“I’ve been really happy with the reception and it keeps going and going. I’ve not had a day off for so long.” Sean Baker says of the buzz surrounding The Florida Project. Swept up in the crest of its success, he has not had a moment to enjoy any other movies out there as he’s been on the festival circuit talking about his latest film. In the film, Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a young mother living with her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in The Magic Castle on the outskirts of Disney World. The Magic Castle is anything but. It’s a motel housing the poorest residents, desperate to make it till the next paycheck.
Sean Baker has a knack for making movies about marginalized people in society. As evidence, look no further than his previous excursion, Tangerine, about two transgender sex workers. Baker shot that film on an iPhone but its low-rent aesthetic was elevated by outstanding performances from his cast. His followup is another truly remarkable film. Despite its grim scenario, instead of being sad and tragic, the film is funny and highly enjoyable. Vinaite and Prince excel and Willem Dafoe shines. We see the world through Moonee’s imaginative eyes, though every so often Baker hits us with the harsh reality of the situation where she and her mother are trapped.
Baker and I sat down recently in Beverly Hills to talk about the journey of bringing the film to the screen. He had first considered making it six years ago, but he couldn’t find the financing he needed. It was only after making Tangerine that he and Chris revisited Florida and realized the film was still urgently relevant because the housing crisis hadn’t improved.
Baker did more research, spent time with mothers on the edge of homelessness, and let the new insights reshape his story.
I saw the film and didn’t move for twenty minutes after the credit rolled. Your casting is genius. What I love about it is hearing their stories, especially as Bria told me, you do the unconventional.
Casting is everything to me. It can make or break a film. I look back at some of my earlier films and there’s a weak link here or there and it just kills me. Moving forward, I said that there would never be a weak link no matter how long it takes.
This film and its journey is interesting. I have heard that you could have done it six years ago — but then you wouldn’t have had this cast.
We revisited the situation and realized [the housing crisis] was still continuing. We had met kids who were Brooklynn’s or Christopher’s age and they had spent their entire lives in these motels, and that was when we said it was just as timely.
So, even though it had been six years, you could still see the story?
We thought it was a good idea. There were a few reasons why we couldn’t get financing at first. We couldn’t get a fleshed out treatment that was really solid, at that point, it was based on journalistic videos and articles we had read. It was also too close to Beasts of Southern Wild. The stories had too many parallels for ours to be made, so we gave up on it.
Instead, we made Tangerine and that was simply me calling Mark Duplass and saying I was ready to make another micro-budget. I told him the idea and it was such a fast green light on that. We made that and it got attention and got us a grant from Cinereach which allowed us to take trips to the Orlando/Kissimmee area and that allowed us to understand that world more. When we had the script and showed it to June Pictures they were on board. We always knew the film was going to be set in 2016, and it was only about getting prepared to shoot.
Your cast came together. Was there a role particularly hard to cast?
They were all difficult. Christopher won us over in the casting call. Brooklynn was the one that took the longest time. I had said that I didn’t want to make the film unless we had the perfect Moonee — or the present-day Spanky McFarland — so that was hairy and a little stressful.
The whole reason we went with Bria is that we were considering a known actress for that role. We were entertaining names and there was something that told me that no matter how great of an actor that person might be, that character needed a fresh face.
I found Bria by accident. I wasn’t looking to cast via Instagram. I was in a black hole of scrolling one night and someone had reposted her posts. I had an open mind about casting through social media because I had done it through Vine and YouTube for Tangerine. When I found her page, I gave her a chance.
What I loved is that, for anyone over the age of thirty, you take us back to our childhood of running around the neighborhood, causing mischief and having fun outside. On the other side, you throw in moments of reality where we’re reminded of the adult world. How did you find that perfect balance?
It’s a constant balancing act from when we were writing it to shooting it. It changes a lot when we’re on set and in the environment. In the moment you’re balancing and in post-production, you’re doing the balancing act.
It’s something we’re conscious of the whole time because if you are off on your balance. It’s a very serious topic and I’m approaching it in a way where it shows the comedic elements of life. It’s the humor that comes from behavior and interaction. The characters use humor to cope with the situations they’re in. Humor is a part of real-life and it’s all around us. For me not to put it in would feel condescending and feel so untruthful and it would just feel wrong, almost ethically wrong for me to do that.
It’s something in which we learned to a certain degree was going to work with Tangerine. We wanted to reach a greater audience and we wanted to entertain with the hope that it would spark discussion and bring awareness to it.
You did the research going to Florida and revisited the area. What was it like being on the ground and speaking to those mothers?
It was extremely difficult to hear their stories of hardship. At the same time, I saw a community that wanted their story told. I also saw moments of joy and moments of families being families. For me, I was absorbing it at all times. Even with the little details, I was absorbing those and when you add that into your screenplay it helps ground it in reality. Even if they don’t understand the slang, they know this is ringing true of this area and the audience accepts that.
There are the mechanics in the way the motels are run. The situation with families living in motels and the motels not wanting them to establish residency, we wanted to show that. We tried to take as much in as possible. We saw a common thread with managers, business owners, and the residents.
The one common thread we picked up on was with the motel managers. If we didn’t spend time interviewing everyone we never would have been inspired to do the Bobby character. There was something special about them.
They might be forced on any given day to give an eviction notice. Bobby might have to evict Halley and so he has to keep this distance and there’s this reluctant parental figure I’ve seen in a lot of these guys, and it’s understanding the world enough where Chris and I felt comfortable enough to write the fictionalized screenplay.
You do raise awareness. I’ve never seen this before until moving to LA. What can I do or what can any viewer do if we want to help?
It could be happening in your own area and right under your nose. Every city and township that is facing this situation has an organization that is trying to develop affordable housing.
What I can say is we are dealing with proposed budget cuts. If you’re motivated to do something, what we’re asking people to do is look into your own neighborhood.
There’s hope192.org and they are a wonderful non-profit agency servicing those in need and the homeless. They need help and they’d be happy to take your help, but also look into the organizations in your own area. We’re not trying to say donate. Spreading the word is part of advocacy, sending letters to the federal government, and volunteering.
It would be great to see our whole housing system change. There is a crisis and the more people are aware of it, the more people will be motivated to help take one step towards change.
Let’s talk about the ending. First, you make Brooklynn cry and then you take her to Disney World — and that ambiguity.
Filming it was incredible. We scripted for tears. We didn’t know if she’d get there. Her mother and acting coach talked about it. She’s so skilled she understood it all and the predicament her character was in. We didn’t have to tell her to think of something sad. We had a ten-minute magazine on the 35mm camera. She got it in a minute and it was crazy. Once we got it I didn’t want to ask her to do it again, but she was willing to do it again. But she gives a real performance and I didn’t have to manipulate anything.
What you said, it’s ambiguous. It’s up to the audience to interpret. We shot it on the iPhone so there’s a change in the medium which is telling the audience something.