In The Florida Project, director Sean Baker tells the story of a young girl who lives with her mother in a cheap, extended stay motel. The girl, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), has no idea that she and her mother are living in poverty. She is just looking
Much like the characters in his last film, Tangerine (2015), Moonee and those around her live on the fringes of society, mostly forgotten in their economic desperation. Speaking briefly on the red carpet before the premier of The Florida Project at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Baker spoke to why he feels drawn to these types of characters for his stories.
“I’m not sure it was an incredibly conscious thing,” Baker admits. “I think it was more about responding to what I wasn’t seeing in film and television, especially U.S. film and television. So these were subcultures or groups of people that I thought were under represented. Why not tell a story that takes place in their world, and do it in a way that shows the universality of all of us? That was something that my co-screenwriter and I said early on that we want to tell these stories so that no matter where you are on the face of the Earth you can say ‘I identify with the characters.'”
Baker also found inspiration for the film in a somewhat surprising bit of Hollywood’s past – the Our Gang shorts produced by the Hal Roach Studios, and later MGM, from 1922 to 1944.
“I grew up in the New York area and the local television station would show the ‘Our Gang’ shorts every afternoon after school between three and four,” Baker states. “I absorbed them growing up. I loved them and they still are some of the best comedy that has ever been produced in the US. Very much ahead of its time.
“If you think about what ‘Our Gang’ was, it was set against the Great Depression, most of the characters were actually living in poverty but the focus was the humor and the kids, the joy of childhood. So I thought that this might be our opportunity to make our present day ‘Little Rascals.'”
Although Baker cast the film with actors who have not worked in film before, there was one very recognizable face he placed in the group – Willem DaFoe. While having his name attached to the project may be helpful in selling it to audiences, Baker was careful to make sure that he fit in with the cast and that his recognizability didn’t detract from the story. It was a concern that was also on DaFoe’s mind.
“He was also, like myself, a little bit apprehensive about anybody being recognizable in the role,” Baker admits. “When you see a celebrity or a recognizable face up there it can pull you right out, especially when you are dealing with characters who are struggling and living in poverty. This is something you have to be very sensitive about as well. I think he felt the same thing, he wanted to blend in.
“He’s a professional, and he’s transformative, so he was able to do that. And it was really interesting and really wonderful to see how a seasoned actor does that. I think you’ll see that within thirty seconds of seeing him on screen he’s Bobby. You don’t think think of Willem anymore.”
The Florida Project is currently in limited release.