What I learned from Sean Baker’s BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture

Sean Baker, the co-writer/director/editor of the excellent The Florida Project, recently stopped by BAFTA’s Piccadilly headquarters to give a lecture about how he goes about screenwriting and making his films.

You can hear the entire audio of his lecture and Q&A session here but it’s pretty long so I’ve picked out the highlights for you:

– The screenwriting process takes places for Sean three times – 1: in the actual script before funding/production, which he sees as more of a “blueprint”. 2: on the set, Sean and co-writer Chris Bergoch will see what needs adding/tweaking and throw lines at the actors behind the camera as well as letting them improvise. 3: In the edit, when he might completely changed the chronological order of the piece

– Sean doesn’t stick to the traditional screenplay template and will add in screen and style directions, how he wants something to be filmed, if he will be using non-professionals in that particular scene and sample lines to help kick start a piece he wants improvised. Chris is not such a fan of this method.

– His screenwriting partner Chris is always on set, which is unusual, but it helps them identify what needs changing in the script – for example, in Tangerine, they realised they needed a powerful third act twist

– Because Sean edits as well, he likes to give himself time off between the shoot and the edit to get some distance from the footage and come back with fresh eyes

– He can significantly change the order of things in the edit – for example, in The Florida Project, the Brazilian tourist scene comes after about 25-30 minutes, but it was originally set around the 60 minute mark. He felt the audience needed that information sooner

– When Sean and Chris decide on a subject matter for their films, they do the research, meet people and let them inspire what shape the movie takes. They take a “journalistic approach” and interview people before writing the script

– He shot Tangerine on an iPhone for budget reasons – they simply didn’t have the money to make the movie they wanted, but they adapted the script so it worked as a storytelling device

– When Sean and Chris go to people for financing, they don’t really have a full screenplay, they have what they call a “scriptment” which is a hybrid of a script and a treatment

– Sean shot a lot more scenes filled with exposition in The Florida Project but he cut it back, and he filmed the end as a more procedural affair, with a caseworker explaining their child services investigation, but it didn’t feel right to use in the edit

– Sean had an acting coach with him at all times on The Florida Project, guiding and working with the children. They would do scripted takes, sometimes they would improvise, sometimes Sean would throw them sample lines and get them to continue with something similar, sometimes they used stuff they had come up with in early workshopping sessions

– Some people on the movie asked Sean if they were deceiving the audience about Halley’s prostitution for too long but Sean disagreed. He wanted the reveal to be subtle as he doesn’t ever want to treat the audience like they’re dumb

– Sean doesn’t like going into too much detail about the ending of The Florida Project because he wants people to interpret it in the own way, but he had that idea five years ago, but it evolved during the production. He wanted to keep it open ended and somewhat satisfying, rather than ending with on a depressing note

Brooklynn Prince is super professional and would take all of Sean’s suggestions and take them to the next level

– The production was 35 days, most shots were done in 2-3 takes, the ending was shot at the actual Disney on an iPhone (Sean was shifty, so probably didn’t have clearance) and they just rented out rooms in the motel rather than taking it all over

The Florida Project is in selected cinemas now 

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  1. […] I also went to the Sean Baker lecture – and you can read about that here. […]

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