Interview: Director Sean Baker Discusses ‘The Florida Project’s’ Master Plan

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No one in the industry brings quite the same sensibilities to a project like Sean Baker does. Whether it’s shooting “Tangerine” on an iPhone, including a graphic sex scene in “Starlet,” or casting children and unknowns in major roles for “The Florida Project,” he never takes the obvious route. That can relegate some to the fringes of the art house, but Baker is able to mix independent cinema with accessible premises in a way that few do. As such, it’s no wonder that “The Florida Project” is breaking through to audiences now. Not just poised to be a solid indie hit for distributor A24, it now has Baker in the heart of the Oscar race.

We got a chance to talk to him this week, not just about “The Florida Project,” but also about his thought process in general. The highlights of the interview can be seen below. His film continues to expand this weekend, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out…

Here now are the best bits of our chat with Baker:

On how his films are both accessible and also deeply experimental, along with how he decides on a project:

Quite honestly, I’ve been trying to analyze this myself. Journalists and critics have been pointing out common threads between my films, and what I think it comes down to is simply it’s a response to what I’m not seeing in contemporary film, at least for me, especially with U.S. cinema. It usually starts with a look at a particular location or perhaps a community that I feel has been underrepresented, and with my own interest, I’d like to know more. Also, knowing that we like to tell universal stories, stories that we know are, we like our audience to connect with our characters and to see the universality in all of us, what makes us human. So, I think that’s, yeah, the reason it’s usually set up that way, and it sounds like it’s very digestible, which I think the movies are to a certain degree, even though they’re tackling some timely issues. We’re trying to do it in a way that it also entertains.

You know, entertainment is how this medium started and it’s an entertainment medium. When I refer to our medium I’m referring to narrative fictional filmmaking, not documentaries. Documentaries do not have to be entertaining. For the most part, narrative fiction is entertainment, so I have to keep that in mind when making these films, that an audience will be spending a lot of money at this point. You know, I’m seeing Blade Runner later tonight and it’s costing my girlfriend and I $47! (Laughs) So, it’s money. It’s an investment of money and time, so I want to entertain. At the same time, I am spending three years on a film and I want to have this film have an impact, socially. I think it’s an important responsibility as an artist, especially in this day and age. It’s always mixing the two. It’s a twofold goal.

Discussing more the relationship between entertainment and social responsibility in film:

Think about the films of the 70’s! Someone like Hal Ashby, through Harold and Maude, or The Last Detail. Yeah, they were character pieces that focused on really interesting characters, one was a friendship story and one was a love story, but they also were making commentaries on the Vietnam War. Even the horror films from back then had way more of a political agenda. You know, Texas Chainsaw and Last House on the Left were about the war. So, I think it’s something back then where it felt like it wasn’t such a gamble! (Laughs) Studios were up for it.

That’s why I love Get Out. Get Out does it even more than I do with my film. He calls it a social thriller, right? Yeah, through comedy and horror he’s having us discuss liberal racism, you know? (Laughs)

Talking about casting The Florida Project and his prior works filled with unconventional choices:

You know, we did have our conventional way of casting, looking out for the Hollywood names for us. We were considering Haley to be cast with a very recognizable name and box office draw. I think, because I’d had luck with first timers in my previous films who had come out of nowhere, in conventional ways, Besedka Johnson was found in a YMCA in Hollywood, the two girls from Tangerine were met on the street, so I think it gave me the freedom to actually ask my producers and financiers to take the gamble with me on Bria (Vinaite). To be honest, we were first looking at 20 to 24-year-olds. You can imagine all the names. We were looking at all of those. We looked at all of them, whether they could work in the role, whether you’d have the suspension of disbelief still be there. I realized when I came across Bria’s Instagram page and was almost obsessed with it, I kept going back to it and just wishing we could cast her. Then, we eventually did!

I think I had to realize that the role of Haley almost required a fresh face, because of the struggle she’s going through. If you see a celebrity on screen resorting to the underground economy to support her child, I think that the audience would constantly be taken out. So, that’s why I’m really happy we went with Bria and went the Instagram route, even though at first it wasn’t what we were thinking.

On directing children in The Florida Project and the unique situation that presents when mixing them with professional adults:

I lucked out so much with Brooklynn (Prince)! So much I can’t even say! (Laughs) There was an interesting chemistry. I sort of had done this before, as you know, with James Ransone in Tangerine, sprinkled in. This was even more of an ensemble cast than my other films. It just seemed like the chemistry was there. It was all working out. The little kids, yeah, we had Samantha Qwan on as our acting coach, and she was the one who basically told me that even though two of the kids came with prior acting experience, Brooklynn and Aiden (Malik), they still needed to understand. I couldn’t direct them like I was directing first-time adults. They still had to learn their lines, their blocking had to be really carefully presented to them so they understood it, but once they did get to that place, the great thing is that they’re such smart little kids, once they got the framework, I could ask a few of them, if I wanted to, to loosen it up on set. They all had that capability, you know? To improvise. And they were all extroverts! They were all willing to do so without embarrassment, which was great. I was so lucky that I found little kids who were willing to do that.

Discussing having Willem Dafoe in the cast:

All I can say is thank you. I knew that he would do an amazing job. I knew that hem was transformable. Transformative, I’m sorry. Yeah. I think he wanted to blend in himself. He wanted to blend in. The whole time, he knew he was going to be one of the real recognizable faces, so it was his job as well to try to blend in. I never had any doubts, quite honestly. And you know, I go back to, I think back to his roles in Mississippi Burning and Platoon. He’s played these sweet characters and protagonists. I know later one he started to play the villain and the bad guys, but yeah. He has that persona that’s also very grounding in a way.

On if the success of The Florida Project will lead to a more ambitious movie or if the next one will still be on the same scale:

I don’t know, to tell the truth. I think we’re going to be seeing this one out, seeing how well it does at the box office. I do want to play in a bigger sandbox, because, you know, it’s just more tools. More money is just more time, and that’s important. At the same time, there’s a ceiling to how much I can actually do and still have final cut. So, that is probably what the ceiling will be, it’ll only be a certain amount. I do look at filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and James Gray as model careers, as careers I aspire to have. They’ve been able to do films that are on much larger levels, so we’ll see.

Be sure to check out “The Florida Project,” in theaters now!