The Director Of The Year’s Most-Hyped Movie Isn’t Playing Hollywood’s Game

Sean Baker gained renown for shooting his last film completely on an iPhone. Now, people are calling The Florida Project this year’s Moonlight — a little film built on a big and expansive idea.

There’s a near-magical scene toward the end of Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project, when the protagonist — 6-year-old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince — brings a friend into the wilds that edge the strip of budget motels and knockoff gift shops outside of Disney World. They get caught in a rainstorm and huddle beneath a sprawling live oak tree, draped in Spanish moss. In classic Florida rainstorm style, it passes quickly, and the pair emerge into a dripping green world, soaking wet and filled with wonder, to find a herd of cows staring disinterestedly back.

Like the rest of The Florida Project, the scene is filmed with a Steadicam placed on its lowest setting, effectively placing the viewer on the same level as the kids. As a result, we’re immersed in their experience of the world, instead of hovering over it. “We wanted to give the kids more power,” Baker told me over coffee in Seattle. “Whenever we could, we would shoot in a way that would give it to them — that would make them the kings and queens of their domains.”

The scene does nothing to advance the plot, per se; it has no direct narrative bearing on anything else in the film. But it’s a classic Sean Baker moment: the sort of scene that tells you nothing and everything — about a character, about her world — at once. When Baker makes a movie, he often shoots scenes that explicitly tell the story, offering plain exposition as to what’s happened, what’s happening, what’ll happen next — and then replaces them, in postproduction, with scenes that don’t “tell” at all. Instead, they show: what it’s like to experience the simple drudgeries of delivering Chinese food (Take Out, 2004); what it’s like to go about your everyday life when you happen to be a porn star (Starlet, 2012); what it’s like for black trans sex workers to endure harassment and build something like trust (Tangerine, 2015).

Baker’s films are obsessed with the quotidian aspects of making a living in America: the hustle and the pride, the impossibility of escape and the moments of humanity within. With The Florida Project, which focuses on the “invisible homeless” who live week-to-week in that strip of cheap motels, he’s produced a film that manages to perfectly evoke our post-Trump times, even as it refuses to fetishize the white working class.

The Florida Project offers a sort of 21st-century neorealism, and it’s gained Baker, who’s been dutifully making films for over two decades, the first Oscar buzz of his career. In many ways, it feels like a remnant of the glory days of indie film, when movies made for under $2 million could end up on the Best Picture list. But that period ended years before the downfall of its primary architect, Harvey Weinstein. Today, most indie directors are forced onto one of two paths: be content to have your films go straight to VOD or Netflix, or parlay your indie success into a shot at directing a blockbuster, a move that can either make or tank a career.

Baker, working with distributor A24 — think Miramax/Weinstein, but with better taste, more willingness to take risks, and without the culture of harassment — seems to have found a third way through the indie world. The Florida Project isn’t just one of the best, most provocative, and most beautiful films of the year: It’s proof that indie cinema’s resonance in the cultural mainstream didn’t end with Weinstein, and that there’s still room for weird, incredibly filmic narratives that resist basically all Hollywood formulas — and not just on streaming platforms.

Which is why The Florida Project — like Moonlight, another A24 film to which it is frequently compared — doesn’t just feel like a throwback to an earlier time in indie cinema. It feels very much like its future.

The Florida Project follows Moonee and her mother, Halley (played by first-time actor Bria Vinaite, whom Baker found on Instagram), over the course of a long and monotonous summer in a bright purple motel called the Magic Castle. Most of the action centers on Moonee, as she runs around, plays, gets into small and large trouble, eats, exists. Her mother barely makes ends meet; the manager of the hotel (Willem Dafoe) didn’t sign up to serve as landlord to the long-term tenants of his hotel, but he plays a role that in a different, more maudlin movie would be something of a universal father.

The film doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s not maudlin. Instead, it’s a provocative depiction of the realities of postrecession America, highlighting the fragility and necessity of the fantasies that buoy us just above the surface. The uneasiness that comes from the film — that bittersweetness that sticks in your throat — stems from the way Baker communicates something we’ve known, and forced ourselves to forget, about how people live in this country. It’s a slice of life smashed right in your face.

The Florida Project’s uniqueness gives it a fragile feel: It seems impossible that the setting, acting, and directing could all align in a way that manages to make the story feel this right — but also doesn’t condescend to its subjects. That impossibility extends to all of Sean Baker’s films. On paper, they sound gimmicky, even pretentious: a white guy making a movie about two black trans women in LA? That same white guy making a movie about the friendship between a small-time porn star and an elderly lady in the Valley?

If not pretentious, these ideas feel disastrous — or mired in Oscar-baity self-seriousness. Yet Baker’s films are fueled by this baffling alchemy: a mixture of classic film school pretension, a deep appreciation for genre, a devotion to social realism, and a rejection of most of the qualities that make a film “marketable” in contemporary Hollywood.

In person, Baker looks the part of a classic film nerd. When I met him in a Seattle, he wore all black and had the lifelong pale skin of a guy who spends a lot of time in darkened theaters. He spent his late teens and twenties immersed in the film repertory culture of New York, which meant a lot of time watching ponderous black-and-white films indoors. It was a black-and-white film that first alerted him to the power of cinema: When he was 6, Baker’s mom took him to his local library in rural New Jersey to see a compilation of scenes from 1930s Universal Studios monster films.

Baker communicates something we’ve known, and forced ourselves to forget, about how people live in this country.

“They had Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Mummy,” he told me, “but it was Frankenstein that got me — him and the burning windmill! I was just like AHHHHHHH!” Baker said, laughing before composing himself. “The next day, I wanted to make movies.” He went through the clichéd ’80s-movie nerd thing: “I was shooting on Super 8 cameras, you know, Robert Rodriguez–style,” he said, referring to the director whose first film was famously shot, guerilla-style, for $7,000. “Then I shot on VHS cameras and was totally that VHS dude in high school.” His primary influences? Robocop (“I knew [director] Paul Verhoeven was Dutch, but there was just a sensibility there that was not US; that was something from the outside — and he was able to work comedy into action”) and Dawn of the Dead (“I recognized that [George] Romero wasn’t just making a normal horror film”).

Genre is a sneaky tool: It allows you to smuggle social commentary into a film without making it feel like such a didactic bore. That’s why Baker loves fellow awards favorite Get Out — and why his own films can feel like they’re riffs on genre films, even if they look like realism. (Tangerine is, at heart, a mystery; The Florida Project is a 21st-century version of The Little Rascals, a screwball adventure that just happens to star children.)

In high school, Baker knew he wanted to go to a top film school, and his burgeoning obsession with the work of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch — both of whom filmed in New York and, in Lee’s case, taught at NYU — cemented his choice. In New York, Baker made his own film studies curriculum off campus, spending hours at the Anthology Film Archives and the Lincoln Center, watching third- and fourth-generation VHS tapes of foreign films you couldn’t find anywhere back home.

NYU was also where Baker met Chris Bergoch, a fellow student who would become Baker’s regular collaborator and cowriter. When they first met, Baker had yet to develop his art house habit: “Back then, we both wanted to make the next Die Hard,” Bergoch told me, laughing. “But Sean really found his voice and sensibility in New York. He went high art, but I stayed with Spielberg and Disney — and The Florida Project in a particular is a perfect mix of that.”

For all of Baker’s cinephilia, he lacks the snobbiness that usually accompanies it. He’s practical, above all else: If the “kids these days” are watching old and obscure films on YouTube because they can’t find them anywhere else, especially outside of New York, so be it. And if you don’t have enough money to shoot on film, you find the method that works best for you. That’s why he shot in digital for his first few features, and then, in a decision that would help earn a film about trans sex workers exposure it might not have otherwise received, on an iPhone.

Baker has been firm that filming Tangerine with the iPhone 5s was not a stunt. As he told me, if he really wanted to — even on the film’s tight budget of $100,000 — he could’ve found a traditional cinematographer. But when Baker was considering his options for the film, he happened upon a Vimeo video highlighting iPhone filming experiments, and realized that the phone could produce the sort of quality he desired, especially if paired with an anamorphic lens that would let him shoot in wide angle. If you didn’t know that Tangerine was shot on a phone, you’d never guess it.

The streamlined setup also allowed Baker to coax more organic performances out of his actors, the vast majority of whom had never acted for a camera before. “There was always this hump, this one-week hump where the first-time actors have to get used to the fact that there’s a camera in their face,” he told MacWorld in 2015. “In this case, because we’re basically using a communication device that everyone owns … the intimidation factor was off the table from the beginning.”

It was a practical choice, but it also made aesthetic sense. The iPhone allowed Baker to shoot his characters up close, without permits, on Los Angeles streets, and in the Donut Time where much of the city’s trans sex trade was focused. The same principle applies to the casting of The Florida Project: They couldn’t afford to fly in actors, so they cast the children and most of the supporting cast locally. As a result, the characters feel deeply Floridian: They know the cadences of speech, but also the particular gait required in Florida heat; they have the listlessness down, the early crinkles around the eyes from squinting too much into the sun.

Decisions like these link Baker with the neorealist filmmakers of the mid-20th century. Starting in Italy with De Sica, Antonioni, and Fellini, before spreading all over Europe, those directors paired bare-bones production style (shooting on location, with nonactors, with small budgets) with a focus on the everyday realities of post–World War II working-class life.

These films — Bicycle Thieves, most famously, but also the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in Britain, both of whom Baker lists as major influences — ran counter to the narrative logic of Hollywood. Their actors weren’t polished; their plots didn’t follow the three-act structure. But along with films coming out of France, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere, they provided an alternative to the standards of storytelling that had been cauterized by Hollywood. As Baker made his way through the art-film canon in the ’90s, he consumed and internalized all of it: the meandering narrative, the scenes that seem to lead nowhere but linger in unaccountable beauty. He’s famous among his friends, he told me, for always preferring a 10-minute tracking shot in which nothing happens over even a moment of exposition.

That isn’t to say Baker’s films lack narrative, although with The Florida Project in particular, he has avoided the most traditional application of it. “I learned the three-act structure in college, but I didn’t really pay attention,” he said, breaking into a big laugh. “But US audiences and critics, they ask me, ‘Where’s the three-act structure?’ And I’m like, ‘Do you really need one? Do you really?’ I mean it’s there, it’s just disguised — like all the lines have been erased.”

"I learned the three-act structure in college, but I didn't really pay attention."

In practice, this means less exposition and more time spent with characters. In The Florida Project, we watch the characters get ready, we watch them eat, we watch them get bored. We simply watch them being human, instead of watching them figure out a problem and how to fix it, or tracking them through a dramatic (and artificial) rise and fall within 90 minutes. Baker says he wanted his audience to feel “like they’ve spent the summer with these characters. And when has your summer ever been plot-driven?” As Willem Dafoe told me over email, “Baker has definite ideas and strong feeling for structure, but he’s also loose and receptive to the unexpected happening. The way he sets up scenes gives you the flexibility to capture moments you couldn’t plan.”

Like the indelible shot of Dafoe shooing a pair of sandhill cranes, for example, from the hotel parking lot. Or the way the film follows Moonee doing what most of us did during our own childhood summers: run around and get in trouble and eat ice cream. She and her friends get together and spit on a neighbor’s car from the balcony above. She hangs out with her mom, who’s sometimes fun and sometimes not. She gets bored, she makes up songs. She does and does not understand the larger forces impacting her life.

Onscreen, Moonee comes across as a totally realized child, instead of one ventriloquizing a screenwriter’s idea of what a child should be. That’s largely thanks to Brooklynn Prince’s complete lack of self-consciousness onscreen. But it can also be traced to the way Baker lingers in moments that ostensibly do nothing, allowing them to coalesce into a wholly different depiction of poor or working-class America — one that revels in the thrills of childhood but doesn’t blink at the precarity of poverty. Baker also flatly refuses to idealize or beatify his characters: As he told Consequence of Sound, “If you sanctify somebody to that degree, they’re not human. And therefore, the audience will not see them as human, and therefore will not connect with them, and therefore will not embrace them.”

Much of that humanity is found in repetition of daily life: in the way that Halley approaches guest after guest at the Disney resorts nearby, asking, with slightly different upbeat phrases, if they’d like to purchase the boxes of off-brand perfume she buys at a wholesaler. Hustles don’t just happen once; they happen day after day, even when you’re tired, or bored, or hate everyone around you, even when you have to drag your kid around and use her as a prop to get people to take pity on you.

But those moments are never pure drudgery. One of the biggest laughs of the film happens when, midsale, Moonee promises one of the potential marks that if he buys perfume, “women will flirt on you.” Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they’re always somber: Life, no matter how precarious, is spiked with wonders and weirdness.

If Baker had his way, The Florida Project might be composed of endless tracking shots of Moonee running through fields and devouring breakfast foods at Waffle House. But his writing partner, Bergoch, is a stickler for the three-act structure, with clear expectations for what will have happened in each character’s arc by page eight of a script. “It’s very important to him,” Baker told me. “When I try to break away from that, I get resistance — but because he’s over there, pushing for the structure, and I’m over on the 10-minute tracking shot side, we end up somewhere in the middle.”

Bergoch, who also cowrote Starlet and Tangerine, finds the difference in their approaches endlessly generative. “It makes for this explosion of sensibilities,” he told me. “The fact that we both have a vision in our heads that’s really strong, but we’re both really willing to see it from the other point of view… We’re both preprogrammed in one way, but we’re constantly reprogramming each other. That’s the secret. We’re able to make something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.”

"Our goal is to give the audience two plus two — but not tell them that it equals four."

For example: At the end of the film, there’s a gradual realization that things are going to change for Moonee and Halley. But instead of offering a scene in which that change is telegraphed explicitly through conversation, a series of scenes builds the realization obliquely.

It wasn’t originally that way. “We shot scenes, with Child Protection Services, that bordered on stuff you could have seen on CSI or Law and Order,” Baker said. “The actors were doing a wonderful job, and it was beautifully shot by our cinematographer, but it was so unnecessary — it felt like it was part of a different movie.” So Baker and Bergoch cut the exposition.

Baker did something similar with a series of scenes of Moonee in the bathtub, where she played with her toys, in her own world. The film features four such scenes, none of which seem to have an obvious connection to the larger narrative. Only on the last variation does the audience finally realize that each time Moonee’s in the bath — with the door closed and music blaring — her mother has a client in the adjacent motel room.

“People have sent me messages that were like, ‘It was testing my patience,’” Baker told me. “But then, when they figured it out, they reevaluated it.” That anecdote could be extended to Baker’s work at large: At first, you wonder what the hell is going on. Then, you realize that you’ve fallen under the spell of something unexpected and astonishing. “Our goal,” Bergoch explained, “is to give the audience two plus two — but not tell them that it equals four.”

Earlier this year, when Baker was in Japan for a film festival, director Sion Sono told him that he had two options as an indie director: the Eastwood route or the Kubrick route. Clint Eastwood, even at his advanced age, is known for churning out films: He’s a no-nonsense director who often shoots just one take of a scene and calls it good enough. Stanley Kubrick, by contrast, was precious, exacting (especially on actors), and cared little for the demands of Hollywood; he took years to finish a film. Baker doesn’t think he’s a Kubrick, but he also knows he couldn’t direct like Eastwood. Each of his films takes three years: a year of research, a year of filming and postproduction, a year of promotion. Unlike many of his filmmaker friends — the Safdie brothers, Barry Jenkins — he’s a disaster when it comes to artistic multitasking.

Baker knows there’s very little space in contemporary Hollywood for directors like him. If The Florida Project had debuted 30 years ago, there is little doubt that Harvey Weinstein would have been the distributor to bid on it. (“The other day, my producer was telling me how happy he was that I never had to work for him,” Baker says.) Weinstein also would’ve most likely pulled a “Harvey Scissorhands” and edited the film, as he edited countless others, to fit his understanding of how an indie film could resonate with Oscar voters and mainstream audiences.

Sean Baker knows there's very little space in contemporary Hollywood for directors like him.

Weinstein’s voraciousness — his spending, his dominance, his subsequent move into production, his Oscar campaigns, and his power plays, which, as has only recently become public knowledge, held many women hostage — helped make his company the behemoth of the 1990s and 2000s indie film industry. But it also helped lay the groundwork for that industry’s demise. To emulate Weinstein’s success, mainstream studios either acquired or developed their own indie development subsidiaries (Focus, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Sony Pictures Classic, Warner Independent). Bidding wars at film festivals escalated; films projected as Oscar favorites fell flat. The market inflated itself and then eventually popped, leaving studios unwilling to take risks on films that had no insurance — like a beloved superhero, or a massive star — to sell them both at home and overseas.

By 2010, two of the big studio indie subsidiaries had shuttered; production at the remaining three had greatly diminished. “Micro budget” genre films could still turn into surprise monster hits (think Paranormal Activity), but most indie films ended up in VOD purgatory. Some made a decent sum, while others shuffled through Netflix queues. In the years since, the new production studios of the streaming age have entered the film distribution game; in 2016, Amazon made a splashy $10 million deal for Manchester by the Sea, promising a theatrical run and an awards campaign that, a year later, yielded six Oscar nominations. Still, the space for movies like Baker’s — which aren’t just indie films, but art house indie films, refusing Hollywood’s usual standards for narrative or aesthetics — remains small.

“If I want to keep making features, the way forward is to keep leaning more and more into the festival/art house crowd,” Baker said. “I have to keep making stuff that can’t be offered to people in television, to Netflix. It has to be very cinematic.” It has to demand, in other words, to be seen in a movie theater.

Unlike some other indie directors, Baker has no plans to transition to blockbusters. He’s not a big enough fan of Star Wars; he didn’t read comic books, apart from six months of The Incredible Hulk in sixth grade. He doesn’t even want to make a film with a budget over $12 million, the price point at which studios start wresting away final cut from directors. Baker understands that to keep making the movies he wants to make — and making them the way he wants to — he has to establish himself as a brand: as an auteur.

But he’s also cognizant of the pitfalls of auteurism, which elides the myriad artists who contribute to a finished film. That includes the actors, of course, but also people like cinematographer Alexis Zabe and Bergoch, who, in addition to writing with Baker, also produced their last two films. Bergoch’s Spielbergian influences are indelible to The Florida Project, especially the way it conceives of children and the way they interact with the world. Baker, in other words, is by no means the single genius behind any of his works of art.

Baker understands auteurism’s practical value. “It’s a marketing idea,” he told me. “It’s a way of moving forward.” But that doesn’t mean that he and Bergoch will start packing their films with well-known stars. Back when they were casting Tangerine, they could have started “adding names,” as Baker put it, “just for the sake of adding names — so that the distributor can sell the film to every territory around the world.” Instead, they chose to work with a largely unknown cast, including many first-time actors.

But then Dafoe saw Tangerine and heard Baker and Bergoch were casting for a new film. “I got my hands on the beautiful screenplay for The Florida Project,” Dafoe told me. “It introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed — a world I wanted to inhabit. I met with Sean in New York, and was excited we would be shooting in an operating motel, mixing actors with nontraditional casting.”

That’s a mix that Baker wants to maintain moving forward. He remains wary of, say, casting someone like Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Halley. He loves unknown faces in films, especially in terms of how they allow you to be drawn into the newness of a character. There’s also the issue of a known star “putting on” the markers of class as she would makeup. “When you see a celebrity that you know lives in Bel-Air who, onscreen, is resorting to sex work for her child, it feels like it’s actually going for titillation,” he said.

“That’s why I was so resistant to casting Halley with a big name,” Baker continued. “Something was telling me inside that we were really gonna fail with it.” Instead, they cast Vinaite and paid for her to have an acting coach on set. It worked: Vinaite’s Halley is the live wire that pulses through the core of the film.

It’s not a matter of names, in other words, so much as fit. Every decision — aesthetic or otherwise — is made not because it’s cool, or because it’ll sell the movie, but because it actually makes the story better. That’s why they shot The Florida Project on 35 mm film, with the cameras trained at a child’s level, and opted to color correct it in a way that makes everything pop ever so slightly: Together, those decisions place the audience back in the mindset of a 6-year-old child, when the world feels at once bright and loud, but also classic and eternal, like it’s always been that way, and always will be. That might not sound like a traditional understanding of realism, but it’s Baker’s brand of it — one in which the world is refracted through our characters’ experience of it.

Given The Florida Project’s setting and content, there will almost certainly be conversations, come Oscar time, about the film’s depiction of poverty, and the working poor, and what it means to live in Trump’s America. Baker isn’t bothered by this possibility, but he’s also quick to point out that the film was first conceptualized back in 2010, pre-Tangerine, when Bergoch first became aware of the “invisible homeless” problem while visiting his mom in Orlando. As he put it to me, “There was something so striking about the kids living in these places outside the shadow of the Cinderella Castle.”

But the pair didn’t have the resources to make a “big” movie on location in Florida, and shelved the idea. Only after the success of Tangerine were they able to return to it, facilitated by a grant from Cinereach that allowed them to go visit the area and start having the conversations that would lead them into a potential narrative. Ten years after the economic downturn, little has changed for the people who live in these motels. They might not be technically homeless, but they can’t put down a security deposit or accumulate credit in order to move.

Baker's films refuse both the mythology of the American dream and the antiseptic qualities that so often accompany it.

It’s the perfect story to set on the edges of Orlando, where the budget hotels offer a thinly mocked-up version of Disney World, which is itself a simulacrum of the American dream. All of the promise, so little of the reality. The businesses along the strip might be painted in bright colors, “but if you go behind that one layer of paint,” Baker says, “there’s just all this decay.” That’s a metaphor, in many ways, for the film, which takes its name from Walt Disney’s original plan for Orlando, including the town of Celebration, a “master planned” community planted just miles away from where The Florida Project takes place. People want to visit that myth, and are horrified when they find themselves amid the wages of it.

Baker’s films refuse both the mythology of the American dream and the antiseptic qualities that so often accompany it. They do not suggest that the world has fundamentally fallen, but neither do they proclaim the existence of saints who will save the innocent from its decay. In Baker’s world there are no good people and bad people, no clear right and wrong. There are little rascals and big ones, some decisions that sink us deeper into holes and some that buoy us, some problems that are invisible and others that we hide. Change comes slow, or very suddenly, or not at all.

That’s a difficult idea — especially for movie audiences accustomed, as we are, not only to the three-act structure, but a satisfying conclusion to it. But that lack of clarity, of heroes and villains, is part of what makes the inhabitants of Baker’s films feel less like characters and more like, well, people. And that, Baker says, is what allows an audience to experience true empathy: the result of an incredibly human approach to telling the stories of those who might not live or act or think like us.

Empathy is the essential, revelatory core of Baker’s work. It’s not the typical, tear-wrenching stuff of Oscar bait — that’s sympathy. Nor is it the stuff of blockbusters, or franchises, or superheroes. Call it a different way, call it the third way, call it a way forward — but Baker’s going to keep following it. ●

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