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“Take Out taught us the way:” Sean Baker on microbudget filmmaking aesthetics

Baker discusses his 2004 co-directed sophomore feature, which screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on October 15.
Writer-Director Sean Baker faces the camera with his arms crossed in a photo taken as a jury member at a past Locarno Film Festival. Photo by Samuel Golay. In the bottom still from the film "Take Out," Ming Ding (Charles Jang) collects payment for a food delivery at a Manhattan apartment building.
Writer-Director Sean Baker faces the camera with his arms crossed in a photo taken as a jury member at a past Locarno Film Festival. Photo by Samuel Golay. In the bottom still from the film “Take Out,” Ming Ding (Charles Jang) collects payment for a food delivery at a Manhattan apartment building.

Baker discusses his 2004 co-directed sophomore feature, which screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on October 15.

For all its constant pressures of time, chronicling the vicissitudes in a day in the life of a Chinese takeout deliveryman, Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s microbudget masterpiece Take Out (2004) possesses a timeless empathy. That may explain the prominence of The Village Voice pull quote comparison to director Vittorio De Sica on the original Kino DVD box art, as De Sica stands as one of Italian neorealism‘s pioneers in the mid-1940s.

With a shoestring budget of $3,000 that was paid out of pocket, Baker and Tsou’s film situates itself in an actual working restaurant in NYC’s Manhattan Valley neighborhood, and maneuvers through the streets and apartment buildings of the Upper West Side with a kinetic velocity comparable to the Danish Dogme 95 films of Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, as well as the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999), “as if it were shot from the barrel of a gun,” Kent Jones once wrote of the latter.

Baker assumes cinematographic duties, using a MiniDV camera that winds its way into packed kitchen spaces, stairwell and elevator corners, as well as the car-crowded, rain-drenched streets of the city with a comparably gripping urgency and spontaneity. This is something more than a simple narrative; it’s wholly unified documentary and fiction. It’s fragments of an immigrant’s reality as if it were captured by one of deliveryman Ming Ding (Charles Jang)’s coworkers, like his close friend and confidant Young (Jeng-Hua Yu), who understands his present predicament—to repay, in less than 24 hours, a debt to a loan shark who aided in his smuggling from China or face the crushing, recurrent reality of violent retaliation. Young has also struggled to make a life for himself in New York after the same circumstance, physically distant but emotionally connected to his family on the other side of the world.

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With Shih-Ching Tsou as a loyal producer and crew member, Baker has since gone on to direct some of the most absorbing feature films of the 2010s, including Starlet (which seems to have tangentially anticipated Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure last year), Tangerine (shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, this film premiered in Madison with Baker in attendance in 2015), and the universally acclaimed The Florida Project (2017), which brought Baker’s talents to a wider audience. Take Out retains a special place in the microbudget cinema landscape, especially in relaying the significance and humanity of those who work in the food service industry, considering all that’s transpired since the start of the pandemic.

Ahead of Take Out‘s new DCP restoration and presentation at UW Cinematheque on Saturday, October 15, at 7 p.m., as part of the October 13-15 Asian American Media Spotlight on the UW-Madison campus, Baker graciously offered his time to talk with Tone Madison over Zoom. We touched upon everything from the “breaking of the idea” in collaborative writing, documentary editing as writing, the complex hybrid nature of the film’s documentary and narrative aesthetic, Tsou’s upcoming solo directorial debut film Left-Handed Girl that further explores the subjects in Take Out, the logistics and pleasures of being your own cinematographer, taking pride in his casts throughout his 20-plus-year career (and becoming chief casting director on all his subsequent projects), and mulling over distinctions between various film formats.


Tone Madison: At the top here, I just wanted to say thanks for finally pushing me to see the Dardennes’ Rosetta this year. I saw you during your appearance at JM Video in Paris that Konbini Video Club put out this summer. Not being super familiar with the Danish Dogme 95 movement, a noted influence on Take Out, it’s interesting how much the visual style of Take Out reminded me of Rosetta.

Sean Baker: Oh yeah. I think the Dardenne Brothers had hit big right around that time, when we made [Take Out], Rosetta was already out. Then The Child [L’enfant] (2005) had a big influence on us. So if you see visual parallels, it’s because of that.

[…] For some reason, I’m drawn to Von Trier’s style of storytelling, especially in the [Dogme 95] era.

Tone Madison: After I watched your old interview from 2006 that’s on the Criterion disc, I realized that I need to explore more of this movement, because I think unofficially, back when I was getting into film, the closest thing to that was Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). He’s obviously American, so—

Sean Baker: Yeah, to see his take on it. It’s funny, there was this manifesto that set up this style, and it depends on what exactly you’re tackling as a filmmaker and storyteller. With the Danish, they’re very much tackling the human condition and interaction and behavior. Whereas Harmony was tackling the absurdist themes that he’s known for. And with Shih-Ching, we’re using that style to tackle a political landscape in a way. Leaning into the politics slightly. It is interesting the way people latched onto them. It’s an extension of cinéma vérité. The manifesto forced you to stick within a particular style, hoping that would lead to truth, ultimately. And that’s what it’s all about, the pursuit of finding truth in cinema.  

Tone Madison: Take Out is screening here in Madison as part of the Asian American Media Spotlight, so I wanted to particularly spotlight co-direction by Shih-Ching Tsou. It’s also the only feature film you’ve co-directed together, although their other main credits include producer/executive producer on all of your subsequent projects, right?

Sean Baker: Almost all of them. She wasn’t around for Prince Of Broadway (2008).

Tone Madison: Oh, OK. Could you talk a little bit about how you collaborated with Shih-Ching on Take Out, particularly on the writing end, and how that differs from the more comedic films you’ve done with Chris Bergoch? I noticed, actor Wang-Thye Lee, who plays Big Sister, was also a creative consultant as the real manager of the Zhong Hua Chinese restaurant there in Manhattan.

Sean Baker: It’s not really that different from the other collaborations I’ve had. It’s about sharing ideas and making sure you’re on the same page, sensibility-wise. But sometimes co-writing has more to do with the breaking of the idea, you know? How much one person is writing doesn’t really matter. I don’t think that’s truly important. It’s about the breaking of the idea.

Shih-Ching and I essentially came up with this idea together, because we were living above a Chinese restaurant, and we would see deliverymen who shared our stairwell. We were on the third floor, and we’d have to walk down and pass these men who were basically spending time in the stairwell between deliveries. Shih-Ching knows Mandarin; I do not, so she was able to communicate with them. And one day we just thought a day in the life of one of these men would be very interesting, because it would open up literal doors to different dwelling spaces throughout New York. And it would show the melting pot that New York City is.

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That was the first idea. And then, getting into the research, which we do on every film—just understanding the community, and talking with individuals who’ve had that life experience, it revealed to us that there was more to tackle than just your look inside NYC apartments through the eyes of a delivery guy. We understood that some of these men were undocumented immigrants dealing with smuggling debts. That led us down the road to do research on this topic by reading books by experts, understanding the mechanics of smuggling. It became more than what we originally thought, and fleshed it out, and took on different roles. Shih-Ching was able to speak with them in their native language, and really connect with them and gain trust, which is so important.

Taking the information that we had and also our life experiences as New Yorkers, Shih-Ching and I found a plot structure. We try to always break the three-act traditional structure, but still having a beginning, middle, and an end. We came up with a conventional, almost genre approach to our plot, giving our main character a smuggling debt that he was behind on and therefore creating a ticking time bomb in which he had to deliver to stay out of trouble.

So that’s really how it began. We wrote out the script in English, and then Shih-Ching took the script and translated it into Mandarin. From that point on, there was very little improv. Most of my films have on-set improv, which you could say is part of the writing in a way, because as a writer-director, I’m guiding my actors. And I’m being inspired, giving back, and collaborating there to flesh out the script. But in this case, because I could not follow improv, we had to stay pretty tight to the scripted word or I wouldn’t know what was going on.

So much was informed by that first month that Shih-Ching and I spent in the restaurant. This is very much a hybrid film. We’re integrating real life—probably 50 percent of it is real life. We were in that restaurant for one month with a [Sony] PD150 camcorder shooting on MiniDV [tapes with] no lighting. I was just basically documenting. And during that month, we got to observe, on a daily basis, the way that restaurant ran: the cooks, Ms. Lee [Big Sister], the customers, and all those interactions. Going out with the men to see what their deliveries were like. All that [became] our treatment, and we fleshed it out into a screenplay. On top of that, we had the B-roll footage that was incorporated into the fictional stuff that we shot once we brought the actors in.

So the writing process was very convoluted and had multiple stages all the way up to editing. When we were in the edit, it was almost like a rewrite all over again. [laughs] Especially in this sense when we have this documentary-like footage, a documentary editor is essentially the writer as well in my eyes.

There’s always that last part where you know the ultimate—I’m gonna use the word “product”—even though it’s insulting to some, because it reduces it to content.

Tone Madison: “finalproduct.mp4” or something.

Sean Baker: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. The final product is always so different from the initial treatment draft. And I know that could never go down in Hollywood. And with the WGA [Writers Guild Of America], you’re not allowed to change a word on most studio films. You have to go through approval for writers. My films could never be made through the Hollywood system. I’m with the WGA, so I don’t care if I’m actually changing my own words, but if I ever had to direct somebody else’s script—oh my god, I would probably get in trouble with the unions and fired off the set.

Restaurant manager Big Sister (Wang Thye-Lee) takes an order over the phone at the take out restaurant in Manhattan Valley.
Restaurant manager Big Sister (Wang Thye-Lee) takes an order over the phone at the take out restaurant in Manhattan Valley.

Tone Madison: [laughs] You touched on it briefly—about the research you did for this. In the interviews I saw, you cite two texts, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants And American Labor that I think was published in 1997 and Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration To The United States, and that was in 1999. Have you done any further research, either you or Shih-Ching, or come across stories about a perceived or changing immigrant experience in the last 18 years or so?

Sean Baker: Of course we did a little bit of a follow-up in all our talks about Take Out ever since [its release], just to know where we’re at in terms of immigration numbers, how smuggling fees have changed, and just keeping our eyes on it. But no, I don’t think we’ve done any deep dive. Peter Kwong, the writer of Forbidden Workers, unfortunately passed away [in 2017]. Somebody should do an in-depth follow-up, especially with how politicized the immigration policies have become as of late. Short answer, no.

Tone Madison: Maybe I have the answer to this, but I was thinking further about that, and [I wondered if] you had any intention to return to this sort of subject matter, this subculture, in a way that you sort of did with Red Rocket (2021) in relation to Starlet (2012)?

Sean Baker: Maybe, you never know. Oh, well, no, actually—Shih-Ching, after 17 years, had the opportunity to make her solo directorial debut. It’s called Left-Handed Girl. It was just shot in Taipei a month and a half ago. I’m editing it. I co-wrote it with her those 17 years ago. That’s how long it took. We couldn’t get funding for a very long time. I think the success of my follow-up [features] opened the door for her to get funding.

And so, we cover the subject in that film as sort of a subplot. And we do it in a semi-comedic way. So it’s something we haven’t abandoned. We talk about Chinese immigration through Taiwan, actually. It is a subject we continue to explore in different ways. But I’m very proud of her and excited for people to see her film. I wasn’t on set, as I’ve been in prep on my new film, so I wasn’t able to be in Taiwan watching this. It’s almost surreal. This is the first time I’ve written something where I’m not present during production, and now I’m seeing all the footage. I’m like, “Oh, that’s how [Shih-Ching] decided to take on that scene. That’s how she cast it.” That’s news that not many people know, that she has this film that is going to premiere sometime within the next year.

Tone Madison: Yeah, that’s very exciting. Thanks for sharing. During the new Criterion interview, you do mention that in passing. You don’t say what it is exactly or the title.

Sean Baker: It’s a family drama—dramedy, as we normally do, based in the night markets of Taipei.

Tone Madison: My next question is a slightly off-topic from filmmaking, but I thought it’d be interesting to bring up. I don’t know how often Take Out is written about or acknowledged as a timeless film, but its relevance has remained steady through the last 18-plus years. In a specific way, empathetically showing the breakneck pace of the food service industry, and the hardship that can exist outside the jobs of the people who are part of it. Charles Jang has some illuminating comments in one of the interviews on that new Criterion disc as well.

To me, that importance is related to the changes that have transpired since the start of the pandemic in terms of food delivery and staffing. Have you thought about Take Out in relation to that? I don’t know if you have anything to share—you’re not living in New York currently, right?

Sean Baker: No, I’m not. I live in Los Angeles, but Shih-Ching lives in New York, and she has informed me of certain things. But yeah, just in general, COVID-19 transformed the gig economy. We have people from all walks of life working in the gig economy. I consider deliverymen and people who were working in the service industry to be essentially front-liners. They were the most exposed, the most vulnerable to the pandemic. So, think about that and how they had to deal with this. The world was very reliant on them, and yet still not truly acknowledging their importance and their contribution to society. So, yes, that’s obviously why it’s remained relevant and timely in a way—not due to what we thought. We always thought it would remain timely simply because the world changes so slowly, and we would still be dealing with the plight of the undocumented immigrant 17 years later. But we didn’t know about this pandemic that would really shine a new light on the subject.

Tone Madison: To shift back into filmmaking again, it sounds like the process of putting the film together, with the B-roll you shot in the Zhong Hua kitchens and the restaurant front with Ms. Lee, plus the narrative portion with Ming Ding’s character, was a unique experience. Do you know how many hours in total you shot in the restaurant, and how many takes you did with the main actors, like Charles Jang and Jeng-Hua Yu [who plays Young]?

It would maybe compare it to something like Primer that came out around the same time. That film had a similar budget of just a few thousand dollars. They just did like one take with the actors, but maybe that’s not the case with your film.

Sean Baker: Yeah, I guess you could draw parallels, definitely. When you’re working with no money, you have to be lean and mean. But, we were [shooting on] MiniDV, and so even when you have no money, MiniDV is not costly. So we could let the camera roll for a very long time. I like to be disciplined. With the scripted takes, let’s say, I don’t think my ratio has ever changed. It’s the same with digital as it is with 16 or 35. It’s approximately five or six takes. Sometimes it’s 20 takes, and sometimes it’s one take, but there’s an average of around six takes. Just getting it right. We were working a little bit slower because of the fact that sometimes I would need to do playback with Shih-Ching in the moment so we could go over the script, [matching] the English and Mandarin. I could be like, “Okay, we covered that line. Good. We covered that line.” I would have to play it back and be assured that we got everything that was scripted. That was a weird process.

But to answer your first question about the amount of hours, I think there’s approximately 56 MiniDV tapes. That’s about 56 hours. Sometimes the tapes weren’t completely used, but let’s just average it out around 50 hours. We had a lot to work with. A lot of that, perhaps 10 hours of it, was probably just random documentary footage. That’s close-ups of hands turning on the stove, broccoli being thrown into a wok. I was just amassing as much as possible knowing that I could incorporate that into the fiction.

Tone Madison: Yeah, that’s a lot. I don’t know how that differs or is the same from—it sounds like the number of takes has stayed the same. Anyway, it would be different according to the film that you’re making. [laughs]

Sean Baker: Exactly. We were documenting some of the real interactions between customers and Ms. Lee. What we had was a mic’d countertop, and Ms. Lee had a lavalier on her, a hidden mic. Some of those interactions were 100% real. And then would approach the person right after, when they left the shop, and said, “We actually caught that all on camera. Do you mind signing this release form? You’re in a small little indie.” Sometimes they’d sign it right away; sometimes they’d want to know more information; sometimes they’d actually want to watch the shot. Whatever it took, you know?

Some of those interactions were also set up. And we told Ms. Lee this. We said, “Over the next few weeks, we may have a few hidden-camera moments where you’re not aware the customer is an actor.” And that was interesting. For example, during that first month when we were in the take out, we observed that every night someone usually came in with a bunch of coins and would want dollar bills. It just was the thing. It would be so annoying for Ms. Lee, and we’d see her roll her eyes every time someone would walk in with a bag of change. And yet she was nice and wanted to keep customers happy, so she would do it. We knew we were near the end of the film and hadn’t caught one right, so we cast somebody for that role. And we told him exactly what to do. That whole scene, where he drops all the coins on [the counter], Ms. Lee wasn’t informed until after the fact that was all [set up]. So there’s a lot of hybrid stuff going on, in both directions.

Tone Madison: That’s fantastic. All those permutations, if that’s the right word. People being aware of things, or not being aware. Or there’s full awareness on both sides.

Sean Baker: And of course, obviously we want to respect all the individuals involved in the film. So if a person [said], “No, I don’t want to be seen on camera” or “No, I’m not okay with this,” we would not include that. We would be very respectful and say “sorry” and move on. I don’t think Take Out had one instance of someone saying, “No, you don’t have permission.” We ran into that with Tangerine, because that’s shot in Los Angeles, which is an industry town. People are way more aware of how films are made, and the profit that might be able to come from them. We had some people on the bus saying, “Uh uh, sorry.” And we were like, “We just shot this whole scene. Please!” With Take Out, everybody was quite enthusiastic about the film being made in the shop.

Tone Madison: There’s another conversation to be had about public filming. There’s a little more than a decade between Tangerine and Take Out, right? Between filming in 2003 versus 2014. Everybody’s filming in public now. Twitch streams, IRL streams, and people walking around cities with cameras with a live chat. Things like that.

Sean Baker: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s probably more of an acceptance these days of almost anybody capturing your image on the street in a public space.

Tone Madison: I’m pretty shy about it, honestly. [laughs] But I just accept it.

Sean Baker: Right. I think there’s some statistic—when you’re in New York City, you’re always on camera. No matter where you are, you’re on some camera. Whether it’s a CCTV, traffic cam, or somebody’s iPhone, your image is always being captured.

Coworkers Ming Ding (Charles Jang) and Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) kneel outside the Chinese restaurant, reflecting on their past and present outlooks.
Coworkers Ming Ding (Charles Jang) and Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) kneel outside the Chinese restaurant, reflecting on their past and present outlooks.

Tone Madison: Next question is appropriately about cinematography. You’re credited as cinematographer on some episodes of Greg The Bunny, but this was your first time acting as your own DP [director of photography] in a feature. What were some of the initial pleasures but also stressors of manning the camera? Was it a logistical thing, or was there more behind the decision to do that?

Sean Baker: Many of the decisions on almost all my films stem from financial reasons. I couldn’t afford a DP. Knowing the nature of how we were shooting, where it was basically just the two of us [Shih-Ching and I, living together] crawling out of bed, getting our camera, and then going to the shop and shooting. We didn’t have a traditional schedule. It occupied our every day. So I couldn’t expect that from a third crew member. Shih-Ching and I basically had to do everything in order to pull this off with actor Charles Jang sometimes helping us carry something or fake some rain here or there. Or even a boom pull, I believe he helped us with once. For logistical and financial reasons, I couldn’t hire a DP. And plus, on top of that, what I was shooting wasn’t that complicated. I was shooting on MiniDV tape, and because of the nature of video, you didn’t have to light. I mean, I was enhancing some lights [but minorly]. I put a fluorescent in the back of the restaurant, and tweaked the light in the bathroom a little bit. For the most part, though, I’m using natural lighting.

In terms of my skill, it didn’t have to be on the level of DPs I’ve worked with ever since. Like Alexis Zabé [on The Florida Project] and Drew Daniels [on Red Rocket]. I can’t pull that off. I shot the follow-up to Take Out, Prince Of Broadway, and I co-shot Tangerine. But again, I was using equipment that was very user-friendly.

I also want to say that it’s an extremely stressful job. You’re dealing with focus and exposure. And while you’re trying to direct, it’s really difficult. It’s actually a distraction some of the times when you should be focusing on performance and content. And you’re focusing on whether or not you have the right F-stop. I don’t recommend it. Although, it seems like Paul Thomas Anderson and [Steven] Soderbergh are able to do it. But I’ve worked with incredible DPs who bring me stuff that I could never bring to the table, so I’m good working in that way.

Oh, I do want to say one more thing about the shooting. Especially when it comes to a docustyle, the way that Take Out, Prince, and even Tangerine were shot, being the fact that I’m the director, or as with Take Out one of the two directors, it was a very personal vision. I was basically just spinning the camera and focusing on what I wanted to look at in the moment. That’s why I like to do camera operation. Even with my new films, I sometimes do camera operation, because I want my gaze, simple as that. I’m making my film; I’m telling the story, especially if it’s handheld [camera] and sort of finding the subject within the frame. Finding the focal point. It has to come from what I’m interested in. So, that aspect of cinematography I enjoy.

Tone Madison: The casting in all your films is pretty distinctive. Even back when this was made, you were ahead of the curve in using more unorthodox methods like Craigslist to cast some of Take Out, including the apartment-dwellers in the delivery locations around the Upper West Side. Is there more pressure these days for you to change that process, or do you find the opposite to be true?

Sean Baker: There’s more pressure to retain control of that. I’ve actually come to the realization that cast is everything. The right combination of actors and the strength of the actors is the most important thing for films.

I’m not the type of director who’s like—I have a problem, honestly, with every frame of every shot of every scene of every film I’ve ever made. I don’t understand when a director can be like, “I love my film. It’s genius!” I’m like, “Okay!” [laughs] I’m always thinking I’m lesser than. I’m never feeling like I’ve actually even come close to achieving what other directors have achieved. But the one thing that I’m proud about, with all my films, is my casts. I really feel like there are few weak links in any of my casts. It’s because I found incredible people. I’ve been lucky to have such strong personas and such intelligent, talented people. They could be first-timers or they could be extremely seasoned like Willem Dafoe [in The Florida Project]. But I’ve been surrounded by incredible performers over the years—thespians. I take that very seriously, and now I am the chief casting director on all my films. I’ve already been primarily casting anyway, so that’s another role that I’ve now been selfish about. I’m taking on casting credit from Red Rocket onward. Because I’ve been so involved with casting 99% of my previous films.

So, with Take Out, it’s really kind of what taught us the way. We didn’t have the means to hire a casting director, so we had to do it ourselves. And this is 2004, so this is before social media. Social media has helped me out tremendously, as you know. Bria Vinaite [Halley in The Florida Project] comes from Instagram. Red Rocket, even, with Simon [Rex]. The reason I brought Simon on was because I fell in love with him again on social media. But Take Out was before that. So we had to rely on Craigslist and other ways of finding this cast.

But it was just about taking the time. It’s about matching the correct personas together. You have to see how much you’re actually typecasting, and how much [an actor] can just take on a character. That comes with different levels of experience. I consider acting the hardest job, and I’m in awe of actors who are able to do that and just become other people or even themselves. Because I know I can’t do that. As you might see on the Criterion disc, I look at myself in that one deleted scene, and I’m like, “That’s the worst background acting I’ve ever seen!” [laughs] So I have so much respect for actors.

Tone Madison: You’re talking about the scene where you’re coming out of your car, and Charles Jang is supposed to hit you [on his bicycle]?

Sean Baker: Yeah, I can see the artifice just looking at that.

Tone Madison: No, I mean, it’s fine. It wasn’t included in the film, but it seemed great to include on this release to watch.

This next question is kind of about format, which you talked about in the 2006 interview—about how people perceive reality. Shooting something on digital or video, people associate that with reality [and verisimilitude, believability, and audience engagement]. If scale is important to your modus operandi, have you envisioned how you’d ever shoot something in IMAX? What sort of innovation would you bring to something on a grander scale if you had to do that?

Sean Baker: That’s interesting. I love film, as you’ve probably seen from my posts. I’m a big supporter of celluloid. Even with Take Out and Prince Of Broadway, those films that originated on video—for the reasons you just said—giving the audience the feeling that they’re watching captured video, security camera type of footage, and hidden camera stuff. Even with those films—I’m a formalist. I do believe that celluloid brings something that you can’t really define or articulate, because it’s a sensation that you get from watching an organic, physical material and having light shine through it. The flicker, the inconsistency, and the imperfections. That’s what I think brings life to those images. Even with Take Out and Prince Of Broadway, in restoration, we went through a process of going out to film and back again. So it’s retaining the raw video feel while also giving it a final polish that says, “This is a film.” There’s a balance.

Back in 2004, we were watching a standard definition file. It was never what we wanted it to be. And what’s great about this new release is that we were able to go through the process that the Dogme 95 films went through [originating on low-end standard definition video but being transferred to 35mm], and the process that we felt completed the movie and put it in a presentable form. Going through this extra stage, I don’t think it, in any way, takes away from the authenticity or rawness; it just presents it to you a little more formally. It’s a hard subject to talk about, because it’s all subjective, but I hope you know what I’m going for.

Tone Madison: I was just curious, to pitch a fun question like what you’d do if you were shooting something in IMAX or if you ever would find yourself in that position?

Sean Baker: I look at 35 as a great standard for achieving big-screen visuals. I’ve never felt the need for 70mm or IMAX. I totally respect when Jordan Peele and [Paul Thomas Anderson] want to go there. Good for you guys. But for me, one of the most beautifully shot films ever, is The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966). It’s a Technoscope film, cropped 35, so it’s actually almost the resolution of 16mm if you think about it. That’s good enough for me on the big screen. It’s crisp and beautiful. So I don’t find a need to look at these huge formats and want to get there. But I do look at 35 as the gold standard.

I’m shooting the next film on 35, because I have the means to do it, and because I’m trying to help Kodak stay in business, quite honestly. It really scares me that we may lose this medium. But, according to Kodak, they’re doing quite well right now with 16 being shot for commercials. There’s probably 90% of filmgoers who don’t see a difference, but there is a small percentage who do see the difference. As long as those people exist—

Tone Madison: Yeah, we have a privilege here at the UW Cinematheque. You actually came here to present Tangerine in 2015, I guess. They show 35mm prints often in that theater. And across the street at the Chazen Museum Of Art, they specialize in showing 35.

Sean Baker: The upcoming screening of Take Out will be a DCP. However, we are making 35mm prints, so maybe someday Take Out will come back there in 35. We do have a 35 of Tangerine that’s circulating. That’s really incredible to see the iPhone 5S footage go to 35. No doubt about it, it elevates it.

Tone Madison: Is there anything else you can tell me about what you’re working on next? I don’t know what you can and cannot say.

Sean Baker: Let’s just say I’m sticking in my wheelhouse. I’m not going too much bigger, intentionally, because we’ve noticed—even though we sometimes beat ourselves up about it—the limitations lead to things we could never have dreamt of. So, even if it sometimes requires forced limitations, that’s the way to go.

I am shooting in February, fingers crossed. So hopefully it’ll be out in the world within a year and a half. But more importantly, right now, Shih-Ching’s film is in post[-production]. And that should be out even sooner. Knock on wood, it gets into a good festival and gets a good run.

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At a time when Madison is going through a lot of change, we want Tone Madison to be something you can count on. You can rely on us to spotlight the artists, musicians, and ideas that make up the fabric of our city. You can rely on us to challenge the status quo with inventive, adversarial journalism, including our coverage of abortion rights, housing, and labor. 

 

But here's the thing: reader support is crucial our survival. We'll keep writing the articles you love (or love to hate) for as long as we can—but we need your help to keep our small, independent publication going.

 

If you make a new monthly donation today, NewsMatch will match it 24x! Will you help us continue to tell Madison's stories?

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