Interview, Audio: Director Sean Baker Builds ‘The Florida Project’

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CHICAGO – It’s an epidemic in America, and it exists in a gray area that is not as prominent as other socio-economic issues. It is the “hidden homeless,” and the problem is uniquely defined as individuals who live week-to-week in cheap hotels, shelters and SROs, one circumstance away from being officially homeless. Writer/director Sean Baker takes this subject on in a stark-but-accessible narrative film called “The Florida Project.”

The film focuses on a mother Hailey (Bria Vinaite) and daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who live in an Orlando, Florida, tourist trap motel near Disney World. The mother has no visible means of support and scant resources, but manages to keep a room in the hotel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in a stellar turn). The adventures are from the Moonee’s point of view, a little girl making the best of her world, unaware that it could change at any moment.

Director Sean Baker on Set with Willem Dafoe for ‘The Florida Project’
Photo credit: A24

Sean Baker is an up-and-coming filmmaker who began his career in 2005 as the creator of the cult TV show “Greg the Bunny.” As a film director, he first got noticed through the Spirit Award-winning “Take Out” (2004), and made a bigger splash in 2015 when he shot an entire film on an iPhone 5 with “Tangerine.” Beyond that technique, Baker makes a creative editorial and dramatic statement about America in “The Florida Project.” talked to the director about the film and his career. What fascinates you about the survival instincts of the socio-economic persons depicted in the film? Why are they important to know about?

Sean Baker: I’ve always been fascinated by those who have to resort to the underground economy, and that it exists in our capitalist society. I’ve actually been called out on Twitter just because in saying I’m intrigued with the subject, my position becomes ‘white privilege.’ But basically we live in a time of great divide, and a middle class that is vanishing, and there are so many people living on the margins within that term ‘hidden homeless.’ For me, it was important enough to shine a light on it, especially to the degree that the recession of 2008 and the housing meltdown is still affecting certain people.

I did research on children who grow up in these types of hotels, and I think my films are results of explorations into things I don’t see… a response to what I’m not seeing, and what I would like to see more of. You coerced amazing performances from the child actors, especially of course Brooklynn Prince. What was the key to unlocking them when they get blocked by a scene, and in your observation are smaller and smaller kid actors getting more and more sophisticated?

Baker: To answer the second part of that question, yes, we were often shocked within that level of kid actor. [laughs] We would ask the kids in the audition to improvise, like the opening spitting-on-the-car scene. We had scripted lines, but we were shocked about how much they knew at that age, and how much they have picked up. Slang, profanity, etc…it’s the age we live in, and the fact the internet can provide so much more to a curious kid. That’s so much different then when we grew up.

One of the lessons I learned working with the kids is that you can’t unblock them once they’re distracted. Their energy level is different, and they could get bored by the third take. We learned quickly to use adult stand-ins, and get our camera moves planned, so when the kids stepped in we could get it on the first or second take. What about the amazing performance of Brooklynn Price?

Baker: Yeah, what I was just saying applied to the other kid actors, but not Brooklynn… she is a born thespian. She’s incredible, and I put here in the same kid actor camp as Jodie Foster. I could see her having a strong lifelong career. She’s grounded, has a ton of support from her non-Hollywood parents and we never had any difficult behavior. Brooklynn is an old soul, with an awareness and intelligence beyond her years. She actually developed the character with us, which was extraordinary, and her method was such that I could see her transform. What was an example of that?

Baker: Well, we shot a challenging scene towards the end out of order, it was actually one of the first scenes we did, as we were getting the production going. It took a big weight off our shoulders, because at that point there were the usual problems when you start out, and a lot of fear. Are we making something that will work? And then suddenly Brooklynn nails that scene, and we looked at each other and said out loud, ‘we’ve got gold.’ [laughs] From that point on, we had a steady direction. Truly an amazing thing to witness.

Baker: For example, the kids would do small talk between the takes. The girl playing Brooklynn’s friend in the movie, Valeria, was just talking to Brooklynn between scenes about having a sleepover. Brooklynn told her, ‘Valeria, I’m sorry, but I have to focus right now, I’m about to cry and have to go to another place.’ Everybody watching this reacted like, ‘What?!?’ She lost herself in the moment, so much so that when I yelled ‘cut,’ every crew member went up to her to make sure she was okay. It was total magic.

Brian Vinaite (right) and Brooklynn Prince of ‘The Florida Project’
Photo credit: A24 Bria Vinaite as Halley is both ignorant of her responsibilities and harshly angry. What kind of ancestral life cycles did you see in her past, and how did you think it affected her?

Baker: We did do backstory, and we talked to a lot of single mothers who we thought could be in Hailey’s circumstance. As I saw her, she had Moonee when she was 15 years old, with no parental support or guidance, in additions to no safety net, no child support and no father in the picture. She’s basically unemployable and in survival mode.

In her relationship with Moonee, she’s like a kid herself and not maternal at all. We wanted their interaction to be sibling like. On top of that, she is rebellious, trapped and anti-authority, so she and Bobby [the hotel manager portrayed by Dafoe] are always clashing. I felt like Bobby directly related to these people, which was an extraordinary way to develop the character.

Baker: We talked to actual hotel managers, guys who have to evict people like Hailey. It was very eye opening, and we added the Bobby character in the writing after we met these people. They had to keep their jobs, that they needed, and manage a small business. At the same time, they had to evict people that they knew would be on the street that night. It was both the distance and the compassion, as some of them became reluctant father figures, and that’s what we were going for with the Bobby character.

In the audio portion of the interview, Sean Baker talks about working with Willem Dafoe, becoming the shot-on-an-iPhone go-to guy after “Tangerine” and his days with “Greg the Bunny.”

“The Florida Project” continues its nationwide release in Chicago on October 13th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Krystal Gordon. Written and directed by Sean Baker. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald,

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