Interview: Sean Baker on Making The Florida Project

Baker discusses how he works with first-time actors and why it’s hard to make character studies for American audiences.

Interview: Sean Baker on Making The Florida Project
Photo: Marc Schmidt/A24

Writer-director Sean Baker’s brand of neo-neorealism focuses on people, like Tangerine‘s fierce transsexual prostitute or Prince of Broadway’s immigrant hustler, who’re ordinarily seen only in the background of films and TV shows—if at all. His latest, The Florida Project, offers a non-judgmental, child’s-eye view of life in the Magic Castle, one of the seedy but fabulous motels in the outer orbit of Orlando’s Disney World that function as temporary housing for people one step ahead of homelessness.

While helicopters take off in the background, like emissaries from another planet, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), roam happily through the motel and the surrounding area, exploring their turf like a pack of wild dogs under the indulgent but protective eye of the motel’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, Moonee’s very young and rebellious mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), while hustling hard to support them, creates an environment risky enough to trigger an investigation by the Department of Children and Families.

Baker called me from a train from New York to Philadelphia, where the film was about to have a gala preview at the Philadelphia Film Festival. We talked about how he works with first-time actors, why it’s hard to make character studies for American audiences, and the many factors that make it hard for people like Moonee and her mother to form stable, long-term relationships.

You like to mix first-time actors with seasoned professionals, and in Tangerine you included things that the non-professional actors had experienced in their own lives. You’ve said you modeled that process after Mike Leigh, who also mixes professional and amateur actors and who does a lot of rehearsal and character development with his cast before shooting his films. Did you do something similar with this one?

There’s a degree of that in what I do, but I’ve never had firsthand experience with Mike Leigh’s process. From what I’ve read, he spends a lot of time developing his scripts through improvisational workshops. That’s not really the case with my films. We have scripts or script treatments when we get to the place where we’re filming. Then we find the actors, who’re sometimes first-time actors. To find out if they can pull it off, we put them in scenarios to see how natural they are in front of the camera. They’ll have a little bit to go on, sometimes our scripted dialogue and sometimes just themes and an arc to follow. I record all of those scenes, and sometimes we hear a line or two that we really like and we make sure that gets into the final script.

But to answer your question, this is a little different from Tangerine because the children had to be approached in a different way. We had an acting coach, Samantha Quan, who basically turned the set into a summer camp for them. Every day when I was shooting something else or focusing on something else, the kids were with her, usually the motel rooms where we were shooting. They would be kept entertained by acting exercises that didn’t feel like work to them, learning about their characters and the scenarios. I would check in every once in a while to see how things were going and give my input.

Bria and Mela [Murder], the two moms—those were the scenes that we applied that Mike Leigh approach to. Bria was 100% green. She’d never acted before in her life. Mela had made a short, and most of that film was improvised. They had to learn how to memorize lines, and they had to get to the place, through these workshops, where they understood these characters and the plot enough that they could actually riff on it. There’s one scene, the one where they’re in the pool together, that was almost entirely improvised, because they’d gotten to the point where they understood their characters and they understood the themes and what they had to hit in terms of bullet points. We ran the camera on them for about 10 minutes and got a perfect little, like, 20 seconds that encapsulated the relationship they were in at that time. They even got in a joke there about Moonee and her love of maple syrup.

As usual in your films, friendship is a big theme here. The rhythm of Moonee and her friends’ summer days is pretty much the whole narrative arc of the movie, and mostly it feels very realistic: The camera seems to just follow along as they run free. How much of what they did when they were playing was just them playing and how much was scripted?

I don’t think there were any scenes that were 100% just watching the kids be kids because there wasn’t time for that. Trust me: I really wanted that. I asked for 60 days and I only got 35 days. I’ll never do that again. But the only time I got the kids to just play was when they were making fart sounds. Valeria [Cotto, who played Jancey] and Brooklynn became very good friends while we shot—and they actually remain best friends. So that was sweet, and that allowed us to shoot them holding each other and looking out to the lake and just being friends. The boys were different. Those boys were eight years old, so you can imagine: They’re not exactly loving hanging out with girls. I’m glad it came across that everybody was friends, but it got a little hairy at times.

After Tangerine , you said you wanted to get away from classic three-act storytelling in your movies and make more loosely structured character studies, and you’ve definitely done that with this one. How did this way of telling a story live up to what you were hoping for? Is this the start of a whole new way of working for you?

Did you see Take Out?

Yeah. I really liked it too.

Thank you! That had a structure to it. I don’t need a structure, but I understand that audiences, especially U.S. audiences, do. I’m reading a lot on Twitter and Facebook that people are actually a little upset at what they consider the lack of a three-act structure—

For this one?

Yeah. And I don’t know what to say about that. I really don’t. And then I talk to Europeans, and they’re telling me I’m still too structured. I’m looking at the films of Ruben Östlund—The Square and the stuff before Force Majeure, because Force Majeure was actually pretty structured, but the stuff before it wasn’t. I look at that as very progressive filmmaking. It’s just that I don’t think a lot of audiences totally want this yet. I guess. I don’t know. As long as I’m able to keep making film, I guess I’ll be happy, but you have to give a certain amount to the audience. They’re just expecting it. I’ve learned that.

So you’ve been inspired by Östlund and Mike Leigh. What about Ramin Bahrani? Is he someone with whom you feel a kinship?

A kinship, yes. Not inspiration, because we’re basically the same age and we’ve been doing a lot of the same things all along. Take Out and Man Push Cart were made basically the same year, and then Prince of Broadway and Goodbye Solo were made the same year. We’ve been covering the same subjects again and again. And even though I think our styles are different, I think our inspirations are the same. We both get a lot from Italian neorealism. Plus, I love the guy. He’s a really wonderful person. He also is very much inspired by the Persian, not New Wave, but whatever that period was before the New Wave, in the ‘80s, where Amir Naderi made the movie The Runner. That actually was a big influence on my film, and I know that he’s worked with Amir. So we definitely have a lot in common in terms of our sensibilities.

What was your process for creating this film? I know your writing partner, Chris Bergoch, brought you the idea, but what then? Did you do journalistic-style research and interviews?

We had to have a treatment so we could get a grant from Cinereach to start The Florida Project‘s research, so we had to break something on our own from the news stories that we read. There were actually a lot of videos, such as Nightline-type coverage of the homeless situation in the vicinity of the Orlando area. But the treatment was only about a mother-daughter relationship, and we knew that the ending was going to have her run to Disney World, and that was about it. We actually had an opiod-addiction subplot. Then when we went there, our focus changed, like it always does, where you immerse yourself enough in a world, and the characters that you’re fleshing out become an amalgamation of who you met. Meeting motel managers really changed our approach to the film. We met one man in particular who opened up his world to us, and all the motel managers are almost like reluctant father figures. That very much inspired the Bobby character.

The motel’s permanent residents do make up a kind of family, with Bobby as a father figure for the kids. For the most part, you feel like everyone there can count on each other, as is often the case in low-income communities where everyone understands what it means to need help.

There’s also the very sad fact that a lot of those relationships will fall apart very quickly. Because the people there are in survival mode, something can happen where a relationship will become strained very quickly.

Halley doesn’t seem to have any friends or family at all outside of her little world. When you were doing your research, did you find that a lot of the people who live in those motels were that isolated?

There were single moms who were definitely looking for support from a man, and besides that they had just one or two friends, but those relationships were very volatile and could fall apart at any moment. A lot of these people living in these motels are transient, so they don’t have time to create long-term relationships. There’s also a lot of other issues going on. Basically, your lives are open to everyone else when you’re in an environment like that, so there are social issues that pop up, whether it’s jealousy or competition or maybe addiction problems. I feel like the Halley character. I’m not going to say she represents all single moms in that situation; she definitely doesn’t. There’s an extreme there that we’re showing. But at the same time, I did meet the real Halleys and they do exist. And they were very isolated.

I actually thought you showed a pretty good range of parental behavior and the effects different styles had on the kids’ lives. Halley is at one extreme, and as a result Moonee is at the greatest risk, but then there’s Dickie’s dad, the strictest parent we see, who is able to move his kid out of the motel when he gets a job someplace else. Scooter’s mom, Ashley, is kind of in the middle, holding down a low-paying but steady job that lets her pay her bills without doing anything illegal but keeps her stuck in that life.

I wish I had had more time to focus on the different kinds of families. There are also families with two parents, and I tried to show that. But it’s difficult when you have a feature running time. You can only show so much.

What made you think of Willem Dafoe for the part of Bobby? It’s so different from what he usually does.

I looked at his entire career. So when his name came across the table, I was thinking of the sweetness of the protagonists that he played in earlier films, such as Platoon and Mississippi Burning, even Light Sleeper. I know he was a drug dealer in that film, but he had a kind of straight-man approach to it. So when his name came across the table, I knew he was transformative, and that was really what mattered. And I knew he was an artist, so it wouldn’t just be a job to him. I knew he would be actually really trying to find this Bobby character with me. Also, we just connected right away. When we were talking about the project, I saw that he was passionate about learning more about that world and the politics. He really liked the script.

You’ve said that Bergoch, who came up with the idea for this film, grew up in that area and loves Disney World, but to me Disney World comes off pretty badly here. Maybe it’s just my preexisting prejudices, but it feels like this antiseptic, inaccessible, wildly overpriced place peddling a cheesy version of the American dream that’s predicated partly on pretending that people like Moonee and her mother and their whole social circle don’t exist.

I think that might be your prejudice. To tell you the truth, I went into this thinking this might be a finger-pointing thing as well, but being down there I saw that most of the change could actually come from the federal government funding HUD and supporting city and local government, and the private sector is actually trying their best to help out. Even Disney made a $500,000 donation to the Homeless Impact Fund, which helps central Florida, last year. Chris was very adamant about not slamming Disney with this film. He actually tried to integrate a lot of the tropes from Disney World into the scenario. At the same time, we could all step up we could all make a difference, and hopefully this could push Disney to make another charitable contribution.

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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