American independent filmmaker Sean Baker discusses his latest film, The Florida Project (2017), a sensory-driven, DayGlo look into the world of families living in motels in the economic shadow of Disney World. The film focuses on the mother-daughter relationship between Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) over the course of one summer, largely from the perspective of Moonee and her friends.
We spoke to Sean Baker following the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival about the story’s origins, working with Alexis Zabe, motifs in Baker’s films, and realism v. convention in Hollywood filmmaking. This interview contains spoilers pertaining to the film’s conclusion in the last question.
The Seventh Art: How did you first conceive of the film’s story with Chris Bergoch and how has that relationship evolved over the last three films?
Sean Baker: Our relationship goes way back to NYU and he worked as an unofficial member of Greg the Bunny (2005). When we started working on screenplays together, he knew what I was looking for in terms of subject matter, so we were quickly on the same page with Starlet (2012). It was right around Starlet that he brought the topic of The Florida Project to me. He knows Disney in and out, his mother lives in Kissimmee and he’s really closely connected. I guess he came across news articles about the situation where you have families down there living in budget motels right outside the parks. He brought this to my attention right around Starlet – I can’t remember if it was pre or post – but it was something I was really interested in. Obviously it’s an important issue that I did not know about, it’s a nationwide issue. I felt it was something that would be interesting to try to dramatize, to shine some light on it.
But also, I’ve always wanted to make a Little Rascals movie [laughs]. I’ve been very influenced by the Little Rascals, you’ve probably seen it in all my films; obviously Prince of Broadway (2008) had a lot of definite winks to the series – even Tangerine (2015) and Starlet have them. But I was never able to make a full-out tribute to Little Rascals and I thought this might be my opportunity to do so. If you think about what the Little Rascals were: set against the Great Depression and most of the kids living in poverty, but it wasn’t focused on that at all. It was focused on the kids’ comic adventures and I felt that was a very interesting take. Especially if we did it today where it would be more evident, hopefully leaving the audience with an issue they hadn’t known about – bringing awareness to something I think is important, but at the same time making something that’s entertaining first and foremost. Cinema is an entertainment medium, so I want to make people laugh, to move people.
I think I’m glad it didn’t happen back in 2011-12, for many reasons, but one of them is that with Tangerine, I think we found a style: covering an important subject, but was digestible through comedy. We decided to do that again with The Florida Project, focusing on the humour, the comic adventures of little children. It wasn’t completely a six year process, because it was on-and-off again, but we always knew it was going to be a mother and daughter story. When we actually knew we were going into production, once Tangerine opened doors for us and helped us find financing, we started taking regular trips down to Florida. We got a grant from Cinereach that helped us with those trips. We did what we always do: start off with interviews, finding people who want to tell their stories, people in the community that want to collaborate to any degree. I was interviewing a motel manager who really opened his life to us and in many ways he inspired the Bobby character [played by Willem Dafoe]. Then it all started to come together.
It’s interesting how much came from that interview. I’m interested in how your work consistently deals with class and capital, but more specifically work. All the films are structured around work or the lack of work.
We played a film festival that I don’t know if it’s around anymore, it was called the D.C. Labor Film Fest. I started to realize that, yeah, every film is a labour film. I don’t know why. I think that I’m interested in exploring that, but also the underground economy – that side of labour. The fact that it exists in this capitalist society is fascinating. It’s an economy that people resort to because they can’t make it in the mainstream for many reasons, they’re unable to work in that system. It’s something I’ve been exploring with every film.
When you were doing those scouting trips, how did you decide upon how you would create this world and represent it along with [cinematographer] Alexis Zabe?
It’s weird, because I think Alexis had a handle on the visuals even before I did. I think he read the script and it may have been a subconscious thing of mine – I’m not sure – but I loved his work with Carlos Reygadas. I loved Silent Light (2007). It’s very mature, very sophisticated, high-brow, 2.35:1 anamorphic cinematography. Then he has this other world, where he works in music videos. He’s done Die Antwoord videos, Pharrell’s “Happy” video… I think what I was looking for was actually a melding of both things: bringing that pop sensibility to a very mature, classic look. I think he knew that’s what we were heading for the entire time, but I remember some time in pre-production I was starting to show him films that were all Eastern European films: Ulrich Seidel, Kieślowski… He said, “Yeah Sean, I love all these movies, they’re all great. But that’s cold Eastern Europe and we’re shooting in Florida.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, I know… I guess it’s the subject matter, but yeah, you’re right.” Then we took a trip down there and we were always aware that there was so much production value just being given to us. Route 192 and Florida in general provides a wonderful palette: there’s these Floridian colours, kitsch small businesses that are trying to rip-off the parks (because they’re targeting the same audience), they’re brightly coloured, kid-like, candy-coated. So you get purple motels, orange domes, it’s all there and it was just about capturing it. I think what Alexis did was pop the colours by just a degree and then my sound design, we brought the ambience up to have the cicadas right in your face, the helicopter and all of that. I realized that the reason we were doing all that was to emulate what your senses are like when you’re a child. I feel like my senses have dulled over the years; I’m not hearing the same decibels, the colours don’t seem as bright and vibrant. When you’re a kid, it’s all enhanced, and that’s what we were going for with the cinematography and the production design.
That subjective view may even be closer to Post Tenebras Lux (2012).
It has your distinct style in how the camera moves, it embodies a subjectivity in a similar way to Tangerine, despite the different shooting processes. How did you communicate that style to Alexis?
We worked together on a fashion film just before this for Kenzo called “Snowbird”. We really connected there, we were on the same page the entire time. He had seen my other films, so he knew my style, and as a cinematographer he adapted. Often for me it’s subconscious, for me I’m not aware of it until it’s hindsight. I look at these three films and I see the similarity in the aesthetics.
Were there any moments where Bria Vinaite or Brooklynn Prince’s performances changed the characters? Did the film stick to the script fairly closely?
We were toying with the idea… there were issues that we didn’t cover that were happening in that area. You can’t cover everything, especially when you’re trying to make a point. We were considering covering the Opioid epidemic, as well, because it’s prevalent there. It used to be pill mills, they shut those down, now they have heroin addicts. We were considering that Halley would have a habit, but that was going to muddy things up. We didn’t want to do that, so that was a change that happened semi-late. But other than that, to tell you the truth, no. The reason I cast Bria is because I felt at the surface level there were parallels. She grew up with a single mother, she’s from Lithuania and came over at 8 years old – parallel experiences, not in any way as harsh as Halley, but I think there were things she could pull from her real life. We were already set with understanding the characters, so that when we cast Bria and Brooklynn it was solidified.
That does not apply to the Bobby character. He had a brother. We were deep into production, almost three weeks into production, and we were still looking for his brother. You could imagine the names that we were thinking of… think his age, [Willem’s] calibre. We were actually out to them, so if they had said yes it would be a different movie, but there were scheduling conflicts. Then, I just realized one night during production, because we rewrite during production, that we were dealing with so many parental themes in the film. The mother characters were really coming to the surface – Halley and Ashley – that we should continue that and give Bobby a son from a family that’s estranged. The second I thought of that, the next second I thought of Caleb Landry Jones [laughs]. I remember way back when I watched Antiviral (2012), I was like, “This kid has to play Willem Dafoe’s son one day, he looks so similar.” He’s just as transformative as Willem, he can go from playing a crazy, over-the-top character in Get Out (2017) to just an every man.
This film’s narrative structure is not as clear-cut, as classic as some of your other films. It switches rhythms at times, breathes. Was that something you had planned or you discovered in cutting the film?
Like every film, I try to take some time off before editing. I try to get as much time as possible. The Duplasses gave me 3-4 months before editing Tangerine. This one they didn’t really give it to me, but I took it because I couldn’t actually get myself into the editing mode. We knew the Cannes deadline was the target, so we knew at some point I had to get moving, but I wanted to take time away from it so that when I returned to it… It’s almost like I was a documentary editor; I was seeing footage for the first time and make a story out of it. It’s like re-writing in post-production. What I do that I think helps me in this situation (I’m not sure), I don’t do an assemble cut, I don’t even do a rough cut. I go right to a fine cut. I’m making sure every scene is complete, even with preliminary sound design, before moving on to the next scene. I think that the pacing is so important and what we actually show or don’t show is very important, so one scene will dictate the next. Once you get it all down, then there’s ordering and adjusting, cutting out.
We actually cut out a lot of exposition. We realized that the exposition wasn’t necessary and we were playing with what a small child would be absorbing, how much they would be aware and had to be aware of certain details in order to understand what’s happening in their lives. We applied that to what the audience would be seeing. Chris and I, to be safe, we had scenes that were really fleshed out with exposition – very procedural. The whole ending with child welfare services, we had more of the procedure. It was very Law & Order-ish or C.S.I. where we shot scenes that didn’t make it in that explained it exactly. Details were very important to us and we wanted to be responsible, be authentic. So we interviewed a DCF [Department of Children and Families] officer, passing the script by her to make sure it was all accurate, but then in the final cut I cut it out and went with the more extraneous stuff: the kids dancing on the bed. That’s never something that moves the story along, but who cares, that doesn’t matter. I’m so sick and tired of hearing Screenwriting 101, that you have to have a three act structure, you have to constantly be moving the story forward. It’s bullshit, it’s only mainstream Hollywood cinema that actually follows those conventions. I think it’s actually a little bit old school at this point, it’s not necessary. For me, character is most important, and if we’re telling a story like this where I need the audience to really connect with Moonee and Halley – to love them so much that the end will be impactful, but they’ll leave the theatre thinking about the real Moonees and Halleys out there – the only way to achieve that is to spend time with them in those moments that have nothing to do with plot. Let’s watch them dance, hide and seek, eat Waffle House… all that stuff, everyday life, because that’s what makes the audience really feel like they’re spending time with these characters. I think [laughs]. This is all me hoping that things work, that’s all that filmmaking is.
It makes sense to me, because earlier in your career there were a lot of critics comparing you work to the Dardenne brothers, Italian neo-realism, but now it’s maybe closer to a subjective realism, like Fellini. It can incorporate those heightened moments that aren’t like documentary or procedural because it’s more of an internal state.
Yeah, I agree with you. There’s a fine line. If you ask me what films I would watch if you gave me those filmmakers, all their Blu-Rays on a desert island, I would lean towards the Dardennes or Ken Loach, even though I love Fellini. I still lean toward the true realism, so it’s weird. I definitely see that perhaps we’re living in a time where audiences need a little bit more Fellini [laughs].
One thing I thought back to after the film ended was that you open with [Kool & the Gang’s] “Celebration”. After you watch the film, you realize those magical moments from Moonee’s perspective, these celebrations her mom orchestrates for her or Jancey. Was celebration a theme you were thinking about in the writing of the film?
It was definitely something I was conscious of, but I don’t remember when I chose that song. It was close to production, but it was definitely in the screenplay, because I knew I would have the title sequence play that song on the purple wall. There are so many contradictions and juxtapositions in that world, I wanted to be setting the audience up to a certain degree. That whole city and the county is all there because of the parks, it’s all about celebration – there’s literally a town called Celebration next door. When you think of being on the main street of Disney World, you think of a celebration. It’s all about that, but right in the shadows of it, there are things that are far from celebratory. At the same time, in a kid’s life, summers are celebratory. I’m just playing with the contradiction, the irony, but not for cynical reasons, I don’t think. It’s to make a point: you’re down there, spending maybe thousands of dollars on your family vacation celebrating, but not aware – not even an ignorance, because they’re not ignoring – of this hidden population that exists. But those people are very aware that this is happening, that this is a place of great happiness for the tourists that pass through their lives every day. I’m a bit inarticulate right now, but it’s coming back to me because you’re the first one asking about that stuff. Even when we were there, it was very strange to be spending more than a weekend or a week there. To spend three months there, we started to see that the artifice is right in your face. You feel even when you’re at a motel that you’re on a set, one that’s set up to serve the tourism. It’s all tourism, you feel that your lives are just serving tourists.
Did you always know how you would end the film or did you determine that in the edit? You mention the juxtaposition and contradictions, it’s not an ironic film, but it recognizes the different registers. Was there then a debate over how to end the film? Would it be didactic or ambiguous?
To tell you the truth, for all of these films I think that getting the down is one of the first moves. Before we go into a treatment, we’ve already figured out the ending. In this case, the ending morphed a little bit, but not much. It was always two kids running to the magic castle and Disney. Why? Because I wanted that sense of imagination, we watch Moonee being imaginative the entire ninety minutes, make the best of things. My goal with the last scene, right after Jancey grabs Moonee’s hand and we cut from 35mm to iPhone, it’s an abstract moment that’s up for interpretation, but it’s my way of saying we’re entering that realm of imagination – experiencing the world in the way that perhaps Moonee does. That was my goal from the beginning. The interesting part is that I interpret it slightly differently than even my co-screenwriter. He feels something different about it. When I ask my actors, they feel something different about it. That’s what I like, allowing the audience to do what they want to do with that scene. To be quite blunt with you, I feel that the film ends, unfortunately, when she says “Goodbye.” That’s the end of the movie, I’m sure the cops show up two seconds later, DCF is there, and they take her. We were in a place where we could be hopeful, the audience is already – hopefully – remembering their own childhood through this film, and this is a moment for me to fully immerse them back into that.