First collaborating with celebrated indie director Sean Baker on Snowbird—a 2016 short starring Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Abbey Lee—cinematographer Alexis Zabe had no idea at the time that Baker was putting together a trial run with the artists he would bring on to his next feature.
That film was The Florida Project, a “Little Rascals of the 21st century” centered on children growing up in poverty near Walt Disney World. With The Florida Project, the idea was to keep one foot in the imaginary and one firmly planted in reality, capturing the “fairy tale, ice-creamy, soft look” of a town that can feel like one big amusement park.
Having worked a great deal in music videos, Zabe enjoys the populism inherent to that format, and set out to make The Florida Project a similar kind of “pop film” that people of all backgrounds could relate to.
How did The Florida Project come to you?
We’d already done that short film, so we had a really nice working relationship and some level of friendship, as well. When Sean approached me with the idea, I was immediately attracted to the subject. Basically, he said, “Okay. I want to do a Little Rascals of the 21st century.” I grew up on that as well, even though I lived in Mexico. My grandmother was from Savannah, Georgia, and when I was a kid, she would play Little Rascals on TV for us all the time.
I really liked to see the way context is secondary in the children’s eyes, and it also talks about social issues, which I’ve always been very sensitive too as well. I could relate to everything—the aesthetics, the subject matter. I lived in the Yucatan for a long time, and I really loved the Caribbean. The lush tropical landscapes and the beautiful Caribbean or Gulf lighting, all that attracted me as well.
The production design and cinematography are very much intertwined in this film. Can you describe the collaboration between yourself, Baker and Stephonik Youth?
We’d worked with Stephonik—Sean’s sister—on the short, so we already had a team mentality going. We talked about having one foot well planted in reality and the other foot planted in the children’s slightly more fantastic view of reality.
Once I got to Florida, it was about seeing a few of the places that Sean had seen, talking about them and trying to decide on the final locations were—trying to find how the different elements of reality would fit into our story.
The same approach was taken to lighting. I really like to work in an uncluttered set. For me, it’s very liberating to have the flexibility and the freedom to keep the creative process alive even during shooting. We feed off of reality a lot; if you shield yourself with lighting and cables and trucks, suddenly you can only catch small glimpses of reality in the gaps that are left.
I love working with natural light and because of circumstances of this film, it was possible to do so. It was convenient to do so, and probably even necessary to do so because we really didn’t have the time to work any other way. It gives that neo-realist feel to the movie. Then, using colors and wardrobe, the color palette could take it up to that fantastic, more imaginary child’s point-of-view.
Aside from natural lighting, what were the traits you were looking for with your photography?
I think it’s all about the dialogue that you’re having with reality—the geography, the people. It’s constantly throwing things at you, whether it be weather patterns or locations or people walking around. Keeping an eye open to that all the time is important. It really helps with context. When you see the film, you’ll see a diabetic guy going through frame on an electric wheelchair. That person was there that day and we’re like, “Okay. Can you please just drive through the scene?” Keeping that openness all the time to be reactive to reality is really what’s important.
I imagine certain visuals like the rainbow over the motel were discovered in the process.
Yeah, there actually was a rainbow scene in the script. But it happened in another moment, in another place, and we hadn’t even gotten to that point in our schedule. Then one day, there was a rainbow over the hotel. It was like, “Okay. We have a real rainbow. Let’s go and shoot it.” We did, and it ended up probably being in a better scene and a better place in the film than if we tried to force a rainbow upon a different moment of the film.
All those little elements are really what makes this film alive. It’s the birds. It’s the real people of Kissimmee walking through frames, the rain clouds that suddenly came up in a scene when we were expecting a sunny day. All those things make it real.
How did you decide on the camera and lenses for the job?
I guess it’s really a 21st century film, in that we tried to use the right tools for the right scenes at all times. We did have a premise that we wanted to shoot this film on 35[mm], and we mostly did. 90% of the film is 35mm analog negative, which gives it that organic feel.
But then we came to the challenge of shooting the night exteriors. I did some testing on negatives for that, and it just became another story. It was not this fairy tale. Once we hit the night exteriors on 35, it became a very seedy, grim, dramatic tale, which really is not the story at all, so Alexa was our choice for that. Where film can’t really be underexposed too much, digital works very well underexposed, and it still kept that fairy tale, ice-creamy, soft look, even in very low-lit exteriors, where we only had a couple of sodium lights in the parking lot and a couple of old light bulbs lining the corridor to the hotel. We decided to do that for the night exteriors and that really helped to keep it as loose and as free as the day exteriors.
As we were evolving through the movie, the final scene changed quite a few times and mutated. We realized at the end that we needed to get into Disney World, and the only way to do that was to go in undercover. Because of our experiences with the iPhone—Sean did Tangerine, and then we shot a short film together, also on an iPhone—it was just a natural [fit]. Nobody really notices you anymore when you’re shooting with a cellphone. It just becomes part of the landscape. That allowed us to get in there, do what we have to do, and get what we needed.
In a narrative but also a dramatic sense, we needed to find a different texture for the ending because we did not want to make it clearly a realistic scene. We wanted to keep a little ambiguity to it. Because of the shutter speed and all that stuff on the iPhone, it had that little bit of a sense of a change in texture, and I think that feeling helped dramatically in that scene.
What was it like working on a film where young children were your lead actors?
Sean did an amazing job with the casting. He saw hundreds of kids, and suddenly when he found Valeria [Cotto] and Brooklynn [Prince], it was very clear to him that he’d found these two amazing kids. Christopher [Rivera] popped up a little bit later. It’s just the way they related to each other, the way they related to the crew. These kids also are naturals in the acting sense. There was this whole approach to letting them be themselves, and just let kids be kids. They just needed to hit certain beats, and the scene worked.
That allowed us to shoot within a schedule that was very tight—there was no overthinking, over-control…No real acting, in that sense. Just keeping it loose so they could improvise around their dialogue. Other scenes, of course, were more scripted, and the kids had to work a little harder to stay in line. But in the balance of things, it worked very well.
Did you frame the children low to emphasize the enormity of the world around them?
I love that people noticed it because it was a major thing, to always stay within the point-of-view of the children. This whole movie is told through the eyes of children. So yeah, low camera. The colors are a little bit more accentuated. We tried to recreate how a child would look at this Florida landscape—they would see it as an amusement park with all these crazy places, and all these colors. They’re having fun and enjoying their summer. The problems and the things that happen around them just become secondary.
Can you describe the experience of shooting in Florida?
I felt very much at home. I lived in the Yucatan for about 15 years prior to moving to LA, so I’m very used to the landscape and the plants. I know the weather patterns, which were similar. So, I felt very much at home in Florida, to be honest. It wasn’t a hard transition. I feel good in this type of very warm tropical weather. It’s not something that I struggled with.
I think there’s also a certain craziness about Florida that was also exciting to me, to find these structures and these buildings. It really is like a huge amusement park there. You’re able to capture almost surreal, magical images that are still grounded in reality. It’s amazing.
Were all the buildings as colorful as the homes and motels we see in the film?
The strip itself offered a crazy variety of weird, quirky, funky locations, so it was really about picking and choosing the places that fit more within the universe we were trying to create, and sticking to a certain color palette. The Magic Castle [Inn] itself was perfect because it’s like a fairy tale, in a way—fairy tales work very well when you have a little girl living in a castle. It’s the perfect metaphor.
You’ve worked a lot in the music video world. What has this brought to your process on features?
I really love to work in all mediums. Music videos are a very free and experimental place to try out new tools, new narrative possibilities. I think there’s been a dialogue between narrative features, and short films, and music videos now going on for probably 30 years. Cinematic grammar has evolved—it’s definitely been feeding off music videos, as well. I’ve worked a lot in music videos because I like the pop culture of it, the way you can have a lot of people be interested in seeing what you’re doing. That’s something that we also wanted to bring to this film, to make it kind of a pop film that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can relate to.
What were your biggest challenges on The Florida Project?
The whole project was a challenge because we didn’t have long to do it. Our first schedule had us shooting for 57 days, but we only had 35. We managed to get through it because we didn’t really overthink the movie at all. We just approached in the most kind, loving and efficient way so that the children can give you their best. Once we found the rhythm of the movie, I think it just became a beautiful way to work.