It’s a Small World: Sean Baker on The Florida Project, Shooting 35mm and Going Union
I experience a bit of a disconnect when setting up my interview with Sean Baker about his indelible new feature about childhood, The Florida Project. The publicist tells me to meet Baker at the storied Stonewall Inn, where, before me, Baker will be doing an interview about the iPhone. It takes me a second to piece that together, but then I get it — Baker’s last film, Tangerine, starred trans actors and was shot on the iPhone, which marks its 10th anniversary this September. Baker, I guess correctly, is being interviewed for some tech website’s history of the transformative tech product. It’s a bit ironic, though. In this time of technological change and platform agnosticism, with filmmakers pinballing from the web to the small screen back to features, Baker, as we discuss below, is one of our most devout believers in a kind of classic American independent cinema — location-rich, character-based, socially aware and emotionally transporting. And feature length.
The Florida Project is Baker’s sixth film, his biggest budgeted and in some ways his most daring. In a hideously colored, run-down motel called the Magic Castle, located just a few miles from Epcot somewhere along the Orlando highway, six-year-old Moonee (the astonishing child actress Brooklynn Prince) and her mom, Halley, rent by the week. Heavily tattooed and played with a charming mixture of impulsive aggression and disarming warmth by first-timer Bria Vinaite, Halley does occasional sex work and, despite what child services might say, isn’t that bad a mom. (Indeed, in all their scenes together, you feel the love connecting the mother and daughter.) It’s summer, and Moonee and two of her friends engage, with foul-mouthed brio as well as a child’s lack of guile, in a series of adventures that run the gamut from water balloons to arson. Observing it all is Bobby, played with understated warmth by Willem Dafoe — the Castle’s beleaguered manager caught between the responsibilities of his job and his human connection with the motel’s residents.
Children appear often in independent film, but usually in pictures with adult points of view. With its references to sex work and keen understanding of how macroeconomic forces and the past decade’s real estate crises have unraveled social safety nets, The Florida Project will never be confused for an actual children’s movie. But its storyline is one that’s guided by its makers’ (not only Baker but also co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch and DP Alexis Zabe) ability to channel a child’s sense of adventure and creative view of the world. It’s an exhilarating, wise and heartbreaking film, one that, with its ripped-from-the-headlines storyline and Instagrammed casting, is plugged directly into the present moment while connecting — through the surety of Baker’s filmmaking — to the great neorealist cinema of the past.
The Florida Project is out this fall from A24.
Filmmaker: So, it’s fascinating to me that two years after Tangerine you’re still talking about the iPhone. One theme that courses through this 25th anniversary issue has to do with the changes technology has brought not only to production and distribution but also to the ways in which films are valued. In my editor’s letter 25 years ago, I wrote about independent film being an increasingly accessible form of personal expression for artists. But now we have to think also about how films can do other things — like publicize smartphones. It’s no longer just about making a film.
Baker: Yeah, this is something that I’m dealing with because, right now, I see every filmmaker being seduced by television. I’ve been resistant to that for many reasons — the main reason being that I want to make features. I literally want to tell stories between 90 minutes and two-and-a-half hours. That’s the amount of time that I want to deliver a story to the audience. I’m not interested in doing the series thing.
Filmmaker: So, something like a True Detective, where it’s one director the whole time, that’s still something you wouldn’t be interested in?
Baker: I’ve had that opportunity, and I’ve turned it down. I don’t know if I would’ve turned it down if I had a family to support, but I don’t, you know? I have a very minimalist lifestyle in terms of possessions and stuff, and so I haven’t had the need yet to jump. I understand that’s where the money is. It’s very hard to make a living in feature filmmaking right now, unless you’re working for the studios. But I am lucky enough to be in a position where I am part of the union, so I get my union minimums.
Filmmaker: You’re in the DGA?
Baker: Yeah, and the WGA and the editor’s union as well. And, if I’m lucky, my agent can get me a little more than those minimums. So, that’s my income. I’m happy with that right now because I’ve been lucky enough to have final cut on my films, and I want to continue that in the future.
Filmmaker: So, let’s talk about the ways in which The Florida Project is a bigger film.
Baker: I don’t want to say the exact budget, but it was a few million. If you added up all of the budgets of my films pre-Florida, they would still be under a half million. And this was a union film.
Filmmaker: IATSE? Tier One?
Filmmaker: Was there any financier resistance to going union?
Baker: There was resistance. And I was resistant to a certain degree myself because I feel the smaller the crew, the better for the type of stuff I’m doing. But you know what? It ended up being fine. We were the only feature shooting in Florida that summer, and we knew we were going to be flipped. So we decided that instead of dealing with all that chaos, let’s just go union. And we were as minimal as we could get in terms of crew. I’m sure my hair and makeup were kind of bored because I basically said, “I don’t need you, so you can stay in the hotel room and get paid.”
Filmmaker: How did you find working with a full union crew for the first time?
Baker: Like on every film shoot, there were problems, and this one was particularly chaotic for many reasons. People didn’t understand my style of filmmaking. We were shooting on 35mm in the hot summer sun in central Florida — with little children. So, there were lots of things working against us. I learned a lot of lessons, but it’s all stuff I should have known going in.
Filmmaker: Like what kind of lessons?
Baker: My communication skills with below the line weren’t as strong as they should’ve been. I should’ve had individual meetings with every single crew member down to the PAs to tell them my style of filmmaking — that I will make the days, and I won’t go into overtime, but you have to be comfortable with the fact that I won’t exactly stick to the schedule. If I’m inspired by something that’s happening off to the right or left, I’ll be like, “Oh, let’s scrap this right now and shoot that.” I think in the first three days people were taken aback by that [process]. They didn’t understand what was going on, and I was considered a rogue, crazy filmmaker.
And the schedule was a mess. I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but we lost our AD very early on, literally eight hours out from the first production meeting. So, a new AD had to come on, and I was doing a lot of my own scheduling, which was strange because I didn’t want to be held accountable. I would say, “This is my wish list, guys. I’ll do my best to stick to it.” It’s a rule of mine for the first day of shooting to basically shoot b-roll just to get everybody comfortable with one another. There shouldn’t be any pressure on the first day. It should actually be a short day. It should be painless and you’re shooting primarily stuff that can be thrown away. I won’t tell you what the scene [on our first day of The Florida Project] was, but we went for something really big. Let’s just say there were many lessons learned on this one.
But I had a really strong team of key personnel around me. My DP Alexis Zabe is, first and foremost, an artist. He talked to his camera crew and said, “We’re doing something a little different here, and we’re just going to have to roll with it. There are going to be curveballs and moments where we’re not sure exactly what’s going on.” And then as soon as people started seeing the dailies, everyone was more comfortable.
Filmmaker: When did 35mm enter the equation for this film?
Baker: Oh, from the very beginning. I wanted to do something very different from Tangerine. I didn’t want to become “the iPhone guy.” The iPhone was appropriate for Tangerine, but it’s not appropriate for every project. With this film you had nostalgia, the beautiful colors of Florida, children in nature. I was trying to capture a very particular beauty that I felt like I just could not find digitally.
And then, of course, there’s the preservation aspect. There’s a major problem we’re going to be facing as an industry when it comes to preservation. We’re going to have issues with digital films, at least the ones that haven’t been film out-ed. With Tangerine, Starlet and Prince of Broadway, I’m still dealing with those issues, and I didn’t want to have to deal with them on this film.
Filmmaker: What issues are you dealing with?
Baker: Well, there’s no studio for any of those films, and I’m basically the person who’s solely responsible for their long lives. It seems like it’s an endless thing, but I’m constantly spinning drives. I’m making sure all of my masters are backed up properly, and that there’s redundancy everywhere on two different coasts. I have [them backed up on] LTOs, and still I feel it’s not enough. I just lost a mezzanine file of Starlet the other day — a top-quality, uncompressed QuickTime of the film with all of the properly broken-down 5.1 audio tracks. That drive stopped spinning. So, now I have to go back to my LTOs. I just want to get these films all transferred to 35mm and give them to the Library of Congress and be like, “That’s it.” So, this is something I didn’t want to deal with again with Florida.
Filmmaker: Did 35mm present its own challenges? I shot film on something recently, out of town, and had a hard time finding ACs and loaders.
Baker: Yes, that’s always an issue. Have you seen a film called Too Late, by Dennis Hauck with John Hawkes? It’s a genre film that came out last year, and they shot it on two-perf 35mm with 22-minute single takes all strung together. I was really impressed how they were Steadicamming the entire movie and yet holding focus. So, I tracked down that focus puller, Bas Tiele, brought him to Florida, and he did an incredible job.
Filmmaker: What made you want to make a movie about childhood?
Baker: Well, I’ve always been a fan of The Little Rascals and Our Gang, which I grew up watching on local television. They’ve influenced pretty much every film I’ve made. Not Four Letter Words and Take Out, but Prince of Broadway, definitely, and Starlet and Tangerine. They’re really some of the best comic shorts that I’ve ever seen, and they still hold up. And then, my co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, brought me this topic of families living in budget motels outside of the parks down in Kissimmee and Orlando, Florida.
His mother happened to live in Orlando, and he himself is Disney obsessed. These motels are the last step before homelessness for families who aren’t able to get a lease and can no longer rent for multiple reasons. They have to pay week to week, sometimes night to night, at these budget motels. It’s actually a nationwide phenomenon, but, obviously, there is also an irony with little children living outside of what’s considered the most magical place on earth for children. So, it seemed ripe.
So, we took several trips to Florida, visiting these motels and speaking to whoever we could — hotel managers and residents. On one of our first trips, Chris and I walked onto the property of one of these big motels with the intention of doing research. It’s always a tricky thing: You want to win people over; you want to gain trust. I happened to have the dog who played Starlet, the chihuahua, with me, thinking that would break the ice. Little did we understand that from a bird’s eye point of view we looked like two creepy 40-year-old men walking onto a playground with a chihuahua. (Laughs) But we didn’t realize this because we were in work mode. We had the motel manager come running up to us, alarmed.
Filmmaker: Just like the scene in the movie, the one with the creepy pedophile guy.
Baker: Yes. That [experience] became a scene in the film. The way that the manager interacted with us — we realized that this particular manager, John Manning, was protecting these children, and he then became one of our greatest assets. He’s a blue-collar guy who was working at the motel and barely getting by himself — holding onto this job in which he had very little help. He not only had to manage [the motel] but was in the unfortunate position of having to evict families if they couldn’t come up with the rate for the week. I had long talks with him and discussed how [these evictions] psychologically affected him. I mean, he’s a family man himself, and he had a protective nature about him. He had sympathy for these families, but he was in a position where he could do very little. We had no idea that we were going to have a hotel manager character until we started speaking to some of these managers and understood their dilemma, too.
Filmmaker: Tell me about working with Willem Dafoe. Fitting a name actor, a movie star, into an ensemble of children and nonactors can be a tough thing to do.
Baker: Exactly. The biggest fear is to make one of these movies and have that one seasoned actor stand out. When we were trying to get some foreign territories to come on early on, they read my treatment, and they knew who we were casting, and they said, “No, we’ll pass, because this never works.” But Willem is so wonderful. He’s transformative.
Filmmaker: It’s one of his best recent performances.
Baker: I knew he was giving an amazing performance from day one. He came to town about a week early and met some of the motel managers and, I think, absorbed them. He then came to set and asked for accessories. He had a list of his jewelry, his particular sunglasses, his phone. I think he was slowly becoming this character over that week. And then, when we started shooting, my god, he just fell right into it.
Filmmaker: He has a kind of paternalism that drapes over the whole film, you know? He settles into the role, but there’s a way that his recognition works for the film, too.
Baker: I totally agree with you. Originally, we had his character have a brother that he would sometimes employ at the motel. And as with all of my films, when we’re in production, we can see the way things are working and we’re figuring out what we’re actually saying with the movie — what our themes are. These things just start to write themselves, and we realized that this is film about parental figures, about being a parent. We said, “Let’s change Bobby’s brother to a son.” And then I remember saying, “It’s going to have to be Caleb Landry Jones,” because they look exactly alike, and he’s just as wonderful of an actor. We were already in production and called CAA and Caleb jumped right on board.
Filmmaker: I’m surprised to hear that the idea of Willem’s character came later in the process. I kind of assumed you started with him — like, “We’ll have one famous actor in this paterfamilias kind of role and then newcomers.”
Baker: We originally wanted the mother to be an A-lister. We wanted to go after a former Disney star because of the [Disney] aspect of it. I tried to make this film right after Starlet, five years ago, and we were going after Britney Spears. And then, when we thought that wouldn’t work, we started looking at Christina Aguilera and then others. But something was telling us it wasn’t the right thing. It seemed very forced, very stunt-y. And after we got Willem, we were still looking for the actress who would play the character of Halley. On Tangerine I learned that I could use social media to cast, and I wanted to continue that with this film. I was going through Instagram a lot, just looking for character types. I came across Bria Vinaite’s Instagram and used her as an example of who we were looking for. She was that Instagram girl who took a lot of selfies of herself in bikinis but was always cracking jokes and talking to the camera. Something about her vibe, her attitude, made me say, “This is sort of what the character is. We have to find somebody who can play this character.” And as we got closer and closer to production, we just started saying, “Well, why not?”
Filmmaker: Had you already reached out to her?
Baker: No. By then, we had already cast the kids and were pretty close to production — a month-and-a-half out. She came down to Orlando to meet the kids. I wanted to see if she was going to bond with them, and whether or not Bria and Brooklynn would come across as mother and daughter. I shot a lot of iPhone tests, and I sent them to my financiers, and everybody thought, “Oh, this is definitely a risk. She’s so green. She’s never acted before.” But there was something I saw in her. I knew that we could get a performance because when you’re an Instagram personality, you’re acting every day. I just had to loosen her up enough to get there. And thank god that I had Samantha Quan, who was the acting coach for the children. She helped me with Bria as well, and also Mela Murder, who played Ashley in the film. Samantha spent a lot of time with them, and we did workshops — the same that we’ll do on every film — to loosen [the actors] up to do improvisation to see if we can get those kind of moments. And I’m really happy with her performance.
Filmmaker: Is this the first time you worked with an acting coach on a film set?
Baker: Yes, the first time, and I really enjoyed it because, this time, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my actors because of the nature of this shoot. It was a very tough shoot, and my eyes had to be everywhere. I had to be working closely with Alexis and my production designer, so I didn’t have as much time with my actors. Samantha was invaluable. Because I’m an editor, I usually think as long as I have my coverage, I can manipulate a performance in the edit. But I wanted long takes in this film. I was very inspired by Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin. He was able to get really wonderful performances in long takes — holding on a kid for 30 seconds. I feel that if I hadn’t had Samantha, I wouldn’t have been able to get those moments. What was wonderful about those kids, all three of them, is that they were able to nail the scripted stuff, and then, if I wanted them to improvise, they would just go to town, especially Brooklynn. She was waiting for those times where I would say, “Do whatever you want.”
Filmmaker: She’s a professional child actor, and she’s great in the movie. But professional kids can sometimes be cloying and off-key in a movie like this.
Baker: Exactly. We wanted to avoid anything that seemed like [coming from] a Hollywood kid. She had been in a lot of commercials, and in a movie called Robo-Dog: Airborne. She’s polished, knows what she’s doing, and she actually knows when something can be cheesy or not. She has an instinct, a method — it’s incredible. She’s mature beyond her years. When we were shooting that scene where she cries, we had no idea it was going to be as powerful as it is. We had rehearsed that scene but not with tears. She was having a bit of small talk with Valeria, who plays Jancey in the film, and Brooklynn goes, “Sorry, but I have to focus right now. I’m about to cry, so I have to focus.” And when she delivered that scene, Samantha and I were just gripping each other’s arms, and Alexis was to my right, and the three of us were all tearing up behind the camera. I never tear up on my film sets because the artifice is there. But she was giving such a powerful performance, and we just couldn’t believe we were capturing it. It was a real moment, and it happened early on in the shoot. And, I think to answer your earlier question about what gave everybody on the crew a little bit of relief, it’s that they saw that not only was Alexis capturing beautiful images, but we were getting wonderful performances. I think that that happened within the first week. Once we got that footage, we were like, we’re OK. We’re good.