Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto
Director: Sean Baker
Running Time: 115 minutes
Synopsis: The Florida Project is the story of precocious six year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her ragtag group of friends whose summer break is filled with childhood wonder, possibility and a sense of adventure. Living at a motel in the shadow of Disney World, Moonee is seemingly oblivious to the struggles of adults around her, including mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and motel manager/father-figure Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A vibrant yet heartbreaking portrait of life on the fringe, the film garnered critical acclaim at both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals.
The Florida Project
Release Date: October 6th, 2017
'A modern day Our Gang. This is how I like to describe The Florida Project," says CoWriter/Director Sean Baker. 'Our Gang aka The Little Rascals " The Hal Roach-produced comedy shorts of the -20s and -30s, essentially focused on children who lived in poverty during the Great Depression. But their economic state was the backdrop. The children's humorous adventures were the focus."
While Co-Writer/Producer Chris Bergoch was helping his mother relocate to Central Florida, he often travelled back and forth on Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, also known as US Highway 192, one of the main arteries leading to the throbbing heart of the Florida economy that is Walt Disney World. He soon became aware of some of the less-than-magical living conditions right on the outskirts of Disney's doorstep. He was taken aback to learn that many of the motels he was passing did not contain tourists, but families.
Motels line the road on both sides of the strip, many of them exploiting the Disney mystique - infused with such motifs as pirates and castles. A decade ago they were filled with tourists. The remnants of those days still stand, like the establishments that charge 35 dollars for a helicopter ride and the souvenir shops where many bootleg T-shirts capitalize on the latest popular princesses.
Bergoch recalls, 'I remember it was back in 2011, I was on my way to EPCOT when I told Sean about this... about these children I saw playing on the side of the busy highway minutes from the theme parks… we never could get it out of our minds. We drafted up an outline in early 2012 to shop the idea around and try to find financing. Then production on Starlet became a reality and set us off from Florida to the San Fernando Valley. Every time I returned to Orlando, I'd pass the motels and the idea never went away. The situation only grew and the idea to tell a story against this backdrop did as well."
Starlet led to Tangerine, and once production was completed in 2014, Baker and Bergoch would occasionally revisit the original outline. Says Baker, 'We'd dissect it, rearrange scenes, we scrapped the original ending, but we always knew we wanted to tell a story from a child's point of view." Bergoch adds, '...and how, despite not being able to afford a ticket to the nearby theme parks, that young character could still find her own fun and adventure."
As with all their collaborations, research was key. Baker and Bergoch immersed themselves into the heart of Kissimmee, FL, taking multiple research trips to the area over the course of three years, staying in some of the motels on US 192. Baker explains, 'We always begin these films in the same way, by asking folks from the community if they are interested in becoming involved, and in this case, if they had interest in sharing stories about their lives while living in the motels."
The dream of bringing The Florida Project to the screen took a giant step closer to reality when financiers June Pictures came onto the project in early 2016. 'Andrew Duncan and Alex Saks of June Pictures gave me full creative freedom and supported me in every way. I'm so happy this partnership came to be," says Baker.
'It was in January of '16 that we first heard the premise of Sean's new film project, which was simultaneous to the cementing of June Pictures," says Andrew Duncan and Alex Saks of June Pictures.
'We had been discussing the values of our new company and we both agreed that our priority was to support and nurture filmmakers who tell diverse and important stories. We'd been working on a documentary project called Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower about an amazing young man named Joshua Wong who was standing up for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. We were proud that through the documentary we were able to bring attention to social and political injustice around the world, and after speaking to Sean, we realized the opportunity with this film to do that in America. Sean is a unique and gifted storyteller who creates worlds on screen that live and breathe the same way those worlds do in real life. His characters and their universes are powerful, gritty, and honest. He creates art that challenges us--making us look at our humanity and further understanding the world around us. It's been an incredible experience working with Sean and supporting his vision on The Florida Project."
With Spring 2016 passing by, financing in place and a summer production start date looming closer and closer, the team began actively searching for their lead actors. Florida native Brooklynn Prince responded to a local ad and nailed the lead role of 'Moonee".
'I'm incredibly grateful that Brooklynn Kimberly Prince auditioned for The Florda Project. She not only embodied Moonee, she elevated the character from what was on the page. She is simply one of the greatest actors, of any age, that I've ever encountered," Baker praises. Bergoch adds, 'The second she walked into the room, I remember glancing to my side at Sean and Shih-Ching (Tsou)… they had the same amazed look in their eyes. Brooklynn WAS the exact same Moonee we saw in our heads for years, coming to life right before our eyes."
Her co-star, newcomer Valeria Cotto, is an example of the unconventional casting process Baker employs. 'There is always some degree of street casting in my films and the discovery I'm most proud of on this film is Valeria Cotto. I saw her and her mother in a Kissimmee Target Store one evening. Valeria caught my eye because of her vibrant red hair. I gave her mother my card and prayed that she'd call me to have her daughter audition." says Baker. She did and Valeria landed the role of Moonee's best friend Jancey.
While Baker, Bergoch and fellow producers Shih-Ching Tsou and Kevin Chinoy held auditions for children from all over central Florida, Christopher Rivera came in to audition while living with his family at one of the motels on Route 192 and filled out the final lead child, Moonee's sidekick Scooty.
Just as he did with Tangerine, where he cast from various social media platforms such as Vine, Baker turned to Instagram late in the casting process. It was there that Bria Vinaite caught his attention.
'There was something very different that set Bria apart from the thousands of other Instagrammers. She didn't take herself seriously. Hyper, carefree and extremely funny " all the same traits we had in mind for the character of Halley. She flew to Florida to meet the children we had just cast. We improvised some scenes and, by the end of the weekend, I was confident she could bring something unique and fresh to what we envisioned for the character."
'When I read the script for the first time, I cried. I felt such a connection to Halley," Bria reveals. 'It was such a beautiful experience to bring her to life. I learned so much from the entire experience and a part of Halley will always live inside me!"
Finally, there was the casting of Bobby, The Magic Castle Motel manager and a reluctant guardian of the motel's residents. 'I am incredibly lucky and honoured to have worked with Willem. Not only did he give an amazing performance but he was willing to experiment and help find the character. Many of his scenes are with first-time actors and non-professionals and he succeeded in blending in with fresh faces, yet still grounding the moments with his command of the art," Baker says.
To achieve the film's vibrant look, Baker asked the multiple award-winning cinematographer Alexis Zabé to lens The Florida Project. Zabé describes the aesthetic simply as "blueberry ice cream with a sour twist".
Baker hopes that his newest film will engage audiences through humour, colourful personas and nostalgia -- 'I want viewers to laugh with, love and embrace these characters so much that they will go home, jump online and research how many U.S. families and children are growing up in motels across the country. That would be a truly magical thing."
The Florida Project
Release Date: October 6th, 2017