Celebrated American independent filmmaker Sean Baker is known for telling stories of people on the fringes of society. Whether that of an African in New York or a transgender sex worker, Baker handles even the most serious social issues with a deftness aimed at evoking the pathos of the audience. For his masterclass, the filmmaker, who is presiding over the international jury at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival, was interviewed by director Shakun Batra to an eager and packed audience.
Baker spoke about discovering cinema by Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch in senior high school and how films like Do The Right Thing and Mystery Train changed his outlook on cinema. The stories and aesthetics in these independent films started him on a journey that eventually led him to being one of the most distinct voices in filmmaking today. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
On funding his first film
It took me 4 years to do. This was even before Dogma95. You wouldn’t even think of shooting on any video or digital formats at the time. You had to shoot on film and I had to raise the money. I wanted to go 35mm.
I was working for a publishing company. I became their AV guy, shooting all their corporate videos. Eventually I talked them into doing a little commercial which never aired but was something that gave me practice. And I then, independently, was able to land another commercial because I finally had a reel. And that commercial paid for my first film. It was a $50,000 film. Everything that my little company made we put right into Four Letter Words, which is now, 22 years later, being restored and put out there properly. It feels like I’m finally being able to finish my first film.
On research and finding the story
It’s about exploring that world and understanding it enough to write a screenplay. It always comes down to meeting that one individual though, who has as much enthusiasm in the project as you do. In my film Prince Of Broadway, it was literally a man by the name of Prince Adu who inspired the title of the movie.
He had studied acting in high school, wanted to do this and one day we met him after many months of talking to men around the neighbourhood. And everybody would say, “You should talk to Prince, he’ll be interested in your project.” And one day we actually came across him and as we approached him he just gave us a look and said, “I’ve been waiting for you two. I’ve heard about you two. And if you make me the lead of your movie, I will help you get locations, I will help you get actors and I will help you tell the authentic story of the African experience in New York.” That set the model for everything down the line.
On not following the conventional structures of storytelling
I’m always looking to do something new. And yet at the same time, I’m still trying to have the same impact. We’ve seen the three-act structure so many times that, I think, your general audience can start to predict where things will go. I’m making slices of life, character studies. Take Florida for example. It’s about this little girl’s summer. Looking back at the summers of your youth, did they have three-act structures? I think the most progressive cinema, the most sophisticated storytelling today – they’re breaking that mould.
On the importance of collaboration
I’m open to all notes. I also know that I can ultimately veto anything so that makes it easy. That’s why I like hearing from everybody – not just my co-screenwriter or producers. For example, on set, I find it invaluable to turn to your PA and say, “What do you think of the scene? Do you have a line there? Because that line isn’t working for me.”
There’s a line or two in The Florida Project that came out of our sound edit. While mixing , the scene didn’t feel whole so I talked to my dialogue editor – not even the main sound mixer. And I said, “Any idea..any thoughts here?” And he came up with a line right there and that made it to the film and made it better. So it’s about collaboration, surrounding yourself with a lot of talented people who have those sort of ideas. And always saying, “Hey look, I want to hear your ideas.”
Even with my actors, I ask for a lot of improvisation. Even if we have a fully scripted scene with dialogue and everything, isn’t it nice to have the luxury to see if something can come out of that moment?
On using humour to tell difficult stories
I feel that humour is just part of being human. Humour is how we cope with problems in our lives. When I was sitting with Mya and Kiki (leads in Tangerine), it felt to me like I was watching a stand-up comedy routine. They would feed each other lines, set up jokes for each other and I realized that this was something that they needed in their lives to cope. And at the end of the night, I would go home just after laughing all day and I would feel like, “Oh my god. The stories they’ve told me are really tragic! Full of trauma and heartache and yet they were delivered to me with a smile and a life.” And I thought this is real life and this is how I want to portray this stuff.
I also think humour invites people in. My hope with all these films is that the social and political issue is strong, but first and foremost it’s about identifying and laughing with these characters. And feeling as if you’re friends with them. So that at the end of the day, when you go home, you’re inspired to learn more about the subject. I don’t want to hit the audience over the head with statistics and facts. I never put text in my films trying to give the audience background information because they all have Google.