The Sean Baker Q&A

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite) in The Florida Project (2017).
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite) in The Florida Project (2017).

We talked to the director of The Florida Project (and Letterboxd member) Sean Baker about casting choices, privilege, the male gaze and that ending.

Don’t ever fall in love on set. It totally ruins everything. It’s so distracting and stupid.” —⁠Sean Baker

The Florida Project director Sean Baker, an esteemed member of Letterboxd, agreed to answer some of your questions. We didn’t get through all those you asked, because he’s a bit busy with ongoing publicity for the film, but we reckon we did you proud. Here, Baker discusses the male gaze, finding his incredible cast, the privilege of being a storyteller, and the ending everyone seems obsessed with (includes mild spoiler). Baker also gave us three film lists to accompany this article.

Hi Sean, we’re so happy to talk to you. We had around 200 questions submitted via our Q&A, but you’ll be relieved to hear we’ve whittled these down to some central themes. First, some adorable concern from Joseph: How’s life?
Sean Baker: Really?! Aw. It’s all good. You know. It’s just … this has been an exhausting press tour with this film, but at the same time I’m happy to be doing it and getting the word out there about the movie so I can’t complain. I’m very happy with the response that the film is getting, so I’m in good spirits.

A follow-up from Berry: How are you, really?
If anything, the one bad thing about this is you can’t keep up your health, you know what I mean? When you’re on the road, you start eating garbage and you can’t work out as much. That’s the only drawback. This is the one time when you’re actually asked to go in front of cameras and you look and feel the worst!

It also is the one time where they ask you to actually be articulate and to talk, and this is the time that you can’t because of the fact that you’re so tired. So it’s kinda weird. It’s the only chance for you to try to make an impression, but it’s the one time in your life that you’re not equipped to.

Besides that, everything is fine!

We had many, many questions about your casting of The Florida Project, so we chose Jacko’s: How did you manage to find such talent with Bria and Brooklynn, and were there certain moments in their auditions that made you go with them?
Well, Bria, I discovered her on Instagram. We had [Stranger Things casting director] Carmen Cuba on board for our casting, so we were considering a Hollywood name for that role. And we were thinking about all of the young women who could possibly play that role. But I came across her Instagram page one hundred percent by accident.

I wasn’t looking through Instagram or even any social media to cast that role. I was keeping an open mind to it because I had luck with it in the past; with Tangerine I cast some of our supporting roles on Vine and YouTube. And when I saw her Instagram page I was just really intrigued. I thought that she had that youthful, rebellious energy I was looking for and she didn’t take herself too seriously. I knew she wouldn’t have any problems with confidence because she was already putting herself out there and her physicality worked for us. And then talking with her on the phone—I made contact with her—I realised that she had the motivation and the enthusiasm.

[Sean is now talking to his dog] Hey stop it Bunsen, stop it! It’s Bunsen, like bunsen burner. I didn’t name him!

So she came down and she auditioned with the kids and I saw the potential. She had a long ways to go because she was green, and I knew that she would need to be going through intensive workshops to get her to the place where she would be ready—and she was willing to do that, so everything was great.

And when I saw her with Brooklynn, it did feel like they were related, they had a real close connection.

Brooklynn, she came through the local casting company called CROWDshot. She had some previous experience. She had more experience than Bria, she had done some commercials. Within seconds of seeing her in the room, she won me over because she had all of that everything I was looking for, you know, the cuteness and the wit and the energy.

We could also tell that she had a lot of heart, meaning that she wore her emotions on her sleeve. The way she answered questions, we kind of knew that she had a sensitive side and that we would be able to work with her and her parents to get her to a place where she would be able to have that emotional scene at the end of the movie.

She was also just real. Even though she had experience and her mother was an actor, she didn’t feel like one of those hollywood kids that are all dolled up. She had a very casual feel about it, and just wise beyond her years. Without being too much like an adult, it also felt like she was six going on forty! Very intelligent.

Sean Baker with Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe. — Photographer… Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Sean Baker with Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe. Photographer… Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

We had several great questions—from Dante, Darren, Marisa and MangeyMaggie—all curious about the places and people you choose to film, who are outside of the so-called mainstream, often marginalized. We really like their questions, actually, for how they speak to privilege: both your privilege (white, male) and your position as someone who gets to tell stories. So tell us how you manage to find the balance between an empathetic representation of these specific demographics, and a universally relatable story.
It’s just a response to what I’m not seeing enough of. It’s very simple. It’s just that the reason that there are marginalized communities and subcultures and groups of people is because they’re ignored, and so the antidote to that is in just stop ignoring. That’s how I see it. It’s as simple as starting to look outside of the groups that normally have stories told about them and for them. It’s really that simple.

The balance is really just approaching the way you would approach any other story. I mean, this is the way that I would tell a story about anybody. Basically humanizing them, trying to find empathy in our characters. This is just the way I would normally do this to anybody, so I guess that’s how you strike a difference.

It’s weird because I’m bad at self-analyzing, but I think what it comes down to is if you’re telling a story about a group of people that you’re not really a part of, I guess the question is why would you approach it in any sort of a different way? If you do do that, you’re basically saying that you consider them different from you. You know what I mean? It’s just as simple as, it feels to me the only ethical way of doing something like this is all about equality, so you approach it the same exact way.

If you’re telling a story about two transgender women of color who happen to be sex workers but the ultimate story, the universal theme in this is friendship, why would you tackle it in any different way?

Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine (2015).
Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine (2015).

On the ‘male gaze’ and how you work with female characters, Melissa asked: “Whenever I talk about works that avoid the male gaze, I like to point out yours. I think you handle perfectly these ‘unconventional’ women and themes that could be hard to represent (like sex workers, transgender women [of color], etc). I wonder if you’re always conscious of how important it is to do it right or if it just comes naturally. How much do you let your actresses take over?”
I have to say I am conscious of it. I mean, we’re living in an age of the think-piece, we’re living in an age where people are really looking out for this, in a good way. It’s a good thing.

You know, Hollywood for a long time has been blind to this, so when I go into any of these films I have to make sure that in a way I am very conscious of the fact that I’m a guy, I’m a straight guy making these movies, but if I’m focusing on a female protagonist, I have to make sure the representation is correct. And also just in general.

The gaze is an important thing. I look at the gaze, I really do respect when a director, like a Larry Clark, has his gaze just plastered all over the film. This is his perspective, this is what he wants to see. That’s great. That’s one thing. But with my films, because they’re sometimes tackling issues and it’s something that has to appeal to an audience that spans, you know, race, gender, creed etc, I have to be a little more middle of the road. And when I’m middle of the road, I have to determine whether I’m falling into too much of the male gaze. My own gaze.

So what I try to do is I try to balance it out. And so for example I have to make sure that the camera stays objective, or is equally balanced. So if I’m gonna show female nudity, I’m gonna show male nudity, and that was very important for me, especially with Starlet. Because Starlet is focusing on an industry that is all male gaze, when I went about showing that industry I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t falling into that. We’re an outside view of that industry and therefore it should be so much more objective. So I made sure my male nudity was more explicit than female nudity in that film.

It’s also important because a lot of my characters are female characters, and so the great thing about that is I usually work with actresses who I have a very good relationship with in terms of our communication. I turn to my actresses and ask them their opinions and ask them whether representation is correct here and how they would do it and what they would like to see. Or how the scene is being played out and is this reaction accurate? Is this line believable? So I think there’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of turning to my female actors to help me figure out whether the male gaze is appropriate.

Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway) in Starlet (2012).
Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway) in Starlet (2012).

There were so many questions about the ending of The Florida Project that it’s safe to say we should ask a question about the ending of The Florida Project. A lot has already been written about why you chose to film the final scene the way you did, but what do you make of all this obsession with the ending?
I did not know it was going to be as polarizing as it is. It was one of our first visions that Chris [Bergoch, Sean’s co-writer] and I had, so we’ve been tied to this ending to a certain degree since 2012 or 2011 when we first thought of the idea.

It’s something that we never wavered from, but at the same time I was a little surprised at how polarizing it has become because if you think of the alternative, what is the alternative? Little Moonee in the back of an ACS car crying and being taken away? Because if that’s what people want they can watch CSI or Law and Order or something!

It’s obvious what we’re saying. It’s the first time in the movie where there is an actual score. So we’re obviously saying that it might not be real, what they’re watching, but at the same time we really do want to leave it up to interpretation, because the whole movie has been about little Moonee using her sense of imagination and wonderment to make the best of the situation she’s in.

How does your process with Chris work?
Chris and I have written the last three films together, and our sensibilities are the same, yet not. He comes heavily influenced by mainstream cinema—meaning Hollywood—Spielberg, Disney, etc. I don’t. I mean I do, but that was when I was seven years old! I think that that is actually a good thing, the fact that we come from opposite sides in terms of how structured sometimes we wanna keep a screenplay. We come to it with different thoughts and we meet somewhere in the middle.

Chris and I, we have our initial talks on the phone where we do a lot of our initial brainstorming, and then we slowly break it down into a treatment, and then a “scriptment” —⁠which is like half a script, half a treatment—and then the final screenplay.

There is that research period in which we usually take trips together, if we can, to wherever we have to go in order to do this, but most of the writing actually is done separately. You know, we will choose the scenes that we feel that we have the best hold on—meaning the ones that we feel that we’re confident that we can do on our own—and then we share them. We do a lot of writing online, like Google documents where we just share. It’s very simple.

Sean Baker (second from left) directing on the set of The Florida Project. — Photographer… Marc Schmidt/A24
Sean Baker (second from left) directing on the set of The Florida Project. Photographer… Marc Schmidt/A24

Finally, many Letterboxd folk wanted advice on how to become a filmmaker, how to get experience, how to network, should they make an iPhone feature, can they work for you, and so on. Here’s one question from Leonardo that perhaps might focus you in: What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your filmmaking?
Well, I guess it’s a very “big picture” sort of thing. I think that it has to do with just perseverance. Just continuing to make the film, until eventually it got attention. So I guess the biggest lesson has been just to continue working.

What I keep telling people is that there’s not going to be anybody who just comes and dumps money in your lap. It doesn’t work that way. You have to prove yourself. You can prove yourself these days with all the tools that are out there. You can use your iPhone. You can use so many platforms now to put films up on.

I found Mela Murder, who plays Ashley in the movie, because I was going through Vimeo and watching Staff Picks, and there was that wonderful film called Gang. Now I talk about that movie, and Mela, she’s got a great opportunity out of this just because that film was put out there on that platform.

I just tell people: don’t wait, just do it. You can make films for so little money these days that if for some reason it unfortunately doesn’t go the way you want, it’s not that big of a money loss, it’s not that big of a disaster.

And then, I guess if there was another lesson… Oh oh oh! Don’t ever fall in love on set. It totally ruins everything. It’s so distracting and stupid. I learned that on my first film, ’cause I kind of semi fell in love with my assistant director and it really is distracting. You’re only thinking about your movie 50 percent of the time and you’re thinking of this person the other 50 percent of the time.

If you’re about to make a movie, just be a celibate, get it off your mind, and go into those 30 days without any sort of… don’t be tempted! Or go in there already in a relationship, but do not form a new relationship while you’re shooting a film!

Noted! Thanks, Sean. We would do our best not to fall in love, but it’s too late: Letterboxd loves you.
I love Letterboxd! I actually didn’t start using it until earlier this year and up till this point I’ve always been writing my films down in a journal, and I stress out because I might lose that journal. So I have to say it’s been wonderful! I get a lot of followers now who seem to be intrigued with what I’m watching. It’s very cool.

Our thanks to Sean. 

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