Interview: A.T. White on Mixtapes, Monsters, and His Stunning Debut Feature Film STARFISH
With his genre-bending, surreal first feature film Starfish, writer/director A.T. White is already making a name for himself in independent horror. White is an award-winning filmmaker and musician from the UK, who wrote, directed, and scored Starfish, and every cent he makes from the film will be donated to Cancer Research.
Emotionally stunning and visually breathtaking, Starfish tells the story of Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), who is overwhelmed with grief while trying to deal with the death of her best friend while simultaneously facing the end of the world. She is forced to go on a journey, while being attacked by monsters, and discovers that the only way to save the world as she knows might be with a mixtape, which means that music sets the tone for everything Aubrey experiences along the way.
Starfish has some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen, and the story is told in such an imaginative and thought-provoking way that it will stay with you long after watching it. You can read my review of Starfish here.
Dread Central had the pleasure of speaking with Al White about filmmaking, the importance of talking about depression, the heartbreaking inspiration for Starfish, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Starfish will be available on VOD on May 28th.
Dread Central: Starfish is such a gorgeous visual experience and it takes the viewer through so many emotions. How did you and cinematographer Alberto Bañares work together to create the look and feel of the film?
A.T. White: Me and Alberto had worked together previously on some short films and we became very good friends. So, we always knew we wanted to do our first feature together. He wasn’t involved with the story or anything, but we were very involved from a very early stage, discussing how we would handle stuff, because we’re very much alike on visuals and stories need to go hand in hand. There needs to be a tie between the rules you’re creating for the camera and the style and all that stuff. We spent a year and a half talking about the film before we ended up shooting it. We ended up drawing out diagrams at the beginning of the movie for the camera. We wanted the camera to represent her soul essentially, which sounds very pretentious (laughs), but it helped us create rules so that we understood what the parameters would be in each scene. So, depending on how she was feeling, like in the beginning of the movie she’s very introverted and awkward around social experiences, so we drew sort of a parameter around her that the camera was allowed to occupy. She had to be in every single frame at the beginning of the film. You wouldn’t be seeing other people clearly, they would be cut into pieces because she couldn’t really look straight at people. Then the camera could only get a certain distance from her because it wasn’t feeling comfortable enough in its space.
And then there’s a particular moment at the beginning when someone says something to her, and the camera actually frees itself from her and gradually gets wider and wider. And then for the rest of the film, it would do things like that. So, we spent a lot of time developing those kinds of things and then just visual elements, how we wanted it to look. I think the biggest thing for us was actually a moment we spent like a year developing it and then it suddenly echoed to Alberto that when I was talking about the apocalypse, it was a beautiful thing and when he was thinking about it, it was a depressing thing. And it was a real revelation to him to suddenly realize, “Oh, you want this to feel comforting and beautiful for her.” And then it was very exciting for him, because it meant he didn’t have to make it drab and I was very happy he realized that before we started shooting (laughs).
Dread Central: I don’t think that sounds pretentious at all. What you described is actually how I felt when I was watching it, so I think it’s kind of genius that that was your intent.
A.T. White: I think with film you have so many tools and that’s why I love film. It is art, and it is music, and it is editing, and it is acting, and it’s this tapestry of so many mediums of art, and I really feel you need to be utilizing as many of those as possible. The camera should represent something. I mean, obviously in the correct narrative place it can just be a cold observer, but I feel it should also be telling its own story.
Dread Central: I know Starfish is based on a true story and the film is very personal for you. Can you tell me a little bit about the events that inspired you to make this film?
A.T. White: We wanted to make a feature, but our producers told us that we didn’t have enough money to make the movie we wanted to make, so we were looking at other scripts I had. While that was happening, my best friend passed away from cancer and I was going through a divorce at that exact same time. I kind of shut down. I’ve suffered from depression a lot in my life, but that was a different type of depression, where you’re very unable to do anything about it. It was very hard to ground yourself in what was happening. I went away to a cabin in Colorado, in the snowy mountains, and wrote a draft of Starfish, not thinking it would be a movie. To be honest, I just needed to write something to help me process everything. As far as the first draft, my producers were like, “Do you have anything cheap we could make?” And I said, “Well, I have a film that takes place entirely in one apartment, so surely that would be cheap.” And at that point, she never left the apartment, so the whole film was just way too insular and depressing (laughs). It took about a year before I got to a point where I could rewrite it, with a bit more of a cinematic journey that was a little bit more hopeful and had something more to say than just a knee-jerk, depressing reaction to things. So yeah, that’s where it came from.
I never expected it to get it made and never expected for it to go anywhere. For me, the best thing about it has been meeting people. The first time I met someone at Fantastic Fest, I was going into a different film and they had been to the screening of Starfish, and they just grabbed me by the hand, and they were crying, and they had just lost their mother. That really affected me. I was like, “Okay, everything I’ve been through to get this film made has been worth it.” Because even if one person connects in that way, you know? That for me, has been the nicest thing about it. Films, I think, can entertain and I think films can be a distraction and I think that’s completely valid for films to just be a distraction. But I really love when films are communicating and helping you feel like other people are going through the things you’re going through and can be part of, hopefully, a healing process for yourself. That’s what means the most to me, when people say that.
Dread Central: In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also a musician and music plays a big part in this film and sets the tone. Why did you decide to use mixtapes?
A.T. White: Because I’m old (laughs) and I grew up with mixtapes. For a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons was, me and my friend who it’s written for, we would pass our playlists back and forth, but at that point it was CDs that you would burn and pass back and forth, which aren’t very romantic on film (laughs), so I didn’t really want to use CDs. I have a huge relationship with tangible media, but I understand all the detriments about it. It’s not accessible, it’s destroying the environment, all of these things like, it takes up housing space (laughs), so many reasons to not do physical media. But I love having a tangible relationship with the art that I’m involved with. Tapes were a big part of my life growing up. It’s been interesting. I think you could look at it cynically now and feel, obviously, that’s a good selling point or people have mentioned 13 Reasons Why, which I’ve never seen. I think it’s just a mixtape thing. It’s very now to have mixtapes and we definitely weren’t thinking that way. It’s just that I love mixtapes. A lot of friends ask me for mixtapes now and I don’t know how to give it to them (laughs). You have to download the songs and put them on your phone. It’s a nightmare.
I have shoe boxes of letters and cassette tapes from my friends and ex-girlfriends from when I was a teenager and they smell of that era, and they still work and it’s wonderful. For me, music does transport you to different places, and particularly when it’s connected to a previous time, whether or not someone has passed away is irrelevant. It can just be a previous partner or a friend you don’t see anymore. I grew up as a huge fan of The Cure and The Wish album is tied to such an integral part of my teenage years, that it brings me so much pain whenever I listen to it again. And I know if I kept listening to it, I would get new memories written over it and I would be fine, but I purposely don’t listen to it very often. If I listen to it, I can go right back to how I felt when I was sixteen or seventeen years old and that’s a wonderful time travel for me. People are afraid of that, but I think it’s a lovely way to preserve it and that’s great. The older you get, well for me anyway (laughs), the number you get, because you’ve been through so much. And I love these little capsules that can kind of put you straight back into the intensity and the emotion that you used to feel.
Dread Central: Virginia Gardner is fantastic in Starfish and she spends most of her time onscreen alone. How did you end up casting her in the role of Aubrey?
A.T. White: We cast through Dream Big Casting with Sherrie Henderson in Los Angeles. When I first went to her, she asked me for a list of ten people who you would ideally like to see for this just so she could get an idea of what kind of people were in your head. It doesn’t mean you’re going to necessarily see any of those. I was genuinely humbled that I got to see quite a few of those people and Ginny was one of them. She came and she was incredible, and she did a really great audition. We had one scene that was more sort of the scared, sort of frightened, frazzled, intensity. And then another side, which had to be the tender, the much slower paced stuff. A lot of people could sort of handle one side of that or the other, whereas she was able to completely nail both. My worry with her honestly was that the role was originally written for someone quite a lot older and I was worried she was too young. When we shot with her, she was twenty-one.
I met with her and we had this lunch and we talked about everything and discussed the emotional places the character has got to come from and the challenges of the physical shoot of the film, because it was a very physically challenging shoot. And the intensity for her to be in every single shot. She was really just very intelligent with it, really smart with it. She was able to attach it to aspects of her life where she could resonate with each thing the character is going through, even if she hadn’t been through the same kind of ordeals yet. It immediately gave us faith in her. Honestly, like you say, it’s a very challenging role when there’s not much dialogue and you’re in almost every single shot of the movie. We had an interesting relationship with her, because she is ostensibly playing a version of myself. So I had to give her full access to ask me anything she wanted to ask about my life, no matter how private, so she could really get into the terrible, terrible psyche (laughs), and then find the places where she could attach that to her own experiences and her own psyche to create a middle ground that she could work from, and she did such a great job with that.
Dread Central: I don’t want to give anything away for the people who haven’t seen Starfish, but I thought it was fascinating how each mixtape has its own story and there are little vignettes as she finds each one. I especially love the mixtape that shows behind the scenes of making the movie.
A.T. White: People either hate or love that scene (laughs). It’s a very meta scene and it’s very much something that I think, if people aren’t on the ride for the film, and even if they are, it can seem like one step too far. There is something that’s not live action in the film as well, and both of those scenes can really upset people sometimes. I think it’s because they can think it’s just a gimmick that’s put in there to be cute, but for me it goes back to dissociation. It’s like a layer of dissociation is removing yourself from other people and then a layer of dissociation is removing yourself from yourself. Those two scenes, for me, crystallize how I felt at the time the most accurately, really in the entire film. And that’s kind of why it’s there. You feel like you’re not in your own life and not in your own body and you’re looking at yourself. We wanted to break as many rules as possible, to be honest, but we only wanted to do the ones that connected with the journey that she was going through. So, we had a lot of crazy ideas that we didn’t get to do, just because we felt that’s not authentic to what she was actually going through.
Dread Central: I thought the creature effects were great and the creatures were terrifying. Can you tell me how the effects were done and also talk a little bit about the creatures as metaphors?
A.T. White: That’s something that I was adamant about from the very beginning. I’m really a big fan of the first two Silent Hill video games when the demons represented something that the character was going through and they weren’t just sort of horror mascots. I love horror mascots, don’t get me wrong, but it’s something that for this film, they needed to represent something. Otherwise, it didn’t make sense in the story (laughs). Then, the designs had to represent that as well. There’s a lot of subtle things in there, which are either too subtle, which means we kind of failed with it (laughs), or people might get when they go back to things. But there are a lot of little details through the sound design and then the design of the creatures. I’m a big fan of practical effects. I like CGI being used to accent things, but again, we had a very small budget. My ideal way to do creatures would be practical suits with CGI accents on them in kind of like the way Guillermo del Toro does. I think that’s magical. I’m very proud of the tireless work that our team put in. There’s a guy named Marc Hutchings who has worked with me for years. His day job is working on big, sort of Marvel movies and big TV shows and things at a studio. In the evenings, he goes home and does his duties as a husband and a father, and then would start working on our film at about midnight, and then wake up and do it again. He did that for an incredible period of time and I’m naming him because he deserves a lot of praise for that. He went through hell for our film. Then at the end, we did bring in a company called Cinesite in London, who were phenomenal. They are a huge company who do huge films and they worked for about a tenth of what they would normally charge, because they were just being very kind in helping us finish the ten shots we were struggling with in the last kind of hurdle. Everyone did great work on it.
Dread Central: I wanted to ask about the wolf head that Aubrey wears. What does that symbolize?
A.T. White: I’m actually sitting next to it right now (laughs). This is the problem when you’re doing things that are very personal. There are a lot of things that are there just for you and that aren’t always there for the audience. It is difficult, because you’re kind of welcoming people into a very intimate space and you’re kind of rejecting them from certain aspects of the film, so I guess that’s one of them. Well, there are two reasons. One was that my friend, before she passed away, she really got into making things out of felt. There are lots of little creatures around her apartment that she would make, which we tried to echo in the film. There are some shots of little felt creatures. And then she was making huge mounted moose heads, but out of felt and things like that, and I really loved it all. I wanted something that represented that a little bit.
The other thing was just when I was writing the film, right at the beginning, I do sketches and drawings, and I drew some pictures of this girl in the snow in this kind of wolf costume. As in, someone who is feeling very, meek isn’t the right word, but someone who is feeling very fragile and very wounded, but has this ferocity within them, like this ability to do things, and I wanted a creature to represent that. Once I finished the first cut of the film, I showed it to my mom, and she hadn’t seen anything at that point. She said to me afterwards, “It’s really lovely that you put this nod in the film to Jeremiah Johnson.” That was a film I watched a lot when I was a kid but hadn’t seen in maybe twenty years. There was this moment of like, “Oh fuck. That’s completely where I stole that from (laughs).” He’s in this costume that looks alarmingly similar. He’s in a bear costume in Jeremiah Johnson, that actually has a very small head compared to my very massive wolf (laughs). But that’s just imagery that must have seeped into me at a very young age and it’s never gone away. So, yeah, I sort of stole from it without meaning to (laughs).
Dread Central: I thought the creature design, and the use of starfish and jellyfish added some Lovecraftian elements to the film. Are you a Lovecraft fan?
A.T. White: I’m not actually. I’ve never read any Lovecraft. Obviously, I’m aware of him and I think I’m more, I guess, a fan of his influence rather than his work. Maybe I would be a fan of his work if I read it, but I like a lot of things that I know are influenced by him. So, I think through osmosis there are definitely Lovecraftian influences. But then there’s also stuff I don’t like. I don’t like bad-mouthing films, because it’s all subjective, but there are a lot of films which I’ve seen Starfish sort of compared to because of the Lovecraftian elements, and they’re normally films that I’m not a big fan of, to be honest. So, I’m not sure how much I love Lovecraft really (laughs).
The creatures were the only thing we didn’t have direct references to, which were things to do with the early Silent Hill. I know that they were quite influenced by Lovecraft, so there’s definitely something stemming from that. But everything else in the movie, we honestly tried not to be influenced by anything that was relatable. For instance, when I was sending Ginny films, and Blu-rays, and books and stuff, it was mostly drama based. I was getting her to research more things like the Three Colors trilogy, and in particular, Blue, which I think is one of the best representations of grief ever put into cinema. I wanted people to be thinking about those things and not be thinking about the science fiction or the horror or those sides of things, because I feel like that’s more my responsibility and they will take care of themselves. Everyone else should just be concerned with the drama.
Dread Central: What do you hope people take away from this film?
A.T. White: Hopefully, not burning hatred (laughs). Honestly, it’s hard as well because I’m quite sarcastic a lot of the time and in interviews, that doesn’t always come across when written into word (laughs). I’m just honestly incredibly honored that anyone wants to watch it. As far as what people take away from it, hopefully it’s not detrimental. The best-case scenario for me is that people don’t just hate it. If they do hate it, I completely understand and I’m sympathetic towards that (laughs). If they take anything more than that away from it, I don’t like to spell out for me what the last scene is meant to represent, but it definitely isn’t necessarily meant to be negative. It’s not meant to be terribly positive either. I feel that a big problem we have as a society is that we want to separate things like that, and I think that’s kind of a sickness that we have, which I’m trying to discuss in the scripts I’m writing right now actually. I think things are more complicated than that. So, I guess what I want people to take away is to be able to talk a little bit and discuss things. To communicate a bit better with each other about if you’re going through things that make you feel depressed or suicidal, then talk to other people because you’ll be surprised how many other people are going through that as well. I think that there’s hope in everything. I’m always interested, if I’m doing a Q&A with this film, I normally ask some people what their interpretation was of the last scene. A lot of people do like to separate it into a really negative space or a very positive space, and for me it’s really important to just say it’s okay to feel these things. It’s okay to be depressed.
The detrimental thing is to feel like you’re in it alone and when you realize that other people are in it, I don’t think that’s a negative thing at all, because that’s part of life. It’s important to feel depressed, because otherwise joy means nothing. And if you’re not feeling depressed, you’re not really noticing the things that are happening in the world, because there are a lot of depressing things happening. But that’s okay, that’s an important factor, I think, of being a person. I just think that we need to communicate that more and put less pressure. Unfortunately, I think in the social media age, there’s even more pressure to divide everything, which I’m sure as a critic you appreciate, into I love this, or I hate it. It’s a wonderful thing or a terrible thing and no middle ground anymore. It’s so great to know that, no, the middle ground is where most of us should be living the whole time. The point where at some point in history someone decided, “Oh, we deserve to be happy,” I think is a bewildering point. I don’t know who decided that. I don’t see other creatures in the world walking around just miserable because everything isn’t quite perfect for their lifestyle choices (laughs). We’re just lucky to be here for the amount of time we are. I want to feel all the things (laughs).
Dread Central: Can you tell me what you’re working on now?
A.T. White: I’ve got two scripts that I’d written before Starfish, which I’m kind of rewriting right now, because the moment you are lucky enough to see your film at a place like Fantastic Fest, you come out of it and revaluate everything you’ve done (laughs). And then I have two brand new scripts. One which is, I guess, more of a spiritual follow-up to Starfish. The thing I need to prove next is that I can tell a normal, narrative structure with more of a standard story, but I still obviously want to keep some character in there, and some bravery with how you approach the emotions of that. One is a bit of a spiritual successor to Starfish, it still has a lot to do with music and it has a lot to do with isolation, but in a very different, much more digestible, much more epic kind of way. I’m really hoping to get that made, but that’s very much P.T. Anderson inspired, it’s very much got roots in like There Will Be Blood ethic and I don’t mean the era of that, I mean the sort of style.
Me and Alberto, the DP, spent a lot of time talking and the space we really want to move into, but we won’t obviously end up anywhere near that (laughs), because he’s a master and we’ll end up somewhere completely different, but at least you have to aim for the stars, is we would love to make genre films that feel like P.T. Anderson films, that take things that seriously. Then there’s another film that I’m just about finished writing, which I’m pitching at the moment and it’s a type of monster, slasher kind of movie, which is a lot more pure horror. And I’ve actually namechecked it somewhere in this interview, because I like doing weird things like that (laughs). I’m not allowed to say what the name of it is yet (laughs).
Dread Central: I think Starfish is such a wonderful film. I’m excited to see what you do next. I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me today.
A.T. White: Thank you so much for your support.