When our fearless leaders, Jon and Kim, saw Starfish at this year’s Fantastic Fest, they were quite confused, to say the least. When I saw the post-apocalyptic cosmic horror the week after, I also struggled to wrap my head around the story.
I had no idea what to ask director A.T. White (given the name by his managers because there are too many Al Whites involved with film) for this interview. But as we began to talk, White opened up about his personal life, giving this enigma of a film a deeper meaning. Beyond the end of civilization, the monsters, and the inter-dimensional travel lies a film about dealing with grief. A letter to a friend who has passed on and been transported to another realm. If you have seen Starfish, or plan to, you might want to continue reading, for better clarity.
Chris Aitkens of Nightmare on Film Street: How did the idea for this movie first come about?
A.T. White: I wrote it initially out of a necessity. It was in 2014. We were about to start making another film which we had a budget for, but it was grossly becoming apparent that the film was going to need more money than we had, essentially. And then I started going through a divorce, and my best friend sadly passed away to cancer, so I wrote a script, basically to deal with it. I didn’t expect to give it to anybody or for anything to happen with it. But when my producers were asking if we had anything cheaper we can shoot. And I said, “I have this script I wrote where this girl never leaves this apartment.” And they said “That sounds cheap!” In the initial draft, she never left the apartment. They looked at it and said “Well, there’s something here, but it’s not there yet.” So it took me about another year to get to a good point in my own grieving process where I can something a little more engaging.
I got this idea for the sound signals she received from the UK version of NASA. They scanned an asteroid and they got this sound of it. I remember, at the time, all these scientists were blown away that there was this sound resonating off of this asteroid. I love science-fiction, but I also like Solaris-type science-fiction, where it’s not necessarily an alien walking around—which can be fun— but I like this idea of invasions happening in different ways. I started thinking of how all these asteroids float around through space with these sounds, and what if things out there were using sound frequencies, like loud speakers. And then it went from there.
NOFS: When it came to special effects, you weren’t thinking of having the monsters seen in the original script, right?
ATW: Yeah, because the problem with any movie for me—I’m a huge genre fan—I could be watching a great movie, and then you have maybe one frame of a bad monster effect. Then the whole movie is, not ruined, but it becomes something else. I was terrified about that, I still am terrified about that. Because until you get to the last few seconds of finishing your movie, you never really know if it’s going to work or not with those elements. There are things I would definitely do differently another time, but for our budget, we tried to keep it down as much as possible. So the few times we do a special effects shot, hopefully it looks okay. We had some help from a couple people. I worked with this guy who is part of Spill Studios in the UK. We worked on a lots of shorts together. He’s fantastic, he brought a team together. And then a company called Cinesite in the UK finished off a few other creature elements. They did us huge favors. We should have been paying ten times more than we were paying for the effects. We got lucky.
NOFS: What is it that you want audience members to take away from this film?
ATW: No one’s asked that yet. It’s a very particular film. I was lucky enough to get to make my first film for me, and not have to worry about other people too much. I think there are definitely benefits and detriments for films when you’re given too much power. I think there’s a balance that’s more sensible to do. But for a first film, it’s great for a director to say, “hey, here’s all the things that are important to me. Not all of it might work for everyone, but there might be things in there that you can attach to.” For me, watching it at Fantastic Fest—because up until a few weeks we got in, I was really down on the movie—and being able to go there and meet people who it was resonating with– for a lot of them, it was people who had just recently been through grief—it’s amazing to see how many of them are in a crowd when you show a film. There was one person in particular who came over and told me they just buried someone from their family the week before, and they went straight to Fantastic Fest, and they told me how much my film meant to them. Those are the people who make everything I’ve been through in the last four years worth it. I think I want people to take away Aubrey’s emotional journey. Myself, the producers and the DP have a little bible which explains everything. But it’s not necessarily important as the emotional journey she’s going through.
“There was one person in particular who came over and told me they just buried someone from their family the week before, and they went straight to Fantastic Fest, and they told me how much my film meant to them.”
NOFS: I was actually wondering about that. When I was watching the movie, I was thinking, in the back of my head, did the crew members know exactly what’s happening or are they just as confused as the audience?
ATW: The crew members, no. To be honest, it’s only towards the end of the filming that some people came over to me. We were shooting the scene, I was reading against [Virginia Gardner] off-camera, and I started crying when I was reading. Somebody came up to and thought it was really weird that I was so emotional about it. They had no idea of any of the emotional relevance of the story to me. They were kept in the dark, not on purpose. I just didn’t think it was necessary for them to know everything. But my producer, editor and DP, we were all very involved together in what was important and what wasn’t important for them. We did one test screening back in November. And there were way too many interpretations that were different from each other, so we had to create a list of 64 things that you need to understand when you watch the film. The majority of them are very basic. And then we had to cross-reference them with the comments we got from people, and decide which we need people to understand.
NOFS: How would you describe your directorial style?
ATW: You’re asking very difficult questions. I had a few people at the festival ask me how I felt about film, and I said I have no idea. I don’t really have an opinion anymore, and that’s how I feel about my directing style. I don’t really know how to direct any other way. This is definitely a self-indulgent film. Hopefully, the next film—if I get to make it—is a lot easier to understand. But it’s always important to me that there’s a uniqueness to something. I personally love films where you know, for better or for worse, that it’s done by a particular director. There’s an imprint there and you’re not just for hire. It’s an entire world to have the talent of being a good director, and it’s another thing to be one where you’re expressing something. It’s very hard to get both of those things together. I spent my entire life trying to find a middle ground.
NOFS: Music plays a big part in this movie. How did you go about choosing the songs for the mixtapes?
ATW: When I write a script, I come up with the idea and the lead character. I’ve done a couple of ensemble scripts, but I tend to like singular characters, so I can really get into one headspace. Then I make a playlist of all the stuff I think they’ll be listening to at that point in their life. I listen to those songs again and again and again while I’m writing the script. But with this script, it became very literal. I’m very passionate about the music I love. There’s a lot of artists which are my favorite in the world. And I’m always very sad that they’re not featured more prominently, particularly in film. So I always want to use them first. For this film, since it’s my first feature, I wanted to find the music that I wanted to share with the world as a mixtape. But also, have to make sure that it’s relevant to the scene without being too on the nose. It’s hard, with lyrics, to get that balance, where it means something and it adds something—particularly when the film is as quiet as this is, because there’s not much speaking. When the lyrics are there, you pay more attention to them.
NOFS: I also read that you composed the music in between the mixtapes. What’s your background in music?
ATW: I went to film school, but I was also in a band. That started doing pretty well and I was too shy in film school to take the films I wanted as a director. So I went into music for about eight years. We released an album, did a bunch of tours. Once I had the opportunity, I went back into film. Because this film was so personal, I felt it was only right that I did the score. Because otherwise, I’d be mean to someone if they handed something in to me and I would say “this isn’t right.” But I left it very late. I didn’t want to get back into the same grieving headspace I was in when I wrote the film. We left it right until the end. I ended having three days to write it, three days to record it, then two days to mix it. So I had eight days of not sleeping to get it down. I think there are good and bad things to come from that. I wouldn’t do it again, it broke me. But it was a good way to end. We came with a lot of fun rules for that as well, because we had so much limited time. I think it’s creatively constructive to create rules when don’t have all the time and all the money. I think you can get more interesting results, quite often.
NOFS: What was your band’s name? Can we find anything online?
ATW: Yeah, we’re called Ghostlight, but spelt the UK way, with extra letters you don’t need. Everything was on the usual sites—Spotify, iTunes and stuff—but I just noticed recently, I think our distribution deal ran out because some of it was taken down. So we’re working to get it back up. But I have a new album coming out called Dive Dark, and one of the songs from this film called “Race Horse” is on that album.
NOFS: Is that a solo project?
ATW: It’s technically still the band. But I’m getting old. A lot of bands have babies or move to different countries. Everybody is still featured on it but not as heavily as it was on the first album.
“I didn’t take any pay on the project, so 100% of what I make is going to cancer research. My friend passed away to a very rare form of cancer. There wasn’t enough research for it, I think there was about 16 people in the world who had it when she had it.”
NOFS: I understand that the money you make off this movie is going to cancer research. Why?
ATW: I didn’t take any pay on the project, so 100% of what I make is going to cancer research. My friend passed away to a very rare form of cancer. There wasn’t enough research for it, I think there was about 16 people in the world who had it when she had it. I had a conversation with her, maybe half a year before she passed, when we were driving on a road trip. I was talking about something I bought, and she shouted at me. She said “How can you spend that much money on this geeky weird thing when you could be giving that to something like cancer research?” So I’m doing it, obviously because I think it’s important to help other people who have something like she had, but also because I can always hear her voice in my ear. I know she will find it both hilarious and amusing that I was not benefiting in any way off this film.
NOFS: I want to wrap this up with a bit of a lighter question; in the event of an apocalypse, where you’re a lone survivor, what would you do?
ATW: To be honest, I think my film tells you what I would do. I would definitely hole away for a while, because I would want to probably, sadly, want to wait and see what the fallout is. To see how many people died. Then I would want to go out and venture. I love the Walking Dead comics, I’ve read a couple. What I love about it is that Rick gets to a point, and he says “Okay, we’ve made this safe. Now we’re going to gradually make circular motions outwards until the entire country is safe.” That’s how I feel with the apocalypse. Everywhere I drive with friends, we’re always pointing out huge malls or wherever might be a good place to hide away in case there’s an apocalypse. Sadly, the film is quite literal. It is my dream to be in a world with very few people. I think I would be the happiest I can possibly be. What would you do?
NOFS: Oh, boy. I’d probably do a lot of collecting. I’d be like in that TV show the Last Man on Earth, where he goes around and his home is filled with all these priceless artifacts and paintings.
ATW: I’m actually writing a script right now, which I’m hoping will be my next film, which is dealing a bit with that. Once everyone’s gone and he gets these pieces of art. Are they worth anything anymore? Is art only valid because other people make it valid? If there’s no one there to appreciate it, does it mean anything anymore? I think that’s really interesting.
NOFS: Is there anything else you want to say? Maybe a parting message to people who might be seeing Starfish in the future?
ATW: I want to say, it’s a weird film. A lot of people are not going to like it. But if you do get to see and you do enjoy it, then please talk about it. Because it’s a very small film and every little tweet means so much to us, and it really helps us out when you’re an indie film like this. If you like a little film you see, please support it online, because it helps.