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On his first ever visit to India, Sean Baker is keeping himself busy chairing the jury of the international competition at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival, as well as conducting a filmmaker’s master class.
Baker’s hectic schedule in Mumbai is a microcosm of what’s been a rather eventful few years for the writer, director and producer, which saw his movies Tangerine and The Florida Project garner widespread critical praise and a global following that eventually led to his invitation to India.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Baker in between screenings and jury discussions to hear his thoughts on Indian cinema and tech-savvy Indian filmmakers. He also spoke at length about the demise of the indie streaming service Filmstruck, a cinema lover’s service he has long supported, and his next film project that will focus on America’s opioid epidemic.
So let’s just start with the Mumbai Film Festival, what’s your relationship with the event?
It is a festival I’ve been meaning to get to forever. The Florida Project played here last year but I was unable to attend, but we have been in talks for me to come and either show a film or be on the jury for a while. Finally, it worked out with our timing. I can’t believe I’m approaching the age that I am approaching and this is my first time in India. It’s taken a long time. It’s quite the adventure.
Is this the first time you’ve been a jury head? How do you approach the job?
I’ve been a jury head before, but this is the most prestigious festival I’ve been a jury head at. I’m very diplomatic, I feel that the wonderful thing about juries is that they represent different opinions, points of view and voices. Therefore, I am looking forward to hearing the thoughts of the other jurors and figuring out a way for all of us to be happy.
You’re also doing a master class here, right?
You know, master classes are essentially extended Q&As. That’s how I always approach them. I don’t mean to downplay it. It’s just that I never fancy myself as someone who is taking a class. “Master class” insinuates a teacher, and I’m not one. So this is more about taking questions and having a discussion. That’s what interests me, having a discussion and trying to answer questions from the audience. There will be young filmmakers there and I remember when I was young…well, I still go to Q&As. I still find them to be quite invaluable. It’s all about sharing your experience. If there are young filmmakers there, they want to hear about how to break into the industry, well they probably won’t get a direct answer because everybody’s journey is different. It’s about sharing it so then perhaps they can find their path.
We’re here in Mumbai with a strong selection of local films. Are you familiar with Indian cinema?
I did as much dabbling as a Western cinephile can do. I remember at one point I was actually studying it kind of intensively around 2001, when Hrithik Roshan was big. I wanted to learn more about it, as I’ve always been intrigued by the craft of Bollywood, in that how well they were shot in glorious widescreen. I would actually go to see Bollywood films in the theaters in New York and New Jersey. But as of late, I’ve been watching as many Indian independent films as I have been able to get my hands on. Or at least that have been highlighted at festivals, and the films that made the biggest impression on me over the last five or six years, some have been from India.
Are there any particular films from India recently that stood out for you?
I was on the jury for the [Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles] and it was wonderful to see a lot of the indies that I wouldn’t normally see. A couple years ago a film came out called Court, which was incredible and they actually even quote me on the box of the DVD release; it says something like “director of The Florida Project says this is the best film of the year.” And I did say that. I really thought it was amazing.
I also loved I.D. from a couple of years ago. I even liked something that’s considered slightly more mainstream, The Crow’s Egg. That film was actually a big influence on The Florida Project because of the children’s performances. I showed [Florida Project associate producer Samantha Quan] excerpts from Crow’s Egg.
Regarding your own work, how has it been received by Indian audiences?
I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback. I see there is enthusiasm from the Indian independent scene about the future of cinema and this really became clear to me when Tangerine hit here. People were reaching out to me about the iPhone. I get more comments, questions, and I get more young filmmakers reaching out to me about the iPhone from India than from any other country.
Why is that do you think?
Filmmakers here are tech-savvy — that and the filmmakers that I have been in touch with believe in the democratization of filmmaking. They believe that the iPhone is going to open up opportunities they haven’t had before. I think that is a large part of it.
Changing the subject, I know you’re a big fan of Filmstruck, and this week we heard it will be shut down. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah, it’s a very sad thing. It happened when we were here. I am being optimistic and I am hoping that they and the rest of the Criterion team will figure out a way of getting their films out there. It is a loss. It is sad. Actually, to tell you the truth, I’ve been using it a lot recently while I’ve been on the road. I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura a few weeks ago.
With Filmstruck closing, what do you think will fill the void?
I always suggest this. Physical media is still a thing and there is an argument now for Blu-rays to make a comeback. I think that Blu-rays still provide you with an amazing image, but it is something that not everybody can afford. It’s funny, I think on Twitter, [filmmaker] Edgar Wright said something in response to Filmstruck — he wrote something like “that’s why I have physical media.” I understand that’s excessive, but at the same time it’s true, and a lot of titles are being released on Blu-ray that aren’t released with the sole purpose of taking advantage and capitalizing on collectors.
In terms of streaming services, listen — Mubi has always been wonderful. Mubi is curated, I think Efe [Mubi CEO Efe Cakarel] left Mumbai already, but he was here, so Mubi is I think an incredible service. For the U.S., Kanopy is the public library system, so all you need is a library card and you can actually stream titles. One film that’s actually here in competition is on Kanopy in the States.
And then, of course, there are the go-tos. In the U.S., they have Fandor, which still provides titles that nobody else has. Moviemix is an important one. You know what I do, I actually go to Justwatch.com when I want to find a title, and it gives me which streaming service is playing it.
Do you think my Netflix and Amazon can also fill the void that will be left by Filmstruck?
You know, Amazon has some really good titles. Netflix has good titles, too, but you have to dig deep to find them. A lot of the titles that I’m looking for aren’t exactly the ones that they’re advertising. My one hope for Netflix and Amazon is to be a little more art house- and indie-friendly, pushing those just as hard as they push their originals.
So what’s next for you?
We are in development now on something new finally. I’m working a little bit slower than I have in the past, simply because there was no break between Tangerine and Florida Project and I needed the year to restore my first film [Four Letter Words]. I had to restore it and that took time. I also just wanted a little bit of a breather to get back on track.
With this new film, we had a few ideas but we wanted to see what we were really passionate about and it took a little bit of time, but I think we found it. It’s in the same wheelhouse as Florida Project — it tackles the opioid epidemic, but it’s not what people will think. It’s not just about addiction and family members dealing with something. It’s something very different. It’s something that will be extremely critical of the war on drugs that the U.S. has been waging for the last 40 years because I feel that has been 100 percent the wrong way of tackling the issue.
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