The new adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is currently in theaters, but before directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer made the jump to studio filmmaking they delivered one of the decade’s best horror movies. Starry Eyes (2014) is part cautionary tale and part commentary on the struggles faced by the thousands of young people who arrive in Los Angeles every year hoping to make their Hollywood dreams come true. Did I mention it’s also one hell of a horror movie?
It successfully eases viewers into its world through a sympathetic lead character and powerful lead performance,and you can’t help but feel for her journey. Sharp direction, a stellar score, and a shocking turn towards violence complete the experience resulting in a movie that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Starry Eyes (2014)
Commentators: Kevin Kölsch (co-writer/co-director), Dennis Widmyer (co-writer/co-director), Travis Stevens (producer)
1. The old-school 70s style title card includes a production company called Astraeus Pictures which they refer to as “Easter Egg #1.” It’s the devilish production company in the film itself.
2. Lead Alex Essoe had been working as an actor since 2008, but they found her via the hundreds of auditions stemming from their initial Kickstarter effort.
3. The comment that comes in a surprising number of commentaries arrives here at the 3:55 mark when Kölsch says “I hope you’re not watching the commentary before you watch the movie.”
4. They paid special attention to the sound design to help put viewers into Sarah’s (Essoe) subjective mindset. “It’s extreme highs or extreme lows with her. Everything is very extreme to her, so the sound design attempted to convey that.”
5. Widmyer and Stevens cameo at 7:20 as the unseen producers judging Sarah at the audition.
6. The inspiration for the film started with auditions the pair were holding years prior for a film that never ended up getting made. Watching hopeful actors come in from their day jobs, bare their souls for a few minutes, and then slip back out never to be seen again was a sight that stayed with Kölsch and Widmyer. “You gotta be kind of crazy to go through that.”
7. Sarah’s initial audition for the cult was shot in Brian Udovich’s (The Wackness, 2008) production office which used to belong to Howard Hughes. “The famous story about [him] peeing in all the bottles and locking himself in his office literally happened right above this office.”
8. They had initially planned on using a traditional orchestral score and had already started layering it in during the editing, but once they met Jonathan Snipes and considered his ideas for a synth score they knew it was the only option. “If you just listen to the soundtrack on its own you can hear the journey that Sarah goes through.”
9. Sarah’s violent audition at 16:00 was strongly inspired by Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) and specifically the scene with Isabelle Adjani in the subway. “We watched that film as an inspiration for how raw an actor’s performance can truly get if you just kind of push them.” Side note, Possession is on the short list of movies I watched once and didn’t like but fully intend to re-watch based solely on how beloved it is by people whose taste I respect.
10. The unmade film mentioned at #6 above also resulted in an actor who stole their script, went back home somewhere overseas, and proceeded to start giving interviews about how he had written it and landed David Lynch to direct. He even embellished further saying he had auditioned for Lynch, and the famed director simply shone a spotlight on him for a couple hours before saying he was hired. So they stole the idea for Sarah’s follow-up audition at 22:10.
11. “Sarah doesn’t get forced into anything in this film,” says Widmyer, and that’s key to the theme here about how far a person will go achieve their greatest desire. Viewers are meant to see Sarah as a victim at first — in a traditional horror film she most certainly would be — but it’s only as the film progresses that it becomes clear how much she’s fully on-board for the madness provided it leads to success.
12. The audition scene with the spotlight and flashes of light is hiding a handful of flash cuts beyond some quick glimpses of Sarah smiling in enjoyment. There’s some pretty monstrous stuff visible more clearly to those willing to go frame by frame.
13. The guy on the TV at 29:56 was a contributor to the Kickstarter and chose as his reward a cameo in the film. Unfortunately, he was in Florida, and as the production couldn’t afford to fly him out they instead wrote a bit for him to record himself doing that they could then play on the television.
14. Carl’s mustache was Pat Healy‘s idea… surprising no one.
15. The van with the bookshelves lining the back wasn’t dressed for the film — it came this way from their friend who actually sleeps in it.
16. “We learnt this method from The Entity,” says Widmyer at 1:09:46 in reference to what appears to be something invisible touching Sarah’s stomach. They don’t share the method, but my money is either on an air hose aimed at her exposed skin or an actual ghost fondling her belly.
17. The writhing maggot that Essoe pulls from her mouth is real… as is her reaction to it.
18. They approached the film’s violence in contrast to its outrageous theme by keeping it grounded, realistic, and horrifying.
19. Marilyn Manson caught the movie at Beyond Fest 2014 and approached Kölsch after the screening to say “Thanks for putting tits in your film.”
20. There’s the sound of handcuffs locking as Sarah sits before the mirror at the end “because the idea is that she’s now become a slave to this industry.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“There’s nothing better than opening up on a close up of a face.”
“The hair has an arc.”
“That’s the sad reality.”
“I wanna point out that Sarah just stabbed one of her friends in the back, literally.”
“This is basically two actors with a whole lot of blood in their mouths.”
Starry Eyes remains a terrifically oppressive descent into hell, and what starts as a slow burn quickly becomes an intense slice of pure horror. The filmmakers show a clear vision evident in the visuals, sounds, and atmosphere on display here, but they’re quick to shower praise on their cast and crew for their contributions as well. It’s a solid commentary and leaves me hopeful that they do one for Pet Sematary too so we can hear what exactly they hoped to achieve with that film’s back half. (That film’s issues are all script-based, but I’m still curious.)
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.