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A Conversation with A.T. White on Starfish, Grief, and the Time Traveling Abilities of Music

Starfish came to me when I needed it the most. Having lost my own grandfather the morning before watching the film, I was blown away by its depiction of the grieving process not as an emotional millstone, but as a restorative journey. The story begins with Aubrey, played by Virginia Gardner (Marvel’s Runaways), attending an awkward wake for her deceased best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson), and is based on the true experiences of writer and director, A.T. White, after the loss of his best friend to cancer.

Courtesy of Al White

The film may be White’s feature directorial debut, but the time and attention to detail he devoted to it reflects the work of a seasoned pro. Starfish is a story of personal loss, told through a post-apocalyptic horror film, that forces Aubrey to take action against the end of the world. Shot in Colorado at the highest altitude in the United States, the wintry backdrop symbolizes the freezing of emotion the heroine feels. After breaking into her dead friend’s apartment in an attempt to cope, Aubrey falls asleep and wakes to find herself alone sans a mysterious walkie-talkie man and Lovecraftian monsters.

Courtesy of Al White

“The first two Silent Hill video games were big touchstones for us with how to have creatures that represented what the character’s going through rather than just being spooky mascots,” said White.

The Starfish monsters bare similarities to those in Bird Box and A Quiet Place in that they aren’t the backbone of the film.  Instead, we are committed and fully transported into Aubrey’s mind as she quietly trudges through grief.

“In the first draft of the film, [Aubrey] never left the apartment,” said White. “And then it took me about a year to get to a place where I emotionally felt like I could leave an apartment and I wanted to write a more of a cinematic journey.”

In the apartment, Aubrey stumbles upon a tape titled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD,” and is tasked with unraveling the clues Grace left behind. More preoccupied with mourning, Aubrey is hesitant and unwilling to help, but eventually embarks on a scavenger hunt around town to collect seven tapes that contain key ‘signals’ (disguised as songs) that force our protagonist to face her past.

Courtesy of Al White

As the lead singer of the UK band, Ghostlight, music plays a central role in White’s life.

“The older you get, the more songs become this time travel machine to different parts of your life,” White reflected. “And I think that’s kind of precious.”

The time, space, and memory-hopping effects contained in the tapes incorporate remarkable imagery and allow creative freedom. However, having written the score himself with only a few days left in post-production, White found it difficult to return to his grief.

“The hardest thing, to be honest, was doing the score for [Starfish],” he said. “I had to go back to the very first moment I wrote [Starfish] to get right back into that headspace, and that was very tough.”

Courtesy of Al White

White takes risks in the film, dabbling in Japanese animation and breaking the fourth wall, both of which were carefully planned artistic choices designed to express the separation accompanying grief.

“The first layer of dissociation is you disconnecting from the world around you,” added White, “and the second layer is when you disconnect with yourself and you don’t feel like you are connecting to your own personality anymore.”

Overall, Starfish is a thoughtful and emotional narrative that resonates deeply with those familiar with grief. Gardner is the perfect Aubrey and receives most of the screen time, only forfeiting a few shots to a well-behaved pet turtle.  From the start, Gardner’s impressive performance and emotional range hooks the audience and keeps them engaged for the duration of the film.

Courtesy of Al White

Instead of compressing a beginning, middle, and end into 100 minutes, White ingeniously mirrors the pace of real life and tells only a portion of Aubrey’s story leaving the rest to the imagination.

“For me, the ending of Starfish is definitely a comma,” stated White, “whether that’s a positive comma or a negative comma, it’s up to the people [to decide].”

Courtesy of Al White

As a whole, Starfish is an excellent and truthful narrative on grief and human emotion. Audiences will find the film raw, engaging, and honest. To find out what Aubrey uncovers, and what it means, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself. But beware of monsters and commas…

Starfish is available on VOD beginning May 28th. You can order it on iTunes, here.

Feature image courtesy of Al White

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Ariel Zedric is a student at Tufts University. When she's not studying, you can find her wandering around on her blog at arielzedric.wordpress.com. Contact via email at ariel.zedric@gmail.com or on Twitter or Instagram @arielzedric

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