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Filmmaker Spotlight: The Florida Project’s Sean Baker

Sean Baker wore many hats while creating 2017’s The Florida Project. With the buzz the film has generated and the awards it’s won in the past few months, you’ve probably heard of it — and maybe you even saw it at last year’s New Hampshire Film Festival. Baker directed, co-wrote, co-produced and edited the film, which has received an overwhelming amount of praise from both critics and audiences.

Sean Baker. Photographed by Daniel Bergeron.

The film follows six-year-old Moonee, her friends and her young single mother during one summer at their budget motel home on the outskirts of Walt Disney World. While the film primarily focuses on the children, it’s not your typical “coming of age” tale. In the backyard of “the happiest place on earth,” these kids aren’t at all protected from the adult world. They are exposed to some serious situations that most adults don’t even encounter, like poverty, theft, prostitution and drug use. Speaking to The Guardian, Baker said, “It’s a fictional film, but what it’s based on happens all the time.”

The glamour of Walt Disney World overshadows the impoverished families living just minutes from Cinderella’s castle, especially since the 2008 financial crash. In an area of the country that prospers from the tourism industry, the poor families like Moonee’s are constantly struggling to pay rent and find their next meal. The Florida Project is a raw portrayal of their story, with The Guardian calling it “so human it hurts.”

 

The Florida Project may have a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but it isn’t Baker’s only notable achievement. His 2015 film Tangerine follows a transgender sex worker named Sin-Dee Rella, who has just been released from prison. Upon hearing that her boyfriend/pimp Chester is cheating on her, Sin-Dee Rella goes on a search for him and the other woman. The film has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Baker once again wore many hats during production as director, co-writer, co-producer, co-cinematographer and editor.

 

What’s really remarkable about Tangerine is that it was shot using three iPhone 5s smartphones. And while The Florida Project was primarily shot in 35mm film, the last scene of the movie was also filmed using an iPhone. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Baker said, “I was using the iPhone 6s Plus for The Florida Project, and it has what’s called a rolling shutter, and it gave it this hyperactivity and a very different, jarring feel, and we liked that. We could have shot it on a 5s and made it more smooth, but we actually wanted the audience to know that we were jumping from 35mm to another medium.”

The Florida Project has earned Baker several awards, including:

  • Best Director at the 2017 Detroit Film Critics Society
  • Director of the Year at the 2018 London Film Critics Circle
  • Best Director at the 2018 New York Film Critics Circle
  • Named One of the Top 10 Films of the Year by the National Board of Review and American Film Institute

When The Guardian asked him what’s next, Baker said, “I’ve told my agent to push the idea of me as a director for hire off the table. Otherwise we’re wasting people’s time.” He sees his next film being a romcom about two junkies. “Can we only give middle-class people who have their lives together love and romance? So I want to make something that is absolutely hardcore but with all the tropes of – wait, give me a true 80s romcom – When Harry Met Sally!”

 

You can watch The Florida Project on Amazon Prime and Tangerine on Netflix.

Main image photographed by Harryson Thevenin. All image credits: The Guardian.

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