For her work as a segment director on late night comedy shows as “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and as a writer on “The Tonight Show,” Beth Einhorn went to a comedy club a few years back to see a comedian when, after sitting at a small table near the back of the club, she realized there were some real characters right behind her.
“All of a sudden, I hear, ’Of course, the tall one has to sit in front of us.’” says Einhorn, recalling the words that would lead to “The Starr Sisters,” the lovely documentary short she co-directed with “Clara’s Ghost” helmer Bridey Elliott. “And I was like, “Oh my God, I think that’s me.” So I turn around and I say, I’m so sorry. Can I move?” And I just see these two ladies and I said to them, “Okay, hi. I need to know everything. Who are you? I just need to know.”
Einhorn learned many things that night about the gregarious septuagenarian sisters Patte and Randa Starr, chief among them that it is best to get out of their way. With red and white hair resembling a flame that only hints at their fiery personalities, the two are bound to take the Sundance Film Fest by storm when the film screens their later this week, inviting audiences into their humble Santa Monica home where they dine on meals comprised of pie and bacon and read compulsively, seemingly having stumbled upon the keys to a truly happy life. As Einhorn puts it succinctly, “They’ve read every book there is and one was married for 25 years and had a horrible marriage and the other one’s a lesbian and they decided 30 years ago [after living separate lives], ‘You know what? We love each other so much, let’s live together.’”
Allowing one into their cozy cocoon for 15 minutes would be a pleasure enough, but “The Starr Sisters” evolves into a truly moving love story upon understanding what Patte and Randa had to go through to get to the place where they are now, abused as children and carrying on unhealthy relationships with romantic partners as young adults, making the way they value each other so deeply as well as others, from the cashier at the local supermarket to celebrities that died before their time such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, a sign of extraordinary strength and resilience. Although Patte and Randa’s blunt talk and bright clothes need no ornamentation, Einhorn and Elliott follow the sisters’ lead in finding ways to have fun with their sometimes sordid history, enlisting “Sylvio” co-director Albert Birney to create nifty animated recreations of their lives that look like they’ve been ripped from underground zines and co-composers Coco Reilly and Eric Slick to musically accentuate the fairy tale ending the women have crafted for themselves.
Before heading to Sundance, Einhorn spoke about being in such wonderfully boisterous company, bringing together a strong team to do justice to the Starr sisters, and making a film that would acknowledge the trauma they experienced and turning it into positive energy.
After meeting Patte and Randa at the comedy club, how did you get interested in making this?
People were trying to have them do standup, but they’re not really standups. They want to more tell their story, so what happened was they gave me their business card, and I didn’t think anything of it, and then three months later, I was in need of a kooky looking visual act in this comedy club to balance off the premise of this pilot, so I thought, “What about those ladies?” I called them up and asked if they would be interested, and then I went over and met them. They were fascinating and I eventually got to know them and become friends with them. Then they were going to do a seven-minute performance at the Comedy Central space [in Los Angeles], and I helped them punch up their bit and got to condense it and [learned more of] their background and their story through that.
This film would seem to reflect how many learn of abuse of a friend or relative, where it’ll be played off as a joke at first or diminished in its power as a coping mechanism and then you’ll learn the full extent of it. Was that intentional in terms of structuring it?
It’s interesting that you say that because you get to know these women before you hear this story, so you get the gist of who they are and what their interests are and then we sort of lay it down. I know there’s a lot of documentaries on abuse, but here are these women that have made these choices and I really wanted to show how deep it still lies within them at 75 and 78, but how they cope with it at this time in their life. They’re not victims and I liked that because they chose not to be victims.
How did you come to collaborate with Bridey?
I brought Bridey to the Starr Sisters performance and on the way home we thought their story should be told. So we decided to make a documentary about the sisters. Bridey brought in all the talented people she loves to work with — producer Sarah Winshall, [director of photography] Markus Mentzer, [editor] Patrick Lawrence, [animator] Albert Birney, and Coco Reilly and Eric Slick [for the] original score. What was nice that everyone that worked on it found something in the Starr Sisters that meant something to them individually and it was a beautiful collaboration. I see The Starr Sisters as the new Dr. Ruth Westheimer on acid.
When there’s so much visual information going on in any given frame, was it actually a challenge to compose shots?
It was very easy. We had no production designer there. We set [the camera] up in the living room, [where] they had the mermaid in sequins and then the carousel behind them — those are two things they love and has a lot of special meaning to them.
It’s going to be great for more people to be able to discover them at Sundance.
It’s so amazing to be in Sundance and have people get to know The Starr Sisters, who have waited over 70 years to tell their story. And believe me they have many more stories to tell in their brutally honest unfiltered way.
“The Starr Sisters” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 3 on January 24th at 9:30 pm at Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City, January 25th at 11:30 am at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6 in Salt Lake City, January 28th at 2:30 pm at Park Avenue Theater in Park City, January 28th at the Temple Theatre at 3 pm in Park City and January 31st at 9:45 am at the Holiday Village Cinema 4 in Park City.