'The Florida Project' Director Explains How He Captured the Dark Side of Disney World

Florida Project

You don’t need to have seen Sean Baker’s movies to enjoy his latest, The Florida Project, but it helps; on the heels of indie hits Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015), the movie continues the realistic streak of the director (once co-creator of the sitcom Greg the Bunny, of all things) who this time swaps the viewpoint of distressed adulthood for oblivious childhood. Many of Baker's movies occur at America’s fringes; The Florida Project unfolds against the backdrop of the Magic Kingdom.

Set during summer, the most unforgiving season of the year in the Sunshine State, the film follows the misadventures of young, mischievous Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) in The Magic Castle, an extended-stay motel down the road from Disney World. She leads her friends on escapades across the neighborhood, blissfully ignorant to the harsh reality of her living situation, while her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggles to scrape by. Moonee's world is colorful, enchanted, and wrapped around a center of darkness.

While considering the gravity of The Florida Project’s premise, I decided to start off my talk with Baker on the subject of Disney itself, and from there the subject of his first-time actors and the challenges of shooting a movie from the perspective of kids.

What drew you to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods around Disney World?
Sean Baker: When Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, brought this world to me, he’d discovered it because his mother was living in the area, and still does live in the area. So almost six years ago, actually, he started sending me news articles about this exact juxtaposition. The reason that we focused on this area was because of the juxtaposition between kids growing up in these budget motels, and then the happiest place on Earth for kids is less than a mile away next door.

This is obviously a national issue; it’s happening in communities nationwide. But it was that juxtaposition that we thought, as dramatists, it was right to focus on, because showing this major contradiction here would show audiences in a way that if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. It wasn’t just based on some cynical irony. It was more about the fact that this issue was happening in such a unique location.

Do you feel like the question of, “if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere” is necessary for waking people up?
Baker: Yeah, I do. As a dramatist, you present things in a dramatic way, or through dramatic scenarios, in order to get attention. That’s the choice of the style, as well. The reason we went for comedy and the reason we went for entertainment is because we wanted to capture a larger audience, and then hopefully have them become aware of this as well. Sometimes, you do have to point out the extremes in order to make people aware.

The Florida Project

Did the child perspective help enhance the impact of that extreme for you?
Baker: Yeah, definitely! I mean, look, this is a film about kids. I’d always wanted to make a film about kids. [If] you’ve seen [my film Prince of Broadway], you know that I make winks to The Little Rascals in every one of my films. Like, every one. But this one is a full-on tribute. That scene in The Prince of Broadway where little Aiden [Noesi] is slapping Prince [Adu] in the face over and over again, is a direct lift from the comic short called Choo-Choo!, and that’s where Spanky was hitting this guy in the face again and again and again.

Basically, The Little Rascals was my entry point. It was set against the Great Depression, most of those kids lived in poverty, but it wasn’t the focus. The focus was the comedic adventures of the kids, and what made kids kids, and we were all able to see ourselves in them because at one time we were all kids. That’s what I wanted to do with this; I wanted to have audience feel as if they were one Moonee’s friends, so that they’re spending the summer with Moonee, going on her mischievous adventures, and not seeing it through her eyes but seeing it through the perspective of a child. That way when we get to the end, when we get to the inevitable drama, there’s even, I feel, more impact, because you’re literally one of her friends being removed from her.

That’s why we went with it. There was a lot of discussion early on with my wonderful director of photography, Alexis Zabe, and he was like, “Yeah, let’s at least keep it on their eye level, or lower than their eye level.” There are lots of shots, and I think you’ll notice this, where we shoot up at the kids. We have the camera all the way on the ground at that point. Or we would put kids up on park benches and tables in order to make them big, and make them powerful, and make them the kings of their domain, or the queens of their castle, you know what I mean? It was always about making them big and confident. That was important. We never wanted to look down on the kids. I don’t even know if there’s one shot in the entire film where we’re looking down at the kids.

The Florida Project

You lucked out so much with your young actress, Brooklyn Prince. She’s so magnetic, ad makes you feel like you’re being dragged along with her through her adventures.
Baker: I am so lucky. I’ve been lucky throughout my entire career with finding first-timers who are just incredible, like Prince Adu, and Besedka Johnson, and Mya [Taylor] and Kiki [Rodriguez], but you’re right. Brooklyn, she’s a freaking prodigy. She is not only incredibly talented, she’s a beautiful human being. The amount of empathy she would bring to set every day, she understood what these kids were going through and she tried to put herself in that position. She’s also incredibly funny, incredibly witty, incredibly intelligent...

I always said that I would not make this film if I didn’t find the present day Spanky McFarland, and she delivers: She has the wit, the cuteness, the energy of Spanky, the little puppy cheeks like Spanky, so yeah. I have to tell you, and I’m not just saying this because I’m trying to pump up the film, I really feel that she’s in the same camp as Mickey Rooney, and Jodie Foster, where she was born to do this. She loves doing it. She was upset every day when we would have to say, “Child labor laws, you’d better leave the set now or we’re going to get in trouble!” She would be actually upset that she had to go home.

Having the kids, who don’t quite grasp how dire things are, and then having Willem Dafoe as Bobby, a motel manager, must have felt like a boon to you.  You’ve got the benefit of the child prodigy and the benefit of Dafoe’s veteran skill.
Baker: Yeah, very much so, especially because, as I got to know the man - I obviously didn’t know him personally until we started shooting. The biggest fear is always, “Oh no, am I bringing in a veteran who’s gonna be a problem,” or something like that, but Willem was just so kind, and so patient. And also, he, as an artist, had the same fear that I had, that he wouldn’t blend in, and the minute that the audience sees somebody recognizable, it would take them out of it. He did as much as he could. He’s transformative already, so there’s no issue with that, but he came approximately a week early and interviewed motel managers.

The Florida Project

What did you learn from writing from a child's perspective?
SB: I guess it was about how much we had to tell the audience and how much we didn’t have to tell the audience, and how much, as an adult audience member, how much you can live without. That became something we were experimenting with the entire time. For example, the entire thing with child welfare services at the end, we could have gone down the road of being very, very detailed on that: The exact number of days that investigation takes place, all the little things that go into an investigation like that. What’s important is for the audience to understand the situation, not every single detail that surrounds the situation.

On top of that, we wanted the audience to feel like they were spending the summer with these kids, so I had to start removing anything that was too plotty, or had too much of a "three-act" structure. We tried to blur the lines of the three-act structure as much as possible, and that was all about spending time with the kids and being in their heads.

It also really dictated our style in a way, because Alexis and I talked a lot about feeling as if we had our senses put back in a way that a child would have them. For example, when I look back at my youth, and this might just be psychological, I always feel as if the world was brighter, the colors were enhanced, I could hear more decibels so ambiance was louder, and I could hear more details. That’s something we tried to achieve with both the look and the sound mix. So there was that, too. It was a different approach altogether because of the fact that we were trying to see the world not through the eyes of a child, but through the perspective of a child.

The film is also filled with child wisdom, the kind of things kids say that are really profound but they have no idea, like the willow tree is tipped over but still growing.
SB: Yeah, it was just about simplifying. Actually, I found that tree when I was walking my dog behind route 192, and I said, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” I brought the location scouting team back there, and my producer, Shih-Ching Tsou, who I co-directed Take Out with, she said something in just the perfect way: “Wow, it’s uprooted, but it’s still growing.” And I go, “That’s the whole theme of the movie. I can’t believe you just wrapped it up in that sentence. I need to have it coming from Moonee’s mouth.”

She would never use the word “uprooted.” So we were trying to figure out how we could get this point across but through the words of a child. I think we just asked her how she would describe the tree, and she just goes, “Oh, it’s tipped over but it’s still growing!” Perfect. There you go!

That’s perfect child wisdom. It’s beautifully simplistic.
SB: Chris and I hate when child wisdom is like adult wisdom. I think we see that so much in Hollywood films, where the children are way too intelligent, way too advanced for their age, but they’re also sometimes more intelligent than the adults, and it’s just unrealistic. It doesn’t work for us.

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Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.