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17th June 2016
Magic in Slab City
Title of film: Kenzo, Snowbird
Director: Sean Baker
Production Company: 3DMC2 & Cre Film
As part of the judging panel for the Berlin Fashion Film Festival, 1 .4 whooped with joy when we first saw this film, Snowbird, for Kenzo. It was longer than most entries, but seemed shorter. It had a fresh intriguing narrative that held up to the end frame. And it looked good, with a mix of intimate close-ups and aerial sweeps tracing the lead, Abbey Lee, as she delivers her cake to her fellow occupants of Slab City. The sound and music for Snowbird also contributed to giving the film its distinctive original feel.

The wow factor rose even more when we learnt the director was Sean Baker who famously shot the transgender feature Tangerine on an i-phone –  mainly because of budget restrictions – and directed one of our even more favourite movies Starlet.    So of course our highlight of the festival was getting to talk with Sean Baker’s sister, Stephonik Youth, who’d flown over to pick up the gold award, and who has worked with the director on most of his films, doing anything and everything but most of all making those characteristic soundtrack and production design.

 

1.4: What are Sean and you currently working on?

Stephonik Youth: We’re about to start shooting the The Florida Project. It follows a seven-year old girl and group of her friends who get up to all kinds of adventures during their summer break, dealing with life but still finding magic in it, while their parents work in the hotels around Disneyland, families who are under the poverty line and are struggling with hard times. Again it’s Sean’s style of using actors and non-actors.

Will this film be shot on iPhone too?

Stephonik Youth: There’s private investment for this film, so it will be shot on 35mm, it will elevate the look… he’s got a full crew and cinematographer, the guy, Alexis Zabe, who shot Snowbird is also shooting The Florida Project.

Sean’s such a cinephile, he never really liked the idea of shooting on iPhone, it was more because of budget restrictions… but because the people he was shooting In Tangerine were used to taking selfies, using iPhones became less intimidating. I love the way Tangerine looks, it’s relevant.

I loved Starlet about the young porn actress and her friendship with an old woman… he’s so good at writing about relationships outside of the normal clichés.

Stephonik Youth: And then he did Take Out – that was another example of part of the culture you wouldn’t really be able to get so close to – it follows a Chinese take-out person and people think it’s a documentary but it’s not.

Wasn’t Starlet big budget and a studio film?

Stephonik Youth: No….and Take Out was really small, like $4,000.

I’m so inspired by Sean still… even though we have the weird brother / sister thing sometimes. He always had the passion of filmmaking but he really picked a niche, I think that he’s got such a strong voice for realistic portrayal of subcultures that you wouldn’t usually be introduced to.

What was your childhood like?

Stephonik Youth: Up and down, like any childhood, but pretty magical. Our mom was a teacher and she introduced us to so many things … Sean talks about how she would take him to the library to rent Super 8 films so for him early Boris Karloff and Frankinstein stuff would inspire him. And she was always telling us to look at that, listen to this.  Our parents who’re still together are curious, they encouraged us to work together…

Tell me more about Snowbird for Kenzo, how did that come about?

Stephonik Youth: Sean was approached through Black Frame Productions, the creative director there showed Tangerine to Kenzo and they were right on board, they gave us so much freedom, apart from Sean wanting some of the characters to smoke – he said in Europe they wouldn’t care – but Kenzo said No.

And you did the music on Snowbird…

… and production design.

I mixed it in the bedroom, I had very little budget so I mixed it myself.

What was that sound effect over the birthday cake…

Stephonik Youth: I was playing around on a Glockenspiel – well I was staying in an Airbnb after we wrapped so I just sat there and did it by myself and thought I could mix it back in Europe and … I wanted something to sound like time – because of the reversals of ages – so I wanted it to sound like something spinning.

The script for Snowbird has a spontaneous feeling of ad-libbing  although the central girl character is a model isn’t she?

Stephonik Youth: No, her name is Abbey Lee and right before that she was in Mad Max. It’s been interesting to see the evolution of what Sean has been able to do, like he’s cast and had people help him cast more interesting people and do things that we could never do before.

Characters like Mary Woronov, the woman at the end of Snowbird, was in Rock and Roll High School, she’s from Andy Warhol days, and then the older gentleman who plays Bob has had a long career so Sean is having such fun right now because he can finally ask for help and get it and be creative in a different way, like we’re still doing what we did but it’s exaggerated. We’re so blessed to grow up in the way we did and still play… right? Isn’t that like the dream?

Where did you find the characters, were some already living in the trailer park? And what is his method for working with non-professional actors?

Stephonik Youth: The location is called Slab City and it’s an old military base, it’s completely free to live there, there’s no electricity, no water, half of the year there are snowbirds – they travel from cold areas, and other times of the year it’s so hot, it gets to about 120 degrees, so those people, like the man with the dreds and the rocket, he lives there 365.

Sean is such a good researcher, he’d go down to Slab City weeks before we were shooting and just show up and talk with people, bring them coffee because there’re no stores… and he’d find the characters who were the most magical and then he would play with ideas of using a celebrity who would fit in with the actors based in that world.

We met the main woman character towards the end of scouting, she was in a supermarket, and we told her about it and she was so excited but we didn’t tell her much about the script, it actually wasn’t fully formed.  When she was talking with Abbey Lee  – because we’d mentioned there’s this Bob character – she said “You should visit Bob” and Abbey asked “Why should I visit Bob?” and she said “Well you love him” – along those lines – and we went with it. She wrote this one thing that really cemented our kind of thoughts…

So that’s what Sean’s style is, he makes people really comfortable and then they spark something and he’ll say no go further, go further with that, and all of a sudden it’s like a whole new scene…

He’s really good at pulling things out and forming characters with non-professional actors. It’s the same thing he was doing when he was 10, like knowing all the neighbourhood kids because he’d make them be in his films so he’s been doing this for so long….

I really liked that the Bob character doesn’t turn out to be some cool dude …

Stephonik Youth: Yes that would have been weird. We were thinking about how the film is about the power of perception and then we came across this graffiti saying Power of Perception in the trailer that we were reusing so there was real synchronicity, a real code we were following.

Do you find there’s synchronicity on most of Sean’s projects?

Stephonik Youth: Yes because I think he trusts himself now, and surrounds himself…. I dunno, his energy people can feel it, there’re leaps of faith.

I worked on another adventure with him called Prince of Broadway which was the film before Starlet and we met so many people who are still in our lives and are also going to be in the Florida Project.

And never stereotypical characters.. like in Starlet, the old woman, she was brilliant… she died soon after the film was released didn’t she?

Stephonik Youth: Yes. She always wanted to be an actress and that was her first role, and she died knowing that she’d achieved that, they’d found her in a YMCA.

Did a lot of Snowbird evolve in the edit?

Stephonik Youth: Sean edited it, he’s an amazing editor and I think that’s part of the magic… He gets a little crazy because he gets obsessed and thinks it’s not happening then it does and he does a million versions, so definitely, he can shape stuff, it’s in his hands …

Does Sean write the scripts himself?

Stephonik Youth: He wrote Tangerine with Chris Bergoch who is also writing The Florida Project with him and then sometimes it’s more of a scriptment, and then we work with the cast like in Snowbird.

This film coming up is the first union job we’ve done so we’re very aware that we have to preserve what we’ve been doing and not get too precious.

Incidentally, was Tangerine a planned reaction to the growing transgender awareness?

Stephonik Youth: No, as I was saying about his research…  it was all about his neighbourhood, he picked a part of his neighbourhood that was colourful, and hadn’t been seen in Hollywood films and he just met the people and it came alive and it just happened … it just exploded when the film came out, he just had his finger on the pulse, it wasn’t contrived.

The Florida Project is a union job but is it with a studio or is it still independent ?

Stephonik Youth: It’s independent, with June Pictures. I’m sort of overwhelmed because when I worked on Prince of Broadway I was doing everything myself like shopping for all the props for the set design and now I have a prop master and a set dresser and I’m a little bit anxious, well I want to be honest and keep it organic and I don’t have that much experience in telling people what to do but we’re all going to learn together …

 

 

Credits

KENZO Spring-Summer 2016 collection, Snowbird
Director : Sean Baker
Production company : 3DMC2 & Cre Film