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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Take Out” Co-director Sean Baker

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Take Out" Co-director Sean Baker

Co-director Sean Baker‘s “Take Out” centers on the day in the life of Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese take-out shop in New York City. Ming is behind with his payments on his huge debt to the smugglers who brought him to the US. The collectors have given him until the end of the day to deliver the money that is due. After borrowing most from friends and relatives, Ming realizes that the remainder must come from the day’s delivery tips… CAVU Pictures opens the film in limited release Friday, June 6.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

Filmmaking has been my love since my mother brought me to see James Whale‘s “Frankenstein” at the local library at the age of SIX. I grew up torturing friends and family by making super-8 and VHS epics. I went to NYU film school with the intention of making the next “Die Hard” sequel. Most of my movie-watching at the time was pure mainstream and the only foreign or independent films I watched were ones that made it in to the public awareness such as “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and “Cinema Paradiso.” One day during my sophomore year, I wandered over to 6th Ave. Clock Tower library [in New York] and rented Eric Rohmer‘s “Claire’s Knee.” It was from that point on that my entire focus shifted from Hollywood mainstream to the European sensibility of filmmaking. I discovered Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, etc and knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Greg the Bunny,” the comedy television show that I co-created, happened almost by accident. Dan Milano, Spencer Chinoy and myself made a public access show that caught the eye of IFC, and it has had three incarnations since then with a season on Fox. All the while, my long-terms goal remained in feature filmmaking.

How did the idea for “Take Out” come about?

New York City is the most culturally diverse city in the world and yet there have been few films about the Chinese, Latino, and Middle Eastern experience in New York. The plight of the illegal Chinese immigrant is a subject that gains media exposure only when a big story occurs. For example, the Golden Venture shipwreck in 1993 when 10 illegal immigrants drowned just outside New York Harbor and more recently and more relevantly, the tragic death of a Chinese food delivery man in Queens, NY.

Shih-Ching Tsou (the film’s co-director) and I met at the New School where she was getting her Masters in Media Studies and I was studying non-linear editing. We wanted to take a swing at directing a feature together. And, living in close proximity to several take-out restaurants, Shih-Ching and I became particularly interested in the lives of the delivery men once they have made it to the States and their subsequent struggle to work and prosper while living under society’s radar. The idea grew from a simple character study to a plot driven day-in-the-life-of story that addresses many of the issues of illegal human smuggling.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, and what are your goals for the project?

We read a lot on the subject before sitting down and writing. One of the most helpful books on the subject is “Forbidden Workers” by Peter Kwong, the chair of the Asian American Studies program at Hunter College. Then we had to go out and do our own research by speaking to illegals who worked at take-outs and people who were close to them. The bulk of our research came when we locked our location. We shot B-roll (cut aways) for over a month before actual production. It was during that time that we spoke to Ms. Lee (who plays the character of Big Sister) and the actual cooks at the restaurant. They guided us in terms of accuracy. They opened up very much so to Shih-Ching, being that she knows Mandarin and she’s a female. They would talk for hours while I went around with the camera and shot everything I could.

Our goal was to capture truth in every aspect of the film from the acting to the look to the sound design. I feel in the end we “faked” reality better than most films that are trying to do so. That may sound cocky but I feel that some of our scenes come as close to a documentary feel that a fiction film can get.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing “Take Out?”

Shooting in a working restaurant was very challenging, however I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Realism was our number one goal with this film and I don’t think we would have been able to catch the energy of a bustling NYC take-out without shooting in one during operating hours. Because we had no budget, we couldn’t ask the owner to shut down for our production even for a minute, so we had to shoot while the business was open, working around the customers and real cooks (all of whom were illegal immigrants themselves.)

Because we were shooting in a very tight space, we knew that the camera would sometimes fall on the actual cooks. We avoided this problem by having the cooks wear the same wardrobe as our actors so just in case the camera did catch one of them in the frame, as long as I shot from the neck down, we could use the shot and protect their anonymity. It was a very funny image because every character had a twin walking around.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

For me, I think I’ve found the genre that I would like to explore for quite a while. My latest film “Prince of Broadway” focuses on the struggles of a West African immigrant in NYC. So I think people expected me to stay in the absurdist comedy genre after “Greg the Bunny.” And although I absolutely loved doing “Greg the Bunny”, the satisfaction I got making both “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” has paved the road I’m headed in the future. And don’t get me wrong… “Take Out” is not devoid of humor. The film, although about a serious subject, is sprinkled with humor through out. No narrative film can truly work without touching people on a human level. We did our best to show everyday life, human behavior and human interaction in order to make these characters as accessible as possible. Sometimes this human behavior is funny.

What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

Obviously the Dogma 95 movement had a tremendous impact. If DV filmmaking was not introduced and forced in to acceptance, “Take Out” never would have happened. If you see the film, you’ll instantly see the influences. The Italian neo-realist films, New York films of the ’70s, and the films of the Dardenne brothers. Throw in some Cassavetes, Ken Loach, and even some Mike Leigh. But we still wanted to have our own style, not just an homage to all of these social-realist filmmakers. I think our film has its own style in terms of the camera work. We like to think of it as a combination of security cam, voyeur cam and hidden camera. Most of the scenes are shot with a telephoto lens to observe Ming from a distance. Scenes in which the characters open up with one another and our slightly more personal, we move in.

What are your upcoming filmmaking plans?

I just completed a new feature “Prince of Broadway.” It is premiering in competition at LAFF ’08 ten days after “Take Out” opens in New York. Down the line, Shih-Ching and I plan to collaborate again on a Mike Leighish family drama that takes place in east Chinatown.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

I think “Take Out” defines “independent film” quite honestly. Shih-Ching and I have been involved in every single step in the process from conception to slapping up our posters on scaffolding around NYC. But it has also been forced independence. Luckily for us, nowadays there are indie-friendly distributors like CAVU Pictures. CAVU has acquired the film and they are absolute champions of cutting edge films and are willing to fight for filmmakers and their projects. That means “Take Out will now receive a meaningful theatrical release, so all our hard work has paid off.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

It’s hard for us to give advice because we are still trying to get to the stage where we are paid to do what we love to do. I would say go to business school instead of film school. Because you can always study film at home or intern on film shoots and learn the craft with out paying $100,000 to hang out with fellow film geeks. “Greg the Bunny” came about because we made a public access show… anybody can do that. But it is learning the business side of things that has been the hardest part.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

I’m very proud of the last two seasons of IFC’s “Greg the Bunny”. After several incarnations, we were finally making the show we always wanted to make. But I believe I’m most proud that “Take Out” is getting theatrical distribution. At one point we thought it would never see an audience but this proves that perseverance works.

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