Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Director Sean Baker on making ‘The Florida Project’ | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Director Sean Baker on making ‘The Florida Project’

Sean Baker spent 15 years making micro-budget movies before his iPhone-shot masterpiece "Tangerine" thrust him into the mainstream two years ago.

That film showed us Baker's extraordinary visual imagination and his empathetic, funny, raw and human touch as a storyteller.

Baker brings those same gifts to his follow-up, "The Florida Project," which plays today at Aspen Film's Academy screenings. It's among the most acclaimed movies of the year — landing near or at the top of most critics' lists and already winning a slew of awards. It's established itself as a frontrunner for Oscar nominations in major awards categories, including best picture and best director, with Willem Dafoe a prohibitive favorite to win best supporting actor.

Baker, still very much an outsider artist, was working with a seven-figure budget for the first time on "The Florida Project" and was overjoyed to see it get a relatively wide release in theaters.

"We're not 'Lady Bird,' we're not 'Get Out' — the fact that we even got a release is something," Baker said in a recent phone interview. "This is all gravy to me. For me the dream come true was just to get released by (distributor) A24. Everything after that has all been gravy."

The new film is a portrait of mother and daughter living on the edge of homelessness at a motel outside of Walt Disney World in Kissimmee. It stars 6-year-old Brooklyn Prince as Moonee and Bria Vinaite as her mother — both first-time actors — and Willem Dafoe as the motel manager. At times it's searing in its unflinching and intimate look at the dispossessed in 21st century America. But it's also funny and charming, rarely straying from Moonee's perspective, unafraid to stick with her and the band of rascals she calls friends as they scamper through the days.

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Working mostly with nonprofessional and first-time actors (he found Vinaite on Instagram) Baker encouraged improvisation from his cast and caught a rare vitality in their performances.

The motel, named The Magic Castle, is painted a fantastic purple and photographed lovingly — along with the seedy stretch of state highway where the actions takes place — by Baker. In the shadow of Disney World, Moonee is the princess of The Magic Castle and the film is filled with subtle nods to the tropes and traditionos of Disney royalty. Baker's co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, is a Disney fanatic who brought an expertise on all things Disney (the film takes its name from Walt Disney's name for his theme park before it became Disney World).

"There are probably winks and nods that I'm not even aware of," Baker said with a laugh.

They scouted other motel locations on Route 192, but knew Moonee needed to reign over The Magic Castle.

"We could have shot at a grungier motel, but we always felt than Moonee should have her own castle," Baker said. "She should be the princess in her castle."

Baker was not as acquainted with the plight of the "hidden homeless" across the U.S. until he started "The Florida Project." He learned about it through the situation in Kissimmee and Orlando.

"That crazy and very sad juxtaposition of children living in budget hotels just outside the place that we consider 'the happiest place on earth' for children, that's how I was brought to it and that's the juxtaposition that we wanted to focus on," he said.

He and Bergoch studied up on the issue and on the people struggling on the margins of Disney World, then won a grant through Cinereach to take a research trip down there.

"We approached it in a journalistic way," he said. "We would simply interview as many people as we possibly could."

It wasn't just the residents of the motels but also the owners of small businesses in the area — which spawned the idea for a memorable scene at an ice cream stand — and motel managers, who inspired Bobby, the character played by Dafoe in the film.

"It all comes from time spent," Baker said.

As the production neared, Baker welcomed the community from the real Magic Castle and neighboring motels into the production, paying locals to work as extras or to take on roles in the film.

"Collaboration was always important," he said. "You have to make sure that representation is accurate and appreciated by this community. Their presence will always keep you in check. So I could turn to one of the residents and say, 'Is this accurate?' 'Is this how it would go down?'"

"The Florida Project" premiered to wide acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in France and Baker has now taken the film to countless Academy screenings. But no screening was more important — or more nerve-racking — than the one he hosted in a theater with the residents of the budget motels surrounding Disney World.

"For me, that screening was everything," Baker said. "It was a tense moment for me. … Those are the people we truly need to answer to. We don't answer to critics."

It went over well and "The Florida Project" has led to a stream of financial support for the at-risk families in the area from people around the world who've seen the film.

"Ultimately, it was all good feedback," Baker said.

Baker, who premiered his short film "Snowbird" at the 2016 Aspen Shortsfest, will have no shortage of opportunities in Hollywood following the acclaim for "The Florida Project." But he doesn't see himself going beyond the intimate scope and modest budget he worked with on the film.

"I probably will stay in the same wheelhouse," he said. "I make character-based films about some sort of issue, but disguised in a way so that I can focus on the characters — on people being people — and on universal themes."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘The Florida Project’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Friday, Dec. 22, 2 p.m.

How much: $20; $15 for Aspen Film members; free for members of the Academy and associated guilds

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com

More info: Also playing at Academy Screenings on Friday are ‘Last Flag Flying’ at 5 p.m. and ‘The Big Sick’ at 8 p.m.

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