Can you separate a person from their art? Or is it imperative to know the mind behind the matter? And if so, where do you start? Here are seven entry points for exploring the work of…
…innovative independent filmmaker Sean Baker.
Sean Baker is an American film director, cinematographer, producer, screenwriter and editor. He has directed six feature films over the past two decades, including 2015’s Tangerine and 2017’s The Florida Project which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and was distributed by A24 in the US and Altitude in the UK.
His films are deeply humanist.
Time and time again Sean Baker makes films that could comfortably sit within a canon of popcorn cinema. And yet they’re all subtly flavoured with a strain of social realism. In an interview with Little White Lies, Baker elaborates that its part and parcel of being “a filmmaker in the 21st century…I love that they can change the world. They really can! There’s a platform for diplomatic engagement, but it’s not in your face. It’s not telling audiences, ‘you must think, you must act’ — no it’s doing it through entertainment. It’s actually a very subversive art. You can make change by entertaining people, which is very unique.”
Expanding on this sentiment in an interview with IFFR, Baker notes that his “films have been a response to what I’m not seeing on the screen…As a filmmaker making films about the USA, I feel the obligation to show the melting pot…So if I’m making a film that makes a statement about the United States and this era, it had better be all inclusive.”
Speaking to a point about immersing himself in a community that he’s not a part of at BAFTA’s Screenwriters Lecture, Baker emphasised that he takes representation very seriously. “As a filmmaker it has to be done in a very responsible and respectful way. And I have been, I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to, through the pre-production stage, you know, the research process, when I approach communities saying ‘I want to make a film about this community or this neighbourhood or this subculture,’ I’ve found people who want their stories told. And for me, I’m simply the amplifier of the voice; I’m not the voice.”
His stories rely on authenticity and immersion more so than narrative and structure.
His films are slice-of-life dramas that eschew plot for people. In BAFTA’s Screenwriter Lecture series, Baker explained that he tries “not to focus on the forms of structure when writing. I actually, I never want structure to be apparent. It’s important for me, it — the minute that I recognise structure it takes me out. I want to feel like I’m living and breathing with the characters and spending time with them, at least in my films. And if there’s a three act structure, which there are in my films, I want the acts to be difficult to point out, to find — for the act breaks to be blurred as much as possible.”
Continuing on this thread in Film Comment, Baker is actually critical of himself when his work veers into plot-driven territory. “For some reason, Hollywood — American cinema in general — finds it necessary to follow the three-act form, and if you don’t do that it means something’s wrong with your film. They say you need a clear three-act structure and heavy arcs for every character, and the audience needs to know what’s going on in the first 30 seconds. This is so closed-minded and not progressive. For [The Florida Project] I wanted the audience to feel like they’ve spent the summer with these characters. And when has your summer ever been plot-driven? No, you’re just meandering through your summer. I felt it had to be just a series of events, not bound to a plot.”
He likes working with lesser-known or non-actors.
In order to obtain the authenticity, Baker has shown a preference for casting newcomers. “I guess what it does for me is provide a fresh face, which I think is so important for certain characters, in order to have that suspension of disbelief kick in and stay in. When you mix seasoned actors and first-timers, something interesting happens. The seasoned actor will rub off on the first-timer and then the first-timer’s freshness and naivety somehow excites the seasoned actor. It’s a nice alchemy and it’s different on set every time”, he told Huck Magazine.
His career as a filmmaker took hustle.
Baker didn’t get his start in filmmaking until his thirties, but he persisted with sheer determination. In an interview with The Creative Independent, he advises that budding creatives try and stay “within the industry, even if it’s on the far fringe. I’m talking about editing wedding videos and corporate videos, and actually at one point I was even hustling so much I was doing a duplication service because I just happened to have 10 VCRs. This was back in the late ’90s in New York where I would put up flyers, especially during IFP week, all around that block that say, “VHS dupes, DVD dupes.” I would be at home pressing play, record, play, record. I was actually a mini dupe house. It was like a desperate way to latch onto anything that was still within the industry.”
Ultimately you never know what inspiration or opportunities those experiences are going to provide, says Baker. “I look back on those days very fondly because not only did they always keep me practicing and always keep me up to date on new technology, they also provided a lot of real material. I was always able to use whatever job I had to learn more about other people, and that helps me so much with writing now. I got to attend a Russian wedding in Brighton Beach, an African wedding in Jamaica Heights. I got to absorb all of this stuff, and it really has made its way into my screenplays, so you never know how these things will reward you.”
He edits his own films.
In order to perform multiple roles, he has to distance himself after the shoot and often takes a minimalist approach to the process, as told to MovieMaker Magazine. “I look to use as few edits in a scene as possible. How can I get my point across and have the scene make sense with as few edits as possible? It’s something that we’re all getting away from too much in cinema — we feel like if there’s not a cut every three seconds, something is wrong, and I don’t like that way of thinking.” And when it comes to the final cut, he trusts his instincts.
His sets can be rogue.
The freewheeling observation achieved on-screen is sometimes mimicked off-screen where Baker throws his crew curveballs. In conversation with Paul Schrader for The Director’s Cut podcast, he spoke about his experience of directing The Florida Project and improvising behind camera as much as in front of it. “Sometimes [you have to] throw the schedule away…” There’s also a great anecdote about bending the rules to get a shot of Willem Dafoe interacting with the cranes.
His love of cinema is paramount.
Tangerine might have picked up a lot of press coverage for being shot on iPhone 5S, but fear not, Baker is a committed cinephile. He even has a Letterboxd account. In terms of his career trajectory, whilst lots of directors are flitting between film and TV, Baker has stated a clear interest for staying within a cinematic realm.
“My focus is very much the traditional route that I don’t think many young filmmakers are actually interested in anymore, but I am. My goal has been to get to Cannes my entire life. It’s all about that festival circuit and playing the eight festivals, and being recognised in world cinema.
That’s why I really am not honestly that interested in television right now. Listen, they’re linked, but I do see it as a slightly different art form. I have been focused and trained to tell a story in a feature-film-length running time. That’s how I like to absorb my stories, and those are the types of stories I wanna tell. They’re not stories that need you to be with these characters for three years. They’re characters that are in your life for 110 minutes. Some people might call me old-fashioned or perhaps old school or not forward thinking, but I don’t see that. I mean, as long as your films are forward thinking, as long as your content is forward thinking.”