Orlando Outsiders: Sean Baker’s 'Florida Project' uncovers the world beyond the Magic Kingdom

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“Write what you know,” suggests an overused piece of advice for storytellers. Among the most humanist filmmakers working today, Sean Baker almost exclusively does the opposite. Through a rich filmography of six theatrical features grounded in present-day American social realism, Baker has been uncovering ignored urban subcultures living on the margins of society and shining a spotlight on their specific hardships since the early 2000s.

With Take Out (co-written by Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou), he followed a Chinese delivery person battling the day-to-day hostility of New York City as an illegal immigrant. With Tangerine, he pulled off a contemporary Christmas classic through the friendship of two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles. Through his empathetic lens, Baker is among the rare filmmakers working today who sees a familiar human story in the unfamiliar, and discovers universality within specificity as he wrestles with issues around social injustice with compassion and respect.

Joining me on one afternoon in late summer, Baker talked about his steadfast commitment to properly and considerately representing his characters, approaching them “from a place the entire globe could identify with” to avoid offenses like condescension and disrespect. “I remember the day that I felt good about Tangerine was in pre-production, when my co-screenwriter said, ‘We're making a buddy movie,’” Baker confesses. That’s when the universality of the L.A. world he was tackling clicked into place for him.

And now this defiantly humanist director, who unsurprisingly and lovingly refers to Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica of Bicycle Thieves and British social realists like Ken Loach of Kes as great influences on his career, is back with The Florida Project (A24), his finest film to date, which recently conquered hearts in Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which the devastating Hurricane Irma hit Florida. “It was a very scary and emotional moment for us at Toronto. We were premiering the day that it was hitting Central Florida. It was hard to be celebratory in any way. Unfortunately, there was a tremendous amount of damage up north, but [thankfully] our cast and crew and people that I know from the motels have not been gravely affected.”

Reuniting him with his Tangerine co-writer Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project charts the lives of a group of Orlando outcasts living in poverty on the verge of homelessness at a motel named “The Magic Castle,” located a stone’s throw from “The Happiest Place onEarth,” in the artificial shadows of the fairytales and gift shops of Disney World. At the heart of the film is little Moonee, played by the outstanding Brooklynn Prince, a true force of nature. We follow the exuberant six-year-old as she gleefully (and sometimes due to neglect, dangerously) misbehaves, hangs out with her buddies Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and playfully provokes her young mother Halley (the extraordinary newcomer Bria Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on Instagram) and the hotel’s protective, fatherly manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in one of his career-best performances).

“This is a new world to me,” admits Baker, who was introduced to the topic of “hidden homelessness” by Bergoch. “[Chris] is very closely connected to Disney because of his love of it. He truly knows every detail about every Disney film. He came across this news article [focusing] on the [hidden homeless] situation along Route 92. Then we started taking trips there, looking beyond what journalists focused on and realized that the hidden homeless situation is national, even international.” This was approximately five years ago, right after Baker made Starlet. “We were shocked that there were still people living with the unfortunate consequences of the recession of 2008 and the housing boom,” Baker recounts. “We finally got into production last year, and it was even [worse]. [It’s] so alarming that almost a decade later, you could still see the effects of the recession on families, individuals, local businesses, the local government and the corporations.”

During their research, the crew visited motels in search of individuals they could approach. Sometimes they were plainly unwanted. Certain motels did not desire their poor conditions to be further publicized after already having been painted unfavorably by the media for a long time. The owner of Magic Castle was giving and generous to them, however. Along the way, they met additional cooperative motel managers, one of whom (Baker doesn’t wish to name him) especially opened up his world to them.

“He was in a very tough position, a [blue-collar worker] himself, barely holding onto a job that he could not lose for the sake of his family. So he had to do his managerial duties and at the same time, being a father himself, had compassion for the families living there. He knew that sometimes he [had to] evict a family. That moved me. I knew that there was a lot of depth to it. That's really where Bobby's character came from.”

Introducing Willem Dafoe to these managers and helping him absorb their stories was especially important to Baker. “Willem is such a wonderful actor. The kids loved [working with him], especially little Christopher, because he saw him as Green Goblin. Willem would do whatever he could to get everybody relaxed and forget that he was the star. He was just very much a part of the family. He took the time to [get to] know the world he's focusing on. He came down a week early and met with that one manager in particular, and then a few others. I don't think the Bobby character would have been written if we had not met the real-life motel managers.”

Similarly, the filmmakers had to approach families living at these properties sensitively. There were concerns, but so many local families were frank and open with them. The production shot in real locations and employed many unprofessional locals and residents, even if it was sometimes just for one day. “It was, I think, one step [towards] helping them,” Baker reflects.

“It’s one of those miracles,” says Baker about finding Brooklynn Prince. He originally intended to make The Florida Project before Tangerine, but it got pushed due to lack of financing. "Now I'm so happy in hindsight, because Brooklynn was only one at the time.” When they finally found Brooklynn in the database of the local casting company in Orlando, she was paired with Christopher Rivera during an audition. "I'm not ready yet, I'm gonna have to prepare," Baker recalls Rivera saying, before he jumped down on the ground and started doing push-ups. “Then Brooklynn, said, ‘Oh yeah, me too,’ and she started doing squats. Within seconds, I remember looking at the team and saying, ‘I think we found them.’ Then Valeria coming in, the three of them just seemed to be a really nice mix of personalities. They became friends, which is great.”

When Bria Vinaite came onboard, she sat down with Brooklynn and Valeria and on Baker’s request the three acted like sisters. “Samantha Quan, who was the acting coach for the kids, also took Bria on, because she was 100-percent green,” explains Baker. “But within two weeks, she was holding her own with Willem Dafoe. Willem's so impressed by her.”

Quan also had to work with the kids on the usage of profanity and navigating the adult themes of the movie, which the kids’ parents were onboard with as long as it would be done responsibly. “[Samantha] was like a motherly figure with them. The kids were respectful and had to understand that profanity was used while they were actually acting in the scene and then as soon as I yelled cut, there was no more use of that word.” Baker adds, “I honestly don't think any of the kids understand any of the sex-work stuff. Brooklynn Prince talked about this. Like, ‘Those are the things I'm not supposed to know about.’ She understands there's something else there, but she doesn't know what.”

Asked whether he views his film differently in the current political climate, where his protagonists are among a segment of society likely to suffer the most under the new administration, Baker nods with concern. “I actually do see a lot of the local government working very closely with agencies and nonprofits in that area to help eradicate the homeless situation. All it would take is the Federal Government to put very little money into this. So, when I see proposals from Trump about reducing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], it breaks my heart, [especially] knowing that half of the recipients of food stamps in this country are children.”

Baker emphasizes that one big aspect of The Florida Project is awareness and education to help remove the stigma of homelessness. “So, it's really about first shining a light on this and working on that grassroots level. Next, I need policy makers to see this. So we're trying to set up a congressional screening. We're going to DC with it.”