Sean Baker and Molly Shannon Honored at Provincetown Film Festival

Henny Garfunkel
John Waters and Sean Baker at the 20th Provincetown Film Festival

Also among special guests at the Cape Cod event's 20th-anniversary edition was Chloe Grace Moretz, recipient of the Next Wave Award, while audience prizes went to Icelandic feature 'And Breathe Normally' and political doc 'Time for Ilhan.'

It's not surprising that John Waters — the unofficial godfather of the Provincetown Film Festival and independent filmmaking's patron saint of outsiders — would feel an affinity for the work of director Sean Baker, who received the 2018 Filmmaker on the Edge Award during the festival's 20th edition.

Baker's last three features have steadily broadened his exposure by examining — with compassion, humor, honesty and humanity — characters on the invisible margins of American life.

Starlet traced the unexpected friendship that develops between a 21-year-old porn actress and an octogenarian Los Angeles fringe dweller; Tangerine tested the bond between a pair of transgender Hollywood sex workers who provide each other's chief emotional support system; and The Florida Project celebrated the almost magical resilience of childhood in the heartbreaking story of an unfit mother living below the poverty line.

"We know Sean Baker is a marvelous filmmaker, but once you see his earlier films you wonder, is he also a spy?" mused Waters. "I mean, how else could he have gotten the trust of these outsider communities? Maybe he's a social worker too because his films are never preachy, never maudlin, but oddly uplifting. I guess he's really just a magician. Some of his films, you feel like nothing is happening, until he makes you feel like everything is happening."

"He's ruined independent films for directors like me," joked Waters. "Now when I command $6 million for a budget the studio execs say, "If Sean Baker can make a film for $2 million, why can't you?'"

Waters conducted an onstage conversation with Baker prior to the presentation of the award. As part of the same event, author and film scholar B. Ruby Rich interviewed Molly Shannon, who received this year's Excellence in Acting Award; she also starred as Emily Dickinson in opening-night film Wild Nights With Emily, directed by Madeleine Olnek.

The Saturday Night Live alum raised up her award in the trademark triumphant lunge of her beloved comedic creation Mary Catherine Gallagher, and responded to an audience member's comment about the subversive sexuality of her characters by wildly gyrating and then dropping into press-up position to hump the stage.

Baker talked about the importance not just of eavesdropping on the communities he depicts, but of establishing connections of mutual trust. He began developing that approach on early work such as 2004's Take Out, about a Chinese illegal immigrant struggling to meet the payment deadline on a smuggling debt; and 2008's Prince of Broadway, in which a New York street hustler specializing in designer knockoffs gets a surprise when his ex-girlfriend shows up with a baby he never knew he had.

The social realism of Baker's work blends documentary and narrative techniques in a manner that he says owes a debt to filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, John Cassavetes and Austrian iconoclast Ulrich Seidl.

He encourages improvisation on his shoots (crediting then-six-year-old Brooklynn Prince with coming up with "You're not the boss of me!" in The Florida Project); he's eager to break away from conventional three-act structures, but acknowledges the invaluable balance provided by the more mainstream storytelling sensibility of Chris Bergoch, co-writer on his last three features.

Despite the awards attention, overwhelming acclaim and relative breakout success of The Florida Project, plus a domestic gross nudging $6 million, Baker says the commercial climate remains tough for independent film.

"It's harder and harder to make money on these films," he admits. "To be honest, Florida Project is still in the red. I'm very lucky to have been able to retain final cut on my films, but I really don't believe I'll be able to surpass $12 million and continue to do that."

Baker did acknowledge that Disney had been "very kind" in letting the production get away with Florida Project's stolen final shots at Disneyland, filmed guerilla-style over two days without permits. But he recalled some hairy experiences in Los Angeles on the Tangerine shoot when cops were called over unauthorized filming, forcing the crew to bolt in different directions.

He is currently developing his next project, which aims to address the opioid addiction problem in America through an unconventional lens.

Accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Baker told Waters, "It's such an honor to meet you. You're an icon and a legend. And I'm overwhelmed looking back through the recipients of this award in the last 20 years, who are heroes of mine."

Those names include Waters himself, as well as Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, Quentin Tarantino, Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, and most recently, Sofia Coppola.

Shannon follows other honorees who have received Provincetown's Excellence in Acting Award including Tilda Swinton, Parker Posey, Lili Taylor, Cynthia Nixon, Patricia Clarkson, Vera Farmiga, Gael Garcia Bernal and Alan Cumming.

She described feeling like she was in over her head during her early days among the more seasoned sketch writers on SNL in the mid-'90s, and then talked about the reinvigorating effect of being handed a string of rewarding roles in her 50s — on the HBO series Divorce and in indies such as Other People, The Little Hours and Wild Nights With Emily, in which she appears onscreen for the first time with her daughter, Stella Chestnut.

Shannon was candid and funny about her upbringing in Cleveland, paying warm tribute to the influence on her comedy of her father, who raised her single-handedly following the tragic death of her mother, younger sister and cousin in an auto accident when she was just four.

She got an uproarious response from the crowd with a hilariously detailed account of a childhood adventure when she and her best friend, both aged 12, dressed in ballet tutus and snuck onto a flight for New York in the pre-9/11 days of lax airport security. They took a subway into Manhattan — ending up at Rockefeller Center years before it would become a formative career destination for her — and then spent the day dining-and-dashing, and shoplifting souvenirs.

The story left pretty much everyone in the audience asking, "How is this not already a movie?"

Earlier in the Provincetown festival, which wrapped Sunday, Chloe Grace Moretz received the event's recently introduced Next Wave Award. That followed a screening of Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, in which Moretz stars with Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck as teenagers sent to a Christian conversion camp that aims to deprogram them of their same-sex attractions.

HBO Audience Awards voted during the five-day Cape Cod event went, for best narrative feature, to Icelandic director Isold Uggadottir's And Breathe Normally, a female relationship drama about a border patrol officer and a refugee from Guinea-Bissau; and for documentary feature, to Norah Shapiro's Time for Ilhan, about the hard-fought campaign in Minnesota of Ilhan Omar to become the first Somali Muslim woman elected to state office in America. Shortly before the latter award was announced, news broke that Omar had won the DFL endorsement to fill U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's congressional seat.

The John Schlesinger Awards for first-time directors went, for narrative feature, to Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer's The Cakemaker, about a closeted German pastry chef who travels to Jerusalem following the death of his married lover to work in the cafe of the man's widow; and for documentary, to Joanna James' A Fine Line, about the obstacles facing female chefs trying to make it in the male-dominated culinary world.

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