In the summer of 2023, Cinema Jove awarded the ‘Luna de València’ Prize to the social chronicler of the contemporary United States, Sean Baker. The American director, screenwriter and editor visited Valencia to receive the award and present a partial retrospective of his filmography. Baker is the director of a cinema that gives a voice to groups that are underrepresented in the audiovisual world. This year, the 38th edition of Cinema Jove awarded the Luna de València Prize to one of the freest, most innovative and committed directors of recent American indie cinema, Sean Baker (New Jersey, 1971). The filmmaker and screenwriter was recognised in person during the opening gala of the València International Film Festival on 22 June at the Palau de les Arts. Between 23 and 28 June, the International Film Festival, dedicated a partial retrospective to his work, which included the feature films ‘Take Out’, ‘Tangerine’, ‘The Florida Project’ and ‘Red Rocket’.
The IVC’s Assistant Director of Audiovisuals and Cinematography, Francesc Felipe, pointed out that this year Cinema Jove is awarding “one of the leading figures in current North American independent cinema and one of the most relentless and accurate chroniclers of the darkest and most depressing side of the American dream. In his films, Baker focuses his gaze, not without humour, on the underclass living on the outskirts of America’s big cities”.
Sean Baker is a screenwriter, director, producer and editor who has made seven independent feature films over the past two decades. His acclaimed film ‘The Florida Project’ (2017) received a Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe. His previous project, ‘Tangerine’ (2015), won an Independent Spirit Award and two Gotham Awards. Baker’s most recent film, ‘Red Rocket’ (2021), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim and was distributed by A24 in the US and Focus Features internationally. The filmmaker has just completed production on his next feature film.
“Sean Baker is the great portraitist of ecosystems on the margins; someone who focuses on non-places, on characters who are trying to get by or find some comfort within their habitat,” said Cinema Jove director Carlos Madrid.
His films tend to focus on groups that are underrepresented in the audiovisual world, characters who live on the margins of society, but his portraits are never lacking in humour. Thus, his debut film, ‘Take Out’ (2004), featured a Chinese immigrant in New York who works frantically to collect enough money in tips to pay off a debt to some smugglers, and in ‘The Florida Project’, a girl who lives in one of the weekly rental motels located around Disney World. Next to what is considered to be the “happiest place in the world” live families in dire financial straits.
“Baker’s filmography is full of young characters, teenagers, children… in the middle of a crossroads or simply looking for their place in the world. Baker’s camera treats them with great respect, affection and solidarity, without sparing us the crudeness, the B-side of American prosperity”, said Carlos Madrid.
His career has been marked by his embrace of both analogue and digital formats. The director alternates the experimental mood that the use of digital cameras brings him with the defence of the use of film. Thus, in 2015 he attracted attention at Sundance with ‘Tangerine’, where he used an iPhone 5S encased in a Steadicam stabiliser system to investigate the lives of two transgender sex workers, while in 2022 he filmed ‘Red Rocket’ in 16 millimetres and anamorphic, with the big screen experience in mind to delve into the return of a failed porn actor to his local Texas.
John Waters included his latest feature film to date in his list of 10 best films of 2021 for bringing back “dust, fights and full-frontal nudity” to auteur cinema. Another fundamental feature of his cinematography is pop chromaticism. In his films, the city becomes just another character to which he associates a colour palette. This happened with Kissimmee in ‘The Florida Project’ and with Texas City in ‘Red Rocket’.
EXCLUSIVE ‘24/7 VALENCIA’ INTERVIEW WITH AWARD-WINNING FILMMAKER ‘SEAN BAKER’ IN VALENCIA…
24/7 VALENCIA: What draws you to marginalized characters in your work?
SEAN BAKER: It’s not that I’m particularly drawn to telling the stories of marginalized people. Instead, I want to cover topics and focus on subjects that I rarely see in US film and television. It just happens to be that my industry shies away from the stories of the marginalized. I am, however, interested in focusing on subject matter, communities and lifestyles that have had stigmas applied to them from our mainstream with the hope that my films can help remove this stigma.
24/7 VALENCIA: How do you cast actors and choose the music for your films?
SEAN BAKER: Casting is done in both non-traditional and traditional ways. I street cast, cast friends and also used Hollywood agencies. I like to mix it up. As far as music goes, none of my films have traditional scores. I have used music tracks, such as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” as a theme to open up The Florida Project and then reoccur at a particular point. This music track was chosen because it contextually fitted the film. Tangerine is the only exception to this. I felt that the film needed constant music and explored the genre of trap music in order to do this.
24/7 VALENCIA: What has been your impression of Valencia?
SEAN BAKER: Valencia is an amazing mix of old and new and I’m so happy I had the opportunity to explore it thanks to Carlos Madrid and the team at Cinema Jove. The architecture, the old parts of Valencia, the City of Arts and Sciences, the gorgeous nine km Turia Garden and of course the lively beaches make the city one that is a must-visit destination. In addition, I was lucky enough to be able to visit some of the film houses that still exist there as well as La Filmoteca Valenciana where they are working on the restoration and preservation of films. The people I met were wonderful and warm and of course there’s the paella (for me vegetarian paella)…
Interview by Will McCarthy
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