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abbey lee and tangerine’s sean baker team up for the new kenzo fashion film

The director tells us why he shoot on iPhone, calls out the Oscars for their shameful lack of diversity and tells us about his next project.

by Stuart Brumfitt
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03 February 2016, 10:32am

They've worked with Spike Jonze and Gregg Araki, and now Kenzo Creative Directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim are proving their continued commitment to fusing fashion and film with their latest project, Snowbird, an other-worldly short shot by Tangerine director Sean Baker and eerily-dreamily soundtracked by Stephonik Youth. Baker, who won plaudits - but sadly not Oscar nominations - for last year's lo-fi film about an LA transgender sex worker, is this time focusing on the inhabitants of Slab City, an outsider caravan camp in the Californian desert. As well as a cast of eccentric locals, model-turned actress Abbey Lee appears as Theo, strolling from trailer to trailer in the dustbowl, offering up slices of giant, sweet cake and having casual, offbeat chats with her neighbours. "What's the occasion?" one of them asks. "I dunno," Theo replies, before being reassured, "Sometimes it's good to have cake for no reason at all."

Snowbird is fascinating. You watch it wondering how it was done, what was scripted, who's in on the act. How did you do it?
The people at Kenzo were fans of Tangerine and they offered me something and I just happened to be at the time thinking about what a fascinating place Slab City is. In my script [for them], I had to have a little disclaimer paragraph explaining, "You have to understand how I direct here. I like to mix non-professionals or first time actors with seasoned actors and what we'll do is, in the moment, we'll improvise based on certain scenes and ideas that we get from conversation."

And Abbey Lee is the only full-on actor in there.
We knew that we had to have one character set things up, but from that point on it was about real conversation. We told everybody, "Here's the conceit and this is what we're trying to do here." So even though everybody in the film, up to Clarence Williams III at the end, are all non-professionals, they still really got it. I think it's because we took the time to cast. I went on two pre-production trips to Slab City, in which we took time to find the right personalities. But still I was really surprised and happy with the genuineness of the performances, especially Jean in the beginning, the older woman who sets everything up by saying, "Why go to Bob? Because you love him." That was hinted at in the script, but it wasn't so blatant. But being a non-professional, she just threw it out there. It set up the rest of the film. It was really about partly finding the film [as they went along].

It reminded me of the documentary Bombay Beach.
Yeah of course! Bombay Beach is literally 15 minutes from there. You picked it right. It's even on the same side of the Salton Sea. It's about 15 minutes north. In the US, not many people talk about Bombay Beach. They should.

Abbey Lee is great in this. How was it working with her? She's got some big films out, with the Nicholas Winding Refn film The Neon Demon coming out later this year.
I'm very excited about seeing that film. She saw Tangerine and made contact with me. I actually didn't know what to think at first. I wasn't sure how well she could act. I revisited Mad Max and studied her performance, but then I thought, "I should just get on the phone and speak with her and talk about it." Then I realised, "Oh, she might be perfect for this. She's down for anything. She really wants to break into acting and she appreciates being encouraged to improvise." The more I spoke, the more I was convinced. I was very happy with her performance. It's subtle. She's not trying to gain the spotlight in every scene. She's allowing the others to guide her and you can see a lot of confidence. And of course her physicality works for it, but it was more than that. She was able to roll with this.

How was it working with a brand and having to get the clothes into thing? I know Humberto and Carol are open-minded, so sure it was good working with them.
It was very easy to work with them. Because I knew that this Theo character that Abbey was playing wasn't going to change her wardrobe, if I didn't have the others wearing Kenzo stuff, there would have been no other Kenzo outfit. So early on we decided, "We've got to do this in a way that feels organic." We went about it that way and to tell you the truth, I forgot we were using the Kenzo. Heidi Bivens, who was the stylist, made it invisible, appropriate. If you look closely, you're like, "Oh, that's high society for Slab City." Heidi would hang out with them and gage their personalities and what they were up for doing and wearing. She chose their outfits based on who they were.

You used an iPhone again. Is this a permanent device of yours, or are you going to change it up for future projects?
Going into this, we didn't originally think, "Oh, iPhone!" We thought we'd be doing this on high-end HD cameras. Then the more I thought about it, the whole thing with Tangerine was that I realised how important the iPhones were to us. They really did lower inhibitions; they changed the dynamics with the non-professionals and the first time actors. So I wanted to do this again, but even to a greater extent, because Mya and Kiki [in Tangerine] had studied drama. With this, I was thinking, "I'm going to Slab City and am going to shoot with non-professionals who have no aspirations to acting. Using the iPhone, we'll have a smaller footprint, we'll be less intimidating, we can move quickly from camp to camp" The candid stuff that you can capture takes you to a whole other level. So the iPhone thing became something that was even more appropriate this time round, but for the next one, I'm filming on full-out film - celluloid.

Were you disappointed not to be up for any Oscars?
I lost faith in the Oscars and the Academy a long time ago. If you look at why the Oscars were even created: it was to sell more tickets. It really comes down to how much money is put behind campaigns. I'm with a distributor in the United States called Magnolia and they're wonderful and supportive, but they don't have pockets as deep as the studios, so it's very hard for them to push this. But then on top of that, I don't think the Academy gets it. They don't think about diversity or inclusion. I think they forgot why the Oscars exist. It's supposed to be a more celebratory thing and the Academy have forgotten that and I think it's a real sad state of affairs. They had the opportunity to have some wonderful people of colour, not only from my film, but from Creed and Straight Outta Compton and they chose not to and I think that's really disappointing. You hope that we're making progress as a society and in the arts, which is supposed to be so incredibly liberal and inviting, but we're not.

What you working on?
We're trying to get a new film off the ground to be shot in the summer. It's a new feature. Nothing is concrete yet, but at least there have been offers, or financiers expressing interest. It hasn't been like, "Here's the golden key to the city!" but at the same time it looks like I'll get some financiers.

What is the next project?
It's a film that focuses on children that live in Orlando on Route 192. It's in a similar social-realist vein, but not as hyperactive as Tangerine. It will probably disappoint a lot of people who like Tangerine because it's got no music, but I'm looking forward to it. I have to immerse myself for a very long time before shooting it. Route 192 is outside of the Magic Kingdom. What you have going on there, which is very sad, is a lot of families living in despair right outside Disney World. And it comes down to the fact that after the housing crisis and the economic crash. People are still recovering from it. You have children who are literally being raised in motel rooms. What we want to do though is do something that focuses on them as individuals, so we have children's story, like early Ken Loach films, where it's focused on what the child does to get through the hardships: the summer adventures and focusing on the fun of the summer, instead of focusing on the hardships. And then in the background, that [the hardship] is happening.