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VIFF 2016 Interview: STARS director Krista Vernoff

by Jason Whyte

"STARS is a psychological thriller about a mother who is reliving trauma from her own childhood while parenting her daughter, unaware that her thinking and decision making are seriously compromised." Director Krista Vernoff on STARS which screens at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival.

I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

I am thrilled to be at VIFF for the first time. STARS is my directorial debut and I am deeply honored to be included in this prestigious festival. I have spent a lot of time in Vancouver in my work as a Television Showrunner, and I truly love the city, but this is my first time at the festival. I will definitely be there for both screenings of STARS!

As you know Vancouver, what's your favorite place to grab a bite of food or a drink in-between a screening?

I am a big fan of Rocky Mountain Chocolate which is right down the street from the Sutton Place Hotel, where I usually stay when I visit Vancouver.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your work here in Vancouver and elsewhere!

I have been writing and producing television for the last eighteen years. I have worked on shows ranging from Law & Order to Wonderfalls and Charmed but I am best known for my work as Head Writer at Grey's Anatomy seasons one through seven, for which I won a Golden Globe and received multiple Emmy nominations. I presently am a writer and Executive Producer on the Showtime series Shameless, which stars William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum.

Great! How did STARS come together for you?

When I read the ACLU statistics on female directors in Hollywood, I suddenly felt a profound responsibility to direct something. I felt like it was my job as a woman and a feminist to tell a story start to finish instead of writing it and handing it off to someone else to direct. I wanted to claim that power for myself and to change the landscape for other women. It may seem like the best thing to do to change those statistics is to hire female directors and I do that too. But I felt a strong pull, a responsibility, to say, "I'm a woman and I am fully qualified to tell this story." So I decided to do it. And shortly after I made that decision, Stars came to me like a flash of inspiration. I was lying in a hammock on a sleepy Saturday and I saw the entire movie behind my eyes. I ran inside and wrote the whole script in under an hour. And though I'm usually a big re-writer, STARS didn't change from that first draft hardly at all. It felt like my Muse said, "Yes, I agree, you should direct." I called my old friend Michael Medico, who is a director and a producer, and asked if he would help me produce it. Then I emailed it to Abigail Spencer, an extraordinary actress who is a dear friend and a frequent collaborator, and asked her to star in it. They both said yes and then Abigail referred me to Andrew Wheeler, our incredible DP. He agreed to shoot it but his availability was limited and so we set a production date that was only six weeks after the day I wrote the script! I called Josh Kelly and Jeanine Mason and Wes Brown; all incredible actors I had worked with before. And I called my friend Scott Genkinger, a casting director I have worked with and really admire and he helped me cast the wonderful children in the movie, Madeline McGraw and Lily Rose Silver. It was a wild ride; the whole thing came together at lightning speed. My friends and family all stepped up. We used my house and my stepmom's house and the home of my incredible Line Producer Kristin Alcala. I was beautifully supported by my artistic community, my family, and friends and I am so proud of what we accomplished.

While you are working on a movie or even one of your shows, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

I grew up in the theatre and I love the camaraderie and community that happens when a group of artists come together to make a piece of art. I thrive on the collaboration and no matter how difficult a day is to make or a shot is to get, my commitment is to have fun and to try to set a tone where my team feels involved and appreciated.

What was your biggest challenge with STARS, and how did you overcome it?

STARS depicts child abuse. As a first time director, I had to think very carefully about how I was going to film that. I had to think about it early because in order to cast the children, I had to have conversations with their parents about how I was going to do it. Throughout my career in Hollywood, I have seen this kind of thing handled poorly in the past. I have seen directors more concerned with "getting the shot" than with protecting the psyches of the young actors involved. My favorite thing I did on this shoot was born of my biggest challenge. I was able to protect the child actress, Lily Rose Silver, from ever knowing what the film was actually about. We made up stories for her about what was happening to get the performance we needed. The actor who played her stepfather, the incredible Josh Kelly, and I did little plays for Lily Rose where he would say, "What's my motivation for this facial expression again?" And I would say, "You're so sad that she doesn't want to play any games with you, Josh." And he would go, "Oh right. And why am I holding the edge of her dress?" And I would say, "Because you are making her stay in "time out" as a punishment." And Lily never knew that it was a scene about molestation. All he did was make a "sad" face and hold the edge of her dress. And I directed her to just be very still so as not to make him any sadder or more angry. When you cut it together, it is horrific. You see him breathing in her ear, but we recorded his breathing later as a wild line, so he never actually did that to the actress. Poor Josh knew what the scene was about and was retching between takes, but Lily Rose was jumping up and practicing her pirouettes, oblivious and utterly innocent. I'm so proud of that.

Even with the subject matter at hand, if you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Abigail Spencer is a brilliant talent. She has starred in two pilots I have written and also in an episode of Private Practice I wrote. I know her well. We have a short hand. And there's a long monologue in STARS that she delivers to someone just off camera. She was word perfect as she always is and she did it over and over. I didn't cut between takes. I would just use our shorthand and she gets it. She gets me. I remember whispering "Believe yourself more" and "It got a little rat-a-tat in the middle." She would nod almost imperceptibly and then do it again and take the note perfectly. It was like playing a violin. It was one of my favorite things I have ever gotten to do as an artist; to watch her do her work, to tune her ever so slightly, and then just let her go.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how you got the look of STARS.

Andrew Wheeler is a dream cinematographer. He was strong, respectful and collaborative. He shot the film on RED. I remember when we were shooting on the playground. I knew what I needed from Madeline who played Sky, but I couldn't quite get it and I didn't know why. She was doing everything I said but it wasn't playing. I turned to Wheels and said, "What do I do here?" He said, "Try having her put her focus a few feet to the left instead of just off camera." And BAM, it was done. It was a technical thing, not a performance thing. That's my tip for first time directors. Hire good people and then don't be afraid to ask them for help.

So what are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences at VIFF?

I love this little film, even though it's very dark and twisted. My hope is that it's deeply thought provoking and inspires conversation about how people's psyches get broken and what it takes to heal. I hope it inspires conversation about mental illness and the different ways that it presents. I hope it inspires compassion for survivors. I am most excited to hear from the audiences after to hear their reactions and questions.

Where is this movie going to show next?

We are lucky enough to be included in several more festivals this year!

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I would love to see it at the Arclight Hollywood in the Cinerama Dome because it's my local theater and where I went on my first date when I was a teenager.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I can't imagine people talking or texting through this movie and don't want to try!

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

I was privileged to be able to call up world class artists and actors for STARS, but people make incredible short films every day without any Hollywood connections at all. Filmmaking doesn't require Hollywood connections. It requires willingness and commitment. That same iPhone that's turning you into a Facebook rage zombie could turn you into a seasoned filmmaker if you just use a different app. For my further thoughts on inspiration for aspiring artists, here's a podcast I recorded recently!

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I went to The Sundance Film Festival the year that Lake Bell won the Screenwriting Award for her feature directorial debut IN A WORLD and Jill Soloway won the Directing Award for her feature directorial debut AFTERNOON DELIGHT. Both awards were richly deserved, and both those directors and films inspired me to try my own hand at directing. For that, I am truly grateful.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/07/16 04:46:19
last updated: 10/07/16 04:58:21
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