Interview: Director Sean Baker

Director Sean Baker (Starlet, Greg The Bunny) talks about the impact of soundtrack choices in his work – including his acclaimed 2015 film “Tangerine”. Hear the episode here
JoE:  I wanted to start off by asking you if when you pick music, or when the music is being selected for films, [is it] sometimes the case where you might pick a track based on what that character might be listening to, or what you feel they might listen to in their car opposed to what might just cut nicely?

Sean Baker: Well not in this particular case. With Tangerine I was looking to actually switch it up a bit with what they call contamination [which is] a mixture of eclectic music tracks that don’t exactly match the sound or the contents of the film. I think we are doing this because the film has a culture clash going on in it, and I wanted that to be represented in the music. So in this case it was more about style of the scene, and allowing the energy of the scene to dictate what sort of music I would be going for here.

JoE: I‘m curious from sort of an industry perspective – do you think that films sometimes, like big budget films strive to create or insert music into a film just because they know it’s going to sell a soundtrack. I don’t know if Guardians of the Galaxy is a good example, but that was certainly a successful released soundtrack.

Sean Baker: Perhaps. To be honest I’m not as enamored with soundtracks as I used to be. When I was growing up, the soundtracks that stuck with me [were] the really heavily scored films of the 80s. These days, I’m not really as drawn. So, I’m not sure if I’m really recognizing stunt scoring as much. I see what you mean with Guardians [of the Galaxy], but I’m not sure how much of that we are looking for these days.

JoE: I really enjoyed watching Starlet and it seemed to me that the music of the film played differently in terms that music doesn’t punctuate scenes as hard as maybe it does in Tangerine. Is that something you are conscious of?

Sean Baker: Most definitely. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even think there was going to be any music in Tangerine. I told my producers, “Don’t budget for music.” This is weird, with scores and with soundtracks, I truly love films that have really strong in-your-face, present score soundtracks, but, at the same time, I also like the films that are able to deliver the emotional punch without the relation of music. So, I’m torn. I’m trying to make the films that don’t fall into that manipulative tool, but at the same time it was just calling me with Tangerine. It was required with Tangerine. So I said I wanted it to be very subtle, almost nonexistent with Starlet. With Starlet, I only have one track that is repeated several times by a wonderful musician by the name Manuel. There’s this one track that repeats itself, and that was it. With Tangerine I have like thirty tracks of different musical tracks. So, I have to say, it depends; It’s film-to-film, case-by-case. I made this up from my co-director film called Take Out, which had no score whatsoever. So, it’s each individual film really tells me, especially during post production, what it wants in terms of how it wanted to be scored.

JoE: I was going to say, the track by Manuel that’s in Starlet, kind of serves as a theme. Were you just drawn to that as a piece of music or did you think there was some connectivity between the way it’s used in the tone of the music?

Sean Baker: It’s one of those things where it happens almost every time out where if you search long enough and hard enough you’ll find that one track that’s already produced just really fits with the cuts already made. It just drops right in. It was written for your film. That’s happened with “Prince of Broadway”, “Boards of Canada” song, Starlet with a Manuel song. Many of the tracks that i’ve found with Tangerine just seemed to automatically drop in; it’s like serendipity. When that happens, you don’t understand what it’s like for a film maker to feel – so joyous in that moment, so, “I found it. I can take the rest of the day off. I don’t have to edit.” It’s just a wonderful feeling.

JoE: A lot of people made a big deal about the way Tangerine was shot, and the way you kept the budget kind of low. I’m curious, when you were able to draw back your production costs, did it occur to you that you might have more money for licensing for music once you decided that you were actually going to use music?

Sean Baker: No. Everything about Tangerine was about coming in on budget. We had a very small budget to work with. So, everything about Tangerine comes with the limitations. I think ultimately it helped us, but even in post production, I didn’t think we had any money left at all, so I didn’t think we were going to have any music. What happened was, I was editing one of the opening scenes, and I thought I was going to use this sound-scape location sound, a big sound design, based on the location sounds of the location. But, what happened is one night, I was watching this Vine video (I was addicted to that app) and this Viner by the name of WolfTyla, 18 year old out of New York City, she’s a musician herself, she would post these six-second videos and usually it was just her dancing to some hip hop music, but one particular night she posted six seconds of this trap track, and it was this trap music which is a genre of hip hop. When I heard these six seconds, I swear from that point on I knew what Tangerine was going to be. It called to me; it said, “this is the sound of Tangerine.” So what I did is I immediately jumped online and found out what the track was through some message boards, and I found that there were these two 17-year-old DJs out of Newark, New Jersey – DJ Light Up and DJ Heemie. I contacted them through SoundCloud, and they said, “Yeah, our track is original, no samples, you can use it if you’d like.” [They were] very generous. So, that dictated the entire sound of the soundtrack. From that point on, I used SoundCloud to find different tracks of music in the trap genre, and that became the backbone of the movie. We got to a certain part in the film in which we’d throw in a Beethoven track, and that sort of allowed me to become more eclectic. So, it started with Trap and then eventually getting to this Beethoven, and then Beethoven just opened doors for us to use Jazz, Electronica, Moroccan Belly dancing – everything. But, I have to say from the bottom of my heart, I have to thank WolfTyla so much for posting that, because if that wasn’t posted, and I didn’t see it that fateful night, this would’ve been a very different movie. I reached out to her manager so many times, [and] they have the film, [but] I haven’t heard anything back from her, but I’m pretty sure she knows about it.

JoE: When you get into a post production situation where you find that magic number or that magic track, are you the kind of person is willing to pay maybe stretch a budget or go the extra nine yards to make sure that you have that song able to you?

Sean Baker: Yes I am. It’s happened with every film. There are even some tracks in Tangerine that I had to pay more for than others. But, the thing is is that you get married them. you really get married and it’s very difficult to swap them out with different music. you get married and then it’s all about going to your producers and begging for the extra few thousand dollars it takes to buy the track. I have to say though, working with Boards of Canada, working with Manuel, and then all these wonderful independent recording artists. everybody has been really generous and allowing us to license their music for way under what they would normally license their tracks for.

JoE: That’s great. I know that it’s it’s Matthew Smith, the music producer. since you’ve worked with him before, can you talk a little bit about how in general you do work with a music supervisor and why?

Sean Baker: Sure, because I’m the editor of my own films, I’m usually the one  actually choosing the tracks and looking for them. Sometimes I need help and I’ll reach out to my music supervisor for that. In this case Matthew came on and did us a huge favor working with our budget which was basically nothing. basically music supervisors are your liaison. they know how to approach artists [and how to] negotiate, etc. Plus, they know how to take care of the legal side of things. So in this case with tangerine I was editing at night and using SoundCloud and other platforms to find this track. I contacted Mathew and I said “this one cleared and this one cleared. Can we start the process?” And that’s how that really happened. I’ve worked in the past with music producers in the past and I hope to get back to that. I know that people like Mathew Smith are really talented in that area, it’s just that in this case we couldn’t pay him enough to be actually looking for the stuff. This was something that would really come to me at 3 AM in the morning. I edit at night so most of these tracks were being found in the middle of the night, and as I found them, I was editing the scenes to the beat of the track. So, it was really about having Mathew Smith back there to help us after-the-fact. I don’t want to downplay his role. You need a music supervisor for all the contractual obligations – the legality of everything. So, he’s also a bouncing board. You can pass stuff by him to see what he thinks, and perhaps he’ll say, “Well, this one doesn’t work, but, I have something similar, and let’s try this one instead by this other artist.” So, usually with these independent films you try to take on everything by yourself, but you really do need  a support system and a team around you.

JoE: Some of the music, for instance in Starlet, that I went to after I watched it, is hard to find, or is not really out there. I’m curious because you talked about how you can get attached to a piece of music. Does it bug you that maybe someone who has heard something in a film is not accessible or available after the fact? Do you feel like its a piece with the movie, or do you accept the fact that if they really like this they are just going to have to go back and watch that scene again?”

Sean Baker: I’m torn on that one as well because I have to say, one of my favorite films ever, Harold and Maude – Hal Ashby, the soundtrack wasn’t available. Cat Stevens only wanted it available through the movie, and then years later the stuff in the dark came out and you could get all those tracks. I was such a happy person when that happened. So, for my films I hope that people like these songs – On Tangerine we have approximately fifteen out of twenty of our tracks just because we ran out of room and we have to be selective. But, there have been people who have reached out to us on the social network platforms like Twitter asking, “hey, this track really stuck with me, but it’s not on your soundtrack. Could you give me the link? Can you tell me who it is?” And we do. We try to be very supportive of the artists who are so generous to us, so we try to get their names out there so people who are interested can ask us. On top of that, for the liner notes, I wrote for Milan Records, who put the Tangerine soundtrack out, I actually wrote a nice little directors note that you can get in both the digital and the CD that’s going to be released in January. What I did is I said there are these other tracks that aren’t included on the soundtrack, but are also the sound of Tangerine, and you can seek them out if you are interested. I gave all of the artists’ names and their contact info. So, thank you for bringing that up, because it is important for me and for people who do really connect with this music and it seems like people are connecting to the music out there and they can find these artists.

JoE: For instance, the opening is sort of this 40s track, and the opening scene track wasn’t on the official soundtrack for Tangerine, so I was curious..”

Sean Baker: Exactly. But, I think that one is not the hardest to find. That’s actually quite an easy one to find, it’s just that we had to license it from universal, so it was probably the most expensive track. It’s a version of “Toy land,” which is actually preformed by Harry Horlick and his orchestra. I believe it’s approximately 1938, and that’s out there and you can find it very easily.

JoE: Going back to the “Leonor Overture” by Beethoven that you mentioned before, which cuts right into a piece of electronic music – can you talk a little about how that transition worked for you in your head and in the edit and why you did it that way?

Sean Baker: Well, It’s the first time in the film in which we slow down a little bit; we actually take a breath. Something was telling me that I should not be using trap music in that scene. The way that it was actually shot, the camera also settles down. I thought, let me look for something else. Again, it’s always about finding the cheapest thing, right?, because you have no budget on these things. I went out there looking for public domain classical music thinking that it would be a nice little marriage there. I found this Overture, and when I looked on Wikipedia to see what it meant, what he was writing about, the theme of the overture, it worked so well in the context of the film.

JoE: Once I found out what it was, I agree with you. The theme for the piece totally marries with what the character was going through in terms of…

Sean Baker: Yes. It was written for the 1804 tragedy. It represents Coriolanus and his resolve and tendencies. He’s about to go to war and he’s being talked out of going to war and he’s contemplating whether or not he should go to war. It’s about this ancient Roman leader who’s actually contemplating whether or not he should go to war, and that is exactly what is almost going on in the scene. So, again it was like serendipity. It was one of those things that seemed to fit perfectly; It fell in, and the tempo of this overture seemed to work perfectly with the cuts I had already made in this scene. Then, when I went to Wikipedia and discovered the theme behind this overture and the fact that it was about this…

JoE: I think I know what you’re saying. That was the moment that she decided it was “Game On.” and that she was really going to track down this other rival and the boyfriend’s affection.

Sean Baker: Exactly. The theme of this overture is this ancient Roman leader who is contemplating whether or not he should go to war. It’s exactly what Cindy is going through at that moment at the bus stop. So, when I read that [and] when I understood that that was the actual theme of the overture, I said, “how can I not use this? This is so perfect.” So, I put that there, and then I wanted to bring us back into the world of Tangerine. So I did my own little DJ-ing there where I crossfaded, going from our classical track to our trap music. I’m proud of that moment. Again, it’s one of those things where limitations sometimes open doors – [when] the happy accident that you’re not expecting would come your way.

JoE: The scene where Cindy and Dinah are in the bathroom smoking at the club [is] where we got to hear the “Dream of the Unknown Visitor.” It’s a very tender moment. Was that a way of humanizing their relationship?

Sean Baker: Most definitely. At first that scene was fit for dialog. There was something telling me after many takes of that, that dialog wasn’t necessary. We could get a lot more done through expression and actions. In post production, by that scene I had already made the decision to make this quite score heavy, and it needed something. It would bring things down a little bit. In my personal music taste, I fall towards Shoe Gaze, and I fall more towards ambient music, and that was just the one part where I could not help myself. I needed that melodic, slowing down, almost sweet sounding score for that scene just to bring us into the world of these two individuals who are both going through a lot. [These are] two characters who probably don’t have many people around them. They have to latch on to whoever is close by, and so I wanted a sweet moment. I wanted a humanizing moment. Again, it’s not only score, but it’s also the wonderful performance of Kiki Rodriguez and Mickey O’Hagan. Actually, I bring that track back again at the end of the film, and it’s funny because on the festival circuit I get to talk a lot with filmmakers about certain choices, and you’re always wondering if you’ve pushed it too far in certain areas. With my films, I don’t want over sensitivity. I want the emotions to come to performance and through script. I don’t really want these manipulative tools to shape our emotions. At the same time, I’d already used the score so heavily throughout the film that i feel like some filmmakers feel like I may have pushed it a little too far with that track; It was little over the top, or was telling the audience too much about how to feel. But, the thing is that if I removed that track it would destroy the ending of that film. The ending of the film is the only scene in the entire film that has no music, so if I was going to remove music from earlier on, it would have destroyed the impact of the last scene. It’s always a Catch 22, but ultimately, I feel like that’s a beautiful track, and I’m really happy it’s in the film, and I think the right decision was made.

JoE: I was just going to ask you – there was only location sound at the end of the movie, and who well it not only punctuated the scene, but how different it was from Starlet where the Manuel track at the end as she’s getting back into the car with Sadie.

Sean Baker: “Yeah, It’s definitely a different approach. The thing is that they are almost opposites. With Tangerine, the score and the style of shooting really heightens the reality [but] with Starlet I tried to keep in a place of realism until the moment where we really are in the heads of these two. So I think the score really accompanies these two and what they are thinking and where they are at that moment. [It’s] quite the opposite in Tangerine. In Tangerine, we are on this wild rollercoaster ride the whole time. It’s not fantasy, but it’s heightened reality, and in the end I wanted us to bring it back to true reality – to be sitting there, in the moment, in the laundromat,  hearing the location sound, the washers and sit there in the silence of that moment.  So, they are two very different approaches and very different goals in mind, but both I think accentuate the music. First one, obviously, the music is there in your face, and then in Tangerine, the absence of the music hopefully makes the audience recognize the importance of the music earlier on in the film, if that makes sense.

JoE: We were talking about the ambient piece before. Is there a track that you’d like to talk about just a little bit in length that was included on the actually official soundtrack from Tangerine that is one you really have a lot of affection for?

Sean Baker: I love them all, but again, this “Team Gotti Anthem”, by the two DJs (DJ Lightup and DJ Heemie), I really think defines Tangerine, and it’s that one track that we use in the very beginning when Cindy exits Donut Time and the camera speeds up, and we’re really establishing a style, that the “Team Gotti Anthem” is something that hopefully really sticks with people and that when people hear that song they think of the movie. Again, these guys, just the nicest guys, they were seventeen years old, but I guess they are nineteen now, allowing us to use their track for very little, and their enthusiasm behind it. I just really want to thank them for doing that, and again WolfTyla for bringing them to my attention. So, I really think that’s the track. The track that we start the soundtrack off with, the track that after that little Donut Time intro, it’s the track that really establishes this world that we’re in. I think out of all of them, “Team Gotti Anthem” is also the Tangerine anthem.”