By Travis Johnson

In The Florida Project, his follow up to the acclaimed Tangerine, director and co-writer Sean Baker tells the story of six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who lives with her unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a run-down tourist trap motel within spitting distance of Disney World. To Moonee and her friends, the rundown neighbourhood is a kind of wonderland; abandoned houses are private playgrounds, their motel homes are shaped like fairytale castles and rocket ships, and the lack of parental supervision is simply the freedom to do whatever they want. But what’s heaven to children is really a disturbing dystopia huddled in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom: drugs, booze and the threat of violence are ever-present, and the pressures of poverty are constant.

The darkness that lies just outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom is real; the film is the result of Baker’s investigations into the lives of Florida’s long term unemployed and the day-to-day, precarious lives they live in the area’s countless roadside motels. The result is a deeply affecting film, made all the more so by our knowledge of its fidelity to the truth.

You began developing The Florida Project before you did Tangerine. What brought this subject to your attention, and why did it get delayed?

It goes back to around 2011 – 2012. My co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch] was actually the one who brought it to my attention. He was sending me news articles regarding the situation that was happening in Kissimmee, Orlando. We threw around some ideas, we wanted to tell a mother – daughter story, being that we were reading about a lot of single mothers in the area. I had not taken trips there yet. We came up with this treatment and tried to get financing, which did not happen. And then we went ahead and made Tangerine basically out of desperation, making whatever we could at that time.

That opened up the doors for us. That’s what really allowed us to get a grant, start taking trips there, flesh it out, and then eventually get financing. So it was a long road, but that’s how that happened.

How did the story change in the process? What kind of detours did you take from your original map based on what you learned in your research trips?

The original treatment was similar in the sense that it had the ending, but it was a first love, young love story. It was a much darker story in that it was more tragic – the film is still pretty tragic now but this was to a greater degree.

I think what happened was that our original treatment was based on these news articles that we had read and video, the actual news footage covering things, that we’d seen. So it was really just us writing this off the top of our heads without actually being there, and I think that changes everything in the world.

When you actually go and immerse yourself and you go and talk to people in the community, you go ‘Oh, well that was required.’ Because it was just us writing from our apartments in Los Angeles, unfamiliar with what was really going on I think once we were there, talking to everybody, hearing different perspectives… for example, the Bobby (Willem Dafoe) character – that would never would have existed if we hadn’t met these different hotel managers that opened up their worlds to us.

So, all the details of the film, everything besides it being a mother – daughter story and then ending, came from us actually being there.

As your films focus on marginalised communities and people a lot, is that a concern – that your assumptions might get in the way of communicating their truth?

Yes, of course. It’s something I think is the only way to go about making something like this. The only reason we made that initial treatment on our own is because of the fact that we didn’t have the money to take the trip there, but it’s something that is necessary. Representation is extremely important, and for my last few films I’ve been an outsider to these worlds I’m focusing on, and because I’m an outsider, you really have to make sure you never assume anything ever.

Listening to you speaking to Leonard Maltin recently, you confessed an early interest in action blockbusters like Aliens and Robocop. How did that guy turn into the indie filmmaker we see today?

I think what happened was, as I got older… my interests still lie in all genres and I think if you look at my Letterboxd account, you’ll see that I watch everything (laughs). But I think that, not following the Hollywood route – I didn’t move to Los Angeles early on, I stayed in New York –  I think that changes everything. If you’re not trying to actually break into the Hollywood system, meaning working for the studios, your focus is forced to change.

As I got older, my interests changed or matured, you could say, and I was discovering the other cinema moving into my college years at NYU. I discovered a lot of character driven cinema from overseas that I was very interested in, and eventually political cinema. So I think that independent film was kind of forced upon me, because I couldn’t have blown up a building with a $3000 budget. And now I’m quite happy with the direction I took. It’s taught me more about the world, I feel that I have been educated with every subject that I focus on, the people I meet.

One thing your films do a lot is set personal stories against the backdrop of specific broader cultural and political themes – here it’s endemic poverty, food security and the threat of homelessness. How do you balance that, making sure the broader themes don’t overwhelm the personal story?

I think that if you tell those micro stories it never ends up being overwhelmed, because you’re telling a human story with universal themes and the only way to do that, I think, without distracting an audience, is to stay the course – you tell that small, personal story. And the micro ends up making a statement about the macro.

It’s hard to make a film these days about anybody of any class or gender, et cetera, in the United States these days, without it being a commentary on the United States, because everybody is looking for that. We are living in a time when we’re politically so divided, the entire world has their eyes on us, so they’re looking at all of our stories as potential critiques of our country. And they are! Mine are, at least. So I think that’s coming through and that’s what people notice, but ultimately it’s me concentrating on telling that mother – daughter story, and it just happens to be that their situation is the big picture, commenting more on the macro.

The Florida Project is in cinemas now. Read our review here.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Florida Project

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