Sean Baker Talks ‘The Florida Project,’ Going Pop Verité & Influences On The Film [Cannes]

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[My original interview for The Playlist can be viewed HERE]

After “Tangerine,” Sean Baker sets up his camera again with an eye towards uncharted America with “The Florida Project.” This time his eye goes towards the makeshift motels that litter the main avenues towards Disneyland, distilling a moist, colorful, and shimmering atmosphere, thanks to Alexis Zabe‘s beautiful photography.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is 6 years old and lives in a motel with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). On summer break, Mooney and her ragtag group of friends look for adventure as they roam through the outskirts of the motel while the adults around them struggle to make ends meet. Baker shoots his own “400 Blows” with his little band of insolent misfits. The atmosphere, paradoxically decadent and disenchanted, mixes what filmmaker himself calls “pop verité” cinema, to create a hybrid of hope and misery that feels both transcendent and groundbreaking.
The hijinks of the children rubs shoulders with the problems of the parents in a purple motel guarded by its concierge, a touching and funny Willem Dafoe. Seen through the eyes of these amazing kids, the world seems intriguingly beautiful, melancholic in fact, where every small detail counts and feels fresh again. Meanwhile on the upper floors, parents unfortunately are in utter indifference, as they struggle with adult problems way beyond any kid’s comprehension.
Like “Tangerine,” it is this sense of freedom, freshness and energy that, in Baker’s mise-en-scene, from the camera to the non-professional actors, the film maps contemporary America. Baker doesn’t succumb to the sirens of miserabilism, even though the final, sad frame might hint at this. Instead, he prefers the fanciful fantasy of the children who, in their flight forward, give themselves moments of happiness by the simple light of a blue sky.
Baker is the architect and painter, who knows how to find these eminently human emotions. We spoke to him about, what I consider to be, the best film of Cannes 2017.
I want to know how this film was born because it’s unlike any world I’ve seen before. The people depicted in the film are usually not seen in movies
I didn’t even know about them myself, I had no idea. I’ve met people on the street, people in shelters, but that’s the extent of it. I’ve never really know there was this entire hidden homeless situation going on in which you have families that are basically, that’s their last refuge, they are making just enough to keep a roof over their kids heads or their heads and the next step is on the street. Also, if they can’t make the payment for an entire week and that means they’re literally $45 from making it in the street. I’ve seen families pushing down shopping carts up and down [highway] 192 with two kids trailing behind and they’re moving from motel to motel because obviously they were booted from one and it’s really an incredibly sad situation.
How did you find out about this world?
Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, is obsessed with Disney. Chris has written with me the last three [including] “Starlet” and “Tangerine,” and I think you’ll see a difference between those three and [his previous efforts] “Prince of Broadway” and “Takeout” in that there springs a more mainstream sensibility. I mean, he is fanboy central, he is Comic-Con, “Star Wars,” Disney, whereas I’m Tarkvosky, but boom we meet somewhere in the middle and we have been sort of figuring what we want to do, and he brought me this world and I had no idea this existed. You know, his mother is living in Orlando now, and he would drive up and down the 192 and he would notice that there are kinds around the clock hanging around these motels and he was wondering if they were tourists or residents, and then I think his mother actually gave him this article about [world around] Disney being homeless. You will see plenty of articles written, since the recession, that a lot of these tourist motels that actually had Disney type themes, they would actually rip off Disney.
You even have tourists show up for their honeymoon and ask themselves, “What the hell is this place?”
Exactly. He showed me these articles and I was intrigued and we started taking these trips to Florida and he showed me the whole environment. That route, 192, is incredible, because you have all these colorful motels, but hanging round there it’s obvious that there are people living in poverty and it’s exploited by some tourists as well. So that’s what brought it to my attention and then we tried to figure out what we would do. Now, this was almost six years ago. We tried to make this before “Tangerine,” but we couldn’t fund it. “Tangerine” opened the doors for me for the financing of this film. So I’m really glad it didn’t happen for many reasons, because I think it would have been a very different film, because “Tangerine” kind of helped us out in trying to figure out how we’re going to change our style into a more pop verité instead of straight forward cinema verité. Also, if we had made this movie six years ago Brooklynn would have, literally, been in diapers [Laughs]
She had to mature a bit to have that potty mouth [Laughs]
Yeah, and she’s the best. When casting I was saying we need to find today’s Spanky McFarland, if we can find Spanky McFarland and we found him in Brooklyn. I feel convinced we did.
Did you audition a lot of people for that role?
We did, probably in the hundreds or so, we cast a wide net, no matter what background. You know, we were looking at rich kids from Winter Park and we were also looking at motel kids. We just said whomever wants to audition. Christopher Rivera [Scotty in the film] blew us away in his audition, and he was actually a motel kid. Thank God he’s not there anymore, he’s now living with his grandparents outside the motel. So that’s an example, that kid he’s from that environment, he knows that environment.
You know, one thing that I found shocking is the fact that they pay $1000 in rent per month
Yeah, they pay basically what were paying, and we struggle to pay it. They have to make that amount, but can never have any savings. You know, there’s no security. I mean, the whole reason they’re there is because they have either lost their job or bad credit or, you know, they simply don’t have enough money to get a lease. Sometimes, as in the situation with Halley, she found herself in a situation where was unemployable. All the issues that stem from a recession, and then the housing boom, I think it’s still affecting families, they’re still facing this.
I’m sure the movie doesn’t show all the extents they go to obtain that $1000
They’re not all unemployed, I show that Ashley has her job, but it’s probably minimum wage and minimum wage won’t get you there. There’s welfare, there’s TANIF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), but in order to qualify for it you need to have 30 hours of employment.
A week?
A week, so if you are in a situation where you suddenly have to look after a kid and it’s not during the school year, but the summer, all these situations put Halley [in a situation where] there simply is no other way, but to hook. I also saw Halley as so independent and finding ways to survive on hr own, she doesn’t have any family to speak of, she’s probably completely uneducated, she had her kid at 15, she’s unemployable by the [theme] parks, you know there are so many numerous reasons that got her to this place.
Did you ever have any urge to shoot this film on an iPhone?
Umm, no and I’ll tell you why. I did do a fashion film after “Tangerine” [“Snowbird“], but I didn’t want to continue it just because, well there are several reasons I didn’t want to. I don’t want to become the “iPhone guy,” and, on top of that, it’s a project by project basis, I don’t think it would have worked. The iPhone was made for “Tangerine,” and vice versa, there was something about it, it was very organic in the way we came about it, it was never a stunt on our part, it was done out of necessity, it was done also for aesthetic purposes and the way we were going to shoot guerilla style. This one I knew I was working with more money, and at the same time I wanted that richness, that organic quality of film, I wanted every frame to be photographed. Alexis Zabe, whose worked with Carlos Reygadas, he is so talented and when I realized he was available and he wanted to work with me I was like “Oh my GOD.” He’s an artist and really understood the film and what I was going for, we were both on the same page all the time, we wanted this sort of pop-verite thing, and he was able to take these Floridian colors and this wonderful production design that my sister concocted, her name is Stephonik Youth, to really make it candy-coated.
It’s so pretty look at, you just nail the summer colors
There was something that Alexis and I agreed on and nailed. When you were younger, your senses were stronger as a kid, I remember when my sense of smell was stronger and my hearing and I assume you’re also seeing the world a little brighter and the colors all seem brighter and that’s what Alexis did.
Everything just seems more interesting as a kid, you could just look at a lamp post and be like “wow.”
That’s what weed is for actually [Laughs].
Any influences you had in making this movie?
That’s the crazy part. I’m here in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and Bruno Dumontis here. “Lil’ Qunquin” was a major influence. Look at how these kids act, there are long takes, fast cutting, and being able to rely on their performances, we looked at that film, we looked at [Francois Truffaut‘s] “Small Change,” [Roman Polanski‘s] “Tess” was a biggie.
Thank you for your time, I’ve seen many movies these past 10 days at the festival but yours, I can safely say, is the best and most touching movie that I have seen.
That’s very nice and means a lot to me, especially coming from you, that really touches me, thank you.
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