The Florida Project

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            Families are the fastest-growing demographic of America’s homeless population. Where could this phenomenon be more poignant than on the road to the fairytale land of Disney World?  

            As the market crash hit the tourist industry, ‘hidden homelessness’ increased in central Florida. There are over 2,000 ‘hotel kids’ in Osceola county, where the film is set. Local Reverend Mary Downey, who connected Baker with local families, has spoken about barriers to affordable housing. “Although (residents) may be paying $1,300 a month at a motel, they’re not able to get housing because of their poor history”.[1]  

         The irony of poverty’s co-existence with the magical commercialism of Disney World makes for an interesting setting for The Florida Project (Dir. Sean Baker, 2017). Huge, whacky properties along Highway I-92 are juxtaposed with kids who can’t afford an ice cream. They walk past a store shaped like a giant orange, then a 20-foot wizard on a gift shop. Motels try in vain to fit into this commerce of fantasy. As motel manager Bobby admits in the film, the Magic Castle’s owner paid $20k to paint it like a fairytale, yet can’t (or won’t) afford an exterminator for its bedbugs.  


            Earlier in his career, Baker made Take Out (Dir. Sean Baker, 2004) on a camcorder (a Sony PD150), influenced by the Dogme 95 Manifesto movement.[2] Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s manifesto contains specific rules for filmmakers to ditch production gimmicks and focus on characters, actors and themes. They said film should be shot on 35mm, which inspired Baker’s avoidance of digital filming early on. Although with Tangerine (Dir. Sean Baker, 2015) Baker swung not only into digital, but to filming on an iPhone, he retained some other goals he shared with Dogme 95. This includes filming on location, and a strong actor/character focus.  

            Baker has always liked to film on location. His artistic decisions to incorporate elements of real-world existence blur the lines between fictional narrative and documentary. Take Out was filmed within an operating Chinese takeout business. Passers-by who came into frame were kept, and asked to sign release forms afterwards. Baker kept the same practise with Donut Time in Tangerine. The motel in The Florida Project, too, was still running during filming. In the film, we see detailed aspects of motel life - kids idling under a stairway spandrel, automatic lighting at sundown, and mismatched towels along railings. The budget for The Florida Project was far beyond that of Tangerine and its DIY-documentary aesthetic. Yet, Baker used similarly raw shooting methods to give The Florida Project a somewhat ad-hoc look. It feels as if the camera and crew are reacting to action, instead of dictating it.      

        Baker’s Tangerine producers, Jay and Mark Duplass, were prominent directors of ‘mumblecore’ films. These were low-budget and dialogue-heavy. Though ‘mumblecore’ and Baker’s films differ in subject matter (‘mumblecore’ tends to feature middle-class, heterosexual adults), it’s likely the Duplasses and Baker connected over a shared love of realist aesthetics, naturalism and improvisation.  

            Like the Duplasses, Baker likes to use a combination of first-time actors, professional actors, and complete non-actors to blend fiction and reality. In a research year spent with Rev. Downey’s Community Hope Centre, he and his crew met families that inspired The Florida Project, and included some - like Dawn Spencer, a resident mother of twins - as extras. Baker discovered Bria Vinaite (Halley) on Instagram, selling weed-related merchandise. “The character being a fresh face makes the audience buy into the circumstances of the character much more quickly”[3], he proffered. Brooklynn Prince (Moonee) is a young actor from Orlando. Instead of a set trailer, Willem Dafoe got a room at the Magic Castle, so he got to know some residents, too.  

            Improvisation also enhances Baker’s naturalism. He let the kids in The Florida Project go off on tangents, which was fine by him, “as long as I was capturing the truth of the kids acting as naturally as possible”.[4] Discussing earlier work, he said, “I find the people from these worlds that I can connect and collaborate with. That, to me, is the only responsible way for any storyteller to tell a story—it's not right otherwise.”[5] Improvising allows people from these communities to speak for themselves - literally. For similar reasons, Baker generally tries to keep a ‘low-footprint’ crew. in Take Out, a 2-person crew and small camera allowed for clandestine filming. The first-time stars of Tangerine could act without inhibition in front of an iPhone because of its familiarity.  

            With The Florida Project, Baker connects with the neighbourhood from the kids’ perspective. Director of Photography Alexis Zabe said he and Baker wanted to “see the world as [the kids] see it. The metaphor was ice cream”.[6] Highly saturated colours let us see things as intensely as children would. The kids’ bright turquoise and yellow t-shirts balance pink and mandarin abandoned houses - the citric colour wheel of the sunshine state. Baker rightly observed that motels, with their private nooks and crannies, and presence of strangers, provide limitless adventure for children. Often shot from close to the ground, or just behind the kids’ heads, we get a sense of the magnitude of their adventures. Baker appreciates “some really supportive comments from child psychologists”[7] - due credit for truly identifying with his characters.  

            All of Baker’s film-making habits come from his desire to feature parts of society he hasn’t seen in film. He aims for naturalism to allow these communities to represent themselves as they truly exist - rather than as dictated by an outsider. His films avoid condescending their subjects. Characters have fully realised attributes and flaws, and fringe communities are portrayed without any sense of charity. At the time of the release of Tangerine, Baker said, “We have to keep showing universal stories that take place in different communities…I’m trying to… step away from a "plight of" movie and get closer to telling stories that white guys in the middle of Kansas can identify with.”[8] He puts unseen people into the mainstream, without gawking at their ‘otherness’.  

Sandra Kinahan
Freelance Copywriter

November 2017


[1] Reverend Mary Downey (4/10/17) ’The Florida Project' Portrays the Underbelly of Kissimmee’s Famous Tourist Strip’, interviewed by Monivette Cordeiro for Orlando Weekly

[2] Matt Prigge, ‘“I Don’t Want To Kill a Medium”: Director Sean Baker Talks The Florida Project and iPhones at IFP Week’, Filmmaker Magazine (19/09/17)

[3] Sean Baker (20/10/17) ‘“The Florida Project” Director Sean Baker on Working with Untrained Actors and Secret Filming in Disney World’, interviewed by Alexander Hakimi for Paper Mag

[4] Sean Baker (30/05/17) ‘Why Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’ Was the Hot Buy of Cannes’, Interviewed by Anne Thompson for Indiewire

[5] Sean Baker (11/07/15) ‘'Tangerine' Was Shot on an iPhone, But Director Sean Baker Still Pines for Celluloid’, Interviewed by Rod Bastanmehr for Vice

[6] Alexis Zabe (09/10/17) ‘‘The Florida Project’: Inside Sean Baker’s ‘Magic Castle’ Set on the Fringe of Disney World’, Interviewed by Bill Desowitz for Indiewire

[7] Sean Baker (02/11/17) ‘The Florida Project’s Sean Baker: ‘I wanted the kids to be the kings and queens of their domain’’, Interviewed by Danny Leigh for The Guardian

[8] Bastanmehr Interview (11/07/15)

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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