Aspen Shortsfest: ‘Tangerine’ director to premiere new film

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Sean Baker's "Snowbird" will premiere Saturday evening at Aspen Shortsfest.
Augusta Quirk/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Snowbird’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale

When: Saturday, April 9, 5:30 p.m. program, Aspen; Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. program, Carbondale

How much: $15


More info: The four-film, 88-minute Aspen program will be followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A

What: ‘Stop Asking Permission and Tell Your Story: A Conversation with Sean Baker, Darren Dean, and Bright Ideas Magazine’

Where: Chair 9 at the Little Nell

When: Saturday, April 9, noon

How much: Free and open to the public

Director Sean Baker trekked to Slab City for his follow-up to last year’s acclaimed and groundbreaking “Tangerine.” In his new short, “Snowbird,” which has its world premiere today at Aspen Shortsfest, a young woman makes the rounds in the dust-swept, junk-strewn landscape of Slab City with a birthday cake, sharing it with friends and neighbors in the nonconformist desert community.

Baker, who made micro-budget films for 15 years before the breakout success of “Tangerine” at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is a polestar for legions of independent filmmakers and emerging artists showcasing films at Shortsfest. Just as he broke the mold by making “Tangerine” on an iPhone, the birth of “Snowbird” came out of a new instrument for making independent film: Baker made it on a commission from the French fashion house Kenzo.

The fashion company was up for whatever he wanted to make, Baker said. They had a few parameters, which Baker characterized as unobtrusive and insignificant for “Snowbird” — no smoking and no extreme violence, for instance. Kenzo’s artistic directors had to approve his script, but Baker said they gave him no notes or suggestions on it.

“They were actually very director-friendly,” Baker said. “It was complete artistic freedom. They literally said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ And the night before I got the call I had been thinking about Slab City.”

Baker’s unconventional approach, which drew international attention last year for “Tangerine,” includes using first-time actors and nonprofessionals improvising from a loosely structured script. So he warned Kenzo that he couldn’t predict what would end up in the movie.

“They were OK with that,” he said. “They were fine with me keeping it 70 percent structured and 30 percent unstructured.”

Baker had previously made several trips to Slab City — the California desert campsite and squatters’ haven populated in the winter months by the film’s titular snowbirds — but his time there making “Snowbird” was his first professional visit. He spent two weekends there meeting as many residents as he could and scouting for his cast.

As he met them, scenes for the film took hold. When he knocked on the trailer door of Slab resident Jack Two Horse, for instance, he showed Baker a collection of antique military weaponry that he’d recently dug out of the desert sand. Baker incorporated the encounter into one of the more memorable moments in “Snowbird.”

“When we decided he was going to be in it, I said, ‘I want you to do what you did with me — do a show-and-tell,’” Baker recalled.

There are three professional actors in the film: Abbey Lee from “Mad Max: Fury Road,” plays the protagonist, Leo; veteran actor and “Mod Squad” star Clarence Williams III; and Mary Woronov, the one-time muse of Andy Warhol and Roger Corman. The rest of the cast are nonpros, appear in supporting roles.

With newcomers, Baker would often give a rough idea of what he was trying to capture in a scene. When he put Slab resident Jean Belt at a table with — Lee and explained that they’d be talking about her relationship with a mysterious man named “Bob,” she improvised a line — “Because you love him” — that proves pivotal in the film.

“It’s something I never would have written, because it’s too on the nose,” Baker said. “But the way this woman said it was so authentic and felt so real, and it set up the entire film in that one little sentence. So you never know what you’re going to get, but if you’re open to hearing what others have to say, you’ll be rewarded with happy accidents and surprises.”

Baker is quick to point out the difference between the nonprofessionals in “Snowbird” and the first-time actresses of “Tangerine” — Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, whose performance jump-started burgeoning performance careers.

“Nonprofessionals are people who don’t aspire to become actors,” he said. “After we wrap, they’re not going to go audition.”

The new short, like “Tangerine,” was shot on an iPhone to astounding affect. In “Tangerine,” the ubiquitous camera phone memorably captured a beauty and richness of light in squalid urban landscapes of Los Angeles. He brings a similar aesthetic to the rugged Slab City, with desert sunsets, sand blowing over the arid ground and the often otherworldly, bespoke interiors of Slab trailers.

The critical success of “Tangerine” helped crown Baker as the first iPhone auteur, but he’s not committed to always working on one. He’s planning to shoot his next feature in 35-milimeter film. For “Snowbird,” he initially thought he’d use traditional camera before deciding that the smartphone — this time a 6S — suited it best.

“The closer we got to production, I thought about everything that I learned from ‘Tangerine’ and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why are we not learning our own lessons here?’ … ‘Why I am trying to reinvent the wheel when I had such a good experience on “Tangerine”’?”

With nonpros especially, he said, using the familiar smartphone helps keep them loose. Slab City residents, Baker said, would ask when the lights and camera were moving in — not realizing they’d already been filming their scenes for the movie.

Baker and his producer, Darren Dean, will join Bright Ideas magazine editor James Kaelen in a panel discussion at Chair 9 this afternoon to talk about “Snowbird” and the producer-director pair’s unconventional approaches to filmmaking.

“We wanted to do an event around breaking the rules to make what you want,” said Aspen Film artistic director Maggie Mackay. “That could be financing through Kenzo or shooting on an iPhone and finding new ways to tell a story.”