Interview with Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project by Jeff Mitchell

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Director Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is set at The Magic Castle in Orlando, Fla., but this purple and yellow locale is not a lush Disney World attraction.   It is an extended stay hotel that resides among fast food joints and gift shops, and for many of its residents, they struggle to make ends meet.  The film introduces us to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her childlike interpretation of her world as a playground, but her life is also coupled with the difficult financial realities that she shares with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe stars as Bobby, The Magic Castle’s manager, who sympathizes with Halley’s and Moonee’s economic and environmental circumstances.  (For the record, this critic believes that Dafoe deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.)  


Sean spoke with the Phoenix Film Festival about his film’s conscious clash between adult themes and childhood content, the reasons for telling this difficult story while also including ample amounts of humor, and much more.


“The Florida Project” arrives in theatres on Friday, Oct. 13.



PFF: Moonee (Prince) is an adorable, and also a very resourceful, 6-year-old girl.  For instance, she is not afraid to ask strangers for money to buy ice cream and gladly accepts and eats a large jar of jelly from a charitable organization.  She is full of life and smiles a lot, but I can envision her struggling as an adult, like her mother is today.  Were you thinking about the comparisons between childhood innocence and the hardships of adulthood?


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SB: Most definitely.  Screenwriter Chris Bergoch originally brought me the idea of this world.  In 2014, we actually got a grant and started taking trips to visit budget hotels.  We found out that (people living in budget hotels for long periods of time) was an ongoing problem, and we were meeting kids - who were Moonee’s age – who have spent their entire lives in budget motels.  So, we saw that this (trend) wasn’t changing, and there’s a very good chance that this lifestyle could continue and continue. 


The one thing about Halley (Vinaite) that separates her from Moonee is: it (appears) that she had no parental support.  No parents to speak of.  What we are trying to show with Moonee is that she does have a mom, and although Halley is misguided because of her age and perhaps the circumstances that she is in, (she has) a true love for her child.  She wants to be there for her child.  So, you don’t know if the cycle will continue or repeat, but, of course, the threat is there.  The threat is real.  It’s very rare when one breaks out of poverty, and so that was something that we wanted to show.  This is a definite possibility. Who knows the future?  Moonee’s future is very much up in the air.



PFF: Halley is struggling.  She does not make the best choices and leaves Moonee on her own many, many times, but she is still trying to provide for her and doing the best that she can with her skillset.  Halley knows that she could be a better mother, but does not necessarily know how.


SB: Yes.  Also, it’s not exactly the point of whether or not (audiences) agree or disagree with her parental skills, or how (they) see this woman in that aspect. 


Audience members have walked out of the theatre saying, “The love that mother had for her child was so incredible.  I wish that my mom had that sort of love for me.” 


Then I heard the other side, where they (believed that Halley was) a terrible mother.  I’ve heard the extremes on both sides, but my point – and hopefully one of the goals of this film – is that you at least have empathy for her.  You look at her circumstance, and you try to walk in her shoes for just a moment.  Look, she was probably 15, when she had Moonee.  No formal education.  No parental support.  Moonee’s father is obviously not in the picture.  We hint that she has a criminal record and is pretty much unemployable.  So all of these things build up against her, and she’s really in survival mode, and we’d really like audiences to at least walk away hopefully having empathy for somebody in that situation. 



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PFF: Halley and Moonee live in a budget hotel called The Magic Castle, which is a perfect name, since it is located in Orlando in the shadows of Disney World. 


SB: It’s an actual place, The Magic Castle, and we were lucky enough (to shoot there).  The owner was extremely generous.  There are small businesses lined up on Route 192 and exist there outside of the parks.  That’s the whole reason that we decided to set our story there, because this is actually a national problem.  There are basically people who are holding on to a roof over their heads by using budget hotels throughout the country, as one step away from being on the streets.  So, this is something that we could have set anywhere, but it was the juxtaposition that we were focusing on between kids growing up in motels and the “Happiest Place on Earth” right next door, less than a couple miles away. Not for cynical irony, but to show that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.



PFF: This location includes lots of asphalt, exit ramps, gift shops, and fast food joints, but to Moonee, this place can be a land of adventure as well.   So, even though life might not be ideal for Moonee and her friends, they see wonder and adventure in their world.  Is that a reason why childhood is special?


SB: Exactly.  You got it.  Little Moonee is able to use her imagination and wonderment to almost visit those attractions that you associate with (Orlando), but without actually visiting them.  For example, there are cow pastures that are only 10 feet behind these hotels.  She can walk behind the hotel, look at some cows and say, “Oh, here’s a safari,” instead of going to Animal Kingdom.  


She’s always making the most of it in her childlike way. 



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PFF: Bobby (Dafoe) runs The Magic Castle.  He’s the manager, but he also holds an unofficial fulltime job as a caretaker, watching the kids who live there, as they run around the property.  The film offers a couple small revelations that Bobby has endured a difficult 50+ years of existence.  He didn’t have an easy life.   


SB: We are trying to show that Bobby had loss in his life.  He saw his own family break apart, as he is seeing many other families break apart.  We discover that Bobby is estranged from his wife, when his son (Caleb Landry Jones) visits.  In a way, Bobby was paying his son for his presence by hiring him for the day.  That was Bobby’s way of at least keeping in contact with him. 



PFF: At times, children’s television programs or music can be heard in the background, when Halley would also use coarse, inappropriate language in the apartment.   Was the use of sound another element in weaving Moonee’s existence with her mother’s? 


SB: Yes, the whole film (contained many) contradictions, a lot of clashing with adult and childlike content.  The whole movie is that.  If you think about it, we start the film with (Kool & the Gang’s) “Celebration”, and obviously, it won’t remain celebratory for long.  I think the whole film is about that balance between the two worlds, because it’s about two worlds.  It’s a whole other world right outside The Magic Kingdom, so I am always trying to have a clash.  Whether it’s a clash of music, or adult content with child content or (socioeconomic) classes, it’s all of that. 




PFF: Moonee seems to be resilient to her environment but also aware of it.  Perhaps, completely aware.


SB: Not completely aware.  We were always playing with how much she would be absorbing, but there is no doubt about it, that a child in that situation is going to be introduced to things that she shouldn’t at such an early age.  I’ll give you a little anecdote. 


I was holding a 3-year-old at one of the hotels that I was doing my research, because you become friends with everybody there.  I was giving her a piggyback ride, and (she) whispered in my ear, “My mother smokes weed in the bathroom.”


Now, I didn’t even know what the word “weed” meant, until probably I was 14, and this girl was obviously very aware of what was happening.  Kids do have to grow up fast in that environment.  It is a dangerous (one), but kids are still kids at the same time, so again, there are a lot of contradictions and a lot of clashing.



PFF: The movie contains serious material, but it is also very, very funny.   Was it important for you to inject humor into the film?  


SB: I do that with all of my films.  We all use humor and laughter to cope, and in everyday life you see things that are comedic.  I feel that – sometimes - films that deal with serious issues become so entrenched in melodrama and devoid of all humor, that they become untruthful, because that’s not real life.  Sometimes in your darkest hours, you just have to smile or laugh to be able to cope and get by. 



Also, this movie is about kids.  Kids are inherently funny.  They are still growing up.  They are still learning how to hold themselves and talk.  Their use of grammar is off, and it can be funny.  If little Moonee was slumping over the entire time with a frown on her face, it would be so incredibly untruthful and condescending to these subjects. 


This is something that is very important to me, and at the same time, cinema is an entertaining medium, and I want audiences to know that they are going to be able to laugh with these kids and spend the summer with these kids.  There is comedy here, and there’s humor.  There are also important issues that we are shedding a light on, and hopefully, audiences will go home and think about the real Moonees and real Halleys, but they should know that there is a degree of escapism with this movie, and hopefully a return to summers of their youth.



PFF: This is not a question, but a compliment.   I loved how you visually told the story and paid attention to the beauty of the immediate environment around The Magic Castle. 


SB: I was working with a wonderful director of photography, Alexis Zabe, who has an eye for these things, and also my sister, Stephonik Youth, who was doing production design.   We really worked on embracing the beautiful, Floridian colors, and Route 192 is really incredible-looking, because all of these small businesses are targeting the same tourists as the parks.  So, they had all of these thematic candy colors and approaches to their businesses.  So, as a director, this (place) was (presented) to me as a gift:  Here, you have beautiful stuff to shoot. Shoot it! 


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.