Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Fall 2017 Director's Profile: Sean Baker
Sean Baker
A delicate balance

While the Cliff Notes’ version of writer/producer/director/editor Sean Baker’s filmography often first points to his revolutionary use of the iPhone camera to lens the critically acclaimed feature Tangerine, it’s about time to get past that breakthrough which in the big picture is a novelty compared to the storytelling itself. Tangerine resonated for the empathy it created for otherwise marginalized people in society, at the same time masterfully balancing elements of pathos and comedy.

Fast forward to Baker’s next feature, The Florida Project (A24)—which has earned critical acclaim and Oscar buzz—and we again see a similar artful balance, this time captured on 35mm film by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The Florida Project introduces us to itinerant families living in Orlando budget motels a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World. The film’s perspective, though, is through the eyes of the children—in particular a six-year-old girl named Moonee (portrayed by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince)—and their challenged existence becomes at times a fun-filled adventure akin to what might be worthy of exploits in the Magic Kingdom.

The kids’ POV brings a light-hearted, almost magical entertainment to the story. But too much fun could trivialize the plight of the working poor. Conversely a focus on these struggling families runs the risk of becoming preachy, making for an unsatisfying movie experience.

Somehow Baker—who directed, produced, edited and co-wrote (with Chris Bergoch) The Florida Project—maintains the right balance, making an entertaining, wonder-filled film that at the same time creates an underlying empathy for those who are marginalized and vulnerable.

“That’s the big challenge,” affirmed Baker. “We found ourselves doing that balancing act with Tangerine. And with The Florida Project we felt we achieved something along those lines. You have to achieve it in all stages—the script writing obviously, on set, how the scenes play out, the performances, the style of film, camera movements, postproduction. You go one degree too much into perhaps the comedy side and you face the danger of being disrespectful and condescending, turning what these characters face into a farce. You’re playing with behavioral humor—a humor that has to mirror real life and truth. It’s the humor characters use to get through the day. Attaining that creative balance was the number one priority.”

The Florida Project also provided more logistical challenges for Baker and his compatriots. “The limited hours of when we could film the children was always a concern,” related Baker. “We had abridged days because of the kids’ available hours. And after we had cast Valeria [Cotto] as Jancey [one of Moonee’s prime running mates], we found out she was five going on six. This cut two more hours off the time we could work with her each day.”

On the flip side, thankfully shooting on film wasn’t the challenge Baker was told it might be. “I was told shooting on film these days will slow you down. That really wasn’t the case. It was not a big deal.” Baker gravitated to Zabe for The Florida Project, saying he was drawn to the cinematographer’s work on three Mexican features, most notably Silent Light for writer/director Carlos Reygadas. “It had a mature 35mm look, not as colorful and ‘poppy’ as The Florida Project. But I also saw that Alexis had shot ‘poppy’ music videos like Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy.’ I wanted to combine those two styles for The Florida Project—a very mature high-brow cinematography with something colorful that would pop out. It’s that colorful element that reflects the kids’ perspectives as they are playing in their own wonderland—which adults would view quite differently as run down and gritty.

“When you’re a child,” continued Baker, “it seems like your senses are enhanced. I worked closely with Alexis and the production designer [Stephonik Youth] to take the colorful Floridian world and make it pop just a little more. We kept it based in realism but I wanted to represent that youthful pop before our senses get dulled as we get older. We popped everything up just a degree, making for a slight hyper-reality, one degree above reality.”

Prior to The Florida Project, Baker worked with Zabe on a short for Kenzo titled Snowbird, which was in the running for the Tribeca Film Festival’s first Tribeca X Award in 2016—an honor bestowed on the year’s best piece of branded storytelling. “From that experience, I saw how Alexis works,” said Baker. “I love his demeanor. Often on low-budget shoots there’s chaos and panic. He’s about as Zen as a DP can get, focusing on the art. His instincts are terrific when it comes to framing. We were always on the same page but sometimes he would up things a bit, showing me something that would enhance a scene even more. He would describe scenes in such an inventive way. I remember we were talking about a part of The Florida Project being like ice cream. He saw it as ‘blueberry ice cream with a lemon twist,’ adding that extra element to make things better.”

Casting
Critical to The Florida Project was the casting of the kids including Prince and Cotto. “We could not afford a weak link in the casting,” affirmed Baker. “I told myself I will not make this film unless we find a present-day Spanky McFarland [of Our Gang and Little Rascals fame]—a kid who is charismatic, witty, cute. We had street casting. We had casting calls. I saw Brooklynn’s face in the database of a local casting company called CROWDshot. I saw one of her reels and later met her. She came into the room and by chance she was auditioning the same time as Christopher Rivera [who plays the kid Scooty]. They didn’t know each other but there was something magical about the chemistry between them although they didn’t even know each other yet. Brooklynn is on the level of genius—she can improvise, is enthusiastic, cute. She made us laugh.”

In sharp contrast, Baker found Cotto at a Target store in Kissimmee, Florida. “She had a different quality than other cute kids. I asked her mother if she’d be interested in having her daughter audition. Later when the mom checked out I was real, she said yes. We didn’t have the time to do what Hollywood normally does which is to bring introverted kids out of their shell. We had to go with extroverted kids who had lowered inhibitions.”

Also helping the process was acting coach Samantha Quan who worked extensively with the kids. The children were cast before Bria Vinaite (who played Halley, Moonee’s mom) and Willem Dafoe (as Bobby, the gruff but kind-hearted motel manager). “Samantha had time to work with the kids, turning their summer into a summer acting camp,” related Baker. “Even while I was off working with another sequence or the adult actors, Samantha was continuously helping the kids, getting them to a place where they felt comfortable with improvisation, getting into their characters.”

Baker noted that he tried to get financing for The Florida Project prior to making Tangerine—but to no avail. He had to wait six years, with the success of Tangerine ultimately opening doors for Baker and The Florida Project. “If I got the go-ahead to make this six years ago, Brooklynn was barely born back then,” said Baker. “Without Brooklynn, this wouldn’t have been the same film. Sometimes things work themselves out. It just shows you that what you perceive as a setback at the time ultimately might not be.”