Director Martha Stephens Finds A “Sense Of Place” With ‘To The Stars’ And Oklahoma Production

Madisen Beaty as Clarissa Dell, Lauren Ashley Stephenson as Rhonda Robertson, Kara Hayward as Iris Deerborne, Sophi Bairley as Hattie McCoy and Liana Liberato as Maggie Richmond in the drama TO THE STARS, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Directed by Martha Stephens (Land Ho!), To The Stars is the unabashedly evocative coming of age story of Iris Dearborne (Kara Hayward), a teenager who struggles to find her way in 1960s Oklahoma. During our interview Stephens talked about shooting in Oklahoma and the challenges of crafting an ambitious film on an indie budget.

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Kara Hayward as Iris Deerborne and Liana Liberato as Maggie Richmond in the drama TO THE STARS, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

With no friends in sight and parents (Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro) who, though loving, are more focused on their respective wants, Iris Dearborne (Kara Hayward) is an understandably introverted teenager. New classmate student Maggie’s (Liana Liberato) brash confidence and eagerness to befriend Iris leads to a sea change in our protagonist’s life, and ultimately their friendship is a gamechanger for both parties.

Adelaide Clemens, who’s also a relative newcomer to town, is Hazel, a hairdresser who is simply trying to carve out a new chapter in her life. The film is filled with inspired performances, and although I wish I had more time to talk to Stephens about the ensemble, she did elaborate on a memorable scene between Clemens and Liberato.

I love To The Stars and absolutely can’t wait to see it in black and white. The feature hits digital Friday, April 24 via Samuel Goldwyn Films.

You’re directing a movie set in early 1960s Oklahoma on an indie budget. With just 21 days to shoot, was that an insurmountable experience?

I mean yes (laughs), it’s not easy. And I like to point out it was not even a 21 day shoot. It was really a 20 day shoot because we lost a day to food poisoning. It was tough. Shooting on location, finding the right location, finding places sort of as is (so that) my production designer (Jonathan Guggenheim) didn’t have to build complete sets. Although he still had his work cut out for him.

Really just having a game plan about your day so my DP (Andrew Reed) and I would have our shot list if our day was going well. Then we had a shot list Plan B if our day was not going well. It’s just (about) being as prepared as you can be. It was tough.

The one thing I can say that I was completely naive about was the fact that yes, I’m used to running and gunning and having to shoot stuff fast and dirty. But when you have a cast of six teenage girls on the screen and they all have period costumes and hair and makeup, it just really slows things down. I had no idea how long it took to do that sort of thing.

“To The Stars” Director Martha Stephens
How did you pick your location for To The Stars? It’s shot in Enid, Oklahoma?

My producer Kristin Mann and I, we went out four months before we started filming. We went to Oklahoma because we knew that we were shooting there. They have really good tax incentives and we just looked over the whole state.

I really wanted to shoot in the Panhandle because it’s very strange and dreamy. But it was too far from the airport and the towns didn’t really have the infrastructure to hold a crew. We ended up opting for Enid, which is basically the biggest city in Northwest Oklahoma before you’re into the Panhandle.

We shot there but it’s a pretty wide piece of land . . . we were shooting in counties and often our commutes to set were like 45 minutes every day.

Kara Hayward as Iris Deerborne and Liana Liberato as Maggie Richmond in the drama TO THE STARS, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Will this movie also be seen in black and white?

Yes. The black and white (version), that’s what we premiered in Sundance. We always made this movie knowing we were to deliver both the color and black and white options just because there’s a lot of things I don’t understand on the business side of things. Certain foreign territories, they won’t even look at black and white.

We made both versions which made a lot of people’s jobs harder. I think they both look really good. Fortunately yes the black and white will be released digitally, but I don’t have a date yet. But it is coming.

Kara Hayward as Iris Dearborne in To The Stars, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Growing up were you a fan of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu? Basically directors who really focused on the interior lives of people?

Growing up, I didn’t know Ozu. I had such a limited way to watch films living in Eastern Kentucky. Growing up, Wes Anderson was probably the most obscure filmmaker I knew (laughs) in early high school.

But once I got to film school I was finally surrounded by film buffs and great teachers that taught film theory. I found all of my favorite filmmakers then when I was 18. But yeah I love Ozu.

I think that with this movie we were looking at things like Douglas Sirk and his melodramas. Obviously we were looking at The Last Picture Show but even Frankenstein. There’s a mob mentality in the movie that isn’t too far from a monster film from yesteryear.

A sense of place is definitely what I yearn for when I’m watching a movie. I want to be transported to a different world. The attention to detail that the whole crew paid to the characters and their backstories and how that can show up on screen – the little touches you notice. That’s a whole cohesive thing.

BTS still of Martha Stephens and Liana Liberato from the set of the drama TO THE STARS, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Kyle Kaplan.
Can you talk about the scene between Maggie (Liana Liberato) and Hazel (Adelaide Clemens)? Though you have a lush score at your disposal, you opted to shoot the subtle yet ultimately reveealing sequence sans any music.

It felt very intimate on set. I was there in the moment. I had tunnel vision and the performances were really good. They were nailing it honestly.

If they didn’t have chemistry and they weren’t and you know . . . but they did. The only tricky thing about that was trying to figure out was the best blocking for the moment. I think Liana actually, who plays Maggie, came up with the blocking for her to sit on that chair and be looking up at Hazel (Adelaide Clemens).

It was very much a collaborative effort with everyone. That’s kind of how you have to make movies, I think.

To The Stars, co-starring Malin Akerman, hits Digital on April 24 via Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The full audio version of my interview with Stephens is available for our CinemAddicts Patreon members. I am also reserving audio of Stephens which discusses the end of the film, and that will also be made available this weekend for our Patreon subscribers.

Portions of the interview are part of the latest Flick City episode, which can be heard below. You can subscribe to CinemAddicts via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts!