Sean Baker on Directing: The Florida Project

Looking Where I'm Not

Nov 13, 2017 Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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Since Sean Baker's film The Florida Project debuted at Cannes in late May, the superlatives have been abundant on the festival circuit. The much-anticipated follow-up to 2015's Tangerine depicts a different side of marginalized society: Florida's hidden homeless.

The adults on the periphery pay weekly to stay at a seedy motel, leaving for one night per month so they don't qualify as residents. Fortunately, they deal with the well-meaning Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe) as the motel manager, who makes life a little easier. The children follow along, blissfully unaware at how dire their situations may appear.

"I make films in response to what I'm not seeing, and what I want to see more of. I want to see more diversity in storytelling, and also I want to learn more about the world," Baker says.

Baker was unaware of the hidden homeless, and learned of the term from co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch. The movie's conceit came before Tangerine (a critically acclaimed movie he shot on three iPhones), but the broader scale prevented financing. So, in a pinch, he shifted gears.

"In a desperate move, I made Tangerine, and thank God because it really opened doors. It found financing for this film, but it also sent us down a different path. I'd been making these films that were perhaps a look at underrepresented communities but the style changed a little bit with Tangerine."

Ensuring the representation of his subjects then avoids deification or condescension becomes of the utmost importance. He wants them to be human beings, not caricatures.

"That's something we battle wißth all the time," he says. "These subjects, we're from outside of that world and we've never experienced poverty. We knew there's that balancing act, especially with the style we're going for because we're going for some comedy, too."

As funny as the film islargely due to Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and the other childrenThe Florida Project also focuses on a woman who won't necessarily generate the same kind of positive reaction. Halley (Bria Vinaite) is Moonee's mother, and she is crass, rough around the edges, steals, and prostitutes herself.

"Bria was aware that she was going to be playing a character that was not going to be embraced by everyone," Baker says. "Others will be like 'wait a minute, why don't we take her situation into account, who she is. A girl who probably has no formal education, no family support, no family to speak of, and she had a kid at 15 and she's struggling to keep a roof over her head.' There's so many factors. That's stuff that's not made in a black and white statement thrown at the audience. It's something to be debated and discussed."

Baker wants to provide a platform for voices that aren't often heard, not necessarily focusing on the fringes, but simply looking where he wasn't before. And despite these intentions, he says he often gets caught up in the game of following reactions as they pour in, growing anxious if negative reviews rise. It's a practice he'd like to curb.

"That's where we're living these days. We're living in Rotten Tomatoes world," he says. "I'm looking at that frickin' number, I feel like I'm a betting man looking at the's just dumb."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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