Sean Baker’s The Florida Project focuses on the misadventures of latchkey kids housed in seedy motels outside the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. It continues Baker’s obsession of telling stories on groups most people ignore, from immigrants to street hustlers and transgender people, with indigenous actors playing the starring roles. From its low seven-figure budget to Baker’s use of film instead of an iPhone, The Florida Project is a decided step up for Baker. Here this New Jersey kid who grew up with dreams of making Die Hard-type action thrillers explains how he found his place as a rising star making socially aware films with minuscule budgets.
DEADLINE: Willem Dafoe has front-runner buzz in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role as the cranky motel handyman and de facto guardian of these latchkey kids who are mostly oblivious to the problems of their economically disadvantaged parents. But the true revelation is pint-sized protagonist Brooklynn Prince. How did you find this kid?
SEAN BAKER: A couple hundred kids auditioned in person, but when we had our second casting call and still hadn’t found her, we started looking Hollywood and New York and Atlanta. I was very reluctant about that.
BAKER: I felt like, if I’m flying in a Hollywood kid, they’re going to be little robots, number one. Number two, I wanted the accent to be right, and number three, I wanted the kids to be comfortable at night going home to their real homes. I wanted them to be comfortable and going home with their parents every night. Then came that wonderful day we met Brooklynn. She came with some experience from the commercials, and one little indie film. And yet it didn’t feel like she was walking in like a Jonbenet Ramsey. She was being herself. It always seemed like she was speaking from her own voice, and it wasn’t her parents’ voice cycling through her. That’s what gave us confidence that this was going to be a smooth ride with them. And it sure has been.
DEADLINE: Has she found a new career?
BAKER: Out of almost everybody, she was the most prepped for it; it’s something she’s always wanted to do. Which is weird to say, as she’s only 7 years old. I do feel like she was one of those who was born to do this. The other kids, Valeria [Cotto] now seems to have the acting bug so who knows what direction she’ll go in. Christopher [Rivera] seems a maybe, but of course he’s just an 8 or 9-year-old kid. He could decide to go a totally different direction in life.
DEADLINE: The possibilities might include Little League.
BAKER: Brooklynn, I can see that she gets such pleasure out of it, too, which is incredible. She’s got a good film set up, and she’s got agents. It’s all in motion, and the family might be moving from Winter Park, in Orlando, to LA. I don’t think they’ll live in LA proper. They’ll be a little north or south, so they feel that they’re still in some sort of normalcy. The parents are really wonderful, they don’t want to become Hollywood parents. They don’t want to go that route.
DEADLINE: The movie ends with a purely emotional scene that seems so far beyond what a child Brooklynn’s age should be able to deliver. How do you guide an 7 or 8 year old to do that?
BAKER: She was six and a half. We didn’t want to rehearse because we knew if we got it, we may not be able to repeat it and I would have been kicking myself forever. So it was talked about and discussed..with the parents, with Brooklynn. We all decided there’s no reason to manipulate her, like asking her to think of the saddest day in your life. We knew she understood her character. She came to set that day prepared. She said, I think I’m going to do it. I talked with my mom last night about this and I think I can do it. We said okay, no pressure. And then she did [what you saw]; we didn’t even know she was going to bring it to that level. We just thought it was going to be a few tears, maybe. She far exceeded what I expected. To me, she made the film with that scene. We did it in one take.
DEADLINE: So you didn’t have to ask for more?
BAKER: I actually wanted to yell cut because I couldn’t watch this little girl go through that anymore, because I saw that she got to that place where she was really crying. We all looked at each other and thought, we can’t even believe this is happening right now. And then we just needed her to say goodbye, and by that time she was actually even crying with her fingers in her mouth. And so she didn’t even say goodbye, she just said bye, which was good enough for me. And I yelled cut.
DEADLINE: That simple?
BAKER: No, because we shot on film and there are no labs in Florida. The negative had to be shipped up to Atlanta to be processed, and then to New York to be scanned. So that night was one of the most stressful of my career. I kept calling. Did it arrive? Because it was like gold, being shipped up the coast. It took a day and a half.
DEADLINE: You’ve always populated your movies with unknowns who are part of the world you are capturing. How unusual is it to get something like what Brooklynn conveyed?
BAKER: I’ve been very lucky and it’s all about the amount of time we take to find these people. Prince Adu did something very similar with Prince of Broadway, proving himself to be a great persona and very like an on-screen presence. I didn’t know he was going to be able to deliver the tears as well. Same with Mya Taylor in Tangerine; her crying in front of Donut Time and everything, it was all her. It wasn’t scripted. She was just in that moment. Talent is out there. But sometimes it doesn’t work. You’re going to find people who you think are wonderful, and the minute you turn on the camera, they just don’t understand the concept of acting. On Florida Project, there is this dude down there, who had a wonderful Long Island accent and was living in one of the motels. An Eddie Money type named Troy. Willem loved him, and we thought he was going to be perfect on camera. The minute we rolled camera, he froze.
DEADLINE: Families on the East Coast go to Disney and Universal’s theme parks and drive right by the people you focused on here. What compelled you to shine a light on ordinary lives of people who are just invisible to most?
BAKER: My co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch forwarded me news articles about the situation in Kissimmee. His mother relocated there and he loves those parks. He just got wind of this situation just being there. He knows the topics I’m interested in and forwarded me all these articles. I was taken aback. I didn’t know that this was happening.
DEADLINE: What did the articles depict?
BAKER: You can actually Google ‘Kissimmee Motel Disney’ and you’ll see plenty. The statistics about the growing problem happening along Route 192, where all of these motels that were once tourist-targeted became the last refuge for people trying to keep a roof over their heads. The juxtaposition of children living in these conditions outside of what we consider the happiest place on earth for children was intriguing, but the same thing is happening in Anaheim, Boston, Chicago, New Jersey, nationwide, because of the affordable housing crisis.
I thought we would shine a light on this if we made an entertaining film. Tangerine taught me that if you win an audience over with comedy, then hopefully have a soulful message at the same time. I grew up with The Little Rascals, and always try to work a link into every one of my movies. This film was my opportunity to do a full out tribute to those Our Gang comedies.
DEADLINE: So instead of an expose, you made a movie about these unsupervised kids who were small enough to be oblivious to their hardships. Did the carefree nature of your trio of kids reflect the attitude of kids you met doing research?
BAKER: We went to some of these motels. They would be using the parking lots basically as their back yard. Wiffle ball, tag, kids being kids. You saw a change when they actually started to get a little bit older, 10, 11-years old where you can tell they’re a little more understanding of their situation. That was sad. We saw there was a change in their moods, their everyday personas. A lot of the young girls or boys we met who were in their preteens had a much different attitude than the ones who were 6 or 8.
DEADLINE: You shot in the Magic Kingdom, going back to your iPhone that was a staple of your previous films. How did that go?
BAKER: We asked those kids to run up the entire length of Main Street. They were getting exhausted, with those little legs. So we couldn’t do it so many times, and we were constantly battling weather because Florida afternoons get cloudy and it starts to rain. In the end, we actually had to CGI some of the sky to paint a cloudy and overcast sky blue so it popped.
DEADLINE: So this movie is more Avatar and Star Wars than people might think?
BAKER: There’s a good 50 effects shots in the movie that are all invisible.
DEADLINE: There are tourists with iPhones all over the park, shooting home movies only they will want to watch. Did you feel the need to ask permission?
BAKER: We definitely discussed all of the options, but there would have been an incredible amount of red tape and we had to move fast. Everybody has their iPhone, everybody’s shooting, posting on Instagram and YouTube within minutes, anyway. We thought if we did this right and weren’t in any way breaking the law, we’d have to tackle it this way.
DEADLINE: Yours isn’t the first movie to shoot there without permission. There was a Sundance movie a few years ago that hoped to rile Disney for the publicity benefits, but didn’t get a rise out of the Mouse.
BAKER: Escape From Tomorrow. And they didn’t have problems. We consulted the same lawyers. Disney is a large corporation, but what made us confident things weren’t going to get litigious is the fact that they knew our mission behind this film. They have a similar mission: they gave $500,000 last year to the Homeless Impact Fund which helps Central Florida. They saw our ultimate goal with this. It’s not about slamming corporations, it’s trying to help eradicate this problem. We haven’t heard from Disney but let’s just say we have heard from individuals who work for them and they’ve been very supportive.
DEADLINE: What informed your guerilla style of filmmaking, in natural settings where people in the background don’t even know a movie is being filmed?
BAKER: The non-judgmental approach to characters comes from the Italian neo-realists, the British social realists. Especially Ken Loach and Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh. Some have said I focus on marginalized communities but it’s not like that was my mission statement. I’ve just told stories that interest me, and that I’m not seeing enough of, on groups of people and subcultures that are often not seen. It’s because I want to see more of that and I want to learn and that stems from the Italian neo-realists, the British social realists. And the work of Chang-dong Lee, the South Korean director who did Poetry and Oasis and Secret Sunshine. Incredible. A film like Oasis I don’t think could be made here in the United States. It’s too edgy, it’s too dangerous, but it takes two outcasts and just puts a complete human face on that moment. That’s a director I admire greatly.
DEADLINE: When your film screened for buyers at Cannes where it was acquired by A24, it bore what sounded like a working title. What title did you consider beyond The Florida Project?
BAKER: When Chris pitched this to me, he said oh, by the way if we make this movie it has to be called The Florida Project. He said when Walt Disney was buying up land in that area for what became Walt Disney World and Epcot Center, that’s what they called it. I did like the fact that it did sound like a working title, like this was my Florida project. I like titles that aren’t completely spelled out. Because of my wink to The Little Rascals in this film, we could have called it Tinseltown Follies. It would have been fun but there’s an alternative definition for follies which means foolishness, and there you would be condescending to those people in the movie who basically are playing themselves.
DEADLINE: How did you convince Willem Dafoe to spend his summer in a seedy motel in sweltering Florida?
BAKER: He seemed to be on board right away. He’d seen Tangerine, read the script, and was more than halfway there by the time I met him for coffee. He has played a lot of bad guys recently, but I look back to Elias in Platoon, and his character in Mississippi Burning. You actually mourn when Elias dies, he’s the moral grounding on that film. His earlier work left no doubt he could do this.
DEADLINE: He was just as convincing when he was yelling at people as when he strong-armed a creep who seemed to be trying to prey on the kids as they played.
BAKER: That was a big scene, inspired by our first meeting with one of the motel managers that helped inspire the Bobby character. Chris and I walked onto the property of a hotel, not a motel, across the street from the Magic Castle. And this guy came out of nowhere because he suspected that Chris and I were pedophiles walking onto the property. I had my Chihuahua with me. It got really bad. He started interrogating us and I was just like oh, we’re doing research for an independent film. Chris said, we better talk with him, this doesn’t look good. And then, this gentleman actually opened up his world to us and met with Willem. But it was that moment with Chris and I that really helped inspire that scene. It is important, it’s where the audience starts to get the sense that it’s not all fun and games. When we were doing our interviews with everybody in that area, pedophilia kept coming up. They said it’s rampant down here. Pedophiles come there to play with these children who are so vulnerable. It was a subject we knew we had to tackle and we ended up doing it that way after finding out firsthand how a motel manager would react in that situation.
DEADLINE: Will you stay with this guerilla-style filmmaking, or will a more traditional Hollywood film be the next step?
BAKER: I don’t know yet. I do know, though, that I don’t think I can live with myself if I don’t have final cut or director’s cut, and I know that there’s a ceiling for that. I’ve always had final cut. But I would like to play in a bigger sandbox. I went to NYU wanting to make the next Die Hard.
DEADLINE: Die Hard?
BAKER: Oh, yeah. I grew up in Jersey in the suburbs and so I had a limited exposure to foreign and independent cinema. I started seeing them when I managed an art house theater in Jersey, but it wasn’t until I got to New York that I had access to all the classics. I had the anthology film archives. I had Lincoln Center. So it changed my exposure. But I got a job at a movie theater because I wanted to be a filmmaker, and my big films were RoboCop, Die Hard, and the original Dawn of the Dead. Near the end of high school is when Spike Lee and Jarmusch started to get a lot of attention. I was seeing Jarmusch stuff in the suburbs at the art house theater and Do The Right Thing, and it had such an impact. I remember being in high school actually taking a trip into New York just to get my Do The Right Thing screenplay signed by Spike Lee. I still have it.
DEADLINE: Those movies showed a different path?
BAKER: Yeah, I was getting older and maturing and I started to have more of a fascination and interest in character and social criticism and that’s what Spike Lee was doing. By the time I got into NYU it became a full on exploration of French New Wave and everything else. At NYU Kevin Smith had broken, and it was not that I was so influenced by Kevin Smith, but I was impressed by Kevin Smith and that he actually just went ahead and did it. I felt like I too wanted to also make a film about guys in the suburbs. And so I did with my first film, but with a very different approach. By the time I got out of NYU I was going down that road of becoming an independent filmmaker, maybe not even fully conscious of what I was doing. But I was staying in New York, I wasn’t targeting studios, I was going to try the route of Spike Lee, Jarmusch, Rick Linklater and others. Linklater was a big time influence. But I still love all genres, I really do. You look at my Letterboxd and you’ll see I watch everything.
DEADLINE: Your top three American films?
BAKER: Harold and Maude, Dawn of the Dead, Panic in Needle Park.
DEADLINE: You would expect a Jersey guy to put The Godfather and The Godfather 2 on that list.
BAKER: Don’t get me wrong. I loved those, and adore Scorsese’s films. Being from the Tri-State area, I love the depiction and the accuracy. I went to school in Jersey, I was surrounded by The Sopranos. I remember one high school party that was broken up by…well, let’s just say, I went to school with somebody who was very much like Meadow Soprano. And that’s all I want to say about that. So I do love that New York attitude and that’s dictated everything I’ve done. When I come out and make an LA movie like Starlet or Tangerine, I think there’s still a New York attitude in there and when I do Florida I still try to infuse that New York attitude in there.
But to answer your question, I don’t know whether big or small, and I actually am trying to figure out what the next move is, and I wish it was clearer. But nobody really knows, we’re all making it up as we’re running along. I talk to my agent, my partner and say, what is, for the lack of a better word, the coolest follow-up to Florida? It could be big, I could try some genre. Jordan Peele took a genre film and elevated it past where anybody else has. That’s pretty damn impressive.