'The Florida Project' Director Sean Baker On Finding The Humor In Tragedy [Interview]

At my screening of The Florida Project during this year's Toronto International Film Festival, director and co-writer Sean Baker directed a questioner to Google the film's title to learn what it means. "It's been harder [...] to Google it since the film came out," he admits. "Now we're the one that comes up on Wikipedia first, which is weird." That's saying something because the original Florida Project refers to none other than Disney World itself, the epicenter of the Sunshine State under whose shadow Baker's film (which our own Chris Evangelista called one of the best of 2017) takes place.

In 1966, shortly before he passed away, Walt Disney created a documentary laying out his vision for "the Florida Project," a utopian community where free enterprise could cure the ails of the modern city. (Watch for yourself on YouTube, while you can, to marvel at his ultimately unrealized dream.) In his original vision for EPCOT, Disney envisioned a city without slums or ghettoes. Now, half a century later, the site of his idyllic metropolis showcases some of the starkest inequality in America, where children like the ones in The Florida Project grow up in motels along the same roads that others take to the Magic Kingdom.

But in my interview with Sean Baker, we focused less on this ironic contrast and more on the deep reserve of humanity and empathy shown for the people who dwell there.

How are all the people and the locations doing after Irma?

Yes, thank God, everybody is safe. It hit most of northern Florida the hardest. Orlando, the agencies we were working with had their power out for 4-5 days. The producers and a lot of the cast and crew members who live in Miami are still dealing with it, but nobody was hurt which is the most important part.

You said at TIFF to Google the title to learn more about what it's referring to, and I think I found what you meant – was it a reference to EPCOT and Walt Disney's original vision for founding Disney World?

Yeah, the fact that it's what they called that area as they were buying up the land to bring the parks there.

At what point did you discover that film or the idea?

It was actually my co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch], he knows Disney inside and out, he has a deep love for Disney. His mother actually lives down in the Kissimmee-Orlando area, and he was the one who came up with the title as well.

Although this is obviously a national problem, a lot of journalists and news organizations have been focused on it [the housing crisis] in that area for the same reason that we do. The juxtaposition of having kids growing up in motels right outside "the happiest place on earth." It was something I honestly did not know about was a national issue when I first started reading the news stories about this back in 2011.

The numbers are tough because a lot of these families and individuals are transient. It's hard for the census bureau to come up with accurate numbers but there were times when they said that up to 5,000 children could be living along Route 192 in the motels. And this was something that struck me as so incredibly sad. I felt it was something I definitely didn't know about, and I'm sure a lot of people didn't know about it, so it was something, through dramatizing, we could shed a light on.

And it was actually something we were planning to do before Tangerine [Baker's prior feature], and we just couldn't find financing for it. We returned to the subject after Tangerine opened the doors for us and helped us find financing, we found very little had changed. There was still the same number. We started doing our research and taking trips there, meeting children who were 6-7 years old and spent their entire lives in the motels. This is all obviously a result of the '08 recession. It was still timely and something we should still cover.

But Tangerine, thank God it happened first, because in many ways it dictated the style of the movie. It would have been a different movie because – well, the biggest thing is that Brooklynn (Prince, the film's 7-year-old star who brings the character Moonee to vibrant life) wasn't even alive – the style would have been slightly different.

In what way?

I think with Tangerine we were taking that gamble – it was a risk – that we could tell the story in a comedic fashion to attract an audience and shed light on an issue. I don't think I would have been that heavy-handed with the comedy unless Tangerine had worked. I felt Tangerine worked and did its job to a certain degree, it had people finding this film and really loving the humor aspect of it. Then, of course, leaving people with a different way of looking at the trans women of color in that area and perhaps wondering about their struggles and what they could do to help.

I get messages to this day – yesterday I got a beautiful one – from people on Twitter and Facebook and other social media where it's like, "I connected so much with Alexandra and Sin-Dee and even though I never thought I'd connect with somebody from that world, I love them." There was something that obviously worked, so we took that same approach with this film.

I'd always wanted to make a Little Rascals type of movie, and I didn't know how far to go with it in terms of how much to focus on the comedic adventures of little kids. But I think once Tangerine worked, I was confident we could go full-out. And then I looked at The Little Rascals and realized they did this 70 years ago, this is not new. The Little Rascals was set against the background of the Great Depression, the characters were living in poverty. It's just that it wasn't focused on it. It was focused on what makes childhood universal. We're all laughing at kids because we see ourselves in them, we remember our childhood.

We are again approaching this in a way where comedy is first and foremost the entertainment medium to capture audience's attention, then capture their love for the characters and then hopefully capture their interest in the subject ultimately.

Is there a certain amount of training you have to do to find that comedy? I've noticed over time that your films have become more attuned to the humor and moved further away from the tragedy, though I'd never say your films were "poverty porn."

I guess so. I still look back at even Take Out [Baker's 2004 sophomore feature, a neorealist drama set in a community of illegal Chinese immigrants in New York], there's a lot of humor in that. There was definitely that all along, but I think it became a real conscious decision of ours to inject as much humor as possible because of the fact that it just grounds it in reality more when you do so.

When you speak of "poverty porn," it's often so weighted down in melodrama, and there's not an ounce of humor in some of those films. And that's so unrealistic. That's incredibly unrealistic. In our most desperate times, people going through true hardships use humor to cope. And then on top of that, there is always humor in behavior. To not show it is not only untruthful – you have to look at it from an ethical point of view, why are you trying to do this?

It's supposed to be based in some kind of realism, but there's no truth there. It's actually disingenuous and condescending to the subjects because you're not treating them as humans. A lot of "poverty porn" takes these characters and sanctifies them. It makes them into saints. And then suddenly you're like, "They're not real. They're not human. They're an angel." Which is bullshit, and I can't even connect with this person. The whole goal is thrown out the window.

The goal – with Tangerine, I wanted the audiences to love those two characters [transgender sex workers in Los Angeles] enough where they go home at the end of the night wondering about the real ones out there. Same thing with this, when you're driving home you think about the real Moonees and the real Halleys [Moonee's single mother in the film] – but you can't do that if I made her the perfect mom. If she was the perfect mom and a victim to the system, that would be a major fail. It wouldn't have the effect we needed.

the florida project

You've mentioned that the '08 recession and the housing crisis were the villains of the film. How do you go about making a film about these issues without being a polemic?

[Spoiler warning for this paragraph.] We actually did, Chris and I, cover ourselves. We wrote scenes that were detailed. I'm not going to say they focused on that specifically, but they did focus on the procedural aspects. Especially the end with the child being taken away from the parent by Child Services. We actually shot scenes that explained it, that broke it down to the exact procedure. But ultimately, we shot it for safety just in case but we didn't use it because we didn't need it.

It was all about getting the audience to a place where they were with the kids first and foremost. They are spending the summer with the kids. We're playing with how much the kids would actually be aware of the circumstances around them in the situation they were in. Of course, that's a subjective thing, and you can't be 100% sure of how much children are absorbing or how much they are aware. But we wanted to play with that in the style of the film, treating the audience like they were one of the gang.

I think audiences are also smart. They know. You don't have to feed them every single thing. They bring a certain amount of knowledge to a theater when they're watching a film.

When you went down to Florida to do the research, how much were you letting what you encountered guide the narrative? So much of what I saw didn't strike me as obvious, like the pedophile walking the grounds, for example.

There are sex offenders who live in those motels. There are cases of pedophilia down there. The area attracts pedophiles, which is a very disturbing but very real thing. When we spoke to residents, they were very concerned about this. We heard from many mouths of many people. And then, of course, there are many news stories about it. We were always going to work it into the film somehow, but we weren't sure how yet.

And then what happened was that Chris and I walked onto the property of one of these motels and were planning on interviewing people we could come across. This is actually kind of a funny story. We walk onto the playground of this one motel, and I think we were just saying, "Hey kids, what's up, how are you doing?" And suddenly this guy came out of nowhere. One second he wasn't there; the next second, he was there. I turn around and there's this dude holding a drill – I thought at first he was a maintenance guy at the motel. He's giving us the once-over and sizing us up, trying to figure out who we are.

I put myself in those situations a lot, so I didn't think much of it. I just said to him, "We're making a film, no big deal." And then my co-screenwriter Chris said, "No, no, Sean. This looks bad. This looks really bad." And I said, "What?" He said, "We're two 40-year-old guys walking onto a playground, and you have your Chihuahua with you. It looks really bad." I was like, "Oooh, yeah."

I turned to this gentleman and said, "We're making a film, we're here doing research." He said, "Come with me," and he brought us into the office to interrogate us. I could tell at that point he completely suspects us of being up to no good, and we're predators [in his eyes]. We sit down in this office and I was like, "Oh boy, I'd better talk fast."

He goes, "You know, Andrew Garfield stayed at this motel." And I said, "Are you kidding me? OH SHIT! Ramin [Bahrani] already made this movie?!" Because 99 Homes [Bahrani's 2015 film starring Garfield]. I know Ramin and knew he was making a film about this area, but I thought it was totally about the housing crisis. Which it is! Then, when I found out he was doing research at the same motel, my heart sunk. We've made similar movies. Man Push Cart is very similar to Take Out. Goodbye Solo had a lot of Prince of Broadway stuff. So we're basically always making similar movies at the same time. I thought, "This is happening AGAIN!"

But as soon as he heard me say the name Ramin, which is a unique name, he was like, "OK, you guys are legit, I get you." We were even texting Ramin saying that we were sitting there with John. This guy opened the world to us. In many ways, he inspired the Bobby character [the hotel manager played by Willem Dafoe]. That whole incident where we walked onto the playground is what inspired that moment with the pedophile. So there you go.

So was the Bobby character not there from the beginning? His middle manager position doesn't seem quite so intuitive, I guess.

No, he wasn't. This is something that developed when we were down there. We met this guy, and we also met other hotel managers. What was so interesting and so sad was that these individuals – this is not what they signed up for. They were basically put into positions where they might have to evict one of these families. At the same time, they had a compassion for them, they had a love for them, they were obviously in a way their neighbors. But they had to keep their own job, keep it professional. So I saw how much these gentlemen were struggling with their own jobs and I thought, "Wow, this is important here. This is a character who can ground this movie."

At first, it was totally a mother-daughter movie, that's all it was. But after spending time there, and seeing that this is something that affected this whole area, I didn't want it focused just on one aspect of it. I thought it would be very interesting to have this character to show how small businesses and managers of small businesses were affected. So, yeah, that developed as we were in our research mood.

If people are moved by this film and they want to help, either by learning more or giving financially, where would they start?

Thank you for asking that because that's something we're trying to include in these Q&As and interviews. First off, what we'd like to do is stress that it's a national problem. It may be under your nose in your own community. The best thing is to look into your own community and see if it exists.

The website you can go to is the National Alliance to End Homelessness. If you want to help Central Florida in particular, there are two organizations in particular. One is Rethink Homelessness and the second is this wonderful agency that we worked with very closely throughout all stages of production, which is the Community Hope Center. They're the only ones who provide comprehensive care to the chronic homeless in the area.

Moving forward, we're going to have this information on our website. We're going to be using social media to get it out there. But also, we're going to D.C. with this film to meet with policy makers and have a Congressional screening. Because we need federal funding.

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The Florida Project opens in limited release on October 6, 2017.