There might’ve been a former Mouseketeer that I had in mind to play the role of Halley.
“I can’t get any A-listers because I don’t have financing,” filmmaker Sean Baker said of his predicament to Anthem two years ago. “I don’t have financing because I don’t have any A-listers.”
Baker’s universally loved movie Tangerine premiered at Sundance in 2015 with two secrets kept firmly under wraps: The film starred unknown transgender actors and—the eventually headline-grabbing news—it was shot entirely on the iPhone 5S, fitted with prototype anamorphic lenses to produce an unexpectedly crisp and vigorously cinematic look. The smartphones also helped, according to Baker, to shoot clandestinely in the streets and put the inexperienced actors at ease.
For his sixth feature The Florida Project, which world premiered at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight this year, Baker got the financing and the A-list star he once sought, and captured it all on 35mm.
The Florida Project centers on a carefree six-year-old firecracker, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in the shadow of Disney World at the Magic Castle motel—a clear attempt to catch tourist runoff, just near the Happiest Place on Earth. But to our kid protagonist, it’s an equally enchanted place. Moonee’s worldview stands in stark contrast to the harsh realities of her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who, in her early 20s, is barely scraping by on the poverty line. Someone who senses that they’re good people on slippery terrain and extends a compassionate hand is the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The story prickles with a lot of heartbreak, but without throwing down a death sentence—and never without an overriding sense of jubilation.
Anthem sat down to chat with Baker’s super gifted co-writer, friend, and producing partner Chris Bergoch at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, where we’re stationed this week.
Busan International Film Festival runs October 12 – 21. The Florida Project is in theaters stateside.
This is a good place to start: How did you and Sean [Baker] meet and start collaborating?
We joined forces at NYU. We worked on each other’s films and leant each other equipment from our allotment. After school, I was finishing up a short film that I was doing and Sean, along with Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy, went off and did Greg the Bunny. I was always there helping them when Greg the Bunny was a show on New York Public Access with puppets. I was like Earnie Hudson—a ghostbuster, but not on the poster with the three other guys. I was there every step of the way, but also doing other stuff. [Greg the Bunny] had a lot of incarnations. We went to IFC, we went to Fox, we went back to IFC, and then we went to MTV, which was its latest incarnation in 2010. It wasn’t the best fit for MTV at the time of Jersey Shore and got cancelled after our first season. When Sean and I were working on some episodes of that show, we were doing stunt casting. We would have adult film stars come on the show to do cameos, trying to appeal to young male demographics. When we would sit with [adult film stars] at lunch, they were nothing like what you’d think they would be. They were so down-to-earth, cool, and just talking about the most mundane things. I remember talking about bed bugs with one of the girls. From afar, like in a wide shot, it looks like I’m maybe hitting on them, but no: “Vegas is infested with beg bugs! We can’t go to Vegas anymore!” So that led to the idea for Starlet like, “What if we did a day-in-the-life of one of these girls?” They have a job that’s extraordinary, but let’s not focus on that and make it about this unusual friendship.
By the time we were writing Starlet, which would’ve been March 2011, I was visiting my mom after she relocated to Orlando. That’s when I saw these kids playing on the side of a very busy road in a motel parking lot. I didn’t think much of it at first, but I started noticing it at another motel and then another motel. It was like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?” My mom was the one who told me that they were unfortunately a part of families living in these motels. When I started doing research, I noticed that this was a problem all over the U.S. Something that pulled on my heartstrings was that this was happening in the shadow of the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World.
This is America’s “hidden homeless” that you talked about yesterday at the screening.
In the same way that shooting Tangerine on the iPhone was a headline-making story, everyone wants to talk about Sean casting Bria [Vinaite] off Instagram for The Florida Project. I’m curious about all the characters in the film, down to the most peripheral ones.
Even though I call it a five-year journey from the inception of the idea in 2011, we went off to make Tangerine so it was really a two-year, intense research process. We maybe made like ten trips down [to Florida] for a week at a time. Sean and myself and Shih-Ching Tsou—the producer who actually co-directed Take Out, Sean’s second film—wanted to talk to anybody in the community who would be willing to sit down with us and have lunch. A lot of those people we talked to just to hear about their lives are in the film. One of them is Bertha [played by Rosa Medina Perez], the woman who works in the laundry room. We met with her maybe three times and she just had a lot of stories to tell us. A lot of the times, we would offer people roles and they didn’t want to be on-camera. But they were still willing to help us. One of those was a guy named John Manning, who was a manager at this place called America’s Best, which has since been shut down. At the time, it was one of these motels that a lot of families were living in. I don’t know if you’ve heard Sean say this, but John was a good inspiration for the role of Bobby. Originally, it was two guys and then we combined them into the one character. John really informed a lot of what went into that character. He was the person who would tell us about how you have to leave the premises for one day out of every month so as to not establish residency there. It’s loopholes that people figure out, but so foreign to Sean and I. That’s how the research could sort of affect the screenplay.
I remember Sean describing the Tangerine screenplay as a “scriptment.” I wonder if you had a similar approach with The Florida Project and how fleshed out everything was.
Tangerine definitely started out as a “scriptment,” but it did wind up as a full screenplay. It was a short one, like 85 pages, but we had the dialogue in there and everything. The Florida Project was a whole one with 102 pages. It’s a compliment that a lot of people think it’s like a documentary or it’s very loose. Sean always encourages improv and I love it. A lot of writers get married to their words and I think that’s a mistake because it could almost do everyone a disservice. Actors might look unnatural in certain cases and it might make the writing look stilted or whatever. As long as the kids had their lines memorized—Samantha Quan, who was an acting coach on this, really worked with them and Sean—then they could let the lines sort of build and interpret them in their own way. They really wouldn’t have been able to do that unless there was a script and they learned the lines, or else, it probably would’ve been all about twerking. They would just want to talk about twerking or farts. They were going through a twerking phase that whole summer. [Laughs] That would’ve been a different kid’s movie. Then there are scenes that’s about “keeping it on story”: scenes where you can’t let the improv stray too far because you have these beats that need to be hit. But if they hit those beats, they can take it wherever they want to take it. Sean and I like to say that we draw a picture and then we all color it in with the actors.
I understand that you write right up until filming. Are you tweaking stuff at that point?
That’s another thing. Listen—a lot of crew members don’t like it. It drives the script supervisor crazy. It drives the ADs crazy. And I understand their jobs conflicting with our job. But you know what? We’re all just trying to make the best film we can make. Sometimes it takes you right up until the moment of actually seeing it unfold live for us to really understand that something could be better. A case in point is the ending. It was always going to be Moonee telling Jancey [played by Valeria Cotto], “You have to come run away with me,” and it didn’t feel right. I was like, “Sean, let’s shoot it both ways. Let’s try one that’s Jancey taking the lead.” That gives her a much more solid character arc. She becomes a hero in that moment. She’s going to help her friend. I thought Sean might not be so sure about that because it’s such a curveball, but he said, “Of course, let’s do it! We don’t even need to shoot it both ways.” So that’s an example of when we’re rolling the cameras and we’d still be writing because it just feels right. I think that’s why reshoots happen a lot. People get too married to the material. We’re kind of reshooting as we’re shooting.
Willem Dafoe is in many ways the kind of A-list actor that Sean told me he couldn’t get before without financing, and vice versa. I love that Caleb [Landry Jones] is in this as well.
[Caleb] was a last minute addition, too. We wrote the two father-son scenes very last minute, days before we went into production. Caleb was always on our radar. Sean and I wrote this very different action movie and we knew we always wanted to work with him, but we weren’t able to get that film going, which we will make some day and it’s ready. Caleb looks just like Willem and I think Sean had said at one point that when he first saw him—it was Heaven Knows What or the one before that—he knew he would make a great son for Willem. So he was Sean’s first choice and he would reach out to Caleb in that situation. Willem, I think, was a fan of Tangerine. That’s why Sean was able to go up to New York and secure a meeting with him. Once he pitched what we were trying to do, Willem was onboard and kind of got it, which is so cool because so many people didn’t get it. It was a struggle. Sean talks about all these meeting where we would try to get financing and people wouldn’t even let us finish the sentence. They were like, “No. Next.” It was just not interesting to them. Maybe we weren’t doing a good job of pitching it, I don’t know.
As a writer, do you have your own very specific ideas as to what your characters should be like and who should play them from a casting standpoint? I mean, you must, right?
I usually do, yeah, even though you know you’re not going to end up using them. Originally, the idea was to stunt cast a pop star or a former Mouseketeer. There might’ve been a former Mouseketeer that I had in mind to play the role of Halley. But Sean wanted to cast a fresh face. Pick a pop star. I don’t want to say anybody.
Okay, so he didn’t want it to be a “Britney Spears movie,” for example.
She was a Mouseketeer.
There was a lot of them. [Laughs] That’s a great example of perhaps somebody down to play that. Sean just didn’t want it to be about that. He was very concerned that people would only see it as Britney playing the role. He wanted it to feel real. He wants it to feel like a documentary in a way and that’s going to work against that. So he wasn’t 100% certain on Willem, either. But I think he saw in Willem the chameleon where you forget that you’re even watching him. The first thing I said was, “If Willem seriously wants to do this movie, let’s keep this character arc and do something like we’ve never seen from him before,” like making him this really nice guy character.
What an actor’s dream to have filmmakers think that way. I loved Bria in the role of Halley. She rings so true. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen in a movie all year.
I hope she reads this because she’s amazing. Sean has this ability where, when he knows, he knows. He has this superpower. There’s never any doubt. Even though people are like, “But she’s never acted before,” you know you’re going to hear that. “We want someone that’s proven.” Sean always knows, even with the kids. There’s this confidence in his casting where it’s always spot on.
That must be such a comfort to you, too. You can totally trust him now.
He totally earned my trust a couple movies back. With Brooklynn [Prince], we were blown away as well. We were having a really hard time finding someone who had it all, including the right age. If just felt like if they had one thing, they didn’t have another. They were either the right age or with a good contrast to the other girl, but maybe they couldn’t improv. We would throw these scenarios at the kids. We were asking questions like, “Who’s your favorite Disney princess and why?” I remember one girl made us all tear up because her answer was so sad. She’s saying how she loves Rapunzel and relates to her because she feels really lonely and trapped in her room all the time with no friends to go out with her. It’s heartbreaking. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the first choice right there.” But maybe a good actress means she’s also maybe not as experienced with taking curveballs. I almost don’t even want to call it improv. When we’re on set, we would throw out an alternate line. A lot of actors might not want that. Some love it, but some want to memorize the script and just do that. So we need somebody a little more flexible for “a Sean movie.”
I know Mark Duplass said to Sean, “If you ever want to make a micro-budget, the door is open.” Sean pushed against that initially, but then wound up making Tangerine with him. How do you guys feel about being known so much for making micro-budgeted films?
People’s first instinct is like, “Wait a minute. You made Tangerine for this much. Why do you need more?” So we have to remind them, “Tangerine was a story where you could do that and that’s why we shot on iPhones. This film has car crashes and a lot of locations.” On something like Tangerine, we’re still calling in a lot of favors and everyone’s wearing multiple hats and we’re doing jobs outside our own job descriptions. It’s a team effort. We had eight people on the crew doing ten jobs each. You can’t keep doing that at this stage in the game. We called in all our favors.
This is not the first time I’ve heard this, from producers especially. You also have a producer credit on The Florida Project. You co-produced Starlet and Tangerine. What does that entail?
There are different types of producers and I’m definitely more of the creative type. It’s locations and casting, every step of the way. It’s giving notes on Sean’s editing. Reshaping the story in the edit. Dreaming of ways to enhance the sound design. I love it all. A lot of the times, writers just write the script and, boom, they go off and make it and that’s it. That’s what I love about Sean. The thing about him that a lot of people don’t have is that—you want to work with someone where no idea is a bad idea, and it’s a two-way street. You can just throw anything out there. Sometimes people take things personally and get all offended if their ideas aren’t used. You can’t be that way. It’s a collaboration. In my mind, there’s no bad ideas because if someone were to give me an idea, even if I thought it was completely absurd on the writer’s part, they might say one key word that makes me think of an idea that does work. Sometimes I think people, especially in writer’s rooms, get to very cynical places. People sort of attack everybody. We don’t want that environment. We just like to have everybody throw out ideas where people aren’t going to be butthurt if they’re not used.
Sean had a project that he was trying to get off the ground in Brighton Beach for a year and a half before you guys went off to make Tangerine. Were you involved with that one as well?
That was something that Sean worked on with Victoria Tate, who was in Prince of Broadway. That was a script they were working on and I believe are still developing. A lot of the times, these things take time. With The Florida Project, when we were having trouble getting it made after Starlet, it was a blessing in disguise because it gave us more time to research and develop the script. I think you’re anxious to get things made, but sometimes, maybe the universe is saying that it’s not time yet. Also, we wouldn’t have Brooklynn because she would’ve been too young and different. I think everything happened for a reason. So sometimes it’s not a bad thing, now when I think about it.
Could you talk about your writing process? Is there a routine that feels comfortable to you?
This is a two-part answer. With Sean, we have two different styles. If it’s a work-for-hire, like the one I mentioned about the action movie, that was more traditional where we’ll break the story down and put all the index cards on the board. Once we have all those index cards and all the scenes and we know where those act breaks are, we kind of divvy up the scenes like, “I want to write that one. I already have it in my head.” Then we split up and don’t talk to each other for a couple weeks. He does his thing and I do mine. Then we go back to each other and sort of have our way with each other’s stuff and put it back in. It’s sort of like a blender. But with something like The Florida Project, it’s a lot looser, especially because we had that freedom of time where no one wanted to make this movie. We always knew this movie was going to be something. We knew we had to make it one way or another. So we’d just go down to Florida and research and take good notes. It was a combination of the research and the stories we heard. It’s like, “We have to have a scene where they vacate a day,” and we put it sort of anywhere. We weren’t sure where it’s gonna go, but it’s up there and it starts to take shape. Then you’re like, “These are the location we can use. There’s a giant wizard on that gift shop, so maybe they can go interact with it.” One of the earlier ideas with the wizard was to make a subtle nod to this Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey type of thing—Gandolf taking Frodo out of Hobbiton as a step into a larger journey. I mean, that’s when they’re leading Jancey on a tour out of her comfort zone. It’s kind of still there. It’s a little out there and nobody would ever make the association, but it’s there. So locations play a part in that, like Donut Time [in Tangerine]. We knew things would start and end at Donut Time, so how do we circle back to it? Things start to take shape from a variety of sources.
What do you consider “good writing” when you watch movies? What do you find yourself scrutinizing most when you watch movies, from the point of view of a screenwriter?
I love Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, and the three films they wrote together: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. They’re great scripts. I don’t think they get enough credit for how tight they are and how good they are. And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, too, which Edgar wrote with Michael Bacall. It’s amazing. I know it’s based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, but they had quite the job on their hands to sort of mesh it all together. Yeah, I really respect what they do. I have all the mainstream answers. I think one of the best scripts ever was Back to the Future that [Robert] Zemeckis and [Bob] Gale wrote. I don’t know why those two guys can’t get together and just do another original script. Zemeckis keeps making these movies and adaptations and doesn’t write anymore. Why doesn’t Zemeckis write anymore?
Maybe that was their lightning in a bottle.
Yeah? And I have to say, I only thought of that because we’re at BIFF, like Biff Tannen. So stupid. [Laughs] I keep saying BIFF like we’re in an alternate timeline where Biff Tannen created this film festival.
In Tokyo, my friend and I found this bar called Biff. It’s entirely Back to the Future themed.
No way. Is it a pop-up?
It’s permanent! It’s tiny and in a random spot. It’s not your touristy type of place at all. That alley had no foot traffic. You just know the owner is more into the movie than money.
Oh my god. We’re supposed to open [The Florida Project] in Tokyo in May. We need to go. Oh, also, I’m about to watch Downsizing and Alexander Payne is someone who I respect as a writer. I think his stuff is just incredible. What was nominated last year for Best Original Screenplay? Like I said, I haven’t slept. I haven’t had any coffee. My memory is failing me right now. This is going to be one of those questions where I later go, “I should’ve said that! I love that movie!”
Do you have loads of film ideas and scripts lying around that you maybe start and don’t start again? Do you just have a lot of stuff in general, like a personal archive?
Yeah, The Florida Project was an idea for years, too. It was honestly one that most of us never really knew when or if it was ever gonna go, but eventually, someone was going to do it if we didn’t. There are a lot of scripts that are like that that I have. There’s this script that Sean and I’ve been working on for three years and we hope to get it made, perhaps next or the one after. I also have a lot of mainstream ideas that I don’t think Sean would be interested in doing, so that’s one of the things I want to start focusing on now. David Lowery is an inspiration because he went from writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, then Pete’s Dragon, and then back to something like A Ghost Story. That’s so cool. Not a lot of people have the ability or the opportunity to go back and forth like that because I don’t think the industry always lets people. I went on so many meetings where they’re just not interested: “No, no, no. Give us another Tangerine.” It’s like, “Come on.” Actors can play different types of roles and try different genres. I think a lot of the time the industry tries to keep you in this box. It’s like, “That’s who this guy is. This is the kind of movies they’ll make forever.” So that’s a challenge. That’s what I want to break out of.