The Scope Weekly had the opportunity to speak with The Florida Project‘s producer Darren Dean for an exclusive interview, after speaking last week with fellow collaborator Chris Bergoch about the role accessible technology plays in filmmaking.
By Alexander Marais and Anne Howard
A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Dean is a rising force in the industry, having produced cutting-edge films such as Prince of Broadway, Kinyarwanda, Welcome Home, and most notably the recent Sean Baker entries Tangerine and The Florida Project respectively. He was the recipient of a Gotham Audience Award and a GLAAD Media Award, both for Tangerine in 2015 and 2016.
He is a Gotham Independent Film Award nominee for the latter, and a three-time Independent Spirit Awards nominee, in 2009 for Prince of Broadway, and in 2016 for Tangerine. He also is an NAACP Image nominee for Kinyarwanda. Dean concurrently works as an instructor at the revered New York Film Academy, notable for producing recognized talent spanning the industry since it opened in 1992.
In the interview, Dean speaks about everything from the underestimation of audience expectation to the importance of representing marginalized communities on film. Here are the highlights.
Q: You’ve been behind the conceptualization of an eclectic series of films – Tangerine, The Florida Project, H.O.M.E. – and now, the upcoming graphic novel adaptation A Contract with God. What is it that draws you to realizing these kinds of stories?
A: These stories are eclectic only in that they are from what is perceived as “different” walks of life, “different” cultures, and “different” classes. That our subjects are truly different, however, is a misnomer. There is something about each of these stories that is human – and that is the very fabric that connects us all. These characters “just happen to be” homeless or transgender sex workers or Jewish immigrants or van dwellers. Beyond that, these are our stories, too – very identifiable and very accessible.
The fact that their voices have been forced outside of the margins of society is a travesty.
Thus, I am drawn to these stories because they are all truths we should be looking at head on, instead of side-stepping.
Q: You seem to be attracted to more grounded projects – even your latest, A Contract with God – isn’t a slam-bang action comic like Watchmen, but a story about a Hasidic Jew making a contract with God to have a life full of good deeds. What do you think audiences stand to gain from more human-level stories such as these?
A: I definitely think Hollywood needs to adjust to voices like Sean Baker’s, Barry Jenkins’, and so many more. Studios were created to offer escapism – the mindset is that people tend to prefer cars that turn into giant robots. So, it’s a very guarded transition on both sides. Are they ready for us? Are we ready for them? Only time will tell. I do think that audiences are not given a fair shake, however, in what they will accept. After all, isn’t truth-telling a bit of an escape, as well? Is Hollywood adverse to that? I’d say not completely. They are warming up.
Q: Going forward, do you think Hollywood is becoming bolder in taking chances on stories like Tangerine and The Florida Project? Do you see any sort of lasting change as these stories are coming to the floor?
A: I think that Hollywood is a machine. It churns like a blender and doles out what it believes to be fresh content regularly. So, being bold is not necessarily how I would describe it. It’s like a recipe that you’ve made a thousand times, you just add a new ingredient each time you make it. In this case, those ingredients are these marginalized voices. In our business, we call these ingredients movements.
#OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have sparked movements that have proliferated work and content from people of color, and from women. That’s great. The problem is that up until recently Hollywood has not necessarily had the bandwidth to focus on more than one movement at a time.
It comes in waves, one year Spike Lee is hot, then down the line female filmmakers step into the limelight, and then LGBTQ content becomes the rage. The problem with Hollywood attempting to realize these movements is sustainability. Hollywood has a short attention span. It follows trends and what is hot.
But those inside each movement know that their voices are not trends – they exist always. The real proliferation of these voices will be when Hollywood can sustain them all at the same time.
I believe that time is happening now. You can already see the effects starting to take shape.
Q: Regardless of the tough break at the Oscars, congratulations to you on how The Florida Project has turned out. It seems like it has impacted many people. When you read scripts like that, are you aware instantly of having a potential success on your hands, or is the process gradual and requiring of some convincing?
A: It’s less about convincing than it is about understanding. Working with Sean Baker on so many films has taught me that. I trust his voice and the voices of my directors. Whether it’s a social realism story with Sean or a historical account with Alrick Brown, the real art is in immersing their team and audience in the reality of the world being depicted. Once you are standing toe-to-toe with transgender sex workers, genocide survivors, or West African street hustlers, you immediately understand the urgency of telling their stories and, most importantly, parlaying their voices onto the film.
Q: Even though The Florida Project only grossed 5 million, it is now earning revenues on Amazon Prime. Would you consider producing a movie for streaming, bypassing typical distributors?
A: Absolutely. I tell stories so that people will see them. The more people that see them, the more a message is shared. Years ago, I probably would have scoffed at streaming content. I certainly did at the forefront of this new way of watching films. The reality is, though, that not every film is going to reach mid-America, which is sometimes where those ideas are needed the most. Streaming services provide a platform for these voices to be heard a lot more. Make no mistake, however, that the preferred way of sharing our work is on a big screen at the local theater!
Q: What do you look for in your next project? What are your standards?
A: My standards are pretty simple for every film. Tell me something new. Tell me something fresh. Tell it to me in an innovative way. Never would I have expected to tell the story of two transgender sex workers, shot on an iPhone. Following that, I never imagined a route back to 35mm. But both happened. Just be collaborative, creative, and honest with your storytelling, and together we can craft a great film.
Q: Any other news that you would like to share with us?
A: I have a full slate of projects happening over the next year or so. Some of them are ideas cut from a similar cloth. Some will provide new challenges for me as a storyteller. I’m heading to New Mexico in a few weeks to produce Ani Simon-Kennedy’s The Short History of the Long Road. It’s the story of a van-dwelling father and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Nola, who faces the challenge of either continuing life on the road or joining society for the very first time. Part coming of age, part road trip, this one is really a story of female empowerment, helmed by a mostly female team. A casting announcement will be coming in a few days. Following that, I’m producing Chris Brown’s Punk Grandma over the summer. This one is also coming of age, but for a 60-year-old, former punk rocker saddled with the care of her nine-year-old granddaughter. Rounding out 2018 is my own directorial debut, No Sugar Tonight, telling the story of a night in the life of a nine-year-old, her pimp, and a drunk cover band. Think Tangerine meets Born Into Brothels meets Oliver Twist. It’s a pretty tough look. In 2019, I’m producing the sci-fi film Singular for newcomer Matt Barber. Then, of course, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God – the adaptation of perhaps the greatest graphic novel ever written. At the very least, it’s the most influential.
Tangerine, The Florida Project and Prince of Broadway are available to watch on Amazon video, and available in Blu-ray at the Amazon store. H.O.M.E. is streaming on Seed and Spark. The Other Kids is streaming on Flix Premiere.
The Scope Weekly thanks Darren for taking the time to speak with us.
To view the previous article interviewing screenwriter Chris Bergoch, click here.