Sean Baker has been making movies for going on two decades now, but you can be forgiven if you’re only now learning his name. Since 2000, Baker has written and directed well-liked independent films like Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) and Starlet. (Meanwhile, he also created the well-liked Fox/IFC sitcom Greg the Bunny, which ran for three seasons.) But Tangerine, released in the summer of 2015, earned attention beyond the usual glowing reviews and festival acclaim. That was partly due to a great behind-the-scenes story hook: it was shot on iPhones. But that would have seemed like a gimmick if the film didn’t work as an extraordinarily empathetic portrait of a pair of transgender Los Angeles sex workers (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor). That it looked great, regardless of the tools used to make it, went a long way as well.
For Baker’s latest, The Florida Project, he visits the outskirts of a different city: Orlando, Florida. Working with his regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch, Baker explores the lives of Orlando’s “hidden homeless,” an economically marginal group who’ve taken up residence in the many brightly painted tourist motels that have fallen on hard times since their heydays in the 1980s and ’90s, many situated along Highway 192.
Set largely in and around the searingly purple Magic Castle motel, the film focuses on Halley (Bria Vinaite, making her debut), a tattooed, emotionally volatile, fundamentally loving single mom who has difficulty making ends meet as she attempts to care for her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince). Willem Dafoe co-stars as a sympathetic motel manager. The alternately wrenching and hilarious film — which won over audiences in Cannes and now seems poised to do the same for a wider audience — essentially takes place in two worlds: the grimy reality that Halley struggles to navigate, often foiled by her own shortcomings, and the magical, open world inhabited by Moonee and her friends, who, unaware of the precariousness of their existence, treat it as a mischief-friendly wonderland.
While in Chicago, Baker spoke to us about his hopes for the movie and the unexpected inspiration behind it and, as he tells it, all his movies: The Little Rascals.
The title comes from the working name for Disney World, how much research did you do into how Orlando became what it is today?
Well, my co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch is very closely linked to the parks in that world. He has an intense love for Disney. His sister has worked there, his mother worked, or lives, in the area, and so he has been doing research simply out of his interest in the subject for years. He was the one who brought this to my attention. I did not know that the economy had been hit so hard in that area. Well, I knew it got hit, but I didn’t know the results. You know, the recession of ’08, and the housing crisis immediately following it have had a major impact on that, especially on Route 192.
You have literally homeless families living in these budget motels. Budget motels that were once set up for tourists. So he showed me photos of what it used to be like in the ’80s and ’90s, where it was flourishing with all these budget motels that were basically rip-offs of the Disney mythology. And they were themed, they were colorful, basically tourist attractions. Or tourist traps, even. So we looked over the history of it. Of course, when we were doing our research in terms of interviews and talking to the owners and the managers, we were told about how these local businesses have been affected in the last 10 years, and what they’re doing, and what the local government is doing to try to bring the area back with the beautification process, et cetera.