The Florida Project is as stunning of a movie made these days. Set on the outskirts of Orlando—where Disney World feels a million miles away—it tells the story of a community holed up at a budget motel called The Magic Castle. The “castle” essentially doubles as a public housing facility. Many of its occupants are unemployed and fearful, desperate to make ends meet on a week-to-week basis.

Ingenious writer/director Sean Baker—whose last film, Tangerine, was filmed entirely on an iPhone—narrows his attention to Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her rambunctious mother Halley (Bria Vinai). They have each other to make it through. There’s also a powerhouse performance from Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of the hotel. Bobby is, in many ways, everyone’s safe-keeper.

In the past decade Baker has had a knack for telling the stories of life on the margins. People and places not typically seen in film or television. Born in New Jersey, he seems to have this innate understanding of humans. The writing in his movies never feels like writing; the mark of great writing. When I hopped on the phone with Baker, he was driving around Orlando, preparing for the cast and crew screening of The Florida Project that had been prepared at the MGM. Naturally, Baker was a bit anxious. The day had come to show everyone the film they had made. Thankfully for him, the finished product is beautiful.

When The Florida Project was being made, was there pushback from local government about the way the film is shedding light on this community?

Yeah, there’s always a little bit of that but there wasn’t much though. For the most part we were, I think, a little more welcome than not welcome. We were the only film being shot in Florida that summer, which is crazy to me. I mean, there was a lot of television in Miami but we were the only union feature. We were bringing jobs and money to the area.

What was the entry point for you learning about this community?

The entry point was basically my co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch. His mother had relocated to the semi-Orlando area and started sending him local news articles about what was going on. Basically families growing up, some raising families in motels right outside of Disney. I think that that drew a lot of attention to local media. She was sending us articles, I was intrigued. We also obviously recognized that juxtaposition, that very sad irony happening here, and we started exploring it. It goes way back to 2011, 2012. We thought that it might be our follow-up to Starlet.

 

You did?

Yeah. We knew that it would be a bigger-budgeted film though so we were looking for financing. We couldn’t find it. We didn’t need a lot of money but we needed some money, it couldn’t be another micro-budget movie. Starlet was $235,000. [Tangerine] was micro-micro where there was a lot of begging, borrowing, and stealing and we knew that we could not do that with a film that would be shot with kids in Florida, in another state to which we’d have to move, and hopefully shot on film [as opposed to an iPhone]. I was really looking to shoot this one on film. So that’s why we just went ahead and made Tangerine instead, but actually it ended up working in our favor because Tangerine opened the doors for us and found us financing with June Pictures. On top of that, I think—you never know—it dictated our style a little bit. It pointed us in a direction where we could actually use comedy a little bit more than we might have done if we had done it pre-Tangerine. I’m so happy it didn’t happen at that time in hindsight because Brooklynn (the lead child actress in the film) would have been only one year old, and I can’t even imagine this film without Brooklynn now. It’s Brooklynn’s film.

Watching it, I was blown away by her energy. How did you even find her; you put out a casting call and she answered it?

I’d put Brooklynn Prince in the same category as like a Mickey Rooney or a Jodie Foster. She was born to do this and she was just incredible to work with.

Yeah, she was in the database for a local casting company called CROWDshot, and she didn’t even come in for the first couple of auditions. We had to say, “Look at her, why isn’t she in here?” I don’t know why, but she didn’t come in until the third [round of audition] I believe. She had prior experience, she had done some commercials and a small indie, I think it was called Robodog 2 or something like that. So yeah, the minute she came in the room she really won us over, I mean really fast. We were impressed within seconds.

I don’t think I’ve seen a young child be that staggering—right away—in years.

I agree with that. I’d put her in the same category as like a Mickey Rooney or a Jodie Foster. She was born to do this and she was just incredible to work with, absolutely incredible. My partner Samantha Quan was the acting coach on the film and she worked very closely with the kids, but also Brooklynn herself is just so intelligent and she’s so aware at six years old. She’s an old soul, you know? And yet she’s so witty, she’s so fast, she absorbs everything around her. It’s an incredible thing to watch. There’s a very special person there.

It’s impressive how structured and focused the movie turned out, given the difficulty of shooting on location. I know that was a fairly chaotic thing to do for you. How were you keeping sane on set?

I wasn’t sane. It was a difficult one. I know all filmmakers say that, but this was pretty difficult. It was something in which we were fighting every disaster that came upon us every five minutes and staying focused. I definitely learned a lot about how to be more communicative with my crews. Somebody who doesn’t understand my directing style could be pretty taken aback by it if I start going off the schedule and focusing on something because I’m inspired in the moment. It was a lot of chaos, I have to say, but not when it came to the kids.

The Florida Project Cast
Baker (back row, center) with the cast of 'The Florida Project' Image via Getty/Matt Doyle

How did the kids respond to your directing style?

They were working with Samantha [Quan, acting coach], they were learning their lines, they were understanding the scenes, workshopping the scenes. Sometimes I would shoot the scene exactly how it was scripted because there was little time or whatever, but there were always moments in almost every scene where I’d say, “Loosen it up just a hair.” I wouldn’t always give all the kids this freedom, but I definitely gave Brooklynn the freedom. I would allow her to add a line here or there or change something. She was always in the moment, you know what I mean? She was getting it—as well as all the characters... They understood the themes of the movie enough to hit exactly the points I needed them to hit... I think it was about getting those actors in that world enough and understanding their characters enough where if I ever asked them to get loose, they could. And they were skilled enough to do that too. All four kids are extroverts, and that helps a lot with first-time kid [actors].

The world-building part is especially imperative. The project you’re depicting here reminds me of a Florida rendition of Cabrini-Green in Chicago, but sunnier. How challenging was it to make sure you kept the authenticity within the frame?

Oh, it was extremely important. The slang was very important, we had to make sure there was some local slang in there. The only thing that I would say we cheated with a bit is that we did play with geography. If you are familiar with Route 192 you would know that we actually put two motels next to each other that don’t exist next to one another. There are other motels that are right next door to one another, but it wasn’t as visual as the one we wanted to shoot at. I wanted to enhance the world a hair because I wanted to almost make it seem as if the audience is coming into the theater with their senses enhanced. When you’re a child, the colors are brighter, sounds are louder and whatever. So I wanted the audience’s senses to feel acute in a way. I think that that’s what gave me the artistic freedom to cheat geography, but that’s really it. Authenticity-wise, we followed the demographic breakdowns, the language, all the procedural stuff with the DCF [Department of Children and Families].

That was done very well. It’s especially interesting the way you put shoot those two adjacent hotels. One is more lenient than the other.

That’s when they actually go across to Arabian Nights on the other side of Route 192. She was an Indian woman operating the place, and again, that’s following the demographic breakdown where some of the motels are now Indian-owned. Also, they bought these motels and they have a right not to present a continuous welfare motel. She just wants the most for her business, you know? You can’t blame her for this girl who storms in there demanding a certain rate when she’s running a business. We definitely wanted to show how small businesses were affected by the recession of ‘08 as well. It wasn’t just the residents, it’s all these businesses that were once tourist-driven and targeted toward the same tourists who were going to the parks. Now they were dealing with barely surviving themselves, and had to sometimes lay down the law a little more tough than Bobby would.

I think it’s more interesting because it’s not a white woman rejecting her.

You could look into it if you really wanted to and start going into the caste system and stuff like that. That does happen, where they’re taking their own views of class from their country and applying it here and looking down. That was definitely part of it. When we were interviewing motel managers and meeting motel owners, we saw this. This was based on stuff we saw. Of course, when you’re fictionalizing something, there are many different ways you can go. There were of course some white owners that we found, but I thought that that added complexity and it was also just real. It was based in realism.

'The Florida Project'
Image via A24 Films