There are independent filmmakers. And then there are independent independent filmmakers — the ones who live in thrall to their muse, with a spirit that might be called defiance. Or maybe fearlessness.
Sean Baker is one of those directors. In movies like “Tangerine,” “Starlet” and his new and transporting “The Florida Project,” he tells close-to-the-bone tales of scavengers and outcasts, the desperate and the lost, and his filmmaking has a renegade glow: He takes you so close to his characters that it’s as if you’re eavesdropping. To heighten the intimacy, he shot “Tangerine,” his 2015 drama about transgender street hookers in West Hollywood, entirely on an iPhone. The result was raw, real, revolutionary (not to mention weirdly beautiful).
“It was the most appropriate medium for that film,” says Baker, sitting in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, not far from his old digs at NYU, where he studied film in the early ’90s. “And I like the fact that it’s inspired people. Because Dogme 95 inspired me. ‘Oh, the video camera you have at home? You can shoot with that, and the world will accept it as a feature film?’ Well, I feel ‘Tangerine’ has had that effect on a lot of young filmmakers. And I never saw that coming.”
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All of which is to say: If you remain — truly, madly, deeply — independent, you can become a force. You can also make a film that’s exciting critics and audiences, and sparking awards buzz, as much as “The Florida Project.”
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A sensation at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals (it opens Oct. 6), the movie is set at the Magic Castle motel near Orlando, a sun-kissed lavender flophouse where Halley (Bria Vinaite), a ne’er-do-well sexpot with exploding rose tattoos and hair dyed the color of fiberglass, lives with her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (the remarkable Brooklynn Kimberly Prince). She’s spending the summer exploring her surroundings and mimicking her mother’s delinquent rebel postures. Willem Dafoe, the first movie star to act in one of Baker’s films, plays Bobby, the motel’s eternally decent, put-upon, irascible manager.
“I know that going into this, I wasn’t aware of the term ‘the hidden homeless,’” says Baker. “But I’ve always been drawn to the underground economy. Especially now, in the U.S., in 2017, what people have to resort to.” At the same time, Halley, a mother who’s like a child herself, is never portrayed as a victim. “The minute you do that, you lose an audience, actually,” Baker says. “Because when you make a character like that a saint, you are making them not human.”
“I’ve always been drawn to the underground economy. Especially now, in the U.S., in 2017, what people have to resort to.”
Baker counts among his influences Eric Rohmer, John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby, whose “Harold and Maude” he considers “a very political film.” At 46, Baker still has a bit of a Harold-like aspect: He’s boyish and earnest, with floppy hair, penetrating eyes and a spirit of casual idiosyncrasy.
With a $3 million budget, and distribution by A24, “The Florida Project” is Baker’s breakout film, but he made it in much the same way he did his others, turning the Magic Castle into a giant movie set (without shutting it down), and casting Vinaite off Instagram. He insists on final cut, as well as a certain spontaneity that his “Florida Project” crew, at first, found daunting.
“There were times where I said, ‘Oh, spin the camera and shoot that,’ which is something I’m used to doing. But when you have a line producer, a permit and a schedule, suddenly everyone’s scared. They’re like, ‘This guy’s rogue.’”
Baker, at one point, even found himself chasing a rainbow. It was in the script, “but we thought it was going to be a CGI rainbow. One day we’re on the balcony, and there’s a huge rainbow over the motel. I thought, ‘Can’t we just get it, guys?’” Seven minutes later, the shot was set up, and they caught the real rainbow. “I didn’t realize how unconventional that is.”