Writer-director Sean Baker has made three films in a row (all told, he’s made six) that have taken an almost hypnotic approach to reality-based fiction. In 2012’s Starlet, Baker and constant co-writer Chris Bergoch mix first-time actors with more seasoned performers in a story of an adult film actress’s friendship with an elderly woman. Three years later, Baker brought us the revelatory Tangerine, shot on an iPhone and featuring a earthshaking lead performance by a transgender actress as a prostitute on a rampage searching for her pimp’s new girlfriend.
With Baker’s latest work, The Florida Project, Baker turns his cameras on the transitional life of people (many of them families) on the verge of homelessness every day, but still able to stay in the seedy but brightly colored motels on the roads leading to DisneyWorld, outside of Orlando. The movie features some of the finest first-time performances (including several young children) I’ve ever seen, alongside the loveably brusk Willem Dafoe as the motel’s manager.
It’s a remarkable work that begins as a look at defiant free spirits who don’t fit in or work well with the world around them (certainly not the world of movies, which ignores characters like this all the time), but slowly slides into a deeply moving experience involving the definition and protective nature of family.
I sat town with Sean Baker recently in Chicago. Please enjoy…
Hi Sean, nice to meet you.
Nice meeting you.
I saw Tangerine at Sundance [Film Festival], and I spent the whole rest of the year telling people “Get ready for this movie.”
Oh, that’s nice.
I was a big fan of Starlet too. Not long after I saw it, Mariel Hemingway was here for an event in which they played a documentary about her and her grandfather, and I brought it up to her. “I saw your daughter [Dree Hemingway] in this movie…” She’s like, “Oh my God, isn’t she so good in that?” We just gushed about that movie for a while.
Yeah, I never got to meet Mariel, but my co-screenwriter did. And obviously, the movie has that graphic scene in it, so he’s like [awkwardly], “Hi, Mariel.” But she’s been very supportive of it. She’s very proud of her daughter. I’m still waiting for Dree to be like a Marvel character or something. I thought she would, but she has such a strong modeling career that she doesn’t have to lean on acting if she doesn’t want to.
Your last few films have been about these people that we don’t make eye contact with as we’re going somewhere; they live in these places that we drive past in order to get somewhere that we’re going. Before we even dive specifically into this film, I’m just wondering, what is it about people that live lives like that that you are drawn to and are fascinated by?
I think it’s more about what I haven’t seen in U.S. film. And it’s a response to that lack of diversity that I’m seeing in front of the camera. When I went to LA, I moved there in 2012 to make STARLET and remained there. I was taken aback by the fact that everything south of Olympic [Boulevard], we haven’t seen on film and television, and I don’t know why, because the industry is here. The industry is basically in charge of what we’re seeing, and I thought that, “Wow, there’s a lot more out there to see.”
First off, they’re just wonderful communities, subcultures, neighborhoods and people who are completely underrepresented. Their stories are not being told. But at the same time, when you immerse yourself into a community, you realize they have the same struggles, the same dreams—when it comes down to it, we’re all human, and there’s a universality that we all have. And so Chris and I were always very clear about the fact that we wanted to tell universal stories, something that the whole globe could identify with. It wasn’t so detailed and so specific. If you think about what Tangerine was, it was a friendship story, but it was also a story of infidelity, and that can happen anywhere in the world.
Tangerine had something resembling a story, a through-line; with The Florida Project, you just drop us in one day and pull us at a crucial moment, as if to say “Just watch this. Don’t worry about story and plot, just watch these people.”
I feel that sometimes we are, especially in U.S. cinema, we are told we have to have a three-act structure, you have to have character arcs, every character has to change, and I just don’t see why. It’s not necessary, and you see that it’s worked plenty of other ways; there are classic films out there that have broken that model. But it was also very important for me to keep a balance. I never wanted to bore the audience, never for a second do you want to bore the audience. That’s the ultimate sin of a filmmaker. But at the same time, I wanted to have the audience feel the monotony of the summer, the repetition of the summer and also just spend a summer with these kids.
So I had to sometimes show, almost what one would consider almost extraneous scenes, like the little kids dancing on the bed. Well, what does this do for exposition, how is this moving the story forward? It’s not, but that’s okay. It’s okay that it’s not. You’re giving us a 10-second slice of life, and we feel that it grounds us more in that reality and in that world. And eventually, when we get to the inevitable, the audience, I want the audience to feel even more of a loss at the end, because they’ve actually grown to love these two characters.
I love the interactions that your main characters have with people who cross their paths, like the married couple that end up at the wrong motel. That’s another movie; that’s the movie we’re used to watching. I didn’t know that Macon Blair was in this, and I love that guy.
We actually, we had a whole other scene shot with him.
Yeah, it was a wonderful scene, and he was great and my DP…ugh, it killed me to cut it. But we had to cut it because of timing issues but also just poor direction [laughs]. I just didn’t feel as if it was necessary. We brought the character back in for a moment. And I like Macon as well, so that’s why I want to see him as much as possible.
I love the idea that these outsiders are our connection to this. That’s how we can see ourselves through those characters because those are usually the only reasons those two worlds would collide.
Yeah, that’s what we were trying to show, that most of the tourist interaction is either accidental or taking advantage and exploiting. So, it was an important thing to show that.
A huge reason the movie is so entertaining is because of these first-time actors. Where did you find [leads] Bria [Vinaite] and Brooklynn [Prince].
Bria was one of those very unconventional ways of going about casting. I cast her from Instagram, and if I hadn’t had a nice track record—the two girls that I found in the street in Tangerine and Besedka Johnson that we found in the YMCA in Starlet and even Prince Adu from Prince of Broadway, I found him on the street—I don’t think I would have been able to convince my financiers that this was good. It was like walking on eggshells. We had been thinking about Hollywood A-listers for that role. To tell you the truth—I haven’t told many people this—but it was going to be a little bit of stunt casting in that we were considering early on getting an ex-Mouseketeer. So you can think Britney, Christina…
So, we were thinking about that, and yet all the time my fear was “I know what people are going to say: the minute I get a budget that suddenly I’m just selling out,” and there was that fear of having anybody recognizable in this film that would pull us out of that moment and to make the suspension of disbelief harder. And I kept going back to this one Instagram saying, “This girl is so freaking funny, and she has the physicality and she seems to be confident enough to put herself in front of a camera all the time. I think we should try this.” And so I asked my financiers if it was okay, and they were just like, “Okay…?” Because they want somebody for the box office, right?
So we flew her down to Orlando, she hung out with the two girls that we had already cast—Brooklynn and Valeria—and there was just something that was really magical in that moment. Because I said, “Don’t act like a mom, don’t be maternal, be sibling like. I want you to be like a sister.” And they were just starting to act like sisters. So then I sent the iPhone footage around to everybody, and everybody agreed that she was something special. But she had a lot of work to do; she was green and she even said, “Guys, I want to do this and I’ll put in my all, but I need to be handheld through this thing.”
Did you get a coach for her?
Yeah. Samantha Quan came on as the acting coach for the kids. She took Bria on and thank god she did. Well, not “thank god she did,” but I found myself spread very thin while shooting, because there was always some disaster. So we were shooting in the hot summer sun of Central Florida, then you had 35mm film, and you had limited amount of hours with the kids and you had real locations, so this would’ve been a very different film if I didn’t have that acting coach, Samantha, because I probably would’ve relied on editing to manipulate performance.
But Bria spent a month [with the acting coach] before shooting, everyday working through these scenes, getting into character, so that when I did ask her to improvise, she would be able to because she understood the scene so well. What’s great about Bria is, and what I look for in my actors when I’m semi-typecasting from the community, even though she’s not from that community. She’s young, she knows street slang, she lives in New York; it’s exactly what I was looking for in terms of like, I would say, “What do you think of the dialogue I wrote?” She was like, “Why would my character ever say that? No, she would say this.” And I’m like, “Perfect, thank you.” So that’s my relationship I’m looking for with some of my actors, and Bria was able toto hold her own with Willem within like two weeks; it was incredible.
And then Brooklynn, she was in the database of the local casting company there. Because it’s Orlando and there’s a lot of Disney stuff being shot, a lot of commercials and corporate videos, she was in that database, and I asked her to come in and within seconds, she won us over. Because she came in with Christopher [Rivera]; they didn’t know each other, the families didn’t know each other, but we paired them together and they just came in and had a chemistry and were also both extroverted. So you have little Christopher saying, “I had to get ready for this scene. I have to get prepared,” and he jumps on the ground and starts doing pushups. And then little Brooklynn goes, “Yeah, I have to do squats,” and she starts doing squats, and I’m watching these two little kids do a bootcamp and I’m just like, “Guys, we gotta get going. Yeah, I think they’ve got the role, they got it.”
I have to tell you, and I’m not just saying this to promote the film, I really feel that she’s the same breed as Jodie Foster, Elle Fanning, where I can see her having a lifelong career with this, because she’s so dedicated at this age. She’s 100 percent into it, she’s excited by it, she understands developing a character, she understands method, it’s incredible to see her work. And she can comedically improvise. That whole scene with her at the brunch at the end, I rolled two mags on her, so it was like basically 20 minutes of watching this little girl eat. If you think about it, we had maybe 15 scripted lines for her, but she banged through those lines in maybe a minute and a half, so we had another 18 minutes where I was just like, “Let’s just let her keep eating and talk about the food she’s eating.” I can have an outtakes reel that can last five minutes, and you would be laughing for five minutes.
It’s funny you mention that Bria was keeping up with the Dafoe, because the way it looked to me was like he was keeping up with everyone else. Everyone else is an amateur to varying degrees, and so he’d have to adjust his performance to look less actor-y. And he’s great at that. The times I’ve interviewed him, I thought about all the people he’s worked with, some of whom have reputations about being difficult, and he is the king of patience.
Yes, I know. Right? He had to deal with six year olds. He had to deal with first timers, so there was a lot of patience involved. Because even though it’s not as if they misbehaved, but they don’t understand, even Bria doesn’t understand blocking exactly. So sometimes, you know how actors have to repeat actions for the editor, like, “Only pick up the coffee cup with your right hand.” Of course Bria doesn’t understand that, so even though she had a crammed two weeks of what we consider her acting school, I would have to guide her. Even Willem, he would be like, “Let’s move you here, so that I can be here.”—very patient, very nice guy. And he also didn’t actually ever care if we had a non-professional on board who would try to showboat. He would just look at me afterwards and say, “Good luck cutting that scene.” Like after Sandy Kane[‘s cameo], he’s like, “I couldn’t get a word in edge wise, but whatever, you’re cutting it.” [laughs]
You went from iPhone to 35mm. Have you shot on 35mm before?
Yeah, my first film that went to SXSW way back in 2000, called Four Letter Words. It’s actually getting a re-release. I’m either going to do it on my own or Factory 25. It’s one of those. It’s not a great movie, but hey, Eric Kohn liked it. He gave it an A minus, so holy shit. But it’s a very much of a like a social-realist, Kevin Smith film. Very different from these other movies.
So why did you go back to 35mm instead of a higher-end digital?
Well, I’ve been trying to get back to 35 for a while, and I definitely did not have the budget with Take Out. That was standard-definition video. Then there’s Prince of Broadway, I was barely getting by with that one, that was a $40,000 budget, so I had to use whatever digital camera came out at that time. And then Starlet was modestly budgeted, but we couldn’t afford film.
So I’ve been trying to get back to film for a while, but I’m in a weird place because I am seen as “the iPhone dude” who’s helping with the democratizing of filmmaking that’s going on, which I do take actually very seriously, because it’s what allowed me to make Take Out; DOGMA 95 helped inspire me when I was in a place where my first film didn’t go anywhere, it went to SXSW and got a minor DVD release, but I felt like I still had to prove myself.
With Take Out, suddenly I had this standard-definition video camera that suddenly audiences and critics would take seriously if they saw it on the big screen. So for Tangerine, to help aspiring filmmakers and people who felt like they could never get a film made, if it has helped them in any way, that’s wonderful, and I’m really all for more mediums, not like cutting mediums. So just because digital is now cheaper and faster, supposedly, there’s no reason to say goodbye to a medium that has a look that’s unachievable in digital, no matter how many filters you throw on your digital, high-end 65mm, ARRI Digital that they shot The Revenant on. It’s still not film.
So I feel like, especially at this time, if you’re a filmmaker and you do have the means, I would say let’s push film to keep it alive. It’s a very important medium, it’s what created cinema so it should be kept alive. And there’s an organic quality in 35mm that you’ll never get in digital, never, never. I know this is a little techy, geeky, but even my digital stuff that I shot at night—the night sequences were shot on the Alexa because of luminance. There was not light in that parking lot. The night shots, like the little brawl, that was shot on the Alexa, but what we did was that we did a film out and then scanned it back in. So we made sure the whole thing actually went, including the iPhone ending, actually does exist on 35mm and then went back.
I know it’s almost imperceivable in how very, very, very, very, very subtle it looks, I understand that, but at the same time, it’s important for me to know that I did it. I do know there is a visual difference. And on top of that, I think 35mm also has to be kept in the game because of preservation purposes too, and that’s something that I think a lot of people are overlooking and not thinking about. You can lose a digital feature by not spinning your drive in three years, and somebody will plug in your drive and you won’t have a movie anymore. But if you have a print, it’ll last for a thousand years. I think that I’m in a weird place of promoting both things.
Are there going be screenings in 35mm too? Have you made that happen?
It’s all up to A24. I still have to write A24 a letter and push for it, because I saw the Okja print, and that looked amazing at the [New Beverly].
Best of luck, Sean.
Cool, man. Thanks.
The Florida Project is now playing in Chicago.