the funding we had and private investors. We would’ve rather made an interesting mess than something that’s just well told. Because grief is messy. We wanted to portray that— it’s a mess and it’s confusing.
CHN: Even though there’s a sense of lingering melancholy in the end, it’s also a cathartic ending. Because the story’s so personal, was making the film cathartic for you, too?
AW: That’s a lovely question. It definitely was. Truthfully, it was a necessity. Writing the script was an immediate catharsis that helped get everything out. Making the movie was scarringly cathartic, in that you have to go through a whole different process, it’s much more exhausting. It’s a difficult physical environment to do that in. It’s that you’re constantly trying to get back in the mindset of how you were feeling a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. It was very scarring, and very difficult.
I was in a very low spot. It’d been cathartic, but it also was me reliving all these things I was trying to move on from, so I felt caught. I honestly didn’t expect people to like the movie, or even see it. When we were at Fantastic Fest, and the first people saw it, someone ran up to me with tears in their eyes talking about their mother who’d recently passed away. I thought, “Okay, I’m good.” If one person can relate to it, that’s more than I could’ve hoped for.
Hopefully in a non-egotistical way, the catharsis for me has come from this part of the process— talking to people who’ve had personal experiences and connected with the movie. Then it feels like you’re communicating, and to me it should all be about communicating.
CHN: Goes back to what you said about the progress of technology. We may not be getting better at everything. We’re at least, somewhat, getting better at communicating. I also think, despite being focused on a female character, it’s important that, as a man, you’re telling this story. We’ve seen how men bottling up their feelings has caused so many problems, for men and women. We need more stories about grief and about how to deal with it, and we need more men to not be afraid of telling those stories, and not afraid to listen to them. There’s much to love about Starfish. That’s one thing I personally really loved.
AW: Thanks a lot. I appreciate your thoughts.
CHN: My pleasure, man. I’m excited to see whatever it is you do next. Speaking of, is anything percolating yet?
AW: Oh, I’m aggressively trying to do what’s next [Al laughs]. We have a bunch of scripts, two I’m finishing right now. We’re talking to people. I’m hoping to prove I’m able to do something slightly more traditional but that has my personality in it. We’ll see.
CHN: I love to hear that. I’m keeping my eye out.
And thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. This was lots of fun. Can’t wait for more people to see the film, and we’re going to cover it a bunch here on the site this week.
AW: Cheers. Thanks for your support.
Starfish is available now On Demand through iTunes and other VOD platforms