Exclusive: Writer/Director Adam Sigal Discusses “When The Starlight Ends”

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Recently, a film that Sam Heughan starred in, When The Starlight Ends, was released on DVD and Amazon. The film was written and directed by Adam Sigal, and stars Sam and Arabella Oz, daughter of TV personality Dr. Oz. If you’ve been following the news about the film, you know that it was delayed for quite a while, recut by producers, and ultimately a project that Sam has stepped away from. But because he’s Sam, and important to all of us Outlander fans, many of us have seen the film. It’s had some mixed reviews, but did win awards at The Other Venice Film Festival last year. I had an opportunity to talk to Adam Sigal, about what went right, what went wrong, how Sam got involved, and about Adam’s next project, which stars another Outlander favorite, Graham McTavish.

TIBS: I watched Starlight last night, I understand there have been some major issues on your part, I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about what you had wanted and what you ended up with.

Adam Sigal: It’s fine, when you make any movie, it goes through  – the old saying is you make 3 movies, you write a script that’s one movie; then you shoot it, that’s one movie; then you edit, and that’s another thing. So on this one, it definitely changed a lot from the script, and a lot of that was due to a lot of things. It’s bound to happen, there are certain limitations with the physical universe. So the cut is – I’m happy with it, I’m happy with parts of it, I’m super happy with the performances of the actors, I’m happy with how it looks, there’s definitely things I would love to change, as with every film and every filmmaker, they obsess over it, there are things that drive them crazy about their movies. That’s kind of the answer, I guess.

TIBS: It was an interesting film, and there were definitely a lot of things I like about it. And there’s a script floating around – I think it was on Outlandercast.com, where you had posted the trailer, so you could see what the changes were from script, which I know isn’t always final, to the cut that was released last week. I’m kind of going back and forth between those two.

Adam: The script is different, and the script was definitely my original vision, the film is one interpretation of that, and yeah, I think it gets across some of what I was trying to get across, and some of it just didn’t quite work. And a lot of that was my own fault, as far as this really was my first real budget, being a writer and director, so I learned a ton during this. We actually just wrapped, about a month ago, on my second film, which had a similar budget, and I’m in the editing room now, and there’s so much I learned, just from going from one film to the next, on what works and what doesn’t work. I was very ambitious on certain things on Starlight that didn’t quite get there.

TIBS: That second film, just briefly, that’s Sargasso?

Adam: That’s right, the producers tried the change the title numerous times, but I was like, no. It has Tom Berenger, Jeremy Sumpter, and Graham McTavish, and Richard Portnow. I’d been a private investigator in LA for about 15 years – that’s how I paid the bills while I was trying to get financing for my films. This is the story of that, it’s the story of a private investigator in LA, very authentic, he gets involved in an insurance scam. It’s very different from Starlight, but it’s got some very strange elements that I like to incorporate like in Starlight.

TIBS: When that one comes out I would love to talk to you about that – that sounds like the kind of film I really enjoy, and of course, I love Graham and Tom Berenger.

Adam: I have to say one thing – Graham – Sam recommended Graham to me, and for the role in Sargasso, I wasn’t too familiar with him – I hope this doesn’t get me blackballed or anything, but I haven’t seen much of Outlander, so I didn’t know Graham from that. I knew him from The Hobbit, and when he came to the set, he was incredible. His presence was amazing. He basically had four, almost 6 pages of dialogue that was basically just him, going on and on and on, he showed up, knew every line, rarely flubbed a line, he did a flawless Russian accent, and was just so sweet – everyone loved him. What a guy. I want to use him in everything. He was phenomenal.

Here’s a goofy video Adam made to promote the crowdfunding campaign for Sargasso:

TIBS: Yeah, he’s terrific. I’ve met all the Outlander actors – they are all great people, and really a lot of fun and very talented. So you’ve got a good group there. Let’s talk about Starlight. There was one line I really loved – “If time is a great city, then all of the streets are one way.”

Adam: That actually was something I wrote in a short story, and it was a tiny piece of a much longer kind of thing, where I said, time is a great city, you’re walking in the street, you can’t really see where you’re going, and there are buildings and cars and stuff in your way. And you get a little older, and you go up in an elevator, and you see all the streets that you took, and you go, oh my god, I can’t believe I was stopped by that, I can’t believe I didn’t take that turn and that one, I’m so much wiser now, I can see all the streets and I know where I should  have gone. And you go even higher, and you can see back to where you were then.

I kind of just mused on it – I’m obsessed with the concept of time. I’ve always conceptualized that there are parts of the universe, matter and energy, and space and time, and some of them seem like they’re mutable and they can change, and time’s always been the one that people envision as being unchangeable. Like you can blow up a building, you can change the position of matter in space, but time has always been perceived by us as the thing that’s unchangeable. But I don’t actually think that. Whereas, like, and that’s why I said, it’s one way, but in trying to understand some of the higher concepts, like how certain pieces of pieces of matter are just a speck in time, and the way that time passes, I’ve become a little obsessed. So that’s where that came from.

TIBS: That line really hit me. I liked that a lot. Jacob and his relationship with Cassandra – he seems to me to be a really sad character. I don’t know if he would, in a moment, describe himself that way, but he doesn’t seem to see her as her. It seems to me that he sees her as the Muse, and every woman. And you play on that by having Arabella Oz play every woman.

Adam: Exactly.

TIBS: So it’s very interesting how you had her even look like Cassandra, even when she was Cindy O’Hare or Chelsea the alien. Even the hairstyles looked the same, even though they were different colors in every situation. Is that what – that’s really him writing her.

Adam: Exactly. If you imagine that everything that happened in that story already happened for him. He’s writing about the past. As he’s writing, he’s getting over her, changing his mind about her. So in the first half of the film, she’s everyone, and she’s everywhere. If I’d had the time and the money, I’d have tried something like Being John Malkovich, where he goes into the restaurant, and everyone is John Malkovich. But that’s just how he was feeling. And those stories, there are certain aspects of his relationship with her, that were really important to him. There was how much he worshipped her, which was her being the celebrity in the cafe, almost like painful way he saw her. And there was the cheating, or infidelity aspect, which was just touched on, in a couple of places, which he became so suspicious of, which was the thing with his neighbor.

And there was the inexplicable departure, when she just left. And that was the alien thing, that was supposed to be an allegory for their relationship. In the end, it got changed a bit, it is what it is, but that was my intention, what I was trying to portray, was the three almost short stories. The beginning with the cafe, the thing with the neighbor where they tried to do that scheme, and the hitchhiker. Those were supposed to be the three phases of their relationship. And the second half of the script, was much more about what actually happened, and the actual linear timeline of their relationship, from beginning to end, with her leaving him, because she thought it was the right thing to do.

TIBS: When you look at the script, you can more see his thought process, but when you see the film, it looks like it was made to be much more linear. And so it was kind of hard to see where then those little vignettes fit into his life.

Adam: Yeah, and again, a film goes through a lot of iterations. And it’s definitely my experience that sometimes things that work on the page or worked in my brain, just don’t communicate. I don’t want to give the impression that the producers came in and f’d up my movie. The opinions of producers on a film are extremely valid. If you just look at it from the perspective of, like, they, in some ways, represent your audience. They’re not, at least in this case, the creatives. They’re not the the director, or the person who wrote it. They can look at it from an exterior perspective, not the inside of my head, and go, “well, that just doesn’t work.” And that’s a valid viewpoint, and one that I actually value.

For instance, like just as far as something I learned, on my current film, Sargasso, I have final cut of the film. Which is somewhat unusual, and I didn’t have that on Starlight. But yesterday, I had a screening of the rough cut, as it stands now, for about 10 people including five of which were the producers on the film. And I got  notes from everyone, and and it is very valid. And especially for me, I’m pretty insane, so I get wrapped up in things that I think are cool and things that I think work, and it’s good to have that opinion of like “whoa, whoa. That does not work.” And I hold my own on some it, because I don’t care, but on some of it, I actually want people to know what I meant here.

TIBS: I understand that, I’ve got both a TV pilot and a novel kind of being worked out in my head, and it’s hard to – it’s like if you jump thoughts in a conversation with somebody – you know exactly what you’re talking about, but they can’t see the jump. And it takes an outside person to figure that out for you.

Adam: 100%. And I fall into the realm of extremely unique, as far as my vision for films, very unique. And it’s actually my mission statement to make films that are different than anything else that’s been done. Like more so than even being good, I want to be different. That’s my driving force. But I don’t want to do things that people don’t understand. Or, I don’t want to do things that people don’t like. I’ve always said, my ultimate goal, I would love to make films like David Lynch does, but there are some of his films, in my opinion, that legitimately cannot be understood. I don’t want to do that. I want to do things that make people think, and are very unusual, and very unique, different than anything else that is out there, but not ones that are bad. So that’s why I do value the opinions of people. I say, “I know this is weird, but how does it make you feel? Does it work?” And generally, the feedback is very useful.

TIBS: Can we talk about one scene in particular, one vignette, the alien one? And I’m not focusing on that because I write for a sci fi review site.

Adam: I hate this scene.

TIBS: Oh really?

Adam: This scene drives me insane, for a lot of reasons, but it’s because it was my favorite scene in the script, but it’s my least favorite scene in the film. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.

TIBS: It was interesting to me because, looking at the script, and now talking to you and hearing you say that that was his, as they were parting, and he was seeing her separating from him, I can see that more in the script but I loved the description, and being a big Doctor Who fan, too, reading the description of what he actually saw in the sky. The star that explodes and hearing the people screaming.

Now what happens next is very strange. We’re seeing from Jacob’s POV. He’s staring up at the sky. And we start to pull very slowly toward a single star up there which is burning brighter than the ones around it. We get closer and closer, and occasionally we catch a glimpse of Jacob.

He’s strangely intent on the star. And it gets brighter and brighter, until it nearly fills the screen. And then–all of a sudden, it is gone. There’s a little flash of light, and then there is just black space in the area where the star was a moment ago.

Jacob sits up as though struck by a hammer. And then there is a terrible, loud noise. It is like an explosion combined with the sounds of a billion voices screaming all at the same time. Jacob thrusts his hands over his ears and cringes. But the sound vanishes almost immediately. And afterward, Jacob sits for a while, his hands over his ears, looking utterly perturbed. After a moment, he pulls his hands off his ears, looks around as though suspicious. And then he looks back up toward the sky…right to where that  vanishing star was before. But it’s just a black area, now. Surrounded by other stars, but gone.

I went back and watched that scene right before you called. And that scene is really downplayed.

Adam: Yeah, I think that the reason for that is, it’s tough to put – it was a little bit of a tough sell to my actors. Because she’s playing so many different roles, and that scene jumps into extremely heavy sci fi. And I take it upon mysefl, a failing as to how I directed it, not giving her enough of what I was trying to communicate on a purely sci fi level. Because as an actor, or actress in that scene, in order to be able to go there, you need to have some very basic or even more involved understanding of sci fi, and an appreciation of that sort of thing. Because it’s hard to jump from a relationship drama scene into straight up science fiction. It’s a difficult thing for anyone.

And Sam, it was different for Sam, because Sam and I have been plotting and working – I mean, Sam read the script about three years before we went into production. He was one of the first people I gave the script to, just in general. So he has been able to talk to me about that, we’ve chatted and joked about that scene so much, about the sci fi aspect of it, whereas Arabella came into the whole film much later, like a month or two prior to production, which is pretty standard. But because in preproduction, in an indie film, there’s so much to focus on and so much to do – we rehearsed and everything, but I never – I was never really able to sit down with her for that scene, and go, “these are the sci fi references that I was looking at.”

So when it reached the final stage, I felt that it should be cut down, because the scene went on a little too long, and I wasn’t getting the feeling that I wanted, as far as what was in the script. So it hurt my heart to do, and it wasn’t any fault of the actors or anything like it, just the way that the scene played out didn’t quite work.

TIBS: It was interesting because I could feel that it was awkward, and I thought Arabella did a great job throughout the film. But she didn’t seem real comfortable with the genre, or whatever…

Adam: That’s it. It was just crazy, crazy sci fi, it felt like insanity. That material in that scene, just from a dialogue perspective, was tough. It was just kind of – it was a tough sell. And also, and this gives a bit more insight into what makes an indie film go right, and what makes it go wrong. We were unbelievably rushed on that scene. To the point that it was absurd. Because of certain other factors on set that made our schedule a little trickier, but we tried to shoot that entire scene in a day.

Which is fine, and sort of theoretically, if everything goes perfectly, is workable, but we should have had three or four days to shoot that scene. And that’s not a copout as a director, I take full responsibility for the scene not being that great in my opinion, but that’s the truth. Sam and I talked about that at length after the film, and I was kind of like, maybe we should even cut the scene, as much as it hurt. It was actually a sci fi short story I wrote when I was a kid, like 16 or 17, that actually the entire rest of the film blossomed from that. As strange as that is, and it hurt my heart, but that’s how I felt about it.

TIBS: There was another aspect to that scene that, with the other vignettes. I liked the way that you, and I hope that this was deliberate, because I liked it. I liked the way that you subtly changed the tone or the cinematography to go with the vignette. So when he sees Cindy int he diner, it because more campy, more of a – you could see the adoration, the star power kind of thing. Then when he’s sleeping with Ralph’s wife, there’s more of the everday, kind of boring, but with this scene in the car, the obvious screen behind – it was obvious that they were sitting in half a car, with the screen behind them. And someone in one of my groups said she didn’t really get that. But I got it immediately, because it looked like a 1950s sci fi film. “Well, there are aliens landing.” I hope that was deliberate on your part.

Adam: 100%. It was my DP (director of photography) and I, Shane Daley, we talked about that at length, and how we wanted that to be different in each one of those short stories, and we wanted it to be recognizable that those were fantasies. And different than what was actually happening in reality. So there’s no question that was intentional.

TIBS: Good. Because that was interesting. I liked the way that was handled.

Can we talk for a few minutes about Sam Heughan, because he’s the reason that I’m coming through to talk to you about this film. LIke I said, I have great respect for Sam as a person and as an actor. I’ve met him a couple of times, I’ve had the good fortune to interview him briefly more than once. What did he bring to this – and you said he read the script three years before – how did you get involved with him for this project?

Adam:  It’s kind of a long story. I met Sam long before Outlander. So it must have been a year, probably 2 years before Outlander was even a thing. I met him through a casting director, she said “here’s a good looking Scottish guy, he’s terrific, he’s passionate, you’ll like him. You should meet him.” I asked can I give him When the Starlight Ends, she said sure. So I met Sam at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, he was just so friendly, he was raving on and on about my script. We chatted for a while, and then he sent me this email after our meeting, that was just six pages of just raving about the script. And I was like, oh man, that’s so nice, and we stayed in touch. And then he came out to LA, I want to say probably the following year, for pilot season, and I was like, I’m trying to get this movie made, it’s tough to get funded, they want me to have big stars, and I can’t get big stars, I just want to make this frickin’ movie. And he said, I know.

So then, he messaged me on Facebook, this would have been early or mid 2014, I think it will be big, maybe it could mean we could get Starlight made. I was like, OK, whatever, I have friends who have booked shows all time. And then I started seeing from friends who are not even movie industry people, posting pictures of Sam. I was like, what the hell is going on here? Then obviously it came out that he was the lead guy on Outlander. I was like dude, congratulations, he said thanks, so are we still going to make Starlight? And I said, yeah, but you’re like a star now, do you still want to do it? Absolutely. I went to the premiere of the first episode, in San Diego…

TIBS: I went there too! I was just rows behind you then!

Adam:  So funny! My wife and I were there, we chatted about it more, about the script, he said what do you want to do? So, in the mid part of 2014, I started talking to this management company, they said this guy Sam’s a star now, does he really want to do your movie? And I said, I think so. And so we talked to UGA and Sam, and UGA was basically like, Sam, don’t do this movie. And Sam was like, no, I like this guy, I like this script, I want to do it. And I was like, OK, man if you really want to do it.

And then he got basically – Arabella came about late in the process. And he was like, if you like this girl, she’s perfect, you think she’s right for it, we could probably get financing. So we flew out, Sam and I both hung with her and read with her and we both thought she was really good. So I said, yeah, I’m down with this girl. And so we got financed, Sam was great.

There were a dozen times in the whole preproduction/prep/post-Outlander, pre-Starlight discussion phase that Sam easily could have said I’m getting studio production offers now, I want to go with a big show, yeah, I like your little indie script, but we’re cool – but he stuck with it the whole time, and there were things that became very difficult in preproduction, that he totally said I’m still in, let’s do it. And it was quite a hectic shoot, and he was very sweet to everyone the whole time, and he’s a great guy. One of the actors I owe a whole lot to for how the film turned out.

TIBS: I did have one problem with it, though – his American accent was awful.

Adam:  You think so? He worked on it a lot with an accent coach, there were some lines and words that I felt like could have been different, but it didn’t bother me that much. Maybe I just got so used to it. But it wasn’t one of the things sbout the movie that bothered me. I know a lot of people had an issue with it, but I actually thought it was pretty good.

TIBS: Well, it was something that I could overlook because I like Sam so much…

Adam:  Sure… that could have been my problem too.

TIBS: But there was one line – at point he says “I could come out for the weekEND.” In a very British pronunciation.

Adam:  There were little things like that that I noticed as well.. he kept saying “frusTRATed,” and I kept saying “no no, FRUSTrated.” There were little things that were frustRATing, no, no FRUSTrating. But I can’t even imagine, my British and Scottish accents aren’t great, it didn’t bother me throughout the film. I also – there was nothing that said “this guy needs to be American.” I didn’t want to to go with his full Scottish accent, because I thought it would be a little tricky with the script written as it was, but I didn’t mind if he had a touch of an accent.

TIBS: Right, there was nothing in the film that said, “well, when I grew up in  Detroit…”

Adam: Exactly.

TIBS: So we were kind of wondering why – and if it didn’t bother you, then it wouldn’t have occurred to you – why you didn’t just decide he was born in Britain, because Sam does a great soft British accent.

Adam:  I feel like, too, that Sam really wanted to do an American accent. I think he pushed for that. And I said, sure, he worked with an accent coach, I thought he did pretty good.

TIBS: Well, we’re going to give that to him because we love him so much.

Adam: There you go.

TIBS: He’s a terrific actor and a terrific person, so we’re happy to have him wherever we get him. So when do you think Sargasso will move forward? Do you have any kind of a timeline for that one?

Adam: We’re trying to get it – we want to submit it to two major festivals, which are Toronto and Venice, and the submission deadline is just around the beginning of June. So I want to have a cut by then. Which I think is totally realistic. I think it’s realistic to think that it will be released by the end of the year. We want to try to do some cool festivals to help raise the stature of the film before it’s released, There’s a big film market in October, that’s probably when it will be released. Because knowing the film industry, I think that’s probably what will happen.

TIBS: Thinking of festivals, Starlight won awards at the Other Venice Film Festival. Was that the same cut that’s been released?

Adam: Yes!

Sam Heughan and Adam Sigal

TIBS: It won Best Film, Best Actor and Best Actress? That was really great.

Adam: Yeah! I have some awards from that festival on the shelf in my office. Best Director or something like that.

TIBS: It’s fascinating to see a film from both sides, from the script and talking to the director and seeing a finished cut. The press release said something about “director’s cut rumored to be coming.” Is that anything that is actually in play?

Adam: No. I’m not doing a director’s cut of this movie. The cut that’s out there is the cut. I’ve honestly moved on to another film, and trying to get another into production, the last thing I want to do is another cut of what I did two movies ago. That is a finished product. No director’s cut coming, unless the producers at some point reach out to me and say “we would love for you to do a director’s cut.” In which case I will consider it.

TIBS: I just had to ask since it was part of the press release.

Adam: I understand, and it was a little tricky on that. I don’t know exactly where that came from. I’m new to the game of having a publicist. Let’s put it this way – not at this point, or at any point in the future.

Preliminary script (thanks to OutlanderCast)

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Erin Conrad