An interview with “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker

Story by Beatrice Irwin

photo from “The Florida Project”

When I first went to see “The Florida Project,” directed by Sean Baker, I was so excited that I coordinated my outfit to match the color scheme of the movie from the stills I had seen. My expectations were high, and the movie flew above them with lavender-hued strength.

The movie is set in Orlando, Florida and centers around a six-year-old girl, Moonee, her friends, and her mother Halley living in a purple palace-themed motel trying to make ends meet while growing up, the tumultuousness of childhood framed by a reality many face, but few are aware of. After the film, I could not stop thinking about those kids and a childhood in a climate like the one in the movie. His other movies, such as the award-winning “Tangerine,” about transgender sex workers of color in LA’s red-light district, also centers around a unique community; it’s funny, sad, moving, and most of all, if you aren’t like the women in the movie, it’s a big step in the right direction to understanding them.

Sean Baker was born in New Jersey and went on to get a B.A. in film studies from NYU. His first film was called “Four Letter Words,” about young men in in the suburbs. He later went on to make award-winning movies with this same scope of submerging in on one particular community. He does not live in a hotel outside Disney World, nor does he have much in common on a surface level with the amazing women of “Tangerine,” yet his movies have created a prominent voice for the people in these films. I spoke to Baker on the phone about representation and its many facets, and why he chooses to showcase these narratives, ones outside of his circle.

So there’s the old saying of ‘write what you know’ and with a lot of your movies, especially in “The Florida Project,” “Takeout,” and “Tangerine” you tell stories outside of a community you’re familiar with. What made you decide to stray further from what you know in making films.

Well I think there are several reasons. It comes from pure interest, it comes from pure wanting to look outside of myself because I want to know more about the world we live in and I think telling universal stories that might be set inside a certain subculture or microcosm that we don’t normally see on the screen on film and television can only help the world, because what it can do is show us the universality in all of us, the common thread that makes us all human, so it stems from that it really stems from that. These are usually communities or subcultures that I had contact with and then I decided to, you know, figure out how to tell universal stories, so yeah, hopefully I answered that question.

No, yeah, that was great. Thank you. So to kind of create these vivd narratives the person who’s making them has to have some  sort of connection to the story, so how did you kind of kind and create that connection, when you’re by nature removed from the community it’s focused on, if that makes sense.

Well usually the stories don’t come until there’s been time spent in that community. So usually the story comes from, I guess you’d call it the research process or just the immersion process. Sometimes it just comes to me after spending a long enough amount of time there when I feel comfortable writing a, you know, a fictional story that takes place in that world. Then I have to run it by the people I’m working with to see if it works. A good example is “Prince of Broadway,” because “Prince of Broadway,” for a very long time, Prince Adu and all his friends and I and Victoria Tate who was actually doing a lot of the research with me, she didn’t end up being one of the actors in the film, but we spent basically interviewing these guys [from this community] a lot to see and try and come up with a story and we heard a ton of different stories that provided us with detail, but nothing was really hitting home for us in terms of a narrative and then one night, I don’t know when it was, in the middle of the night, I got this image of one of these hustlers out in the middle of wintry New York having to hustle while having an infant. So that was an image that I then said “Huh, that would be definitely a plot, a hustler having to deal with a child that may or may not be his and then I passed it by Prince and I passed it by the others and one of the first things that Prince said was “Oh yeah that happened to a friend of mind, that happens in this community.” Then there was how did it happen and fishing for more details and it comes about once you spend enough time there, then I guess you’re able to pull stories out of your head that will fit in the community. The same thing happened with “Florida [Project]” and we were writing this character Halley for a very long time without really having met any real life Halley’s, she was an amalgamation of many different people. There was no one who directly inspired that character. And then about two weeks out in shooting we met someone we considered the real-life Halley and her story was uncanny how close to the script her real story was. Then we looked back and said “Huh, we really got there.” First off, it validated us because we’d spent enough time in the community to be able to write a character and then now we see someone that might be very parallel. I think it made me think we did our jobs. We spent enough time in the community to write a character that is authentic.

Yeah, yeah, definitely. So as an artist what kind of responsibilities do you think people who tell stories that aren’t theirs have in sharing these perspectives?

It comes down to ultimate responsibility. The way I think about it is that you are never going to be the voice because that would be incredibly disrespectful, but if you have a platform to amplify a voice—that’s the way you do it. Go in, and I feel, it would be very disrespectful to in any way be posing any sort of script or plot. I think you need to hear from the community what type of stories they want told, and your job is to make it amplified. Now, you are a dramatist, you are a screenwriter, you are fictionalizing the world, you have to be very careful. There’s a fine line in how you represent. You go one degree too much in either direction and you run the risk of being overall disrespectful. I’m being a little long-winded there but I think it’s an incredible responsibility because these are under-represented communities, so if their representation out there is inaccurate or disrespectful or condescending you’ve done a terrible thing. So I see it as a great responsibility actually.

What would be your advice for people creating any kind of art that emphasizes voices that are not their own and speaking with them and not over them?

Definitely collaboration. Definitely taking the time, making sure that you have whatever your principle process is that can play itself out in different ways. For me, I pass the script by people in the real community to see if they approve and go through that approval process. Approval in post-production was something that was important to me. It’s about spending the time and it’s about knowing that you’re not being the voice. Making sure that the representation is, you’re never going to please everybody, but you have to be secure and you have to be confident that you’re doing the right thing.You have to say this: What would you like if somebody came to you from the outside of your circle and your social class circle or racial circle or gender circle and this person said ‘I want to tell a story that takes place in your world.’ How would you want to them to go about doing it? You have to apply that same courtesy to the people you’re working with.