Sean Baker is a director unafraid of breaking convention: notoriously shooting his 2015 Tangerine all on iPhones, there was an urgent expectancy for his third feature. And boy did Baker deliver. Arguably his best film yet, The Florida Project has wowed audiences all over: from selling out London Film Festival to a standing ovation at Cannes, it’s a masterpiece expressing a story that needs to be told. Following single mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the film captures the hidden homeless in Orlando; sat on the outskirts of Disney World is the Magic Castle Motel, where the family live. A tough topic to take on, the film tells their story in an intimate, honest manner, without ever fetishising the characters’ situations. Shooting on location in Florida gives the film an authenticity which the director’s works are known for: a film so raw it could be a documentary but with shots so naturally pastel-perfect that even Wes Anderson would be jealous. Directing a film debutante (Vinaite), three children and an esteemed household name (Willem Dafoe as Bobby) is a challenge that Baker has undertaken diligently and has created a cast which meshes powerfully and believably. We caught up with Sean Baker to find out how he pulled it all off…
I loved the locations you found, it has to be one of the best parts of the movie…
Thank you! Route 192 looks that way and all that eye candy was given to us. It’s like a great gift for the filmmaker. Location scouting happened when we were writing the script as well, we’d be driving up route 192 being like “we’ll evolve this here, this here etc.”. So in a way it was using these locales to flesh out the script.
Did you have any problems with using real locations?
Only one with the Waffle House. Which is a chain that defines that area for me, so I really wanted to use Waffle House. But they read the script and they said no, along the lines of “we’re a Christian family-orientated business”. And I was like what does that mean? So we ended up using a diner which was once an actual Waffle House, and ended up calling it Waffle Home and I made it look exactly like Waffle House! Like, well, fuck you! (Laughs)
How did you find the Magic Castle Motel?
That was right there. There was one other we wanted to shoot at called something like Futureland – like a spaceship type, but it had been demolished by the time we shot. We shot at a time where there was a beautification process going on, a lot of the old signs were being forced to come out, which was killing me because I did want to capture that, there was a grunginess to those old signs that looked so beautiful. Even the Magic Castle was forced by the government to remove their old sign. Magic Castle is there, and has been there for a long time and I think the only debate whether or not to shoot there was wondering if it was too on the nose… But no I mean how could you deny that? It has the perfect colour.
How was it shooting in such natural locations? How did reality confront whilst shooting?
So after we found the Motel, what then happened was that the helicopter port came in just before shooting. We thought we might not be able to record anything, because you’re going to have helicopter over everything – they took off every 15 minutes! But then we were like, we’ll just make it a character, because that’s what you get when you shoot in the real world. I don’t remember anything from the actual shoot, because it was like trauma so I blacked it out. But my assistant was showing me some footage and that scene where they [Hailee and Moonee] are selling the perfume, you actually hear a truck going in reverse – I’m trying to tell Bria what to do via an earpiece and I just hear beep beep beep and I shout “THIS GUY IS FUCKING ME”, getting so upset and looking like a lunatic! (Laughs) But now, I’m so happy that’s in there because it’s part of the soundscape of life, the wall of sound of reality. Some people may think we’re teasing an ex Machina type thing where she flies off in the helicopter, which could have been kind of cool (laughs), but anyway, yeah.
So there were real residents still there?
Did that cause any issues?
Not really. There was this one guy who got belligerent when drunk, his name was Troy, you actually hear him. He was the one like “I paid rent, these cock suckers!” during the power outage scene: the guy who always walks around with no shirt. Every time we tried to turn the camera on him he was such a character he would like freeze up. But yeah some of the residents were wonderful and we tried to involve them as much as possible: it made me feel good we were doing the right thing for the community by employing them for the day. The little girl who was Moonee’s body double in the film was actually living in one of the motels in the paradise, and because we are able to use her every day the family got out of debt. The fact the film could help people on a real level and had an impact getting families out of debt and being able to get more cash. And to just get involved – it was exciting and people actually like our presence because we made it fun.
Did the residents come to the screening?
Yeah they did, I was so anxious for them to be there, just about hearing their reaction. But they really loved it, they really felt it was accurate and understood that some things were done for dramatic purposes, like the burning of a condo – which actually came from my childhood and my friends burning down a barn. Anyway, they really approved of the film and Floridians liked it too – that’s the great thing. Some Miami critics were a little bit bad, but they’re really different to the Florida of the film. But the fact in general Floridians liked it that means everything to me. It was similar with Tangerine, I really needed Angelinos to like it and we achieved that so…now Florida! Everyone makes fun of Florida, and I’m from Jersey so I understand, being the two states that are made fun of! Though, I didn’t want to ever make fun of Florida.
How did you picture Disney being a part of the film?
As exactly what it is in the film: a looming presence. That’s the whole idea, not pointing fingers or being disparaging towards them. Mainly because they gave like $500,000 to the homeless impact fund, most of the money going to the agencies is coming from the private sector. So, I never wanted this to be like “look at the corporations being exploitative”. But instead for Disney to be an unobtainable presence, destination, or promise of pure childhood happiness. A lot of these kids never had the means to visit the parks, charities could help them but for the most part… So Disney is just there, you see it on the gift shops, you see it on the signage, you see it on the way they named the streets. It’s something that’s unavoidable and we wanted to show that.
How did you come up with the almost surreal ending?
We usually come up with the endings first, so we had that from way back in like 2011. Before we even fully understood the world and before I understood the hidden homeless, it was a mother/daughter story and I knew would be their ending. That was it really: how we were going to do it and how abstract it was going to be, that came later. I didn’t know it was going to be so divisive, I thought it was just gonna be like “cool ending” or whatever, but there are some people on Twitter who are so upset.
Really? Upset why?
Maybe American audiences want it to wrap-up a little more, some people will feel like “oh we don’t really know what happens”. I don’t know cos no one has articulated exactly what it is they don’t like! It’s really about putting the audience into the headspace of a kid.
How did you find Bria Vinaite on Instagram?
I really don’t know, someone reposted one of her posts, it made me laugh. I wasn’t looking to cast from Instagram. I know when I pitched it to the financiers they must have been rolling their eyes on the other side of the phone because it was like silence… There putting millions of dollars on the line for someone who is smoking blunts in every other post (laughs)! Everyone’s really happy now, happy with her performance. I just kept going back to her Instagram, and I’d see something so fresh that I hadn’t seen before, she’s witty and the confidence was there. It was important for me to at least give her a chance, so we flew her down to LA and she read with the kids and it was like boom, got it.
How do you think social media is affecting things like film?
Oh my god it’s made my life so much easier. In my last film I cast two people online, one from Vine and one from YouTube: my entire soundtrack was inspired by Vine and I used SoundCloud to basically score the whole movie. And of course it’s a vital way of promoting, there are great tools out there helping filmmaking in general and why not take advantage when they are free!
What’s your personal relationship with social media like? I love your dog-filled Instagram.
Haha, you found that! Thanks! But yeah I think generally it’s bad, we’re all getting too dependent, Twitter in particular – which is bad, very bad! Especially if I’m letting people’s opinions sway me and the minute you remove yourself you realise it is like an addiction. But I use it for business and they sometimes mix together.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m just going to see this film out and see the reaction it gets. Hopefully we’ll have a nice social campaign, we’re still trying to figure it out because on a national level its difficult because it’s really just about awareness. On a national level it’s about telling people to look in your own community and become an advocate for change. Every community will have an organisation that is trying to develop affordable housing, so to become an advocate, a supporter of them. We’re not telling people to donate, I mean donate if you want that’s great, but to just support in some way. But for me, I’d love to see this film help out Kissimmee and Orlando.
‘The Florida Project’ is out in UK cinemas from today.