Sean Baker's independent films have a style that is undeniably authentic in its portrayal of outcasts and characters from underrepresented and marginalized groups. Instead of following the Hollywood style of storytelling, which typically focuses on well-off middle-class characters, Baker humanely and compassionately frames the struggles of everyday life.

Baker's style feels fresh in modern cinema, but it calls back to a post-World War II style that thrived on realism and underrepresented communities in Italy. Italian neorealism was a vital movement that delivered an urgent response to the political and economic turmoil in the wake of the war. 

CineFix sat down with Sean Baker about the filmmaking methods that make his films feel unique and authentic to the environment, revealing how Baker uses key components of Italian neorealism. You can check out the full video below.

What Is Italian Neorealism?

After Italy was rid of fascism and survived the devastation of World War II, filmmakers like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini were determined to take their cameras to the streets to reflect the “real Italy” that had been absent from Italian cinema screens for years. 

This was a rejection of the studio-bound, Hollywood-influenced productions of the fascist years (also known as the “White Telephone films”). 

Of these Italian neorealist films, Vittorio De Sica’sBicycle Thieveswas the most famous film of the movement. The film follows the struggles of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle which the father needs, or else he will lose his new job. The film relies heavily on production tropes that have become synonymous with the movement like shooting on location, using untrained actors, and producing films with minimal budgets. 

The movement was over by the mid-50s, but its influence had spread across the world. The Italian neorealism trends had a profound and lasting influence on cinema, sparking filmmakers to work with like-minded directors and scriptwriters to create personal and profound art. 

Bicycle_thieves_italian_neorealism'Bicycle Thieves'Credit: Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche

Sean Baker, an American Neorealist

Over 80 years later, Sean Baker’s films successfully embody the neorealist quest for realism through a few simple tactics. 

One key element that Baker focuses on is how he utilizes the film’s location. Shooting everything on location keeps the film grounded and authentic to the story, but it is mostly used because Baker can’t afford a studio. 

The on-location shooting also adds a layer of risk, since Baker does not have the resources to completely control his locations, but the director has found a way to use this as a potential engine for unconstrained creativity. Many of Baker’s film’s best moments were happy accidents, like in Red Rocket when the train traveling behind the two main characters as they kiss, creating a shot that accidentally emphasizes the intensity of the relationship. Being in the right place at the right time is what neorealism is about. 

Red_rocket_accidental_genius'Red Rocket'Credit: A24

When Baker is on location, he finds it hard to not take advantage of the people who are working there since they know the world better than he does. Working with untrained actors leads to a collaboration that would have been impossible if Baker were not on location. Having members of the community lend precious details and their dialect can make the film feel authentic to the world that he is trying to portray.

The flexibility and discipline needed to shoot on location with non-traditional actors allow Baker to create stories that evoke the same literary realism that great Italian directors were capturing in the 40s.

Baker’s work is the everyday American experience that is often disregarded by large filmmakers, and he is giving those unsavory moments a chance to shine and be heard on screen for possibly the first time. 

Directors who use smartphones to shoot their movies'Tangerine'Credit: Magnolia Pictures

If the wave of American neorealism is intriguing to you, then there is little to nothing holding you back. You can create a film with very little budget and untrained actors who could help you develop your screenplay into a whole and authentic story. All you have to do is be open to collaboration and the uncontrolled moments that could make your film better than you could have ever hoped for. 

Do you know any other American neorealists? Let us know who they are in the comments and what makes their films special!

Source: CineFix