(Wavelength #6:) How Women Really Talk and Small Stories- "Starring" by Lief
(Photo-interviewer: Jacqueline Lee)
(BTS Photography: Benjamin Legere and Emmett Charuk)
A Mostly Unimportant Film: Starring Background Characters
If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the lady at the fruit stand after the action hero knocks it down, this is the film for you. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a film where female characters sound real, made by women who know their shit, this film is for you.
A self-labelled “mostly unimportant film”, STARRING follows Augusta, one of the innocent bystanders who ducked-and-hid while an action-packed chase crashed through Kensington Market. Augusta sees the event as an opportunity -- a piece of social currency big enough to put her at the centre of a conversation with her roommates. Unfortunately, nobody seems interested and Augusta has to set her sights on a bigger platform: the local news.
Written and Directed by Lief Ramsaran, the team behind STARRING is a group of funny women standing up to the trope that only big stories are important.
“STARRING is my response to the intimidating task of making “the most important film” of my undergraduate degree. My experience in film school has shown me that often the scale of a story is mistaken for it’s worthiness.” -Lief Ramsaran
Set in Toronto, scored by Toronto bands and sponsored by local Toronto businesses like Longboard Living, STARRING’s production amplifies its message: neighbors and local communities matter.
Taking Comedy Seriously: Inspiration and Characterization
Who: Lief Ramsaran, 22, writer and filmmaker recently graduated from Ryerson
Style: Goofy, sentimental stories about real women
Her roots: Ottawa, where she made videos at age 10 for her YouTube channel, “Squishy Mailbox” with her dad's hi-8 tape camcorder.
Criminal quirk: Cash bribery (read on).
Her Wavelength: Not compromising to make a successful film- comedies can be meaningful and so can small stories.
What’s the New Wave to her: Rather than offering an escape from ordinary life, films that remind us how intense and amazing the sensations of ordinary life can be.
“I want to abandon a story people would consider important for a story I consider important.” -Lief Ramsaran
For a long time, Lief kept thinking about the people whose lives get ruined from Marvel movies. After the giant chase scenes, after the market stands get torn apart, someone has to clean up all that broken glass.
The main character Augusta is surprisingly, partially inspired by Lief's dad.
“She's got a little bit of my dad, who's so friendly, docile and secretly very perceptive. He's got such a unique mind, but he's easily talked over and it makes me wonder what it is about certain people that they are ignored.” -Lief Ramsaran
Lief had an older male prof that kept calling Augusta ditsy. Lief hates the word and how dismissive and sexist it can be, but at the same time saw it as a good sign that Augusta was struggling to be liked by people both inside and outside of the world of the story. Both this prof and the antagonists in the film see Augusta with the same, unsympathetic eye.
“Augusta lives in a crowded apartment. She's lonely and also surrounded by people. That's a double edged, shitty-city feeling that we wanted to capture.” - Lief Ramsaran
The Team: Women Who Know their Shit
“Our producer Franci read the first draft and said if this film doesn’t get made, it would be a CRIME.” - Lief Ramsaran (she may or may not have been joking)
The crew behind STARRING is a tight knit group of women that want to see more realistic characterizations, especially of women. There's Franci, the co-producer who story-edited with Lief through 11 drafts of the screenplay. Hannah, the production designer who found many of the cool things in Augusta’s apartment - like a ceramic cat which was just perfect. Weeda, the co-producer/expert on foreign action films who helped design the fight scene. Their DP, Khanh was one of the only female DPs in their year of Ryerson film students. Daniela, the actress who played Augusta is also a comedy writer and film director. Her humour helped shaped the film, and Lief says it wouldn’t be nearly as funny without her.
“We all understand each other, we all make each other laugh” - Lief Ramsaran
One of Lief’s biggest inspirations are T.V. shows like Broad City where the women talk like her. She thinks that "empowering" stories don't need to literally depict women in positions of power. Broad City is about lots of failures, small redemptions, and watching two women who call each other dude be happy with modest, daily victories. Her team was one that felt that way, and made a film that captures their essence.
Social Media and Attention: Motivations Behind Funny Characters
STARRING is pieced together by characters and trivia that all have their own little story. Julianna, the head of social media for the film had a dream where she was on Desperate Housewives and said, “I rather be extra than not enough”. That became an iconic line from one of the roommates, who’d rather share his slogan than listen to Augusta.
In STARRING, 13-year-old "Deggie" was lucky enough to capture the entire fight on his new phone. He has a whole back story and a separate short film, also written by Lief. It’s a dark comedy about the summer Deggie got addicted to nicotine by accidentally chewing several packs of Nico-Relief gum, a story that cumulates in Deggie's mother finally buying him his first phone.
When Lief was casting for Deggie, she and Marcel (the actor) were improvising, and Lief asked him why he would run after the action to film it. Without missing a beat, Marcel said "I want to go world star, obviously".
Deggie ends up getting Augusta’s glory but maybe in a different world they can be friends.
Behind the Scenes: A Fight Scene and Fighting for a Scene
Originally, Lief wanted to make fun of action films - but she ended up having a ton of fun doing it. Eric Daniel, the fight choreographer, was so invested in the project. Beyond coming on location scouts and watching all of the movie references Weeda put together, he helped Khanh the DP practice camera movements during fight rehearsals.
In terms of logistics, getting a grocery store on a low budget was crazy. They drove around for days, dropping off letters for store managers to read. Eventually they got CastleFruit - a corner fruit market on Baldwin and Kensington that doesn't have a website, or phone number. They weren't even on Google Maps.
Lief was really excited to shoot the film entirely in Kensington Market, but it came with its challenges. Even when they were shooting, there was a store across the street blasting music as loud as humanly possible. Franci asked them to turn it down but they refused, so she had to bribe them with a pile of money.
“The guy took the cash, smelled it and said ‘Smells like the last song of the night.’ He finally turns off the music, and hours later when we were done he gave us a joint- maybe to show a truce. It was an accidental drug deal.” -Lief Ramsaran
The music in the film is by Pins & Needles, an all girl garage band that rock hard. Lief also composed the song in the beginning - trying to pick up the motifs from Pins & Needles.
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