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Sean Baker – Looking at the Dark Side of the Happiest Place on Earth with The Florida Project

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Sean Baker at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of “The Florida Project” at the Prince Theater

Sean Baker

Looking at the Dark Side of the Happiest Place on Earth with The Florida Project

by Jay S. Jacobs

Much like the characters in his films, indie director Sean Baker has spent most of his life toiling under the radar. In a writing/directing career that has spawned seven movies in 17 years (plus shorts, TV series and TV movies), Baker has specialized in small, intimate films about real life and people. Despite critical acclaim for early works like Four Letter Words, Take Out and Prince of Broadway, it wasn’t until the 2015 film Tangerine – a smart comedy/drama about transgenders in Hollywood which was filmed entirely on iPhone – that Baker had a fluke arthouse hit.

Due to that success, Baker got a bigger budget (comparatively) to film his follow-up film, The Florida Project, which is opening to even more acclaim. A funny and touching look at childhood and the hard lives of poor people who live Kissimmee, Florida, in the shadows of Walt Disney World. A matter of miles away from one of the great tourist destinations of the world, many families live in cheesy motels – once meant for tourists but long since abandoned to impoverished locals who are just one step away from homelessness.

Baker admits he had no idea about this situation until his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, brought it to his attention. Immediately, they saw the dramatic tension inherent in this lifestyle.

“I only went to that area like everybody else does, as a tourist,” Baker told me at the recent screening of The Florida Project at the Prince Theater, during the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Sean Baker at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of “The Florida Project” at the Prince Theater on October 21, 2017. Photo by Deborah Wagner.

“When my co-screenwriter brought that to my attention, through news articles, etc., it was like exploring a full new area that none of us knew about,” he continued. “That’s one of the reasons we made the film. I certainly didn’t know about it. Most of the people that I knew didn’t know about it. So, why not shed a light on it?”

And shed a light he has. Unlike Tangerine, the new movie is filmed on traditional film stock – except for the final scene in Disney World, which was filmed guerrilla-style with the iPhone. This was done for several reasons, Baker felt that film makes it feel like you are there, and it would give the movie a more immediate, closer feel. Also, in this world of digital movies, traditional film stock is also disappearing.

“I did my little helping hand to keep Kodak alive,” Baker smiled.

Another change that Baker brought about was even more dramatic. Throughout his entire career, the filmmaker has never worked with traditional “Hollywood” actors. He preferred to find unknowns and even film real people who were living through the situations he was filming.

He made an exception for this film when Willem Dafoe expressed interest in working with Baker after seeing Tangerine. Still, Baker was a little concerned. He didn’t want Dafoe to stick out in the world of the movie. He was happy to find that he didn’t need worry. Dafoe was an absolute professional, and he gave a performance that ranks amongst the best work of the Oscar-nominated actor’s career.

“[Dafoe] brought expertise,” Baker said. “Also, he wanted to blend in himself. We were all worried that one really recognizable face might pull us out, but he was all about blending in. He was really a team player.”

Sean Baker at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of “The Florida Project” at the Prince Theater on October 21, 2017. Photo by Deborah Wagner.

In fact, Dafoe truly threw himself into the role of Bobby, the crotchety-but-good-hearted manager of the Magic Castle Motel. Despite complaining, Bobby goes way out of his way to take care of his tenants, becoming something of a father figure to the lost souls who end up there.

“He came a week early, absorbed the environment, met with real hotel managers that helped inspire his character,” Baker explained. “He was kind and patient. Very patient, because I surrounded him with six-year-olds and first-timers. Altogether, just a really great guy to work with. Somebody who really cared about the character he was portraying.”

Those six-year-olds and first timers, pleasantly, held their own against the professional actor. In particular, there was Brooklyn Prince – pretty much the star of the film – who is one of the most natural child actors to be seen in years. Playing Moonee, a six-year-old daughter of an unemployed exotic dancer, Prince has a natural wonder, a sweet manner and a lack of cutesiness which is hard to find in children. She is a force of nature.

Baker smiled at his luck in finding the girl.

“She came from a local casting company called Crowd Shot,” Baker said. “I wanted all the kids to come locally. They had to be local for many reasons: because of the accents, to have them comfortable. I didn’t want to fly in Hollywood kids. She was in their database. She had a little bit of experience: some commercials and an indie.”

Yet, as soon as he met her, Baker felt he had located his young star.

“I feel so blessed to have found her,” Baker admitted. “I can’t imagine what this would be without her. I think you’ll agree when you see it. She’s on a whole different level. I consider her a prodigy. She has the skills of any seasoned actor that I have ever worked with. You’ll see. You’ll see. I didn’t have to manipulate anything with editing.”

Sean Baker at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of “The Florida Project” at the Prince Theater on October 21, 2017. Photo by Deborah Wagner.

One thing that impressed Baker about Prince was that at one moment she could be a little kid, goofing and playing around, but as soon as she had to work she was all business. (Prince is currently seven, but at the time of filming she was six.)

One experience sealed it for Baker. It was early in the filming, but they had to do a later scene where Moonee had to say goodbye tearfully to Jancey (Valeria Cotto), one of her best friends. Cotto, who was the same age as Prince, wanted to play, but Prince told her that she had to get into character.

The Florida Project is a contradictorily sweet-and-sour experience, a childlike look at hopes and dreams of people who are caught in desperate poverty. Baker says that in many ways, the film is loosely based on the old Our Gang shorts, in which the Little Rascals have sweet and funny adventures in the middle of a world rocked by the Great Depression.

The film has an unconventional dramatic structure, not the typical three-act thing. Baker wanted it to be more reminiscent of a vacation for a child, a continuous stream of long, playful days, full of life experiences.

Sean Baker at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of “The Florida Project” at the Prince Theater on October 21, 2017. Photo by Deborah Wagner.

“[The structure is] there,” Baker admitted. “It’s just hidden a little bit. It’s disguised. We didn’t want it to have a structure that is in your face. It takes place over the course of a summer, and we always say, ‘When was the last time your summer had a three-act structure?’ So, we’re trying to blur the lines. But it’s there. Any European that sees my film, they say, ‘It’s way too plot heavy.’”

And what did Disney World and the town of Kissimmee think about the filming? Were there any problems or complications about filming around the resorts?

“No. No. Well, there was a little at first, yes,” Baker admitted. “Of course, the local government… when you read out script, it looks a little bit [uncomplimentary]. We had a little bit of push back. But, I think as soon as people saw what we were trying to do, and the message we were trying to get out, we actually got a lot of support. Now, Peggy Choudhry, who is the county commissioner of Osceola County, was there at our premiere two weeks ago in Orlando. She’s been very supportive.”

Because, in the long run, The Florida Project is not blaming or judging anyone – not the area, nor the people. It is just showing one of the sad realities of life in the modern world.

“It’s all about the community trying to get affordable housing into this area,” Baker said. “There is no affordable housing there. You have the private sector, working with the philanthropists, working with the agencies, and hoping that the government can help. Because that’s what that area needs. That’s what the whole United States needs, affordable housing prices.”

Baker also suggests that if you are moved by the plight of the characters in his film to get involved.

“If you’re interested in learning more about it, please visit the National Alliance to End Homelessness,” Baker said from the stage at the Prince during a Q&A at the screening later that night. “It will give you information about the ‘hidden homeless,’ which was a term I didn’t know. I didn’t even know this country had an issue of the hidden homeless. If you’re interested in helping the city of Orlando, please look into . They are trying to develop an affordable housing complex on their property. They are the agency that helped us in many different ways making the film.”

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: October 29, 2017.

Photos by Deborah Wagner © 2017


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