‘The Florida Project’ Director Sean Baker on Florida’s Hidden Homeless

At the Gotham Awards Monday evening, Sean Baker’s new film, “The Florida Project,” will be in the running for four awards, including for best feature, best actor for Willem Dafoe and for star Brooklynn Prince, who is in the same category Brie Larson won a few years back before her Oscar. ( “The Florida Project” is also nominated for an audience award.)

In “The Florida Project” Prince plays precocious and sometimes bratty six-year-old Moonie, who lives in the shadow of Disneyland, but which might as well be in another universe. She and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), live in a purple stucco motel called the Magic Castle they call home. Halley, more a pal than a caretaker, is continually scrambling for the weekly scratch, hustling perfume being only one of her sidelines.

The garish strip malls and budget motels are a playground of sorts for Moonie and her pals, a boy named Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and a girl named Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonie runs wild most of the time, fueled by a rich fantasy life and lots of moxie. Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast, plays the manager of the Magic Castle, and a sort of surrogate father to Moonie even as she causes havoc by pranks like turning off the motel’s electricity just for laughs.

Before all the awards hoopla — in addition to the Gothams, the film received two Independent Spirt Awards nominations last week — I interviewed Sean Baker at the New York Film Festival. Following is my brief red carpet interview:

Sean Baker/Paula Schwartz photo

As a follow-up to the success of “Tangerine” what kind of pressure did you feel with this movie?

SB: There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure because in many ways many people thought that was my first film even though it was my fifth film. I had to treat it as a sophomore film. But then I’ve also learned that you always have to prove yourself every time out so there’s always pressure. I don’t think the pressure ever goes away. But to be specific though, people starting thinking I was the iPhone guy, so I wanted to change that up. I wanted to go 100 degrees the other direction, so there was a little bit pressure there. The pressure was also about approaching this subject matter in the same style as “Tangerine.” And I don’t mean the hyperactive music-video style of “Tangerine,” but more in the way that we’re covering this serious subject matter in a very comedic way. We’re laughing with these kids, we’re having fun with these kids. I want people to look at this sort of as Little Rascals 2017. But then at the end of the day, they’re left with a serious subject to think about, a subject and an issue that I certainly didn’t even think about until my co-writer (Chris Bergoch) brought it to my attention.

What draws you to these fringe, marginalized characters?

SB: It’s really a response to what I’m not seeing in U.S. cinema, at least not enough of it. And I actually have been thinking about it, journalists and critics brought it to my attention. It’s not really something I set out to do. If I did it would be a little bit strange. It would be like, where’s my next marginalized community? That’s not the way I think. It’s actually what I want to see and an issue I think should have some light shed on it, so if anything, I think the way you should look at this stuff, is that if there were more stories told about these marginalized communities and sub-cultures and minorities, the less marginalized they would be. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do with these films.

How do you think “The Florida Project” fits into our current political landscape?

SB: It’s obviously very timely. Obviously we have threats to budget cuts that would affect the homeless, food stamps, right now. But it is a bi-partisan issue. Actually we started developing this film back in 2011 under the Obama administration.

Because basically they need funding; they don’t need cuts. And there’s only so much local governments can do with the help of agencies, philanthropists and private sector. There’s only so much. So my hope is that this film does, now we’re in a politically charged landscape and climate, and my hope is that this is something in which people can get behind and say, this should not be happening in the United States 2017.


Willem Dafoe/Paula Schwartz photo


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