Three tiny figures are sitting on some grass in the dark, underneath Disney World fireworks. "Make a wish," Halley tells her daughter's best friend, Jansey, as the latter blows out the candle on her cupcake. When the camera cuts to a wider shot, it's evident they're far behind thick wire fencing.
Even more so than Angela Arnold's American Honey last year, Sean Baker's The Florida Project shows the corrupt and broken idealism of the American Dream. Highlighting the lives of people living hand to mouth in Orlando's motels, it follows the story of six-year-old Moonee and her young single mother, Halley. The picture of poverty is heightened by the film's backdrop, Disney World – the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth – and the continuous flow of tanned men in deck shoes and toned women in visors with bright-faced children passing through its gates.
Moonee swears and bargains like a grown-up, her language absorbed half from the hip-hop radio she listens to in the bath and half from her blue-haired, foul-mouthed young mum. In one scene, Halley will be washing Moonee's hair in the bath; in the next, Moonee is washing the hair of her little blue-haired doll. The metaphor is clear, and you often wonder who is looking after who. Thankfully, Bobby – played by Willem Dafoe – looks out for both of them as the long-suffering but kindly motel manager.
The Florida Project could be relentlessly solemn; instead, the film puts the humour of the motel's kids at its heart. Like little kings and queens of their domain, the camera never looks down on them, often angled up, letting them tower in the frame.
Hours before the film had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, we spoke to director and co-writer Sean Baker about how he made what will inevitably end up the most genuinely touching film of the year.
VICE: Sean, this film is based in a reality. What was your approach to researching motel life?
Sean Baker: It was very journalistic – we got a grant to interview people living in these motels, small business owners, agencies that provided social services to those in need. Some motels were really a little too grungy, with a lot of gang and criminal activity, so we did research there knowing we could probably never shoot there. We tried. When they found out what we were doing in those places they were like, "No thank you, get off our property," because they had been burned so many times by the media. It wasn't until we were in the environment that we saw how everybody had been affected by the recession. It wasn't just the residents; it was small business owners struggling to keep open, as we show in the film. They were doing their best to put a fresh lick of paint on something that they knew inside was full of bedbugs or rotten.
Were any of the characters closely based on the people you met there?
We met this one motel manager who really opened up his world to us, and he inspired the Bobby character. He was never originally considered to be written. I could see he had a lot of compassion, but at the same time there was always a distance he kept because he had to keep it professional, and at any time he might have to evict one of these families. When we met him he was working at this motel across the street from Magic Castle, and it had since closed by the next visit. It actually was bought out by land developers and they were making it something different, like a full on tourist motel. There were literally about 125 families displaced, and they were on the streets that night, or forced onto the next motel.
You really wonder what Moonee and Halley would have done without him as a father figure. Was that paternal trait drawn from this real manager?
Definitely. He told me he bought this one little kid a bicycle because he was the only one out of the whole bunch who didn't have one. You could tell he bent the rules for them a bit. The whole paedophile scene in the film comes from the fact that when Chris and I first walked onto the property of his motel, we went up to the playground and talked to kids who ranged from the age of six to about 12. Within seconds he was there with a drill in his hand, saying, "Can I help you boys?" So he had his eagle eye on us from somewhere, probably the security system, the way we worked into the film. We went into his office and he interrogated us until he realised we were legit.
How did you find Moonee?
We found her through local casting. We wanted the kids to all be from the area so they had the accent, but also so that when they went back to their real home at night they could be comfortable. I didn't want to pull Hollywood kids in. We were having trouble finding someone for the lead, and we interviewed hundreds of kids. But in seconds, Brooklyn [Prince, who plays Moonee] won us over. She had the wit and the energy and cuteness. She'd been in a few commercials and an indie. She understands the craft of acting – her performance wasn't edited or manipulated. She was able to cry at the end of the film just by putting herself in the character's situation. We didn't even have to tell her to think of a sad thing in her life. She was always talking about how she wanted to take the real kids from the motels to Disneyland. She came from Winter Park, which is actually a middle class area outside Orlando, so her background is very different – but even at her young age she was wise enough to realise she's blessed in life. She's a wise little prodigy. She's very in touch with her emotions. We don't even let her see the end of the film because she gets so emotional at it.
She has that glassy-eyed way of saying hilarious things from a place of no self-awareness.
I know. We wrote the material and she learnt all the lines, but I'd allow her to go off-page. In the scene with the ice-cream dripping on the floor, for example, the pair perform it word for word, but then Willem goes, "Thank you very much," and she improvises, "You're not welcome!" When she's eating at the end of the film, I'd be feeding her lines from behind the camera and then she'd add to them. I hear it's what Adam McKay does with Will Ferrell, screaming ideas off-camera.
"There are some reviews of this film I've seen where they feel like these stories shouldn't be told at all, which I think is exactly why we made it. I think my films are a response to what I don't see in US cinema. Isn't anybody from any background deserving of a story?"
Did you feel like you had to be sensitive with how you pulled on an audience's emotions due to the subject matter? I can already imagine some people, unaware of the research that's gone into this film, calling it poverty porn.
Of course, in this day and age especially, but my response to that is that I think I know what poverty porn looks like. In those films they'll take a beautiful young A-lister from Hollywood and cast her as the struggling mom – who looks ridiculous, like her hairdresser was there moments before – and you can tell they have the diet of someone with money. What happens often – and this is what I find gross and condescending – is that filmmakers feel they have to sanctify the characters in poverty. They go, "They're angels, they're saints." If you don't show them with any flaws whatsoever, they're no longer human; you're not treating them like humans, or how you would treat yourself onscreen. It makes it impossible for the audience to connect with them too. There are some reviews of this film I've seen where they feel like these stories shouldn't be told at all, which I think is exactly why we made it. I think my films are a response to what I don't see in US cinema. Isn't anybody from any background deserving of a story? There are a lot of contrarians out there now looking for a reason why something shouldn't exist.
And I don't think anyone could leave the film and not want to read up on it.
Exactly. I'm hoping that awareness is brought to this issue. These residents are paying almost as much as we are – I pay $1,200 to live in my apartment in West Hollywood; they're paying $1,000 for a one-bed apartment in a rundown motel. It's a trap. They can't secure permanent housing for many, many reasons; they don't have credit, a guarantor, first month's rent, so they're stuck in a place where they're just trying to keep a roof over their heads and off the streets, but the only way they can do it without affordable housing or going into shelters is to pay $38 a night, which is the lowest you can find, but that adds up to $1,000 a month. You're trying to pay that off with your minimum wage job, and what if you're a single mom or father? It's almost impossible.
I can't remember the last time I found a film so affecting. In the screening I was in, both I and the middle-aged man next to me, were sobbing for the final ten minutes. Is that the response you were hoping for?
Everyone is talking about crying at it, and that's incredible, because I look at the few movies that have made me cry over the years and those are my favourites. Lars Von Trier's The Idiots, for example. I never get teary-eyed on my own sets, but when Brooklyn was delivering that performance I really was.