In conversation with The Florida Project director, Sean Baker.
Hoodie, trousers and boots ENFANTS RICHES DEPRIMES
The lead in Sean Baker’s latest feature, The Florida Project, was scouted on Instagram. Bria Vinaite (@chronicflowers, if you’re wondering) is what he calls a “first timer”. The director has a knack for finding them, first timers. Good ones, too. The newbie stars of 2015’s Tangerine, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, were the first openly transgender actors to receive backing by a producer for an Academy Award campaign. Vinaite’s performance, alongside her seven-year-old co-star Brooklynn Prince, has had critics calling for similar accolades. Not least of the film’s heart wrenching charm is this perfect alignment of components; an unbelievably talented child actor, a complete novice as the protagonist and the unpolished realism of the plot, told from Baker’s sensitive perspective.
Set in Orlando, overlooked by Disney World, a string of motels host families surviving too far below the poverty line to hold down a rent contract. It’s a situation faced by many every week, working their way down the strip on the highway from motel to motel. Vinaite plays Halley, a young mother who’s volatile at times but always hustling to give her daughter a happy life. Prince plays the tiny tearaway Moonee, with a vocabulary straight from the gutter and an agonising emotional range. All under the watchful eye of Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe), hotel manager at the Magic Castle, Moonee rules the technicolour kingdom at the side of the road, with her gang of motel kids in tow.
No spoilers, but The Florida Project culminates inside The Most Magical Place on Earth, in a scene shot entirely on iPhones without a license to film there. It’s the scene that I’ll shamelessly admit made me well up before I dialled into our call, and the kind of indie touch that makes the story so astoundingly immersive. Talking to Baker and Vinaite is much the same. They unpack the film’s formation for me with exactly as much unbridled familiarity as you’d expect, from a filmmaker so concerned with depicting honesty and a newfound first timer.
Jacket ENFANTS RICHES DEPRIMES and tights stylist’s own
Wonderland: Hey Sean, where in the world are you right now?
Sean Baker: I’m in Los Angeles. I had to actually think about that. It’s been pretty non-stop. I’m actually going to be presenting Charles Burnett with an honorary Oscar on Saturday which is where my head is right now.
W: That’s so exciting, have you ever done anything like that before?
SB: I don’t think so no, no that’s a biggie. I’m basically gonna be at the Governors Awards and I think I’m gonna be the one person people won’t recognise. Seriously, it’s pretty crazy everybody from Spielberg to… it’s just insane, really, it’s an honour but it’s scary.
W: Do you get nervous at your own premieres?
SB: Well, my heart doesn’t race anymore the way it may have used to, but at the same time it’s not exactly fun… It’s weird ‘cause it’s all placed in a very celebratory event and yet you’re there trying to talk to the right people and making sure that you network correctly. It’s actually, it’s almost like going to the prom. It’s a dance — like a high school dance — where you’re trying to figure out how to ask the girl for a dance, and you’re looking across the room, you’re calculating so you can’t socialise. Bria’s having fun, I know that.
W: I’m obsessed with her on Instagram, she looks like she’s having the best time. You must have quite a way with people, to approach the likes of Bria and Mya Taylor and convince them to be in films.
SB: It’s become easier because I have a few movies under my belt, so that breaks the ice a lot faster… At least I had a DVD to show, at least I was able to say, “I’ve made other films, I’m legitimate, you can trust me!” When I was doing Prince of Broadway, back 10 years ago, I was in a place where I had to really convince them. I only had one film under my belt and it didn’t even have distribution yet, so it was much harder.
W: Bria’s performance is so raw. You make films that are so true to life. They’re real but they’re celebratory. What is it that makes you want to create these fictional narratives, instead of filming a documentary?
SB: I truly love documentaries. There have been some documentaries that have informed my whole way of approaching storytelling but at the same time I’m a dramatist, that’s what I do. I do narrative fiction filmmaking but it’s informed by real life. At the same time, I’m interested in having actors play characters and me controlling scenarios. I wish I had more time to make documentaries. I look at some of my favourite filmmakers who are able to jump back and forth, they blow my mind and I don’t understand how they actually have the bandwidth or the capacity to do it. Oliver Stone, I consider his documentary work just as important, if not more important, than his narrative fiction filmmaking. The Untold History of the United States, that series should be taught in every high school in the United States. I wish I had more time, it really comes down to that and if I did shoot a documentary, the tools are there these days to make such an incredible doc. I mean, the iPhone is made for documentaries!
W: I’m sure a lot of other people wish you had more time to make some documentaries!
Jacket ENFANTS RICHES DEPRIMES and tights stylist’s own
Bria Vinaite: Hello?
W: Hey Bria! How are you?
BV: Hi! I’m good!
W: When did you guys last speak? When did you last see each other?
SB: We were in Turkey recently. We were at the Antalya Film Festival together. We’ve been doing some of the festival circuit together.
W: Sean, I read that you wrote Bria into this part once you knew who she was?
SB: We knew the character of Halley and we were going out to the agencies who were giving us a bunch of names and we were considering some established actors for the role. Then I found Bria’s Instagram. I guess it was semi-subconscious but also Bria was definitely winning me over with her Instagram videos, making me laugh. Her energy was there, witty, self-deprecating and at the same time she had these wonderful tattoos and the hair. There was something that I kept coming back to, then I realised after a while this character probably should be a first timer, a fresh face. We were in the process of casting Willem and I had success with my previous films with having first timers, so it was something that told me that Halley should be a fresh face because the character’s struggling a lot in resorting to the underground economy. I thought it would constantly take the audience out of the suspension of disbelief if they saw somebody they recognised on the screen. Then I passed this idea by my financiers and they were of course sceptical at first, it’s a big gamble but I said, “You know what? I have a feeling.” I also had spoken to Bria by that point and she expressed enthusiasm about it, which is always the number one thing. That’s what convinced us all, so we flew her down to Orlando, she read with Brooklynn and it was perfect.
W: Can the both of you remember Bria’s first day on set filming?
SB: Didn’t we shoot some test on 35mm with you?
BV: Oh yeah you’re right. We shot some test stuff which was really fun to shoot. It was my first time in front of the camera and it wasn’t scripted, I was just talking to these guys. I remember I was very nervous but Sean just made me feel so comfortable and wrote down what he wanted me to do. It definitely took me some time to get really comfortable because I’d never been in that environment.
W: You’ve been doing this for quite a while now Sean, was Bria a natural?
SB: Well the reason I bring up that test is because that moment, we decided to have Bria talk to some of the residents. At first it was going okay and then I said, “Bring some sass to it, tell them off!” We hadn’t fully fleshed out the character yet so we thought she might be trying to score some drugs or something like that, so we had her trying to score some harder drugs from some of the residents. I said, “They’re gonna reject you and send you away, I want you to turn it on them and tell them off,” and Bria suddenly did that. In that moment I just saw her understanding the character and her sass and the way that she commanded the conversation and even in that little moment, overcame the other guys who were bad mouthing her, she turned it on them. That was the moment where I was like, “she’s got this.”
W: Brooklynn as well, she’s so young! How much of her performance is her personality and how much is her as an actor?
SB: I think she’s a complete actor, she is one of the best dramatic actors of any age that I’ve ever worked with. She understands the craft of acting, even at her young age, which is incredible. For that big emotional scene at the end, we didn’t have to go to a place where we were like, “Think of a sad time in your life.” She was already there, being in the character, understanding the character’s plight. Of course she’s a fun kid, and I was able to sometimes turn the camera on her, like eating at the end and just document her. Even then I would be able to feed her stuff from behind the camera and she would stay in character and absorb what I’m saying and then spit it out. She was on a whole other level.
BV: Oh my god she’s so talented. It’s so crazy. It was my first time on set and she knew so many technicalities. I remember the first week any time they’d be like, “we’re rolling” and she’d look at all the kids and be like, “You have to be quiet, they’re gonna say action!” She knew all the details and knew when to focus and that was a very beautiful thing to watch.
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W: I watched the last scene and when she put her hands in her mouth while she was crying, I realised I’ve not done that since I was a child and I suddenly remembered doing that so vividly. It was just absolutely heartbreaking.
BV: I cry every time.
W: I’m not surprised! What was it that actually drew you to Florida in the first place, Sean? How did you find out about these people and their story?
SB: Well my co-screenwriter actually brought it to my attention. I did not know about this situation going on and I saw it as an opportunity to basically create a present day The Little Rascals story and shine a light on this issue. I really had no connection to Florida except for the fact that my co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch] loved Disney, his mother lived in that area, my producers were all from Florida but that’s it. For me it was very, very important, I wanted Floridians to say, “We love this movie. We embrace it.” I’m from the other state that gets poked fun at a lot, New Jersey, so I understand what it’s like to be the butt of jokes. Florida gets a lot of bad rap but I wanted to show the beauty of Florida and the wonderful people who live there and the community there. I really wanted this film to rise above making fun of Florida, or trying to show how absurd it can be at times, I wanted it to be celebratory and that’s why we used the song “Celebration”.
W: It comes across so beautifully, especially with Halley, she might not be the perfect mother but she’s trying to look after her daughter the only way she can. You’re rooting for her, you don’t pity her.
BV: Yeah and I really respect that about her, you can’t control the circumstances you’re under but you can control how you react to them. She’s never given up, she’s always trying and even when she’s getting worse and worse, you never see her tell her daughter anything crazy or take her stresses out on her, which I really admire a lot.
W: For sure, The Florida Project and Tangerine are both centred on strong women in vulnerable situations. Are you drawn to telling stories about the female experience, Sean, or has it just been an accident?
SB: I think it’s accidental! Starlet is that as well, it’s also about two women of different generations. I don’t know why! I think it’s because all of my films are responses to what I’m not seeing enough of in film and television in the US. We’re very aware that we’re two 40-year-old white guys telling these stories, so in our approach we are very conscious of this, especially in this day and age of the think piece and who should be telling what stories.
W: You’re doing a much better job than the rest of the 40-year-old white guys, believe me. Bria what was it about this character, this script, this situation that attracted you? Did you want to act or was it the story that compelled you?
BV: I never had a desire to act, it seemed like a very unattainable goal. When Sean reached out, I was definitely very taken aback because it’s not something I would ever expect to happen but once I read the script, I really felt connected to Halley’s character. I feel like every young adult goes through this, figuring their life out and struggling and just trying to find themselves, whilst also having all these responsibilities that you’re faced with. I definitely felt for her… I really loved Sean’s work. I’m so thankful that Sean gave me this opportunity, he literally changed my whole life. I’ve cried multiple times about how thankful I am. I’m so thankful for you Sean, for real.
W: What has been the most surreal moment in the aftermath of the release?
SB: For me, it’s just been incredible to hear from my filmmaker heroes who have seen the film and actually like it. That’s really surreal, the fact that I was talking to John Landis at a party the other day and he’s loving it and saying it’s the saddest film he’s ever seen. He’s had The Blues Brothers and his career has been just incredible!
W: Bria, I read that you’re now actually writing with one of your friends?
BV: You know what’s crazy, we were just throwing around ideas. We never even started writing. I’m definitely thinking of things. I just feel as a woman, I’m seeing how most of the roles that I’m reading are very typical female roles. I feel like there’s so much room for there to be stories told about women that are different and aren’t playing the typical female part as Halley’s not a typical woman. I want to continue to play women who are different and not just conforming to what society expects a woman to be.
Taken from the Winter 17/18 Issue of Wonderland; out now and available to buy here.
Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Amber Duarte at Walter Schupfer Management using R+Co