Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the follow-up to the breakout indie comic drama Tangerine, sparkles with joy and hope even as it tells a not-so-hopeful story. In the film, little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) reside in Kissimmee, Fla., in a rundown motel that’s as colorful as its inhabitants. Moonee spends the hot, humid days romping around parking lots and abandoned homes with her friends, while Halley schemes to pay the bills. It’s a slice-of-life story that’s often hilarious, like The Little Rascals outside the gates of Disney World, but also always realistic — even frighteningly so. Baker may make fictional movies, but he realized pretty early in his career that his artistic method was going to be closer to that of a journalist’s than a filmmaker’s.
For the 2004 film Take Out, co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, Baker and Tsou would stand in the halls of their New York apartment building, interviewing the delivery guys working in the Chinese restaurant below them. In 2008’s Prince of Broadway, he infiltrated the NYC wholesale market, i.e. the loosely connected network of streetside goods vendors. Undocumented African men in the city make their living hawking random wares, and Baker befriended one of those men, Prince, who went on to star in a film that accurately reflected the stories of immigrants like himself. Baker’s research formed the basis of the films’ narratives, but it also launched him on his path of immersion and discovery.
“I’m always looking for authenticity in my films. They’re based in realism,” Baker says. “Because I’m a dramatist, I’m allowed to take liberties, but I want my films to be based in truth, and it’s very important to me that the community we’re focusing on is happy with the film. From an ethical point of view, that’s everything. A lot of the LGBTQ community accepted Tangerine, which was something we worked really hard to achieve.”
For six months before shooting Tangerine, Baker simply hung out with its stars, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. He calls the experience a blast, because the two transwomen were surrounded by a vibrant, open community; by listening to them, Baker and his team were able to capture a nuanced portrait of their struggles. “At night you would be hearing them tell these tragic stories, but they were delivered in such a way that it was just fun to listen,” Baker explains. The resulting film separates itself from so many other media depictions of transpeople, because its characters — despite their hardships — often display their exuberantly funny, full personalities. It’s the perfect opposite of the usual “poverty porn” portrayals.
With The Florida Project, Baker has now applied that formula to another unnoticed community, that of the “hidden homeless” residing in the rundown motels along the interstate in Kissimmee. Baker again spent months talking to the residents and motel managers, as well as small business owners, local government officials and social services agencies in the area.
“When we visited over two years ago, we met this gentleman at one of the motels and saw he wanted to talk. It was almost as if he was trying to get something off his chest,” Baker says. The man is the property manager who would go on to inspire Willem Dafoe’s character in the film, Bobby, manager of The Magic Castle motel. “He was in an incredibly tough position, running a small business without any help, holding onto his own job, and at the same time he had compassion for these families and kids who were struggling. He may have to evict one of these families and put them on the street, but he was still always breaking his own rules for them.”
Dafoe says he was lucky to meet the inspirations for his character, saying he was surprised by how much these motel managers take pride in the work they do, like it’s not just a job but a way to make the world a little better for the residents. “I didn’t actively take that on, but in retrospect, I see how that was true of the Bobby character. When you watch him, that’s the most touching thing. He’s an average guy who’s trying to do the best.”
Dafoe says he has family in Orlando and once took his son to Disney World years ago but expresses sincere surprise he didn’t even know what was happening in these motels, hence the term “hidden homeless.”
“Everyone we met there, they all had a story and all the stories were quite different,” Dafoe says. “But it was always about a series of one thing — being fired or spending some time in jail or getting hurt — that put them into a cycle they couldn’t escape.”
And that cycle continues. Baker tells me, with sorrow, that the man’s motel has since closed, displacing 100 families. He wants people to understand what these makeshift communities mean to the people there.
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That so many of the people residing in the motels have children presented Baker with the opportunity to tell this story with some whimsy. Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) are wildly inventive and sometimes downright destructive, at one point visiting an abandoned property and taking sledgehammers to the walls with impish glee. Not being actors, the kids here seem natural and unaffected onscreen.
“I cannot stand Hollywood child performances,” Baker says with a groan. “It just reeks of artifice, and it’s weird that for some reason Hollywood feels they have to make their child characters smarter than adults, and suddenly kids have the vocabulary of a college grad.” Baker wanted the children’s dialogue to sound authentic for 6- or 7-year-olds. Acting coach Samantha Quan shuffled the kids into one of the motel rooms on set everyday, giving them scenarios to act out, getting them comfortable enough with the script to improvise. And if the kids thought something didn’t sound quite right, they’d give suggestions for what they might say. Baker starts laughing when he remembers a scene where the three children are spying on a topless woman sunbathing at the pool, and Christopher dreamed up Baker’s favorite line.
“We gave Christopher some written lines, like, ‘Look how big her boobies are,’ but he so knew the characters that he said, ‘Hey, Gloria, rub your boobies on Bobby’s face.’ I’m pretty immature myself, so I bit my fist and turned to my right, to my script supervisor. She said, ‘You are the most immature person I’ve ever met.’ ” Baker doesn’t disagree.
It could be immaturity, or maybe it’s just curiosity. Baker seems endlessly fascinated by other people and the way they live their lives, and with a childlike wonder, he simply walks up to them — very often in the local Walmart — and asks, sincerely, “Do you want to talk?”