After studying film at New York University, Sean Baker wrote and directed his first film, Four Letter Words. He followed that with Take Out, and then created the game-changing sitcom Greg the Bunny.
He showed the hustler way of life in several films such as Prince of Broadway and the transgender-focused iPhone-made feature Tangerine.
His latest production, The Florida Project, follows the life of a 6-year-old girl named Moonee who lives in The Magic Castle Motel managed by Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe.
Windy City Times: Start off describing something that influenced your movie making while growing up.
Sean Baker: The Little Rascals. Hal Roach influenced my whole career.
In Tangerine, the opening segment has a Harry Horlick rendition of Toyland. Harry did a lot of orchestration for The Little Rascals. My other films have little homages here and there.
In general, I am into genres such as horror films and mainstream Hollywood films. It wasn't until I was at NYU that I got to know more of foreign cinema. I think that shifted to what I would focus on my entire career.
WCT: How did Tangerine come to be?
SB: I live a mile from Highland and Santa Monica. This is a corner that everyone knows about but doesn't spend time on in. They pass by it, and it was an unofficial red-light district. It is pretty much gentrified at this point.
I thought every neighborhood had been shot in California, but this community had never been represented on film or TV. I wanted to focus on transgender sex workers who worked there.
Chris Bergoch, who also [wrote the screenplay], and I were from outside that world so we had to work our way in. We had to befriend someone who would open the door for us ,and that was Mya Taylor. She wanted to be a star of this movie so she introduced us to Kiki Rodriguez and all of her friends. We eventually found our script, but it started with us making a movie about Donut Time and that area.
WCT: How was it different with The Florida Project?
SB: Chris introduced me to the issue, but we couldn't take frequent trips to the area. The more I read about it made me decide to make a mother and daughter story. We were going for the mom from the Disney films that is oddly not in the picture. We wanted to pull from our own childhood to flesh out their adventures.
It wasn't until we got there and did something like we did in Tangerine. We worked with the community to find the most enthusiastic people who would share their stories. We fleshed out the script by actually being there. We met a motel manager that inspired the Bobby character. We started seeing a bigger story after walking from motel to motel.
WCT: What was one thing you got out of working with Willem Dafoe?
SB: He's transformative. What was incredible to see was that he was a regular, humble dude. He said once, "I'm scared shitless every time I start a new movie." We couldn't believe that with him being such a seasoned actor, but he said he never knows what to expect.
He came in a week early to meet motel directors and flesh out the character in his head. He was trying to get there and believe himself. It was a wonderful transformation. He went and got a spray tan. He came to set with a list of accessories such as sunglasses, watch, and necklace.
I was worried that the audience would be jolted out of a scene with a face that was too recognizable. "There's the Green Goblin from Spider-Man!"
With someone that seasoned you will see Bobby, not Willem, in the first three seconds, though.
WCT: There is already Oscar talk about this role for him. Have you heard about that?
SB: Yes. I'm excited, but worried about jinxing it. It means everything in the world to me to have directed him and now there is buzz about him. I have been a fan of his since day one when he was in Kathryn Bigelow's Loveless. I have followed his career my entire life. It was an honor to work with him.
WCT: What do you want audiences to get out of The Florida Project?
SB: I want audiences to be entertained, to feel that they have gotten something out of their night and the money spent. My hope is that we are shining a light on this issue and it is done in a way that is easily digestible. We are not hitting them on the head with it. It is up to the audience member if they want to take this home with them. My hope is that they do and it sparks discussion about the real Moonees and Halleys.
We try not to be preachy, but we are making an issue film. It is not just an Orlando problem, it is a national problem. We hope people look into it on a local level. The first step towards eradicating homelessness in the United States is about removing the stigma of it, and look at the humans behind the issue. That is what we are trying to do with this film.
We are trying to get the film in front of policy makers. We are doing a DC screening, so we will see what happens.
WCT: What was the reaction from the LGBT community for Tangerine?
SB: It was a warm reception, and very supportive. I think people in the community really appreciated the fact that we worked very closely with Mya, Kiki, and their friends on the representation of them. They were given final approval of both the script and the cut.
I wanted to make sure that people knew it wasn't my voice, but their voice being amplified.
I am so thankful that they were so supportive of my film.
WCT: How was shooting Tagerine with an iPhone?
SB: Not as tough as you think. If anything. it killed my eyesight. I was working on a 5S and didn't have any external monitors. We were squinting, but it was liberating.
It has had a wonderful afterlife and impact. I get messages from aspiring filmmakers that I motivated them to make a film. If even one person is helped making a film then that is fantastic.
Part of the reason I shot Florida on 35 mm is to keep film alive. I'm supporting all of these mediums and doing my best!
Check out The Florida Project on Friday, Oct. 13, in Chicagoland theaters. Tangerine is currently available to stream at Netflix.com .