CANNES, France — The happiest place on Earth isn’t Walt Disney World.
In the eyes of The Florida Project‘s six-year-old heroine, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), it’s just down the street at the Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, Fla., where she lives week-to-week with her unemployed single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Exploring abandoned houses with her friends and bumming money for ice cream from tourists, Moonee is blissfully unaware of their impoverished conditions or the heartbreaking measures Halley takes to scrape by.
The Florida Project, which earned 100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes after its Cannes Film Festival premiere, is the latest film from co-writer/director Sean Baker to focus on marginalized groups, after 2012’s Starlet (about amateur porn stars) and 2015’s Tangerine (which followed trans sex workers). It’s also his first to star a well-known actor: Willem Dafoe, who plays the Magic Castle’s benevolent manager, Bobby.
USA TODAY caught up with Baker in Cannes on Wednesday afternoon to chat about his latest:
Your films shine a light on people living on the margins. Is that a goal of yours?
The last three, four films made me aware of that. It’s not as calculated as it might seem. This film was conceived even before Tangerine, but we couldn’t find the funding for it. So it’s not as if I say, “I finished this film and now I’m onto the next marginalized group!” No, it’s really where my interest goes. And also, I feel like it’s a reaction to what I’m not seeing in film and television. You don’t see nearly enough roles being written for women, women of color, anybody over 40, and people in the (lower) class. It’s my desire to hear those stories.
(Making The Florida Project), I went into the community first before writing to try to figure out what stories needed to be told. For this one, I had already set down the road of focusing on sex work in my last three films and I wanted to continue that. While we could’ve told millions of stories about Route 192 in Florida, we wanted to focus on the struggle of one mother who is going to do whatever she can to keep a roof over her child’s head.
You create such a lived-in world at this motel with authentic characters. What was your research process like?
It’s really just interviews — taking time to hear stories and meeting as many people as possible. We met a young couple living in the motel that must’ve been in their 20s and they were barely holding on. They were both unemployed, trying to come up with $35 to $45 a night (to pay for a room). They’re the ones who inspired (Halley’s perfume “business”). I asked them how they got by and they said, “Every morning, we go to the wholesale perfumer, buy a bunch and try to sell them to the tourists.”
Bria came from Instagram. Yes, she came from this background where she was a selfie girl, but she can be a masterful actor. When she came on board, I asked her to come down to Orlando and meet the kids and act through some scenes. I told her, “Just be that crazy Bria that I see in your Instagram. I want you to bring your youthful energy to this and be on equal terms with Brooklynn, because I want it to be not the traditional maternal relationship we always see. I want to see it as almost a sibling relationship.”
And then we had William Dafoe. I was questioning, “Will he be too recognizable? Would it be hard for the audience to buy into him?” But he was able to transform into Bobby and took the time to do it, too. He came in early before production started to meet with managers of other motels and absorb their mindset.