Ice Cream features throughout Sean Baker’s new film, The Florida Project. Just outside the Magic Castle Motel is an ice cream stand where young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends go for ice cream, innocently accosting other customers asking for spare change so they can have a cone.
The colors of the Magic Castle motel where they live are frosty sherbet hues of raspberry and grape and and pistachio. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé describes the look and color palette of the film as, “blueberry ice cream with a sour twist in it.” The sweeter fruit shades represent the innocence and fun that Moonee gets up to, the sour greens serve as the reality of her world. Moonee and her mother live in a motel just a stone’s throw from Disney World and the Magic Kingdom, but barely able to get through life month to month, as Baker highlights the poverty and affordable housing crisis in this country.
Zabe’s work has been seen in the flexible realm of commercials, videos and short film, but he says he likes the ritual of getting up and going to work, having a rhythm. Zabe and I met to discuss how he worked with Baker to capture the Moonee’s innocence and the reality of the world just beyond her imagination.
You’ve worked on a lot of shorts and videos. How did working on a film such as The Florida Project differ?
The level of commitment is different. For me, that was the only difference. I approach my work in a similar manner no matter what I’m doing. There is a beauty to doing a movie in terms of the commitment you give because you wake up early and go through the work day and do that for a few months. It’s a nice and ritualistic way of approaching work because the shorts and music videos are only a few days of work. I love the rhythm of working on a movie and it changes your life. It changes lives whether you’re working or watching the film.
How did you get into cinematography?
The film crew is a mirror of society in general and that’s how I see it. We fall into our place in a way. I’ve always been interested in photography and when I went to film school and might have had the intention to direct. Once you start working and seeing the different parts of the creative process you get to see what you like and enjoy and you fall into where you belong. For me, it was easy to slide into that. I’ve been doing it for over twenty years and I still love it. I don’t think I can do anything else. I do enjoy directing. I’ve done some videos and commercials, but I like shooting more.
What did Sean Baker say to you about The Florida Project?
We worked on a short film together and we had a harmonious relationship and very organic. Sean called me up and said he had the greenlight and that we were going to shoot over summer. He was very clear that he wanted to shoot it in 35mm and that he wanted to do The Little Rascals of the 21st Century.
I grew up in Mexico and my Grandmother was from Georgia and I had been exposed to The Little Rascals when I was a kid. We started bouncing around ideas and went to test the look of the film and how to treat the color and skin tones.
Florida is a green and lush landscape and there’s this huge contrast because our reality is this magenta and purple opposite so I had to figure out how to harmonize those opposites.
I’ve not been to Florida, the Sunshine State. How did the weather factor into the film?
There’s one thing about Florida if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. The Gulf area is very flat and we’d see storm clouds above us and fifteen minutes later the sun would come out and an hour later we’d have storm clouds. It’s not an easy weatherscape to work in, but this movie is about embracing so we didn’t fight it, we worked with it and what it was offering us.
What is the color palette of the film? The purple and colors are very much like ice cream.
The one thing we talked about from the beginning, ice cream is such a theme in the film, was that it had to be sweet and sour at the same time. So it was almost like blueberry ice cream with a sour twist in it. The greens are sour and it’s a bitter color. The oranges and purples and magenta are more fruity and sweet.
There were a few motels on the strip but that place really worked because of the Castle theme and a princess in the castle. It’s a classic story about a princess in a castle and that worked really well in many regards.
What tone did you and Sean want to set in the opening?
The first few minutes really set the tone. It’s a princess who lives in a castle and we wanted to get that feeling right from the start. We had some serendipity there because we were so lucky that day to have fluffy clouds, crispy sunlight and it was perfect. It helped to set the tone and those first images had the fairytale beauty to them.
If you look carefully you see the reality. The traces of reality invading this magic setting with the cigarette butts, the trash and people walking around seeping in. That was the fine line we wanted to walk. One foot in the child’s innocence and the other foot was in reality and we walked that through the movie and that’s what you see in the opening.
It was the last scene we shot in the movie. It went through some changes. When we were finally shooting the scene we realized we had to keep it ambiguous. We didn’t want it to completely feel like it was a completely linear of the whole story. We had this breaking point so you don’t know if it’s a mental state, is it imagination or real? We looked at lots of solutions but nothing felt right. We realized we had to go to Disney World. We were both familiar with the iPhone and we went into Disney World and shot it guerrilla style and it worked. It worked in our minds to do it that way.
It breaks you out of the movie to get that ambiguity and that’s why it’s so powerful. Was there a particularly challenging scene to shoot?
The longer dramatic scenes were challenging and fun to shoot and set up this long one-taker where we started on the third floor walking down. We had to coordinate that with the steadicam operator and of course the actors.