With “The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) and Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe (“Silent Light”) turned a unique coming-of-age movie about kids living on the fringe of Orlando’s Disney World into “blueberry ice cream with a sour twist.” The movie is a freewheeling “pop verité” of broken dreams built around a cast of mostly non-professionals, and set in a makeshift purple motel appropriately called “The Magic Castle.” But it’s the push-pull between rambunctious six-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince and tenderhearted hotel manager Willem Dafoe that propels the drama.
Pop Goes the Verité
And 35mm anamorphic film was the perfect choice to evoke the soft, creamy, imperfect aesthetic Baker was after. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities to work on 35 and I really treasure it,” said Zabe, who shot with the Panavision Millennium xl2 and old E series lenses. “It changes the whole dynamic on set and it plays better because of the moving grain and the mechanics of the camera. And when I talked to Sean about the mindset of the movie, we wanted to see the world as [the kids] see it. The metaphor was ice cream and colors and textures were surprising.”
Baker and Zabe talked about Italian neo-realism and the French new wave and the need for flexibility. But first they made a fashion short for Kenzo together, “Snowbird,” shot on the iPhone in several trailer homes in the California desert community of Slab City. It served as a great tune-up for “The Florida Project.”
It was important for Prince and her rag-tag gang to be free to roam the motel and use their creativity and curiosity. And Zabe kept the camera closer to the ground to maintain their points of view and shot the maximum 10-minute takes.
“It was a fluid process that was workshopped and the script evolved as we shot,” Zabe said. “Sean explained to the kids that there were some definite lines they had to learn, but they were free to come up with their own dialogue. But if they rambled too long, he would remind them to channel back to where they needed to be. But they were really being themselves. It’s kind of a documentary.”
However, they shot night scenes digitally using the Alexa Mini. That was an interesting process, too, on location using available light. “After testing 35, we found it was way too gritty,” said Zabe. “Once we were out there at night, it became a really dark fairy tale, so we tested digital output to film and captured more of that ice creamy feel. But we kept it underexposed to retain some of the grittiness.”
Changing for Adults
Shooting scenes with adults, meanwhile, altered the visual language. They were done at a higher, more objective angle. Several of these moments involved Instagram sensation Bria Vinaite, who plays Prince’s unemployed mom, and Defoe, preoccupied with fixing the motel and collecting the rent, but becoming a reluctant father figure to Prince to keep her in line.
“There’s a memorable argument between them that ends with a not so nice surprise on the lobby window,” Zabe said. “That was a great exercise in rhythm and blocking because we originally did it as a one-shot all the way at the top of her room and then walking down to the lobby. I think in the final version there was one cut in the middle to make it a little bit more compressed. It was great how they worked together, with Bria being a first-time, but pretty much being a natural at it, and Willem, who had a beautiful relationship with all the non-actors.”
There were many happy accidents, but the most memorable was capturing a rainbow. “Originally, the rainbow scene was set in a field,” said Zabe. But one day we were shooting something in the motel parking lot and we had storm clouds come in. Quite often we had to stop shooting because of thunder and lightning. And after a thunderstorm, the clouds opened up and we had a rainbow there. We set it up quickly with the kids, shot it quickly, and then did the reverse angle.”
Rainbow ice cream for the kids and the end to a perfect pop verité day.