Sean Baker. A man so humble that when I inaccurately stated the number of films he’s made, he not only didn’t not turn up his nose at me, he actually ran to his hotel room to grab me copies of the films I had missed. So it probably comes as little surprise that this man, a 46-year old New Jersey native, would be behind a film as empathic and compassionate as The Florida Project.
One of the great films of 2017, The Florida Project is a stunning examination of desolation in the shade of capitalism [Full review here]. Baker captures the joy, the anguish, the good times and bad, making a stunningly emotional mosaic that just this morning became a nominee for the first major award ceremony of the year, the independent film-centered Gotham Awards.
I sat with Sean, a warm presence, to discuss The Florida Project, making films about people who don’t usually have their stories told, finding first-time actors and making their performances sing, the transition from shooting on an iPhone 5s to shooting on 35mm film, the extended outreach and social campaign associated with the film and making his own distinct version of a Little Rascals movie.
First of all congratulations on the Gotham nomination this morning. That must be exciting.
Sean Baker: It’s very exciting. It’s how I woke up. I’m so happy because it’s just about as heavy competition as you can get. But it’s so great to be in that company – Get Out and Call Me By Your Name.
Sean now with a number of films under your belt, you’ve established this really distinct, humanist, empathic voice. You shed light on characters and situations that don’t usually see the light of day. How would you describe your directorial style and what inspires you to tell these stories?
SB: I think it’s just a response to what I want to see. I think most filmmakers’ films, unless they’re directors for hire, are usually responses to what they’re not seeing enough of. Especially, for me, in US cinema. I feel like it’s a really narrow window of what groups we get to see, what groups are allowed to have stories told about and by them. I think all these films stem from slightly different origins but it usually comes down to exploring a location or a subculture that I haven’t seen enough of onscreen. That’s part of my personal education as well where I get to meet people and get to know people outside the circles that we are sometimes constrained to
I see a reflection of that being that you’re often working with non-professional actors. In this film you found Halley off her Instagram profile. Can you talk about discovering this people and then coaxing these unbelievable performances out of them?
SB: That’s the thing, I like to break it down into three categories and not two: seasoned actors, first timers and then non-professionals. Non-professionals are what I think of basically as people on the street who you go up to and say, “Do you want to be in this film today?” and they’ll probably never work again or aspire to act. It’s just in the moment. The first timers, I don’t like to call them non-professionals because it doesn’t help them with their careers. I’m basically finding first timers. Bria, who came to me on Instagram, I wasn’t looking to cast her there. I was open to casting on open networks.
Were you looking for her particular aesthetic?
SB: Yeah. I think I was more looking for the Ashley aesthetic, which is the other mom. I was looking for these characteristics and I came across her Instagram and I was like she’s witty and self-deprecating and has the physicality and the tattoos and she was making me laugh. I really needed that young, youthful energy. Halley is a little bit abrasive and she could actually put off an audience so I also needed her to be fun and have that humor about her. So we were originally thinking of some A-listers for that role but that character is going through so much in terms of her struggles that an audience will be taken out of it if they see a celebrity or recognizable face.
I’d love to talk about Brooklyn Prince as well because I think she, for my money, gives one of the best youth performances I’ve ever seen. It’s so not-self conscious. She’s just a child being a child and it’s so pure and raw. Can you talk about discovering her?
SB: She came from a local casting company called CrowdShot. I wanted the kids to be Orlando based. So she was in their database and she came in after our third big audition and I was getting worried that we weren’t finding our Moonee. She came in and auditioned and within seconds we knew. She is on a whole other level. She’s like a prodigy. She understands the craft of acting at her young age. That was a real performance and I didn’t have to manipulate that or edit it or anything. It was really incredible to see someone that advanced for her age. She is in the same category as Jodie Foster or Mickey Rooney. You just know that she’s gonna have a huge career. You really have to take time with casting. You have to keep looking and looking until you’re absolutely sure. We were worried we weren’t going to be able to go into production until we found the one.
The film to me is a symphony of these small, tender, meaningful moments. Can you tell me one of your favorite moments of the film?
SB: I actually don’t like watching the movie. I haven’t even watched it with an audience.
Why is that?
SB: Because I feel like it’s torture from that point on. I know I’m not going to make any more changes. I don’t want to sit in there being swayed by audience’s reactions. Plus it’s boring for me. I sat with it for over a year.
You’ve seen it over a hundred times.
SB: Right. I edited it so I know every frame. It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. (Laughs) But it’s weird because I don’t think directors can ever appreciate their own work. I do love my actors performances, all of them. I have to say that I really get a kick out of when they are spying on the topless woman because everyone is so strong in that scene and has their timing down and Sandy Kane is great and Willem is great. I think that’s the scene that reminds me most of my childhood because I was the kid who would be spying and up to mischievous antics. That’s the scene for me.
You famously shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5s. That’s the phone I’m currently using and I can’t imagine shooting an entire movie on it…
SB: My eyesight probably went because of that. Not only were we shooting without monitors, we were also shooting scope so we had an adaptor over the lens and everything is squished so it looked like a kung-fu movie playing on television back. So you have to imagine what it’ll look like when it’s stretched. So our eyesight went that year.
Can you talk about the transition from having such a DIY approach and shooting on this little gadget to shooting on 35 MM film with some top notch equipment?
SB: It for course slows you down and changes the pace but to tell you the truth the only thing it really cut down on was the amount of angles I could get in coverage. But that wasn’t the movie I really wanted to make so in terms of shooting ratio, that didn’t really change. It was just the amount of set up time. But that brings a whole other thing to it. There’s a discipline that comes when you’re rolling film, you can hear it going through the gate. Everyone thought 35MM and kids would be the worst combination ever but it helped because we were able to tell the little kids, “You hear that sound? That’s money burning so bring your A game.” The kids even understood that even at 7 or 8.
Did they? I’m kind of surprised by that given current technology being what it is and kids use of it.
SB: I know! I think it took them all to another time. “This isn’t free to shoot?” I think it helped to get their attention focused.
What was the impetus for this particular story – this is very tightly focused on these issues of quasi-homelessness in the Florida slums. What inspired you to tell this particular tale?
SB: My co-screenwriter brought this issue to my attention, I didn’t know this was going on in the United States. I had no idea. His mother had relocated to the Orlando area and he was housesitting and found out about this and sent me news articles. I was taken aback by the sad circumstances and the juxtaposition of kids living and growing up in these budget hotels right outside the Happiest Place on Earth.
Living in the shade and shadow of capitalism basically.
SB: Yeah! Well I said this is definitely a setting for the type of films I made. I’ve been very inspired by Little Rascals, big time, and I thought that if the Little Rascals were these comic shorts set up against the Great Depression, and they were these characters living in poverty, I thought there’s some parallels going on in today’s world. We had this recession in ’08 that left places blighted throughout the United States and this is one of them. So why not tell a children’s story that takes place in this world. That’s how it all came about. Then of course there was research and we would travel. We got a grant to go and that’s when we really absorbed the environment. We got to meet motel managers and residents and agencies that provided social services. That was when we fleshed it out but the initial story came from a bunch of news clippings.
When you’re interfacing with these communities, what kind of stories did they come to you with?
SB: Everything. They had so much but we basically had to filter and choose what would work best in your fiction narrative. There’s a lot of other stories that we wanted to focus on. We decided to focus on a single mom and her kid but we could have focused on a family or a vet or the addiction problems that are happening in these motels or domestic abuse. There are stories here, and many of them are very sad and very real, but we had to just basically pick and choose and what was best suited for this story of Halley and Moonee best. It’s about doing it in a journalistic way but then doing your edit before you get to writing the screenplay.
Was there any stories in particular that you cut that you wanted to be in it?
SB: We had actually shot scenes that were more adult-oriented, even procedural scenes with the Child Protective Services that describe to the audience a little more of what’s going on with more details. But we only shot that stuff for safety anyways because the minute we were too far out of Moonee’s world or too far away from the children, it changed the movie. There was a scene I wished we could keep. You had all the adults in the front lobby: Bobby, his boss Narek and the two clerks and they’re all discussing their horrible Yelp ads and what they can do about it. Narek was like, “I don’t even know what wratched means. What does wratched mean? We have to start paying our customer to do Yelp ads,” and in comes Halley and Bobby is like, “Don’t talk to her,” but Narek says, “Ten dollars a Yelp ad,” and she says, “Hell yeah.” It’s a good scene but it just didn’t work in the movie because there were no kids in it and then it just felt weird.
Where do you go from here?
SB: I think I actually just want to take it a little slow. I look at my favorite filmmakers and they turn out films once every four years. Paul Thomas Anderson, once every four years…
Don’t want to be a modern Clint Eastwood or Ridley Scott?
SB: Well yeah, I just feel like I want to see this film out. I want to do a social campaign and help the agencies in that area. I’m telling audiences that if they’re effecting by this film that they can support their local agencies, and every community has agencies that are focused on developing affordable housing. When I say support, I don’t mean donate. That’s one way. But I mean spreading the word and advocating and volunteering. There’s so many ways to help. If you’re thinking about the real Moonee out there, she might exist in your community so let’s try and eradicate that on a national level. Talk to your policy makers and push Ben Carson to support HUD. That’s the word that I want to get out this year and then maybe next year I’ll start looking for inspiration.
I love how there’s an altruistic motive with what you’re doing with the film’s campaign.
SB: I think it’s necessary because when I talk to these agencies they say that all of their support is coming from the private sector and philanthropists so I think it’s all up to us. We have to be the ones, unfortunately, we have to do this. If we can’t rely on state and federal government, we have to do all we can do.