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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The Florida Project director Sean Baker: 'I want my films to be different'

The director tells us why storytelling is more important than blockbuster budgets or critical acclaim

Bria Vinaite as Halley and Brooklynn Prince as her daughter Moonee. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Bria Vinaite as Halley and Brooklynn Prince as her daughter Moonee. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Indie director Sean Baker is garnering something of a reputation for doing things differently. His last film, 2015’s multi-award-winning Tangerine, was shot entirely on a clutch of iPhone 5s.

While he’s returned to the more familiar 35mm film format with The Florida Project, which tells the story of an impoverished single mother and her daughter living in a budget motel in the shadow of Disney World and releases this weekend, he’s still breaking the rules – many of the film’s supporting cast were sourced via YouTube, while its star, Bria Vinaite, was found from a search on Instagram.

Baker admits that he does consciously seek to think outside the norms of film making tradition: “I want my films to be different, to use different techniques, not just make a calling card film,” he says. “Cinema is always evolving. If you look over the history of cinema, changes happen when directors embrace new tools and technology and think outside the box.”

Baker notes that he was a member of the final New York University class to graduate before the advent of digital film making, although he’s very much adapted to the techniques since he left film school. “The technological advances of the last 25 years have changed everything, from non-linear editing to the internet,” he says. “My last film I made totally myself, shooting on iPhones and finding artists on SoundCloud to sign quality music cheap. I cast this film on YouTube, where I found a lot of the supporting characters, and I found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. It was just one of those days where I was delving far too deep on there, and someone had posted a picture of her, I think. She just jumped out at me.”

It was a brave move. Vinaite had no previous acting experience and Baker’s backers on the film had previously been considering established box-office draws for the lead role of Halley. The director admits that he is grateful, and perhaps even a little surprised, that his financiers supported his unusual decision. Judging by the reams of award nominations that both the film and Vinaite herself have received, it was the right one.

In contrast to the debutante Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, her co-star who plays motel manager Bobby, which earned him a nomination for a Golden Globe, is one of the most experienced actors in Hollywood. Baker admits that their polar levels of experience required some differing approaches.

“Bria had no experience at all, so she had to come down early with an acting coach,” he says. “She required a little more explanation and hand-holding to make sure she’s in character and listening to the other characters. When you see bad acting, that’s usually what it is – they’re not listening to the other characters. It’s always hard with first-time actors to get them in that moment where they are really listening to the other characters and reacting to the other characters.”

Baker says the extra coaching was time well spent and that, by the time Dafoe arrived on set, Vinaite was more than able to hold her own. “He’s so confident and assured and there was much less talking required there,” he says. “He had such a good, down-to-earth, human understanding of the character. He was bringing things to the character that I didn’t even know were there and it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. They were very different approaches, but I always like to mix it up between established and new actors, and even none actors.”

Watching The Florida Project, it’s hard not to be reminded of another recent, award-winning film dealing with poverty, a single mother and an uncaring system – Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Although Baker’s film is very much its own beast, and very much an American story, unlike Loach’s British one, its subject matter is similar, as is the humorous manner in which it details what could be a very depressing topic.

Baker notes that he actually shot his film before he had seen Loach’s movie, although he admits the veteran British director has been a huge influence on his career. “Ken’s been a huge inspiration for all my work. I’m actually a huge fan of British cinema in general, not just Ken, but Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, all sorts,” he says. “ I’m actually talking to you right now from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London, where they’re screening the film later, and it’s a huge honour to be here. So Ken’s definitely an influence, but if I was going to pick one film of his that had influenced my film it wouldn’t be Daniel Blake, I hadn’t seen it, but Kes, definitely that was an influence.”

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Loach, of course, has something of a reputation as a political firebrand and polemicist, and with a history of making movies about fringe groups – Baker’s previous films have dealt with transgender people, immigrants, those on low-incomes and others – I ask the director whether he worries about being typecast as an “issue film” maker.

“I do worry a little,” he says. “‘What’s the next marginalised group he’s gonna focus on?’ You know? The last two films have been about communities that I’ve never seen before and that’s what attracted me to them, but yes it is a worry that I become ‘that guy’.”

So would Baker take the helm of the next Marvel blockbuster as a means of avoiding such a situation? “No, absolutely not,” the director laughs. “I want the final cut on my films, which you don’t get with something like that. I want my signature to be on the film, not to just be a hired hand.”

While Marvel may be off the bucket list, Baker says he’d be happy to work on a more mainstream level as long as he retains creative control – he cites RoboCop as a favourite film, and says he’d happily work on a big-budget action fest, if he keeps that control.

With awards season very much under way, The Florida Project is generating plenty of buzz, with Dafoe, Vinaite and six-year old Brooklynn Prince, who plays Halley’s daughter, Moonee, in particular sweeping up nominations.

Tangerine also generated plenty of awards buzz but it ultimately failed to pick up any of the big awards and Baker says he tries not to get too swept up in the hype. “You do get excited at the possibility and it’s nice to be recognised,” he says. “But mainly I’m excited for the actors. I’ve already had my win by screening the film at Cannes, at the BAFTAs and around the world thanks to some great distributors. That so many audiences have been able to see it all around the world, that’s my win.”

The Florida Project opens in UAE cinemas on January 25