Baker, Sean: Director of Florida Project, Honored by John Waters with Filmmaker on the Edge

Honored with Provincetown’s 2018 Filmmaker on the Edge Award during the festival’s 20th edition, Sean Baker’s features have focused on outsider characters living on the margins of American life.

Starlet traced the unexpected friendship that develops between a 21-year-old porn actress and an octogenarian Los Angeles fringe dweller.

Tangerine tested the bond between a pair of transgender Hollywood sex workers who provide each other’s chief emotional support system.

The Florida Project celebrated the resilience of childhood in the emotional story of an unfit mother living below the poverty line.

“We know Sean Baker is a marvelous filmmaker, but once you see his earlier films you wonder, is he also a spy?” said John Waters, who interviewed Baker on stage.

“How else could he have gotten the trust of these outsider communities? Maybe he’s a social worker too because his films are never preachy, never maudlin, but oddly uplifting.  Is he really just a magician? Some of his films, you feel like nothing is happening, until he makes you feel like everything is happening.”

“He’s ruined independent films for directors like me,” joked Waters. “Now when I command $6 million for a budget, the studio execs say, “If Sean Baker can make a film for $2 million, why can’t you?'”

Baker talked about the importance not just of eavesdropping on the communities he depicts, but of establishing connections of mutual trust. He began developing that approach on early work such as 2004’s Take Out, about a Chinese illegal immigrant struggling to meet the payment deadline on a smuggling debt; and 2008’s Prince of Broadway, in which a New York street hustler specializing in designer knockoffs gets a surprise when his ex-girlfriend shows up with a baby he never knew he had.

Baker credited his style of blending documentary and narrative strategies to British filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, US cult director John Cassavetes and Austrian Ulrich Seidl.

He noted that he encourages improvisation on his shoots, crediting the-6-year-old Brooklynn Prince with coming up with the famous line, “You’re not the boss of me!” in The Florida Project.

Baker said he was eager to break away from conventional three-act structures, but acknowledges the invaluable balance provided by the more mainstream sensibility of Chris Bergoch, co-writer on his last three features.

Despite the awards attention, critical acclaim and relative success of The Florida Project (domestic gross of $6 million), Baker said that the commercial climate is still tough for independent cinema.

“It’s harder and harder to make money on these films,” he admits. “To be honest, The Florida Project is still in the red. I’m very lucky to have been able to retain final cut on my films, but I really don’t believe I’ll be able to surpass $12 million and continue to do that.”

Baker did acknowledge that Disney had been “very kind” in letting the production get away with Florida Project‘s stolen final shots at Disneyland, shot guerilla-style over two days without permits. But he recalled different experiences in Los Angeles on the Tangerine when cops were called over unauthorized shooting, forcing the crew to bolt in different directions.

His next project, about the opioid addiction problem in America, will be in the format of romantic comedy populated by middle-aged characters.

Accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Baker told Waters, “It’s such an honor to meet you. You’re an icon and a legend.  I’m overwhelmed looking back through the recipients of this award in the last 20 years, who are heroes of mine.”

Those names include Waters himself, as well as Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, Quentin Tarantino, Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, and Sofia Coppola.



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