Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” has been hailed as his best film, a triumphant followup to his iPhone-shot “Tangerine” set in an Orlando budget motel that has wowed audiences at festivals around the world. Raves have singled out his six-year-old star, Brooklynn Prince, and Willem Dafoe as the hotel manager, both of whom anchor an extraordinary, heartbreaking drama.
But last summer, towards the end of production on “The Florida Project,” Baker confessed he was in hell. He compared his challenges to Francis Ford Coppola’s experiences on “Apocalypse Now” – living in fear that the production was constantly on the verge of collapse and sincerely wondering if the footage he was bringing back to New York to edit could be turned into a movie.
“Like all of my films, there’s still an element of not having control,” said Baker in an interview with IndieWire. For the film, he continued to work in real locations that weren’t shut down for filming and casting first-time actors to bring authenticity to his story, set on the outskirts of Disney World. The filmmaker’s kinetic camera remains intentionally raw, giving the sense of documenting. And the movie’s partially improvised script is filled with the small, well-researched details that allow the audience to understand what it’s like to live on the outer margins of American society.
The step up in ambition registers onscreen. The reality behind the scenes is that there was nothing easy about making “The Florida Project” and the film was nearly shut down.
With over year having passed such production wrapped – a year in which the film was acquired by A24 and received rave reviews at Cannes and the big fall festivals, setting the tables for a slow, “Moonlight”-like roll-out with a stealth eye on awards season – Baker reflected on what was so hard about making “The Florida Project” and what he learned in the process.
“When you are working with a group of people that don’t know your directing style and they’re use to a very specific way of making films – a union crew, local crews – yeah, that was a problem,” said Baker. “It was something that almost caused this film to shut down half way through because people thought I was rogue and crazy.”
Baker quickly learned on the set he would have difficulty employing some of the same tricks he used on previous films. In one scene, the film’s two leads (a mother and daughter played by Bria Vinaite and Prince), are selling perfume to tourists. Baker wanted to shoot it “Candid Camera” style –telephoto lenses and mic’ing the actors, who would walk up to real pedestrians and try to sell them real perfume. After they got the shot, the crew would run after the confused tourists and try to get them to sign a release granting permission for the footage to be used in the film.
“Do you know how much more difficult that is to do when there’s 40 people around you and you just want everyone to go away?” said Baker, recalling his response: “‘Come on guys, do we need the head of transportation here? Why can’t we be hiding?’ So it was really difficult because you are such a presence at that point – much bigger footprint and still we were still considered a small, low-budget film.”
With “The Florida Project,” Baker was surrounded by the same close team – including producers Kevin Chinoy, Shih-Ching Tsou and producer/co-writer Chris Bergoch – who were vital to the director’s previous films and understand his unorthodox style. The problem was that with a larger crew, they weren’t able to enable the director’s approach in maintaining the flexibility to react to everything happening around him.
“At any moment, I’ll be inspired by something happening on the other side of the parking lot and say, ‘I’m not going to stick to the schedule right now, I’m going off schedule to grab something that is much more interesting and that’s like a happy accident,'” said Baker.
On a film like “Tangerine,” with a core group of jack-of-all-trades collaborators, the ability to stay nimble wasn’t simply a strategy — it’s how a film like that gets made: grab what you can, when you can. But part of stepping up a level involves department heads who can raise a film’s production value by carefully planning and prepping locations, hair and make-up, camera and sound. And Baker’s frustration with the less-nimble crew was nothing compared to their frustration with him.
“It was killing my script supervisor, it was killing my wardrobe department because they were [trying to keep] up with continuity, which was hellish,” said Baker. “I learned a lot of lessons, I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus except for myself. I probably went into this in a naive way, thinking that everyone was going to be able to easily jump onto my way of directing.”
Baker credits his cinematographer Alexis Zabe for helping to rally the crew by helping them understand that Baker wasn’t crazy, but had a master plan and was editing in his head as the shoot progressed and the story evolved. Ultimately though, it fell on Baker to adjust.
“Eventually I had to really start communicating, much more than I have in the past, and say, ‘Guys, I know I’m throwing you curveballs all the time,'” said Baker.
There was an upside: While in the hellish heat and humidity of Florida summer, Baker might have felt he was captain of a ship that was about to sink. But like Coppola with “Apocalypse Now,” he ended up with a pretty great movie anyway.