Find Your Kingdom: A Conversation with Florida Project Filmmaker Sean Baker

The director's new film empathizes with the "hidden homeless" living near Disney World

In 2015, Sean Baker’s Tangerine was among the most talked-about features at Sundance and during the rest of the year following. The story of a pair of unforgettable trans sex workers negotiating survival and love and friendship in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve was the stuff of which indie movie dreams are made: it was shot on modified iPhones, made on a shoestring budget even by indie standards, and ended up announcing its director as a filmmaker of rare empathy. Baker became a director to watch immediately thereafter, and now with some help from A24, he’s returned with a feature that will likely introduce him to an even bigger audience.

The Florida Project touches on a number of necessary issues, from post-2008 transience in America to the struggles of impoverished parents to the country’s ever-growing hidden homeless population. But it’s also the story of how a child can find joy in even the most seemingly adverse circumstances, through Moonee (outstanding first-timer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends enjoying a hot, listless summer in Kissimmee, Florida. Their world, just a few miles from Disney World, may be a far cry from the palatial privilege that the local theme parks represent, but for Moonee and her friends, it’s a place of infinite wonder and curiosity. With the help of her struggling, young mom, Halley (also first-timer Bria Vinaite), and gruff-but-caring hotel owner Bobby (Willem Dafoe), Moonee spends the sweltering months of the year making her own fun, getting into trouble, and learning about the less pleasant sides of growing up.

As the film prepares to begin what’ll undoubtedly be a busy autumn of acclaim, audience raves, and maybe even a bit of awards-season chatter, we sat down with Baker to discuss his inspirations for the feature, the process of faithfully representing marginalized communities, and how empathy is most often a function of an audience over a film itself.

You’ve talked before about how this project had been kind of rattling around since before Starlet or Tangerine came to be released.

Yeah, right after Starlet, I think, yes.

What made it something that you really wanted to keep pursuing over time?

When I first found out about the subject, Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, brought it to my attention, and it was very … this was five years ago, and it had been six years since the ‘08 recession, and yet there were still effects of it. There were still people being affected by the recession and the housing crisis. People still living with the results of it, you know, people living in budget motels and homeless famillies. I couldn’t believe it. [But] we couldn’t find financing for the film at the time.

Yet, at the same time, Chris’ mother lives in the area; Chris is very linked to Disney. He’s a fanboy of Disney. And he’s saying, “You know, things haven’t changed. Things are still just as bad, and this is something that we could still do. We don’t have to make it a period piece from 2012. This is still going on.” So we always knew that it was still topical, and it was still something that we felt that a light should be shined on. Because quite honestly, and I’ll admit this, I didn’t know there was a hidden homeless population in the United States. I spent most of my life in New York City, I’ve lived in LA, and I’ve seen homeless populations on the street. I’ve heard about overpopulated shelters, etc.

But I’d never considered families who have children — and individuals — who can’t secure permanent housing, and therefore being stuck in this situation. This is basically their last resort before hitting the streets. So it was something that we felt was important enough to try and push and find financing for. And if I hadn’t made Tangerine, it wouldn’t have opened the doors for us to do this. We needed a bigger budget to do this. We didn’t want to shoot this so micro-budget. We knew we were gonna be working with kids, we knew we were gonna be working in another state, so we just simply couldn’t do this in such a guerrilla way. We absolutely had to wait until we found financing.

The film has a remarkable eye for the finer details of that kind of barely functioning poverty. How much of that was part of your initial script and how much of that emerged experientially from working in the area?

All of it comes from research. The only thing that actually comes from our simple fiction writing is the kids’ adventures. Because the film is about childhood, we were able to pull from our own childhoods. The writing of the dialogue, etc, that was stuff we could actually write from our room in West Hollywood. The rest had to be researched. All the details had to be researched. That meant interviewing and collaboration and befriending. We wanted to get procedural, to a certain degree.

We asked local non-profits and the agencies providing social services to these families in Florida if what we had written was accurate and how something like this would actually go down. [For example,] If there was an investigation opened by DCF, what steps would they take and what would they be looking for and how would the investigation would pan out. All of that stuff was, not only in terms of the logistics of it, but the terminology, that was something that we were very [aware of].

If you’re making a film that’s based in realism, you really need to have those details. Ethically, as a filmmaker, I wanna be accurate. But at the same time, the audience believes it more. When they hear certain terminology, or slang, or they see the procedure of them having to move out every 30 days and then move back in … I think the audience picks up on the reality of it, and they understand that this comes from a place of research. I think it helps with the suspension of disbelief, [and that] has to kick in fast. I want audiences to embrace Moonee and Halley, and the quicker they believe in the world, the quicker they’ll do that.

With your prior films, and especially with this film, you’re really complicating the broad ideas of the “bad mother” or the “impoverished family.” What attracts you to that, in terms of disrupting the too-common definitions?

I think the biggest pitfall of … I’ll just use “Hollywood” as a general term, but when Hollywood approaches this subject matter, what I think ends up becoming quite condescending and insulting to the subjects is when they sanctify the characters, and they put them on a pedestal, holier-than-thou, where it’s just like, “Oh, this person is a saint. She’s a mother who’s trying her best, but the whole world is against her, but she’s going to persevere, and she looks like Jennifer Lawrence!” [laughs] In my eyes, it’s just such the wrong way of going about this, because again, if you sanctify somebody to that degree, they’re not human. And therefore, the audience will not see them as human, and therefore will not connect with them, and therefore will not embrace them, and so it was really important for us to ride that fine line of showing the flaws in our characters. Not just Halley, but in everybody. So that they come across as real, as human. And we all have our flaws, and I think the minute that we see that in characters, we’re able to connect with them.

To tell you the truth, it was a very fine line for me in all stages of production. While we were writing it, we didn’t know whether or not to have [Halley] using harder opiate drugs, because the opioid epidemic is really just killing that area. It’s definitely something that exists, and we were wondering if we were going to go there with it. It’s a balance that we had to ride throughout our screenwriting, while we were actually producing the film, and then, of course, in post-production, where it was up to me to strike that balance.

But I like the fact that there’s a discussion now. I see people on Twitter writing, “Halley is the best mom in the world. Look at the sacrifices she makes for her daughter,” and then the next Tweet will be like, “Thank god DCF showed up. She was the worst mom!” So it’s almost like a sociological experiment on audience members.

The film doesn’t really lead you one way or another. It just presents these people really authentically. And there’s something to also be said for the way that you’re kind of playing around with these ideas of what the “good American” looks like. These are people working their asses off, sometimes illegitimately, but working all the same.

That’s true. Even with Bobby, we show a guy who … this is not what he signed up for when he took this job, and he probably just thought he was going to be managing this small business and blowing leaves off the driveway. Next thing you know, we’re in an America where he is one step away from having to evict a family that will end up on the streets. We noticed that in a lot of the managers we met along Route 192, the real managers who actually inspired the Bobby character. I noticed, in a way, a despair.

This was pre-Trump, when we shot this film, and a lot of these managers … I say this, and sometimes people are like, “Oh, no, don’t say that,” but in a way I see Bobby as a Trump voter. Because there was a desire for some sort of change, they didn’t see any way out, and a few of these managers that we met, they were so torn because they were simply trying to hold on to their jobs, and yet they had compassion for these families, and yet they had to keep a distance from these families.

Because when push comes to shove, they have to evict them.

Or they’ll lose their jobs. Yes.

You visualize Kissimmee almost to the point of hyper-reality, through the photography and through a lot of the local signage and buildings. What about the area helped you find that kind of almost surreal, comic quality?

Many of these motels, these businesses, were actually ripoffs of the parks. They were using the themes, the mythologies, of Disney and the other parks to sell their business. There was always humor in that, just in the fact that there’s a motel called the Magic Castle less than two miles away from the Magic Kingdom, and it’s not affiliated whatsoever, but it’s trying to attract the same tourists. There’s that, but then there’s the sad irony of that juxtaposition, of homeless families living in these motels. That’s why we chose this area. It’s a national problem, but we chose this area because if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. It’s a choice we made because we thought it’d bring more attention to the subject.

And, of course, on an aesthetic level, it just looks gorgeous. It’s poppy; it’s how I imagine seeing the world through the eyes of a child, so you have all of these colors, this pop. And yes, it’s a hyper-reality, because it’s enhanced by just a degree. Alexis Zabe shot it in a way where the colors were already there, but we popped it a hair, because I think (and I’m not sure if everybody thinks this way) that when I think of my childhood, I think my senses were stronger. Colors were brighter, I heard decibels [that I can’t], my hearing is going because of too many concerts or whatever. I feel as if when you’re a kid, everything is enhanced, so we tried to do that in both a visual and audible way throughout the film.

The juxtaposition you mentioned is really interesting, especially as the film starts to take a darker turn in its back half. One of the sequences that really sticks out in that respect is the image of Hallie beating the hell out of her friend, framed in soft focus through this child in the foreground. When you were putting the film together, given that you find and assemble a lot of the feel and rhythm in post-production, how did you negotiate that balance of tones?

It really is a balance. I edit in order, and I also go right to a fine cut. I don’t do an assembly cut, I don’t do a rough cut, I go right to a fine cut. So basically, I’m cutting in order, and each scene will dictate the next. The tone of one scene will dictate the next. It’s all about that balance of comedy and pathos, and when you’re using humor in a film like this, in a story like this, you have to be extremely careful. You go one degree too much in either direction, and you run the risk of being condescending, of being disrespectful and inappropriate. But we definitely felt that humor was extremely important for this. We kind of found that through Tangerine, where we were reaching a greater audience by presenting this, first and foremost, as a comedy, even though it’s an issue film. It’s a balance that really comes down to each scene, and the pacing is just about keeping the audience on that ride. It’s spending the summer with the kids, but not getting too monotonous, never boring the audience.

There’s such a wealth of empathy to the film, and how did you modulate the storytelling against maintaining that absolute humanity and kindness?

The empathy really comes from the audience. I’m presenting [the characters] in a way where I’m not trying to … there is manipulation, obviously. I’m a dramatist. But I never wanted to get sappy with … for instance, there’s no score in the movie. “Celebration” starts and ends it, and there’s some hip-hop coming out of the radio, but there’s no score because I never wanted to get into that place where I was cheaply manipulating the audience for their emotions. I just wanted you to live with these characters for a certain amount of time, as if you’re spending the summer with them, and hopefully the time spent with them is valuable time, enough that they’ll win you over. Just being in their presence is enough for empathy to kick in. 

It wasn’t something we were trying to calculate. I want the audience to empathize with these characters, and with people in this situation, and to be motivated to look into it in their own community, their local community, and see what they can do to change it. And hopefully, calling out the policy-makers to see this film and for changes to be made on the federal level. But that all comes from the micro, not the macro. Focusing on the everyday, I think that’s how the empathy and the connection is built.

The Florida Project will be released in New York City and Los Angeles on October 6th and will expand nationally over the following weeks.


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