It's not just the colorful location of a seedy motel in the shade of Disney World that makes The Florida Project seems so fresh. It's also the characters and the unknown actors, explains writer director Sean Baker.
The Florida Project is not a documentary, but it does feel like one at times. How much effort did it take to achieve this 'realness'?
"There was an effort to keep it based in realism, absolutely. The steps you take to get there depends, it varies from scene to scene. To tell you the truth, for me it feels like my least documentary-like film, there are actually locked down cameras and you can tell the camera moves are calculated. I think it is because people are seeing new faces; that adds a lot. For example Bria, who plays one of the leads (the mom) and other people they don't recognize from before."
It has new faces, but also old faces in a new light. I've never seen Willem Dafoe, as the motel owner, act like this before.
"Willem is great, because he transforms and he totally blends in. People like his character a lot, and I think it's because of the way he handled his character. It is not that he hasn't been a moral compass in a movie before, take Platoon for instance, but there is something about this everyman quality that everybody identifies with, I think that's a big part of it."
“As a filmmaker making films about the USA, I feel the obligation to show the melting pot.” – Sean Baker
Way before the term 'the forgotten people' became a political slogan, you were giving them a face and a place in cinema.
"I think so. My films have been a response to what I'm not seeing on the screen. In the context of representation I think I can make a film that tells a universal story which you may have heard before, but with a very unique location and with characters that you probably never have seen as a lead before. In other films they would usually be limited to background characters. As a filmmaker making films about the USA, I feel the obligation to show the melting pot. If only to show what this industry has shown - that it basically has told stories about one group of people for a very long time; that doesn't represent our country. So if I'm making a film that makes a statement about the United States and this era, it had better be all inclusive."
The mother figure in your film has to make some tough sacrifices to get by. Does an indie filmmaker have to make sacrifices along the way as well?
"It really depends what one would consider a sacrifice to be. I'm really lucky enough to be able to do what I love to do and I'm now starting to make a living doing it. To tell you the truth, anything that I would say would be an insult to people who have to make real sacrifices to survive."
Is one of the perks of making movies getting invited to festivals and getting to travel?
"Definitely. For a very long time I actually considered it compensation for making these films. A couple of films back, I was touring for a year and living on the road. I find inspiration in travel; it allows me to see the world. There was a saying that my producer and I had, which was: ‘make a movie, see the world’. It took me forever to get to Rotterdam, I have wanted to go there because of its wonderful reputation. It's going to be my first time."
Nowadays indie directors are pretty much a sought after commodity. Big film studios like to hire them to inject some of their creative magic into their blockbusters. With all the buzz and praise surrounding The Florida Project: did your phone ring already and... would you be interested in taking the call at all?
"There has been interest from bigger production houses, but nothing remotely like a franchise or a tent pole. Let's say, nobody has called me for a Marvel film or to do Star Wars. But I get interest from some of the larger cooperate wings... I haven't been able to work out anything with them. The biggest problem is that I wouldn't get final cut on it. And because I'm so neurotic, I would go crazy. I guess I have made some unonorthodox decisions. Take the end of The Florida Project for example: a studio would never have allowed that. Because they would test it, and the scene plays like 50/50. Some people like it, some people don't. Some people want to interpret it, some like it open. If that happened in a studio setting, the response would automatically be: oh-oh, we have to change that, because it is confusing to people or they don't like it. I thought maybe the whole movie would be divisive, but not that scene particularly. It was actually one of our very first visions for the movie. Chris (Bergoch, the co-writer - edit) and I talked about that for a long time. We never doubted that that had to be our ending."
Photo in header: Photo: Sean Baker | Interview: Anton Damen