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.
I got the feeling that Dafoe’s character was there for the good times and now he’s still there. How much does that square with people you’ve met down there?
Well that was… We met a couple of the managers who actually slightly inspired the Bobby character. There was one guy in particular who really… I saw the struggle that he had to deal with. He was torn. This guy who, this probably was not what he signed up for. He was managing a motel, and suddenly he was being put in charge of perhaps evicting families onto the street. He’s simply a maintenance guy who’s trying to professionally run a small business, and at the same time, and has to keep this job. He has to keep this job to support his own family, but he’s dealing with 40 families who are literally one night away from possibly being on the street homeless.
So, I saw… yes, there was a compassion, but there was a reluctance to get too close because of the fact that he might be hurt having to do this, and take its toll emotionally. So, that’s how I saw these guys, almost like reluctant father figures. Where they were just like, “I wanna help but I don’t wanna help, but I wanna.” And that’s really what inspired the Bobby character. And then Willem was actually brave enough to come into Orlando and Kissimmee a week early, before he was needed and spend time meeting some of these managers, getting to know the area and really understanding where his character was coming from. Which is great, I didn’t even ask him to do that. And with Dafoe you get a sense of moral complexity just from his face.
That’s what it’s like working with somebody of his caliber. He’s able to transform. And we were shooting… We were actually coloring the film at Technicolor just a couple of months ago. Our colorist is from Florida, and he goes, “Guys, I just want you to know I’m Floridian.” And this is after like a week of working with this guy. We’re just like, “Oh really? What do you think?” And he goes, “That’s a Florida man right there, that’s a Florida man.” He’s just pointing at Willem and we’re just like, good. Thank God.
As with Tangerine, you’re dealing with people living on the margins. Is research and digging in and meeting people how you avoid coming off as exploitative?
Yeah, and to tell you the truth, in some people’s eyes it may be exploitative. It’s a fine line. It’s a balance. It’s something that I’m constantly battling with, even now as we promote it, how to talk about the subject is… You’re almost sometimes walking on eggshells. But this is how I see it: Chris and I spend the time to get a thumbs up from the community that we’re focusing on. We wouldn’t move forward unless we feel we have the approval from at least certain individuals that we’re working with. Collaboration is very important.
For Tangerine I gave the script to the two leads, and I said, “I really want you to sign off on this. This is almost an approval process thing.” With this film, it was a little different. We were focusing on childhood as well, so I was able to pull from my own childhood. Chris was able to pull from his childhood. Some of the adventures that Moonee and her friends go on, yeah that’s almost a universal thing. But the rest of it, almost the procedural part with the DCF [Florida Department of Children and Families], and child services, yes we passed this by the agencies, motel managers who actually have watched this go down. And then, of course, the DCF officer who came in sort of looked at our procedure and the way we wrote it. Made sure that we were accurate. Of course there’s more dramatizing, so we have to take certain liberties, but at the same time it’s very important for me to remain authentic, based in realism. It doesn’t have to be 100% reality but it does have to have a bit of truth there.
You put a lot of faith on child performances here. What is your approach to directing children?
Well, I was very lucky to have an acting coach on this film, by the name of Samantha Kwan, who worked very closely with the kids. I thought, quite honestly, in my ignorance, I thought that I was just gonna be able to get really cool little kids, and they would do their best to learn the lines, and then I would be manipulating the performance and editing if I had to. The wonderful… Thank God I decided to bring Samantha on. Basically, Samantha said to me, “You are being naïve about this. I’ve worked with children, I know what it’s like, even if you had the most professional little kid” like Brooklynn, who was willing to work, who was willing to … her energy level never dropped, she was always wanting to work. But even her, these kids, they need handholding. They’re six and seven and eight, so literally, they have to learn the scripted lines. It’s not as if I can ask a little six-year-old to improvise without anything, based on a theme or an idea. That will not work.
But for the most part, they had to learn their scripted lines, and even the blocking was very different from working with an adult, because with Willem I would say, “I want you to enter this room, and walk over to that window.” But with a kid, you have to go, “I want you to do exactly this. Walk here, go like this.” The blocking literally has to be physical. You have to hand-hold them through the entire thing. And then, you have to make sure that you shoot the scene before they lose their energy and their focus. Because kids are… they’re taking it all in. They get distracted. I learned a lot about that, about working with kids.
But the wonderful thing about Brooklynn is that, she always wanted to try new things. She was always… she was the professional, meaning the most experienced out of the kids. She had already done commercials. Her mother was a coach herself. She was in an independent film called like a Robo-Dog or something, a Redbox special. So when I had Brooklynn alone, or when Brooklynn was just with Bria or Willem, it was like working with an adult. I mean she would experiment, she would try things if I asked her to.
Were there any locations that you wanted to shoot on that you could not work into the film for one way or another?
There always is.
Any that stand out?
Well, there were a few motels that were slightly on the grungier side. They had been the focus of a lot of media. Like any time a journalist would want to have a new story or an update on the homeless situation in Orlando, or in Kissimmee, they would turn to this one motel. So they got burned so many times by the media, that the minute we tried to walk up to the property, they were just like, no thank you. It’s okay. There were a few of those. But then there were also… For the most part, businesses were very open to this. They liked the fact that they had a star in town, Mr. Willem Dafoe, and they were, they all read the script so they knew how we were representing the area, and yet they were very open to it.
How much production design was involved in this?
My sister actually is the production designer on the film, Ms. Stephonik Youth. There is a lot, obviously, the room was completely a set. But my approach to every film is to try to find, to shoot in actual locations and just enhance. There’s always a little bit of enhancement here and there. Like for example, our… just recently, the motel was forced to remove all of the bikes and towels and everything, but it was still happening at other motels, so we decided to show that in this film, as if it was still happening at Magic Castle. So all of that had to be addressed. But again, my DP [Alexis Zhabe] is using a lot of natural light and a lot of practicals, but it’s still, that doesn’t mean you can just turn the camera on. You have to basically enhance, and you have to take what you have and make it work. So there is production design, but it’s very subtle.
Is there a desire to prompt change with this film?
Oh definitely. That’s the ultimate goal with this movie. It’s certainly not like a calling card to Hollywood. My hope is this: many of the agencies I worked with, I even said, “I know how Q&A’s will go down. I know that I will be asked, and I want to be asked.” Like an audience member saying, what can I do? How can I help? For the next few months what we’ll be doing as we roll out is, well first off, point people towards the website, which has information. But we’re trying to emphasize that this is a national problem. So yes, we will have links to the Community Hope Center, Hope 192, and rethinkhomelessness.org, which are all central Florida-based.
But, we’re also going to be telling people that if you would like to look into how to help with this problem and this issue and help eradicate this issue, look into the problem in your local area. Because I’m sure it’s there. So we’re urging people to look into their local community. And then of course, we’re also trying to get this film in front of policymakers. We are having a congressional screening in D.C. in a few weeks. My hope is… I certainly, I did not know about this subject before going into this project. Chris brought it to my attention, I didn’t even know there was a term for hidden homeless. I grew up in New York and LA, so I see homeless on the street. That’s how I thought of the homeless, and packed shelters, et cetera.
I never thought of the fact that there are homeless individuals and families who just simply cannot secure permanent housing. Because of that, they are struggling week-to-week and it’s a very insecure way of living because if they don’t come up with that week’s rent, they’re literally out on the street. So, I didn’t know about it, I’m certain that probably most people don’t, that’s why they are hidden. The Census Bureau, there aren’t accurate numbers on this because it’s very hard to get numbers. A lot of these individuals are transient, they move from motel to motel, so if films help shine a light on it, and prompt people to want to make a change, then I think we’ve done our job. Also, on top of that, removing the stigma of homelessness. I think that’s the first step in helping people see this as a human issue, and seeing these people as fellow human beings. That’s important to me.
This movie doesn’t work unless you contrast that issue with the openness of childhood. Did the idea of doing a film about childhood predate the setting?
Yes. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m actually very influenced by The Little Rascals. It’s something that you can see in all of my films, my choice of music and font, in Tangerine that opening Harry Horlick tune is basically a throwback to that era of The Little Rascals and all of my other films have little homages and little hints at how much I love The Little Rascals. And so I’ve always wanted to do this, and this opportunity just came about where I was able to make basically an issue film, and at the same time be able to do what I wanted to with… If you think about The Little Rascals it was about kids living in poverty. It was the Great Depression.
The Florida Project opens in limited release tomorrow, October 6, before expanding.