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story.lead_photo.caption Sean Baker directed The Florida Project.

It might seem like filmmaker Sean Baker burst from nowhere when his previous film, Tangerine, screened to an adoring audience at Sundance back in 2015. The film, about a transgender sex worker and her friend searching for her pimp, became notable for several things, including the infectious energy of the filmmaking, but primarily, the main talking point was that it was shot entirely on a handful of iPhones, the 5s models.

In truth, the 46-year-old director has been making films since 2000's Four Letter Words, and the film that finally became his calling card was actually his fifth feature. With the release of his wonderful new film, The Florida Project -- notably shot using 35mm cameras -- about a cadre of young kids romping around a pair of seedy motels in the shadow of Disney Land largely unsupervised, under the foot of a kindly super named Bobby (Willem Dafoe), Baker has an opportunity for even greater success.

He met with me during the Philadelphia Film Festival, about to hit the red carpet, and filled with a kind of effervescent energy, despite the fact that he has been on a PR push for the film since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September without a single day off. We spoke about childhood, wraparound sunglasses, and the best way to find local, nonprofessional child actors.

The film is set in the shadows of Disney World, just outside the pearly gates, as it were. How did that affect the energy of the production? The kids must have responded to that kind of vibe.

There is a buzz always there because it's targeting the tourists that go to the park. There has to be a celebration in the air and excitement in the air. Route 192 is like that. Even though it's blighted right now because of the recession and everything, it still has that sort of poppy thing going on. I'm drawn to characters that have energy. The film is about the kids. It's about seeing the world through their perspective. It's never a POV shot, but it's kind of like putting the audience on their level. That's why I felt like the more that we were with the adults, the less it was about the story we were trying to tell.

This is true of every movie ever made, but it seems as if casting was absolutely crucial for this to work. First off, how did Willem Dafoe become attached?

The traditional way: Basically, we had a casting director on from Hollywood, this Carmen Cuba. She does a lot of big films. Willem's name came across the table along with other names. The character of Bobby, we were very much open to him being between the ages of 35 and 60. Most of the managers that we met fell within that age range. When Willem's name came across the table, I thought, "Oh, OK. If he's serious about wanting to be in this, that's amazing." I adore him as an actor. He's transformative. I met him, and I explained how we were going to do it. I could see that he was a team player and that he wanted to blend in. He wanted to take the time to understand the world and the environment and the politics. He came in a week early from when we needed him. He was just like meeting the motel managers, absorbing the environment. Got his spray tan on. Came to the set with a list of accessories: That's him, the wraparound glasses. That was his idea.

It's really interesting to see him up there as the kindly, moral center of the film, always looking out for the kids. It seems like the kind of role he doesn't get to do very much.

Yeah, well, I guess there's Mississippi Burning and Platoon. Those are the two biggies. Right? Platoon is the big one for me because he's almost like the Christ character that gets ... and he's played Christ [in The Last Temptation of Christ]! I keep forgetting about that one.

That's true, but he so often has a kind of twisty energy to him, even when he's a benevolent character, it adds a certain kind of tension to his scenes because you don't know at first if you can trust him or not.

Every day, Christopher Rivera, who plays Scooty, would be like, "I get to work with Green Goblin today." That's how they saw him.

Even with him on board, you still had to cast a bunch of very young kids, and I think you really knocked it out of the park there.

Thanks, they are all very special. Aiden [Malik], who plays Dicky, and Brooklynn [Prince] came with prior experience. They both had commercials and maybe an indie or two under their belt. They were in the Orlando casting company's database. We just saw them as part of a casting call. We're just looking for personas, so no previous experience is needed. That's how we found Christopher. Then, I also do my own street casting. I'm very much involved with that. I'm always on the lookout. I was spending a lot of time in Wal-Mart and in Target. I went to Target one night not expecting to find anybody. I was just getting milk or something. There, all of a sudden, was Valeria [Cotto] with her red hair. I just went up to her mother, and I gave her my card. I said, "We're doing a casting call." That worked out. All the kids were local. I wanted them to be local because I didn't want to fly in a Hollywood kid, number one. That comes with a lot of baggage. Also, I wanted the kids' accents to be right, even though their parents may not have grown up in this area. We were meeting a lot of kids who had spent their entire lives on Route 192. We wanted those accents to be [right]. Also, I wanted the kids to be comfortable at night and go home and be relaxed in their own homes.

It's interesting the age you chose for the kids: They are right at that point before their self-awareness would maybe start to inform them about the dire nature of their circumstances. They see the whole thing as a giant, unsupervised playground.

I wanted to make it that age where also there's the cuteness factor and the funny factor because we are doing "Little Rascals." It's that age where you're not quite sure, and it's really subjective. You have to talk to a child psychologist about this, but exactly how much they're absorbing and how much they are aware of what's happening. We were playing with that. There was a balance of how much we were showing the audience because we were putting the audience in the place of the kids in a way, like the childhood perspective of this summer here at this motel. Exactly how much they would be aware of what was happening was always a play.

You open the film with a scene where the kids really run wild and do a pretty lousy thing to a young kid and her mother, and it's hard not to see that and feel very judgmental about the parents who are letting their kids do such things. But then, you go on to show us a much more fair and nuanced way to view the situation. Was it your intention to rile up the audience at first and then dissuade them of their judgments?

Yes. Also, not to make these kids, or anybody else in the entire film, saintly. You do that and suddenly they're not human anymore. Then, it removes that connection that you'll get with the audience. I can't speak for everybody, but my hope is that the audience, even though they think they'll be put off by these kids acting like this, actually helps connect with them faster and deeper. We think about all those times when we were young and we were mischievous when we were getting away with stuff that our parents didn't know about. There's always contrast. This whole movie is about juxtapositions and contrast. Even though they're doing something that's obviously not acceptable and naughty and whatever, it's still not mean-spirited. These kids are not mean-spirited. Probably the behavior of teenagers or older, maybe even their mom, are rubbing off on them a bit. It never comes from a mean-spirited place. It comes from a place, if anything, of just having fun.

Moonee's mother, Halley [played by Bria Vinaite], becomes a really problematic character: On the one hand, she's fun and saucy, and really has a bond with her kid; on the other, we grow to find out, she's making terrible decisions that really put her child in danger.

She's a kid herself. If you think about it, she probably had Moonee when she was 15. She was a kid having a kid. She never had the chance to grow up. She hasn't had a formal education. She probably didn't have any parental support because you can see her parents aren't around. We wanted to show that. Even though you obviously won't agree with her parenting skills, it's interesting to see the way audiences are reacting. It shows more about the person watching it. I've heard audience members coming out saying, "Thank God DCF [Department of Children and Families] showed up and got that child out of her hands." Then you have another, "Worst mom ever." Then you have the extreme on the other side saying, "That mother's love shows. Yes, she was too young. She's obviously misguided, but I wish my mother's love was that strong for me." I've actually heard that.

You made it impossible for us to comfortably write her off as a victim of her own bad choices.

She has no safety net. She literally is in survival mode. She's unemployable. She can't even receive government services anymore. Everything is just in a place where she's in 100 percent survival mode. The decisions that she's making comes from that. At least, if you can empathize on that level, that's all I'm asking for an audience. I'm not asking for the judgment call.

MovieStyle on 12/15/2017

Print Headline: Project's director covers childhood

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