By Ray Pride
Sean Baker’s effortlessly headlong dive into a child’s imagination, “The Florida Project,” is a tender thunderclap. It can break your heart all the way from here to the first and second and fourth and fifth time you remember its many loving, lovely moments. We’re slipped into a scrupulously observed moldering Florida during summer break. At the Magic Castle motel complex, painted purple-on-purple, on U.S. Highway 192 near Orlando, along several miles of other, equally bold pastel color schemes and knockoff tourist shops, a couple of miles from Disney World, six-year-old Moonee lives with her twenty-two-year-old mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is strapped to find work each day, less-than-zero busted, and pays exorbitant weekly rates so they aren’t wholly homeless. Moonee (the incandescent Brooklynn Prince) is vitally, voraciously alive. Playing with friends and getting into latter-day worlds of trouble that aren’t far removed from the “Our Gang” comedies of an earlier economic depression, the world may confound her sometimes but all is a playground, an adventure. Fairytales arise for these bright, disadvantaged kids, even at small, tempting distance from the shiny, manufactured Disney false fronts. Willem Dafoe is also a marvel, understated as Bobby, the patient motel manager, a good man also challenged each day. Baker and I talked just before the release of his generous, grand, gorgeous film about the exquisite production and its ground-level magic.
“The Florida Project” arrives pretty quickly after “Tangerine,” considering how since “Take Out” (2004), it’s been about three years between your releases. It still falls into the every-three-years thing, no matter how hard I try to speed it up.
Is this the “process” you have with your co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch? Yeah, it is. And I feel that the reason “Florida Project” was more like two years was because we already had a treatment, we already had a “scriptment.” We wanted to make “Florida” before “Tangerine.” So our preproduction was pretty much already spent. But I feel the next one’s gonna be a longer wait! (Laughs.) ‘Cos I have no idea what we’re making next!
When Keith Gordon was still getting pictures out here, he joked, my real job is fundraising, and every five years or so they give me a few weeks off to shoot a movie. Yeah! That’s a good way of looking at it. We’re lucky enough where “Tangerine” got us fast financial backing and very few questions asked. I hope that this one helps with the next one.
You can’t make a career on iPhone movies. No. They wanted me to! I got invited to the Apple event and I think it’s because they’re now finally trying to push mobile filmmaking. I was there with J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder and Deborah Snyder, and they’re trying to find somebody who will become the face. I think they couldn’t make me the face, because of the subject matter of “Tangerine,” so it was hard for them to completely embrace it. But I heard that Brett Ratner is maybe doing an iPhone feature. And Soderbergh has one in post.
You’ve said you edit sequence-by-sequence rather than while you are shooting, day-to-day. What I mean by sequence-to-sequence, I’m a weird one, where, first off, I need distance. I take as much time off as possible before editing so that I have distance from the footage. I had the luxury of a long time off with “Tangerine,” because [producer Mark] Duplass was like, “We’re going to go to Sundance a year from now, so you have a while.” With this one, we knew we wanted to try for Cannes, so there was a little less of that luxury, but I did have about two or three months where I was barely looking at the footage and cutting very slowly. And then it sped up. But I cut it, I went right to a fine cut, I didn’t do an assembly, or a rough, I went right to a fine cut, so it was in order, and I even worked on the sound design before moving on to the next scene, because, in this case, it was less structured. Formally structured, y’know. There are three acts there, but they’re blurry and disguised. In post-production, it was all about pacing. One scene dictated the next, so… I was always reaching out to my team members as I approached the next scene with a little apprehension, saying, I don’t know what to do with this next scene! Which is how that came about.
I like that the title isn’t explained. Ever. If someone doesn’t know what it means, then finds out later, it’s like “What!” It resounds remarkably. I know a patch of Florida history, I knew what it refers to, but in a way, on the face of it, this is not a good title. What is it? Is it your working title? Exactly.
“What is the Florida project?” You’re the only person who actually seems to have known about the history.
It has multiple meanings, it has the socioeconomic thing, the fulcrum of the entire movie: are the characters living in “the projects” where the poor people go, stalled in a Florida “project”? That’s what many of the residents actually thought we were going for. And they didn’t have a problem with it either; they were just, like, yeah, showing the projects that we live in. We’re like, actually that’s, that’s not the meaning of the title. Yes, it can work that way. It’s also up for interpretation. I’m allowing… I also, for obvious reasons, need to be sensitive about how much we talk about the corporation behind this. So. That’s why when people ask me what the title means, I say, j-just type it into Wikipedia.
It’s bittersweet this whole economic ecosystem that you depict, is built inadvertently, and perhaps inescapably, as a simulacrum of the “kingdom.” It’s dingy. I’ve been in Orlando in the middle of July and on grazing and hunting camps, which a couple of your scenes run right up against. I know that smell, I know that on my skin, so that… this dream… this company had… this is it… Right.
The cheap falsification behind the grandiose falsification. Yes, yes, that’s true. It’s almost like a front. It’s a set. Route 192 itself, here obviously are suburban areas that have grown up around there, but for the most part, you have just a strip of consumerism, and literally, ten feet behind it, you have a pasture, a cow pasture. You can definitely see that this was completely based on, this was intended to become the tourist capital of the world. This became the tourist capital of the world, it was a very calculated thing.
The threadbare faux Disney-knockoff motels and shops… As Moonee and the other children go through their play each day, you have another thing that harks to my childhood in a tiny town in Kentucky. They have a moat! They cross a filthy little ditch every time they set out! They’re going from shabby fake castle to shabby fake castle. It’s just there. But you can pluck it out and find it marvelous, it’s a muddy version of a common fairytale element. You’re the first person to say that, that’s awesome. We talked about that on set, but we didn’t think anybody would ever—
You establish it and you repeat it with quiet deliberation. Yeah.
When they’re off on an adventure, they first have to cross this boundary. Exactly. We could have them go the opposite direction, play with geography, but we actually wanted them to pass over a sort of moat. We had our production designers build that little bridge for them.
As in your earlier features, you use location as you find it, shifting things here and there, but what about the helicopter rides right next to the motel? Was that actually right there? Now, see, that’s one of those things we had to adapt to the environment, and at first, we had, yeah, it was a nightmare. We didn’t know even if we could use the Magic Castle or not. Our sound recordist said, this is impossible, you are gonna have helicopter sounds in every—because they were taking off every ten minutes. It got to the point where—But then we quickly said, we said, wait, hold on, let’s embrace this, let’s make this part of this world. No, we’re not doing a film score. There won’t be any score to this movie, so we need to have a soundscape all of the time. And a wall of sound. And it’s being given to us! It’s actually a gift that this thing is here! It was just about embracing it and then showing it enough where it wasn’t just a, it had to become a character. That helicopter, or the helicopter port, had to become a character in the film.
After the screening, someone asked, why was that there? And I said, dreams of escape? Yep, there’s that.
The sound, the permanent possibly, of taking off, of rising above and leaving this place—Exactly, exactly.
And you have this shot, this one shot I love, at the end of the confrontation with the old guy who turns out not to be that old is chased off, and you’re on two kids, including Moonee, and they’re watching. The camera starts to move, in its slight glide and rise a kind of helicoptering, it curves ever so lightly, booms upward ever so slightly. Yes. Yeah.
A visual echo of the omnipresent sound. Yep, yep. That was, that was a—that was the most stylized, probably the most stylized shot, or sequence of the film. Which was, ahh, again, it was something we were apprehensive about. We didn’t know to go to that place. ‘Cos, obviously, it’s a serious scene and I didn’t want in any way to make it sensationalistic, but there is a camera move that some people even on set were saying, that’s our “Bad Boys” shot! [Laughs] But at the same time, I feel like, yeah, yeah, it was, I think we needed those kids’ reactions to what was going on and it gives them—we shot it low. Alexis is so wonderful, Alexis Zabé, my DP, there’s that intuition he has, where it’s just like, I can’t articulate exactly why we’re doing this, but making them grand, making them tall, the little kings of their world in that moment, is very important, so… yeah.
This is the cinematographer who made “Silent Light,” Carlos Reygadas hands him the MacBook screensaver and says, I want seven minutes of this animated and we’ll add sounds that suggest the universe being born, they brought it out of a screensaver. Their work together is always impressive, and they’re also great at nature, and parts of Mexico both urban and tropical like here. And I heard about how they shot that too, which is incredible. Any Hollywood production would have computerized dollies, they do it all by, they were literally pushing a dolly ten times in a row and then dissolving all those shots together! Yeah. The reason I chose him for this, well, not chose him, the reason I asked him to do this is that he has that sensibility in which he can capture this, for lack of a better word, this “highbrow,” really mature, very, I would say, just, sophisticated cinematography. But he also has this music video career in which he’s doing Die Antwoord videos and Pharrell’s “Happy” video in which these colors are through the roof. I wanted him to meld those two worlds, his wonderful 35mm widescreen cinematography that he did with “Silent Light,” then bringing that pop sensibility of his music videos and finding a middle ground.
An amusing scene is in the rain where the two girls are having an absurd conversation about whether TV news is silly or not—”I watch the news! It’s not boring!”—and then a wide shot reveals they’re sheltering under a tree on the verge of a pasture during pouring rain. It’s a Zabé shot as much as a Reygadas shot, you’ve got a Florida-slash-Mexico landscape with slashing rain and it’s magnificently beautiful, and they’re two little Tarantino characters, or, definitely, “Our Gang” descendants. [Laughs] That was supposed to be our rainbow scene. When they walk out and see the cows, they were supposed to see a rainbow and chase a rainbow. It was scripted for that. But then we happened to have a real rainbow land over the motel and we scrambled to get that shot! I turned to the producers, and I was like, I just saved you $50,000 in CGI costs! [Laughs.] Got a real one!
Even before the main title, the light, so gaudy yet pastels so muted, I was writing down mostly adverbs. “Gorgeously, violently present atmosphere…” From the first gliding shots, the colors and textures, then you arrive and linger under the title on that pale purple stucco, it’s like, it’s not vibrating like hot colors, Miami colors, but it’s so… present. It’s consistent throughout the “Florida Project,” like your other films, it’s intent and intense. That environment provides that, first off. You have these incredibly, almost kitsch-type, very colorful, vibrant small businesses. Whether they’re budget motels or ice-cream stands, the color was there. Thank god we were able to, we were almost handed a palette, that Floridian palette to work with. However, we did decide very early on, even before shooting, that Alexis was going to add his little special sauce, whatever it is, filters, etcetera, to basically enhance reality by a degree. Not much, really not much. That is, that motel, that’s as vibrant as it gets. The purple is that saturated. But we wanted to enhance everything by a hair, because I thought of it as this: when I think of my childhood, I think of my senses being just more acute. I think of colors being more vibrant, I was hearing more decibels! I feel my senses have dulled. So that was a real intention, not to go to hyper-reality levels, but just a little bit as if our senses were enhanced. And Alexis was totally on board for that.
The kids’ clothes are pastel, too, subtly yet distinctly faded, so you have them weirdly popping by being in similar colors, but counterintuitively, slightly drab. Yeah, you have that going on. We also wanted to make sure it never looked too controlled or contrived. Fernando Rodriguez, who did the costume design, we observed what kids were wearing. Most of the residents were shopping at thrift stores. Basic primary color t-shirts. I thought if what they were wearing were stylized, it would take us out of the moment. But actually, it is quite stylized, shirts with stars and moons.
It is an “Our Gang” film, you’ve taken pains to point out, you found your Moonnee for your Spanky. But you’ve always incorporated fortuitousness, presiding over what’s presented in front of you. I was very clear with my producers early on that even though we had to keep this thing a little more structured in terms of control than my previous films, simply because of budget and time and logistical problems, I still wanted to always be in a position where if we did, for instance, see a rainbow, we could run and do it. Or just capture a moment that was just, just, a slice of life. If I was suddenly inspired because I see a true resident of the motel…
Early on, you have a wide frame of the kids passing a gaudy storefront and you hold the frame until in the opposite direction, a man on a mobility scooter bumps over a speed bump. Him! Exactly! So in that case, it’s a good example, we were going to just shoot that scene with the kids, and while we were shooting, that gentleman was there and we just said, would you like to be in our film? He was down for it, we paid him for the day, and he did four takes for us. When you’re making a film like this in which it was supposed to be, this sort of hybrid… the approach to it is semi-hybrid in terms of narrative fiction filmmaking, but also using documentary techniques to capture that. You have to be open, you have to be aware of your surroundings and just take advantage of it, use it. That happened more with my previous films because I had a smaller crew, and we were more flexible. But I try to keep that option open, always, when shooting.
The textural equivalent of recording sound: what’s the space like, what moves in this practical location. As in, these are the crickets that are in this particular swamp. Most definitely.
What about the scene where Moonee is at the brunch buffet and you lavish yourself on all this wild improv from Brooklynn? It reminds me of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s audition for Truffaut for “The 400 Blows.” That was leaning toward documentary. Because I said, we have about fifteen scripted lines here and we have a thousand-foot mag, ten minutes. I think we shot two of them. We set it up and we got through her fifteen lines in a minute. So we had nine minutes of just observing. We would ask her questions, I would throw her lines, we would just be making stuff up in the moment. And what is so wonderful about Brooklynn is that she… There was a whole roomful of people, she had forty people watching her do that. There was no imitation. She was just having fun eating. I think she just loves eating! It was so easy to watch her just eating and finding the joy in it.
And it’s weirdly suspenseful, since they don’t belong there, you expect things could go to shit for them at any second. But it’s also this burst of her irrepressible identity, Brooklynn and Moonee alike, this is not going to go to ruin. This character is going to become a good person, because of how vital she is in that scene. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting take. We had a lot more of Halley, intercutting three whole times. When we got to the final cut, we were like, this is all about the mom watching the child. That line she came up with, I just think, god, that line she came up with, the pregnant line? That’s her. I didn’t feed any—she goes, “I wish I was pregnant so I could put more food in there!” [Laughs] I think she really thinks that!
“The Florida Project” is now playing at Landmark Century, River East and Evanston CineArts, expanding on October 20 to Renaissance Place and Lincolnshire Stadium.
[We talk about the ending.]
The ending is a thunderclap. The heavens open. A new dream begins as if a new day and a new day and the new day after that. That joyous, emotionally operatic scene does use iPhones, right? Yes. Yep, yep. One-hundred percent.
For many reasons, the ending turns toward the classic ending of “400 Blows,” partly because of the music, and you haven’t used score before that moment. Yeah. Right. That’s… That’s definitely also, my co-screenwriter brought that to the table, in post-production, that was not scripted that way. We thought it was going to be a soundscape of location sound, a bunch of, the park, and children and their feet and the marching band, etcetera. Chris [Bergoch] was the one who suggested it while I was approaching that last scene. I edit consecutively, I was approaching that last scene, and I was getting a little scared. He was the one who suggested it, thank god!
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.