INTERVIEW: Mixtapes, Metaphors, and a Meditation On Grief with A.I. White -‘Starfish’ (2019)

Never before have I seen a film quite like Starfish, which is perhaps why it’s stayed with me long after watching it. This unique and introspective sci-fi-horror hybrid centers around Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), a girl mourning the recent death of her friend Grace (Christina Masterson) when she suddenly finds herself completely alone in the world—in a very literal sense. Desperate to find out what’s going on, Aubrey searches for answers in Grace’s apartment, finding only a cassette tape that reads “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD”. After listening to the tape, Aubrey feels compelled to complete her friend’s mission, which was putting together pieces of something called The Signal—an otherworldly trigger that could prevent a cataclysmic event. Armed with her tape player and terrapin companion, Aubrey heads out into the desolate winter, determined to find the clues Grace left behind for her while fighting off terrifying creatures as she attempts to piece The Signal together.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview filmmaker AI White, who opened up about how his own cathartic personal journey of grief and acceptance turned into the post-apocalyptic “visual poem” (as he himself describes it) that became Starfish.”

So first of all, congratulations on Starfish. I was impressed to learn it’s your debut feature film, and that you wrote, directed, and scored it. Why was it so important to you for this particular story to be your introduction to the world as a filmmaker, and what was the most challenging part of bringing your vision for it to life?

AI: Film was a thing I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and so I was just very grateful to get to a point where we were making a feature. We were having some troubles with the budget, and then my best friend passed away to cancer, and I was going through a divorce, and I wrote Starfish just to deal with it. So, it wasn’t really a kind of tactical decision or anything. I didn’t expect to get to make it, but then we were looking for something that wanted a bit more flexible budget that we had. And yeah, this film made more sense for people, um, which I was elated to get to make it, because it wasn’t something that I thought anyone would want to make. It’s very weird, really personal. Like the original version of the script was all in one location. She never left the apartment, and—just because that’s where her mind was at.

HP: You’ve said that Starfish in its early stages began as a kind of catharsis for you to help process unexpected grief, which is a theme that’s prevalent throughout the film. Could you talk a bit about that process and how the film evolved over time?

AI: So, like I said, my friend passed away, I wrote it. I went to a place only about half an hour away from where we ended up shooting it, actually, in Colorado. I kind of locked myself away for a couple of weeks to write it not expecting to really do anything with it. And then when I showed it to producers they liked it, but they weren’t [sold]. Aubrey was in the apartment the whole time and it was too depressing, to be honest. There wasn’t much of an arc there.

HP: I noticed that music is an integral part of Starfish and very much itself a character in the film, from the mixtapes that Grace leaves behind to that stirring, kind of eerie orchestral score that soundtracks many scenes. So, having come from a background in music yourself, did you always envision music as playing such a key role in Starfish’s storytelling?

AI: Yeah. When I’m writing something I’ll come up with a character, and I’ll come up with a playlist full of music that they would listen to, and I’ll listen to that again and again while I’m writing, it helps me stay in their head. And with this film, obviously, that playlist became very literally injected into the story. So there were other tracks in that playlist right here, that’s something I’d listen to a lot. And they were songs which were either just incredibly important to me, or ones that me and my friend who passed away would put to each other in our own playlists. And then trying to find the songs which would help to understand the character, but without the lyrics being too on the nose. Which is difficult, and then obviously, you’ve got to hope that you get the licensing for the songs.

HP: Oh for sure, it can be really intrinsically motivated, the film at times. So the music had a personal connection for you then.

AI: Yeah, no, definitely. And then the score was meant to juxtapose that. Because a lot of the songs are quite upbeat. Not all of them, but most of them. Um, and I knew the score was going to represent Aubrey more, whereas the songs represent more her past, and particularly her relationship with Grace. So yeah, the score throughout was very difficult for us.

Starfish (2019) dir. A.I. White

HP: So I’ve been a fan of Virginia Gardner since seeing her as Karolina in Marvel’s Runaways, and she gives a stellar performance in the film—which, it should be noted, her character drives basically the entirety of the film. So how did she get involved in the project, and did you have her specifically in mind to play Aubrey when writing the script?

AI: . When I was writing it—I always have, like, two or three people in mind because you can only get too stuck on one, in my opinion.

HP: Right, you kind of want to have an open mind going into the process.

AI: Yeah. I mean, there’s little notes you might put in the script, but I might want to change all of that stuff. For me, it’s more about the character. But I will always have, a few people, maybe three people who are a little different from each other. It was when we got to casting, my casting director very kindly asked me to present kind of ten names that I would ideally like to see, and Ginny [Gardner] was on that list. She hadn’t done Runaways, Halloween, or anything at that point. The thing we mainly knew her from was Project Almanac. It was one of those films that I liked her in it, but she was one of those people who earned that. Then I checked her out in something else and I just felt like she wasn’t getting the opportunity to do as much as I thought she could do. So I was really keen to see if she would be interested, and then very, very humbled when she could come in. She was incredible. And obviously it was a huge kind of responsibility for her because you’re in nearly every shot of the movie, which is exhausting for an actor. She really understood and took it very seriously that she was basically playing a version of myself and doing this tribute to my friend. It was a lot for her to take on. And—yeah. Deeply proud of what she did.

HP: Yeah, she did an awesome job, and definitely had a convincing, kind of hauntingly beautiful performance. And my follow-up question actually relates to what you just said, because I was wondering what it was like working closely with Ginny on a film that was so uniquely and singularly demanding of her talent, because she did have to be on screen for basically the whole thing.

AI: I mean, I loved it. I won’t speak for her, but I loved it because I really like working with actors in that way, where they have an incredibly challenging role – there’s not a lot of dialogue so there’s a lot you don’t ever learn of Aubrey. But you definitely understand her emotionally much deeper than you might [with other leading characters] because normally there’s so many other characters you have to be dealing with in a film. So, I really relish getting to have that kind of relationship with an actor. And I had to kind of open myself up to her. She was just incredibly intelligent with how she used that information.

HP: Oh, yeah. Like it would be great to see her in different projects down the road, and Starfish was an excellent vehicle to give her more exposure as you mentioned you were hoping to do, because it is such a unique film. And you do get to see her and get to follow the journey of Aubrey throughout the film, which—like you said, when you have kind of an ensemble cast of characters, you don’t necessarily get to do, as opposed to a more personal film like Starfish.

AI: Yeah, and I mean, I guess that’s the hope. I hope that that’s what she takes from here because, like, it’s a tiny film and everything she does is pretty massive now, so we’re very insignificant in the scope of her career at the moment. But I hope she gets more roles where she can ‘cause she just had a lot of fun really being able to bite into different aspects of her own psyche. She kind of has to play a Lovecraftian in Starfish. And I hope that she felt fantastic, I definitely love getting to see actors do that kind of thing.

HP: Oh, for sure. Aubrey’s a fascinating role. Our theme over at Flip Screen for the month of May happens to be mental health, and in Starfish, I noticed it was specifically mentioned that Aubrey is experiencing dissociation, as evidenced through the isolation and detachment she feels on an extreme level from the world in the wake of Grace’s death. What made you choose to explore such an intimate, personal topic through the lens of a genre film?

AI: To be honest, I never even considered not doing it that way. I mean, you could totally make Starfish as a dramatic film, but it would be very dry. I think each medium of art has its own attributes that you can utilize to set it apart, you know, that’s the best way to tell a story. And I feel with something this introspective, it’s great to get more visually metaphorical so you can really utilize sound and imagery to convey how that’s really feeling. If it was purely drama, people would have to say how it’s feeling a little more. I’m a big genre fan anyway. I love just pure genre, so my favourite types of genre are based in drama. Some of my favourite feature films are things like Solaris or Donnie Darko. It’s a drama film, and then science fiction, so it has that. I never really considered doing it any other way just because for me, that seemed the best way to convey everything.

HP: So it just made sense to you from the start that oh, this was going to be a genre film, this is how you could get those ideas and these themes across?

AI: Yeah. And it’d definitely been a struggle for us initially anyway before we kind of got into Fantastic Fest. It was difficult because we were seen as we’re not the genre enough to be a genre film, and we’re not drama enough to be a drama film. It was a difficult kind of bridge. But for me, that was a logical place. This is how you feel something, and if I’m making a film about feelings, I don’t want to have two people sitting in there kind of telling each other how it feels and crying about it. I want to have, you know, a visual way to get inside. Like in many ways, it probably would have been easier to write as a book, because then you can really get inside someone. But I just feel if you’re doing that as a film, then you have so many ways to do that. And genre makes that very unique as you can do literal visual metaphors on the screen.

HP: Yeah, there were definitely a lot of really interesting visuals and visual metaphors in Starfish. My next question actually has to do with a scene that stood out specifically, which kind of felt very meta in the way it was done, which is the moment when you see Aubrey appear to walk onto the set of Starfish itself. And I was wondering if the inclusion of that scene is something that you would directly link to her dissociated state, because it’s an out-of-body experience, literally, for her getting to see her own life. Or is it intended more to serve as a surrogate for the audience, um, kind of inserting us into Aubrey’s position in that moment? Or did you have something else entirely in mind when you conceived that scene?

AI: Yeah, no, it was definitely through dissociation. We had a literal table where we put on every idea that we could. There’s nothing too crazy to be on that table, but then whatever’s left on that table has to relate to her journey. The two ones for me, the animation scene and the fourth wall breaking scene, for me were very powerful, because they were the most literal way I could show how that was going for me at the time, – the whole idea of not relating to yourself anymore. It’s difficult ‘cause when you do it, it can come across—or seem like a gimmick, or just you being cute. But for me, they’re definitely—difference between, like, personable films, stuff like that.

HP: Speaking of interesting choices and choices that kind of help enhance the narrative in a creative way in Starfish, I was wondering if you could comment on that anime-style animation sequence? Because it was really unexpected and certainly a creative way to tell that part of the narrative, transitioning from kind of one state to the next.

AI: Yeah, I mean that’s exactly the same as the fourth wall. So those two are very much hand in hand. It was one of those ideas that was like this for me is—along with the fourth wall is as far as I can go with utilizing film to show just how—how outside of your own experiences you feel. But it was really tough to get made, because I was very adamant I wanted it to be done by a real talented Japanese animation studio. Luckily, my business partner’s Japanese. He spent well over a year trying to find the right people to work with on it, and we’re really, really genuinely honoured to have studios who are involved that created Astro Boy and have been involved with so many huge anime staples throughout the decades. So I’m very pleased that we got that in there. And again, if you weren’t a tiny independent film, you wouldn’t get away with putting that in a movie. [Laughter] So, I’m very happy it’s there.

Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) in Starfish (2019) dir. A.I. White

HP: The film certainly ends on an interesting and somewhat ambiguous note. What do you ultimately hope, if anything, the audience takes away from it? Like, is there one kind of central theme or feeling you hope the audience leaves with, or is it ultimately up to interpretation?

AI: I don’t like saying necessarily what I take from the ending of it, but I do like hearing when I do Q and As what people interpret that ending as ‘cause I feel it’s very self-reflective. I was asked recently from someone about endings, because they said it was very clear in the film that I don’t like endings [laughter] – which I don’t. Because I don’t think there are any endings—there’s only middles for every story in life. So I will just say,  I think the ending for me is definitely a comma rather than a full stop. I very purposefully think it’s important not to finalize things in a way that seems positive or negative, particularly when you’re dealing with the things that Starfish is trying to deal with. Like, I think it’s very important— to just show the journey. Whatever that next step might be.

HP: Yeah, that’s definitely an interesting way to put it. I like the metaphor you used of it being a comma, because it very much feels like it could be the continuation in the next chapter of a story, because you don’t know what happens from that point on. You don’t know what the intentions were leading up to that point behind the tapes—like, there’s a lot of interesting ambiguity that you can interpret however you want. And I do agree that it fits the film best to have it be that way as opposed to making it, like, a super positive thing or a super negative thing. Because it could have been so easy for it to go in either direction, especially when dealing with genre.

AI: Yeah, I think genre has that problem. And then I think when you’re talking about mental health, I think it’s actually really poisonous how society wants to deal with that normally in media. I think there tends to always be—you know, when you see a film that deals with depression, and by the end of it it’s normally everything’s okay, don’t worry, you won’t become it. Or oh, everything’s terrible, and you’re left in this kind of pit, or you’ve committed suicide or something like that. And I don’t feel either of those are the right way to try and infuse people about it. I think people need to learn how to moderate, and they need to learn how to live with the positives and the negatives in life.

HP: Well, Starfish definitely succeeded on that level because it made me think about a lot and definitely—like I said, it made me wonder what some of your intentions with the film were, but also—yeah, just being an introspective piece made me think about, like, how I interpreted it and why. So thank you for talking about how it relates to mental health as well since as I mentioned, this month on Flip Screen we’re actually specifically kind of—we have a targeted focus on that area when it comes to film. So your words on that subject definitely—definitely resonate and definitely contribute to kind of the bigger picture of the mental health kind of discussion we’ve been having this month through films.

AI: No, that’s wonderful that you guys are doing that. ‘Cause I think it’s—I think it’s an incredibly important thing, I really do. To be honest, I could talk for hours about it, so don’t worry, I won’t. [Laughter] I think it’s a trapping, between the audience and the artist with that stuff as well, because normally when an artist is talking about it means that they’re going through something, and that can be wonderful for an audience to relate to as long as that’s conveyed in a responsible way. But then it can also trap an artist in a state of perpetuated misery where their success is reliant upon them staying in that place, which happens with a lot of musicians. At least four or five of my favourite musicians of all time have committed suicide. And I do in part think it’s because we kind of encourage them to stay in that place. Because as an audience, you know, we enjoy what they give to us without realizing what that does to their own lives, you know? So I think it’s fantastic when people can talk more about it.

HP: Yeah, that’s a really valid point too. Because art can so often be tied to suffering on the end of the person creating it, and the audience can be oblivious to the actual kind of emotional gravity of it. So it is important to have those discussions and create open and honest art that does address those topics, so hopefully—hopefully in the future there will be less of a stigma surrounding it.

AI: No, definitely. And that’s something I feel passionately—if I’m lucky enough to make future films, I want to make more mainstream films, I want to make things that are a bit more digestible, but I want to still be able to still find a way to have that kind of conversation with people through them.

HP: So, I understand that you’ve stated you plan to donate the proceeds from Starfish to cancer research, which is pretty incredible. Is the reason behind that because of your friend’s passing?

AI: Yeah, yeah, it is. Anything that I personally make will be going to cancer research. I want to support that as much as I can. My friend was wonderful, hilarious, and frustrating, and all the things that a best friend can be. And when she was close – well, we didn’t realize it at the time – but when she was close to passing, we did have a conversation at one point. And she kind of tore me apart for some of the—some of the ways I spend my money, and how I wasn’t giving it all—donating it all to a charity like that. So, I guess I’m allowing her to win that argument now. I’m trying as much as I can to make up for it.

HP: I’ll make this my last question – why Starfish? Because we do see the visual metaphor of the starfish kind of drifting through the tank, and we do see very much starfish imagery circle throughout the film, but why did you kind of condense what the film encapsulates down to that one title?

AI: It took a while in the script. I mean I’ve been kind of pushed to not spell it out too much. But I will say that the red starfish in the film is integral, and the jellyfish are integral, and the very, very last shot of the film, is integral to why the metaphor is what it is.

Starfish is available now on most streaming platforms.