While The Florida Project director Sean Baker tends to keep many of his collaborators close, there is one artist in particular who knows him better than anybody—his sister, production designer Stephonik Youth.
Growing up making films with Baker, Youth has risen through the ranks alongside her brother, finding her greatest test to date in his A24 social drama, which provided new opportunities and stressors at a new budget level. “It was a lot of letting go and a lot of learning,” Youth says of her experience on The Florida Project, in which she attempted to reconcile the demands of her below-the-line collaborators with her playful working practice.
Speaking with Deadline, the production designer attempts to process her breakthrough moment with Baker’s latest, speaking candidly about her passion for Instagram, her frustrations with past projects and her hopes for a future as a director of her own works.
Can you recall your feelings when Sean first told you about this project?
When he first talked about it, it was maybe 5 or 6 years ago, way before we were able to get financing for the film. He was talking about a different Florida, in a way—it’s gone through a transition.
Growing up with Sean, we were always making films together, so when he came to me with this idea, he really wanted us to capture that. When you’re young, everything’s sort of brighter, and things taste different. We wanted to put that on screen—a little amped-up, color-wise, and definitely a pastel palette.
Tangerine actually has a totally different palette—it’s really warm and red. The flip side of Florida is this candy-colored, pastel world that was so fun to run with. I was excited by that idea of making something a little bit elevated. Not just realism, but amped up a notch, like a kid would look at it.
How has your collaborative relationship with Sean evolved over the years?
It started so long ago. Sean had his first camera at four, and we were always making films together. If I was directing films, he would try to take over—I would have this sweet film happening, and by the end, there would be ten-year-old SWAT teams running in with fake guns. We were always a part of each other’s projects. I’m a musician, so I was dropping out sometimes—he would always ask me to be a part of it, and I would decide if I could do it.
I’m so glad that I said yes to this one. I’ve done films with him where I’m doing the music, but I feel like whatever he’s doing, whether I’m on the project or not, we’re probably talking about it before it’s happening. We’re close, so I hear about it.
But this was a much bigger deal for me. I think Snowbird was sort of a test. He’d surrounded himself with people that might be on The Florida Project. I didn’t know at the time, but I sort of passed the test. I had never worked with a huge crew before Florida, and that was a crazy learning experience because I actually had to explain to people what I was doing instead of just doing it myself.
It was a lot of letting go and a lot of learning. I think sometimes, the people that were in the union, that had worked on much bigger films than me, would look at me like, “Oh my God, what is she doing?” I would use grape soda for a stain on the wall, and they were just like, “Ahhh!” They had the formula to do some things, and I was just very playful. Sean and I have always been like that, playfully working.
A lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing, but I knew the way that Sean shoots, so I knew that the problems that they were seeing weren’t going to exist. It was a lot of telling people to just calm down and trust me and play.
Was the film’s aesthetic based primarily on what you found out on location in Florida?
There was so much there. On the 192, all those places like the Wizard Store and the Twisty Treat—it’s all so beautifully crazy, and it’s already there. It’s interesting too because Twisty Treats, they all look different in Florida. It’s a chain, but they all have their own, weird [signautre].
I love Instagram filters—I think we talked about that. Everything pops out. I wanted every frame to look like a beautiful photo. I was always running in and out, placing color around the frame.
It’s interesting that both you and Sean are so into Instagram. What is it about this resource that compels you?
I’m not sure. I’m actually on it too much—I’m breaking away from it. But I follow artists on there that inspire me. It’s just a big pool of inspiration.
Were the locations you mentioned easy to track down?
Yeah, just driving up 192 and also through Sean’s research. All those are meant to attract people going to Disney obviously, but also they all sort of seemed like a knockoff of Disney.
When Sean was researching, the motels were a lot dirtier. I had to sort of take it back five years. When we showed up at Magic Castle [Inn], they had repainted it in that great purple color and it was perfect looking. It was hard because I knew that we needed to dirty it up, and people were living there.
I was laying out cigarette butts and trash everywhere, and we would play with the light in Halley’s room by making a lot of dirt and stuff. I didn’t want them to feel, “Oh, this is what she thinks of me”. They said that to me a couple times—”Oh, you think this is the ghetto?” I had to say, “No, this is make believe. This is from five years ago.”
But there were even more that we didn’t get to shoot—there’s a lot of places that have pools where you buy meats and feed these tiny alligators. All the signage and stuff is just amazing.
Was The Magic Castle specified in the original script?
We definitely wanted Moonee to live in a castle, so when we found that Magic Castle motel, the name was perfect. It wasn’t painted like that; it was very dirty, and when they learned that we were shooting, they cleaned it up and painted it. Someone in Florida said to me that the paint job was like “lipstick on a pig,” which I had never heard before. The outside has this little flash of color, but it’s never really going to fix anything.
The other motel, we changed the name also to reflect the Disney theme. It was Paradise Inn, but we changed it to Future Land Inn to play off the Disney idea of Tomorrowland.
Were the interiors of the motel actually shot in that location?
Yeah, it was all in the motel and it became our cover set because every afternoon, it would rain. So, if we were supposed to shoot outside, we could just switch everything around and go into those rooms. It was toward the end of our shoot that we actually got to the Magic Castle, and we had three weeks there, so I was able to keep everything up and the lobby was a working lobby. The rooms took me a little more time, because I knew how long Halley was supposed to have lived there. I think it was about two years, so I really wanted Halley’s room to have some time in it. We used Fuller’s earth to change the light—a lot of dust—and it took me maybe a week to have it feeling like someone actually lived there. Halley and Moonee would spend time in there, and Halley would actually go and help me buy her things that she thought would be around her, which was usually a 99 cent store, like the one that they went to in the film.
Were all those empty houses out there, just as we see in the film?
They were painted those amazing colors already, and it was really filled with trash, but we had to take all that out for the safety of the kids and bring clean trash in. We did the graffiti, so it was like faking what was there with new material.
How has your experience as a multidisciplinary artist contributed to your work as a production designer?
When I first started working professionally, I was doing photography for a start-up web company. I was taking stills, and I thought of it as stills for films that didn’t exist. It was for a site called Heavy.com, and now they’re a totally different thing. I think I got a lot of practice doing that. I guess by working in all different roles, it’s like anything else—while you’re working in your own department, you’re more sensitive to the whole picture. You’re more sensitive to letting people alone when they have to do their thing and able to see where you fit in.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on The Florida Project?
Well, there was crazy heat. Sean had to change it up a little bit, how he usually works, but he was able to hold onto some things, which was improvising, not only with the actors, but in what we were going to shoot that day. For example, all the stuff in Magic Castle—all the stuff on the railings—that’s not there. The towels and the bikes, all that stuff was hard to keep track of, but I’d have to dress the whole motel, and then a rainbow or something would appear.
That rainbow, which we thought we were going to have to make [via] CGI, all of a sudden appeared when we were shooting. I think we were actually inside, and all of a sudden we all looked at the sky and Sean was like, “No, we have to shoot that”. So, we had to turn the cameras completely around, in 100 degree weather, and dress all those railings. I had never worked that quickly. There’s an AD that’s screaming for art to hurry up, and I was not used to that..
What do you think the success of this film will mean for you and Sean, looking forward?
It’s so surreal. I think we’re still processing it. People keep asking what the next thing is for him, and I think he really doesn’t want to say right now. But for me, it’s really inspiring. He’s my brother and we’re close, but it’s weird all of a sudden when someone gets to a place, and you look back and you’re like, “Oh, this is what you were doing.” It’s intimidating and also totally inspiring, the way that he climbed the ladder, and not in a calculated way.
Releasing art into the world hopefully launches one into a new platform to create more work. This is a big lesson for me. I did production design for Prince of Broadway and honestly at the time, even though I love the film, I didn’t see it as visually satisfying enough. Sean put out work that he may or may not have seen as perfect, but it at least was truthful, and completed and in the world.
After this experience, I am reminded again of how perfectionism is not my friend. I have bodies of work that I have kept to myself and that isn’t very useful if I am trying to create even richer experiences and resources for myself. I think that is what I’m really taking from the momentum of this experience. I am throwing my hat over the wall, so to speak. That is the only way that will lead me to the next stage. The only way I am going to get to direct my own weird fantastical feature I’m writing is to maybe kick my shabby little works out of my computer first.