As Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida last week, people shuttered themselves in their homes to ride out the biggest storm recorded to date in the Atlantic. But many people living in precarious situations found themselves being ushered to emergency shelters, forced to live perhaps for days alongside strangers, having to share their food, their sleeping space and even bathroom trips with individuals they had never met.
The characters of Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project could perhaps have been found huddled in one of these Florida shelters, forced to abandon the run-down motels they inhabit in cities like Orlando, which have become the only place they can call home. One can in a way visualize a scenario of prostitution and drug dealing in these dwelling, but what Baker brings to our attention is something we are only too quick to forget: the children that grow up in the innards of motel life, having to fend for themselves in a regular basis and forced to grow up much faster than they should.
In a phone interview, Sean Baker talks about the people behind the film, and how his previous movie Tangerine made The Florida Project possible.
Why did you choose Florida as location for your film?
Motel life, in which you have individuals living out of motels as basically their last resort before becoming homeless, happens all over the United States. But my co-screen writer’s mother lives in Orlando and he was the one that brought my attention to it, and I realized that even though this is happening nationwide, the irony here is extreme being that it’s right in the vicinity of the parks (Walt Disney World). So that’s really the reason we focused on that area, but it’s a story that could take place anywhere in America.
Was it difficult to obtain funding for the film? Or did you already have that covered?
At first, I could not get funding for this. And that’s why I actually made my previous film Tangerine, because I could not find funding. I need it to be bigger, and I really wanted to shoot this on film, so it was something I couldn’t shoot at the time (in 2013) when we wanted to. Tangerine opened the doors for me, and it ended up finding us the funding because Andrew Duncan and Alex Saks of June Pictures knew of Tangerine and they liked it very much. We talked about this idea and they said they would fully fund it, gave me artistic freedom and final cut. So it was hard to pass that up.
So you abandoned shooting on an iPhone like you did with Tangerine, for 35 mm?
Oh no. It basically comes down to a film by film basis. My first film was shot on 35 mm, my other films on high end digital equipment. For Tangerine I had a very low budget, but it wasn’t like I didn’t want to repeat it and I do feel like I’m going to do it again in the future. But it really depends on many things, not just the budget and the logistics, but also the content, which has to complement the iPhone. And actually, although this is a bit of spoiler, we do use the iPhone again for a very short sequence in The Florida Project.
Did you have the casting already in mind, Willem Dafoe in particular?
To tell you the truth, there’s a lot of ways we could have gone with Bobby, Willem Dafoe’s character and we wanted to keep our options open. I found out that Willem was a fan of Tangerine and the fact that he is such a transformative actor so it seemed to me a no-brainer. Once I had him on board, it was a question of adapting what Chris (Bergoch) and I had already written to match his age. But it was also his willingness to act with a bunch of first-timers, and that’s also difficult, it’s a whole other way of working. Although I have to point out that Brooklynn Prince who plays Moonee in the film is not a first-timer. She was already a working actor, so she was prepared. With the other children, I just had an open casting call and street casting which I love to do. That’s actually how I found Valeria (Cotto), in a Target store with her mom.
Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee’s mother (Halley) I actually found her on Instagram. She had a vibe that made me say, “This is what I’m looking for in this character.” She came down to Florida, and had her audition with the kids, and it all worked out. A few other characters I cast through watching some short films, and then we had our L.A. casting director bring in people like Caleb Landry Jones to play Willem’s son.
I really like experimenting with casting and finding different ways, especially now with social media you have so many more ways in which directors can sometimes find people on their own, and I (absolutely) love that.
In your films, is the palette always intentional? They just seem to have their own particular “color,” if you will.
Oh yeah, most definitely. Playing with color for an emotional effect I think is one of the tools a filmmaker has so why not use it? What’s wonderful is that usually the locations that I’m shooting in come with their own palette already. Los Angeles has a very specific feel when you capture it on the iPhone, and when you’re shooting all around Magic Hour, the warm hues are just enhanced and then of course we enhanced them even more in post-production.
With Florida, you have that Floridian “look” those beautiful pastels in pink, yellow, green that is part of the environment that you’re going to capture no matter what. We shot in a row of abandoned condominiums which have now been torn down which were the most incredible pastel-primary colors which just made this magnificent rainbow effect throughout the movie.
When did you start thinking about submitting the film to Cannes?
My entire career (Cannes) has been a destination that I’ve wanted to get to. We knew that if I kept to my editing schedule, we would be finished on time to submit. So for me it was a goal from very early on.
What do you want the audience to take away when they watch The Florida Project?
The message is very similar to Tangerine. I want the audience to be entertained, to be laughing and to be lost in that moment. But I also deal with very heavy and topical issues that are happening in the United States, and I didn’t want to hit the audience too hard over the head with that. I wanted to leave them hopefully with a desire to learn more about the issues in the film, wanted them to fall in love with Moonee and her mother, and maybe when they leave the theater to go home, they might start to ask the questions, “Why is this happening to these people?” “Why is there even a motel life?” Ask questions about the hidden homeless. Maybe they’ll go home and start looking into the topic because awareness is always the first step for change. With Tangerine, people to this day contact me on social media and tell me they were so moved by the characters and wanted to know what they could do to help. So my hope is that the same awareness happens with The Florida Project.
Are you working already on a future film?
I have a couple of films in development, in the same wheelhouse in terms of character based “dromedy.” But right now we’re very much in the infancy of the whole thing.