When Sean Baker accepts the Filmmaker on the Edge award at the 20th annual Provincetown International Film Festival on June 16, he’ll be following in a long line of alt-film luminaries that includes Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Kevin Smith, and the festival’s patron saint, indie-film pioneer John Waters. Not bad company to be keeping for a writer-director who has only been in the spotlight for his past two features, “Tangerine” (2015) — a film famously (and exquisitely) shot on an iPhone — and last year’s “The Florida Project,” a heartbreaking comedy-drama about poverty in the shadows of Disney World. (Baker’s earlier films include 2012’s “Starlet,” 2008’s “Prince of Broadway,” 2004’s “Takeout,” and 2000’s “Four Letter Words,” all but the last available on demand from Amazon and other streaming platforms.)
We caught up with Baker by phone at his West Hollywood home to ask where he’s been, where he’s going, and what it’s like to share an honor with some of his filmmaking inspirations. In the background, his girlfriend, actor (and “Florida Project” acting coach) Samantha Quan was headed out the door to an audition, and Boonie, one of Baker’s two Chihuahua mixes, was threatening an unidentified third party. (Baker to said third party: “He’s very gentle, he will not bite, I swear to God, he just doesn’t know who you are — hey, stop that!”)
Q. Can you tell us anything about your next [untitled] project?
A. In terms of subject matter, I think it will focus on the opioid crisis we have in the US, and the impact of what Fentanyl has done to this country over the last two years. How I’m going to be doing that, though? No idea. I’m hoping that it’s going to be a personal story that takes place within this world and uses it as a backdrop. I’m always trying to explore the street-level personal stories. I don’t want to be hitting the audience with statistics about how many overdoses there are in a week. Instead, I want audiences to hopefully do that research afterwards.
Q. You’re celebrated now for being the rare filmmaker to focus on American poverty and people living in the margins. When did that start for you? Was it an interest? A sense of responsibility? A combination of both?
A. It was certainly my interest, because the making of these films is very educational. I get to learn about a demographic that I perhaps didn’t know about or that I’m an outsider to. Every one of these films has been an incredible learning experience for me. Foreign cinema has been doing this for a century, and they haven’t let up. But in the US we have a tendency, even in independent films, to either make personal films, which are very French New Wave-y, or you make ‘calling cards’ to Hollywood: Hey, hopefully this movie gets me a call from Marvel, or a television studio. That just doesn’t interest me. Films take literally three years of your life, and if you have this platform — and it’s a privileged platform, definitely — I feel a responsibility to use it properly, and to do something that will hopefully bring positivity to the world and perhaps bring about needed change, in a subtle way. Maybe bring empathy to people that would normally be ignored.
Q. Let’s talk a little about the honor you’re getting from the P-town festival — it almost feels like you’re getting a lifetime achievement award a little early.
A. I know, right? I didn’t realize how prestigious it was until I actually read about the previous recipients. They’re basically my frickin’ heroes. The fact that a lot of those filmmakers have had a direct influence on my career, and then to be receiving this, it’s hard to wrap my head around. But it’s such an honor and I can’t wait to meet Mr. Waters. I don’t even know if I should admit this to John, but I had only seen “Polyester” up to NYU. And then at NYU, my freshman year, we were exploring a lot of real alternative cinema: the Kenneth Anger films, Waters, a lot of the Transgressive Cinema, Nick Zedd. New York freshman year was when I was discovering all that stuff. So that’s when I actually went to Kim’s Video and watched [Waters’s] “Multiple Maniacs,” “Female Trouble.”
Q. Were there films that affected your social esthetic as well?
A. Italian Neo-Realism, with the [Vittorio] De Sica films, and then really diving deep into British social realism — Ken Loach and of course Mike Leigh. I think that those films set me down that path toward somewhat more political filmmaking. And then just on the production side, the Dogme 95 movement had a lot of influence, because it told me that we could go ahead and make a film on Standard Definition [video]. The Dogme 95 movement probably had as big an impact on me as the Cinema Verite movement had on earlier filmmakers. It gave me a second chance, to tell you the truth. Dogme 95 allowed me to make “Takeout,” and with “Takeout” I really started to find where I was going to go.
Q. Given the acclaim for “The Florida Project,” you’re getting attention from the studios. Do you have any desire to make a superhero movie or a period piece or anything that would be considered mainstream multiplex fare?
A. I have no desire to go down that road right now, of the franchise . . . thing. And it’s not because I think it’s beneath me or anything like that. I actually feel it would be a disservice to those people who enjoy comic books and comic book movies. I don’t know enough of that world. I literally had six months of comic books in my life, and that was when I fell in love with the Hulk in sixth grade, and bought about six months of “The Hulk.”
I do have to say, because I’m actually looking up at a poster on my wall right now of William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” to do action setpieces on that level, with a political statement behind your film, that would be the best of both worlds. It’s very rare that those films are being made these days. You either have a “Fast and the Furious,” which is all-out action, or you have overtly political movies. There’s nothing in the middle. I would love to do something like a “Sorcerer,” that gives you the opportunity for exciting action and at the same time is making a statement about, you know, the exploitation of oil companies in third world countries. That’s something that I find very appealing. Maybe I will be able to get to that place.Interview was edited and condensed. Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.