“Moonlight” distributor A24 landed the top English-language acquisition title at Cannes, Director’s Fortnight entry “The Florida Project.” For Sean Baker’s follow-up to iPhone movie “Tangerine,” he returned to a project he started researching with co-writer Chris Bergoch back in 2013. (This time, he shot in 35 mm.) Only after “Tangerine” could he score financing for another look at outsiders living on the margins of society.
The duo was fascinated by a strip of Orlando’s budget motels on Route 92, just a mile away from Disneyworld. Once designed to lure tourists, they now teem with families on the edge. Instead of E-rides, the kids find their fun in spitting on cars, peeking at topless bathers, stalking grazing cows, and panhandling for soft-serve ice cream to slurp before it melts in the blazing heat.
Baker had long wanted to make a film about children “that focused on their resilience, their innocence, and their comic nature,” he said at Cannes. “I saw this as an opportunity to be able to make that film and be able to shine a light on an important and timely issue in the U.S., the one of the hidden homeless.”
Six-year-old Monee (Brooklynn Prince) is the focus of this slice-of-life movie, which relies on local casting and Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite as her loving but volatile ex-stripper mother Halley, who scrapes together her rent money every week, selling wholesale perfume at a nearby tourist hotel. Baker asked Vinaite to stand up to two-time-Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (“Platoon,” “Shadow of the Vampire”), whose frustrated but humane motel manager is the glue that holds together this poverty-row drama. He’s the closest thing to a father figure and civilizing force these marginal characters will ever know.
Vanaite was initially frightened of acting opposite a movie star. “She had crash course in Acting 101,” said Baker in our video interview below. “Willem was such a nice guy, so giving, so patient, he put all these actors at ease… Willem put in the hours. He came early, absorbed the environment, met the motel managers.”
Baker, working closely with kids’ coach Samantha Quan, encouraged both the adults and the children to improvise, using the Hal Roach “Our Gang” shorts as a model of what he wanted to achieve. “These 6-8-year-olds took our scripted lines and riffed with it,” he said. “Sometimes they went off on something different, which was fine with me, as long as I was capturing the truth of the kids acting as naturally as possible.”
The movie builds dread, concern and anxiety for the kids, while navigating between joyful fun and obnoxiousness. “With ‘Tangerine,’ it was more about experimentation to see the balancing act work between comedy and pathos,” said Baker. “I was looking for Spanky MacFarland 2016. I believe I found that in Brooklynn Prince.”
“I like Mr. Sean,” said Prince at Cannes, “because he’s a really nice director. He’s not like a normal character. He’s like a fun person. You know, I’d like to live with him. He’s like my uncle.”
At her Orlando audition, Prince fell to the floor and did squats with her eventual costar Chris Rivera. They had instant chemistry, said Baker, who was looking for adorable mischief, not mean kids.
“I wanted to show that innocence,” he said. “The kids can be really funny. I didn’t want the moping, frowning kid. I never saw that when I went to the motels. I came across children, I have to say, already at seven they have the whole world against them. It’s an unfortunate situation; their parents are in a real bind, if they have both parents. And yet at the same time, the kids are smiling and trying to find fun and made the best of what they had. I wanted to show, even though Moonie didn’t have the means to go to one of the parks a mile away, she was able to treat her environment like an attraction park ride. She brings her friend to see a safari, and the local abandoned condos are in a way their Haunted Mansion.”
Baker had to convince the parents to let them use considerable profanity. “They’re going to hear some words and have to say some words,” he told them. “That doesn’t leave the set. As soon as I yell ‘cut,’ those words will not be uttered again.”
Visually, Baker had a blast shooting these Orlando relics of the ’50s and ’60s, and needed more than the 35 days he had, working in the heat with a bevy of kids. In post-production, editor Baker cuts his films scene by scene.
“The tone of every scene will dictate the next,” said, trying to balance “comedy and pathos. If I lean too much in one direction, it can be disastrous. It can end up being insulting, offensive, it can go condescending to our characters. I would not be able to live with myself if I felt the film didn’t properly represent them.”
Baker was always aware that while he was cultivating a playful summer camp atmosphere on set, “the environment we were working in was stressful and very intense,” he said. “Working with subject matter like this, you’re being creative and you’re experimenting, and yet at same time, you’re in an environment where there’s tragedy next door. During the day we were laughing and having fun, but we had to go home knowing there are real Halleys and Moonies — we’ve met them — and it’s quite sobering.”
A24 could look to achieve what Fox Searchlight managed with 2012 indie breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which debuted in Sundance and went on to ride strong Cannes buzz and the fall festival circuit to four nominations, including Best Picture, Writer, Director, and its nine-year-old star, Quvenzhane Wallis, who became the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress.