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“[The Little Rascals] were basically comic shorts set against the Great Depression. Most of the characters in The Little Rascals were actually living in poverty, but the focus was the joy of childhood, and the humor that comes from watching and hearing children.”
Writer/director Sean Baker
The Hollywood Reporter

After watching The Florida Project on Friday I understood why critics championed the film and expect it to be remembered at Oscar time. I also understand why some people walked out of theaters before the movie was over.

Sean Baker is a bold filmmaker and The Florida Project is an unflinching, non-sugarcoated look at a marginalized group of people–that’s somehow also filled with humor. I could write about this film and its ramifications for a month. I don’t think I have the time to do the research necessary for that so I’ll just start with this post on the roots of the film, and what I think are some movies that are related to The Florida Project. 

I’ll start with a quote from Baker himself (who co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch;

Well, I’ve always been a fan of The Little Rascals and Our Gang, which I grew up watching on local television. They’ve influenced pretty much every film I’ve made. Not Four Letter Words and Take Out, but Prince of Broadway, definitely, and Starlet and Tangerine. They’re really some of the best comic shorts that I’ve ever seen, and they still hold up. And then, my co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, brought me this topic of families living in budget motels outside of the parks down in Kissimmee and Orlando, Florida.

His mother happened to live in Orlando, and he himself is Disney obsessed. These motels are the last step before homelessness for families who aren’t able to get a lease and can no longer rent for multiple reasons. They have to pay week to week, sometimes night to night, at these budget motels. It’s actually a nationwide phenomenon, but, obviously, there is also an irony with little children living outside of what’s considered the most magical place on earth for children. So, it seemed ripe.”
Sean Baker
Filmmaker Magazine

I’m guessing that Baker meant the Hal Roach version of The Little Rascals/Our Gang  which ran from 1922 to 1944 featuring poor kids navigating life as best they could.

I don’t know what articles Baker and Bergoch read on homeless families in Central Florida, but journalism tends to take a ground up approach. A small newspaper spotlights an issue and it brings attention to a larger regional newspaper (like the Orlando Sentinel) and then local TV reporters may pick up on the trend. That’s when it gets on the radar of national newspapers, magazine, and TV programs. Back in 2010 and 2011 both HBO and 60 Minutes reported on family homelessness in the shadow of Disney theme parks. (One outside Disneyland in California and the other on the outskirts of Disney World in Florida.)

That’s how creativity works. A filmmaker takes in all of these influences going on in culture and mixes them with films that resonate with them and they come up with something similar, but different.

There is an echo in the book Driftless (2007) by photographer Danny Wilcox Fraizer. (Which is an echo of the gritty work done by legendary photographers Dorothea Lange and Arnold Newman.) And toss in Photographer Gordon Parks as well.

Driftless-cover

Gordon Parks

Now I don’t know what films influenced Baker, but three films I feel are connected to The Florida Project are:

Paper Moon (In which Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar.) 

Life is Beautiful (The Oscar-winning film about trying to make the best of a horrible situation.)

City of God

And even scenes from as ecelectic mix of Precious, Straight Out of Compton, and Stand By Me come to mind.

More in the coming days…

P.S. After I wrote this post I came across a video that features some of Arnold Newman’s photos from early in his career that he shot in West Palm Beach. The extreme wealth of the Kennedy family and Donald Trump associated with Palm Beach is a world away from West Palm Beach when Newman was talking photos back in the 1940s. I met Newman at the Maine Workshops 15+ years ago and he told me the local police threaten to arrest him if he didn’t leave the black section of West Palm Beach were he was talking photos. Photos he took in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and West Palm Beach are featured in the book Arnold Newman: The Early Work.

Scott W. Smith

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“I want to tell everyone reading this they have the means to shoot a feature film in their pocket”
Writer/director Sean Baker 
(Baker only shot one scene of The Florida Project with a cell phone—the rest in 35mm— but his entire feature Tangerine was shot on a couple of iPhones 5s with the FilMiC Pro app)

Yesterday I wrote a post about going to a spring training game in Kissimmee (in the greater Orlando area). Yesterday I also had to make an unplanned trip to Kissimmee for a root canal. And today I’m going to see The Florida Project which as shot in Kissimmee.

The Florida Project borrows it’s name from what Walt Disney World was referred to in its early stages.  While people around the world generally associate Disney World with Orlando, the mailing address for Disney World is Lake Buena Vista, and all four of the theme parks are located in Bay Lakes.

But the major spillover city of Disney World is Kissimmee. The former small rural, cattle town is now a tourist area mixing with a sprawling community that’s now 58% Hispanic. It is possible to fly into Orlando and drive to Disney World and have a fantasy vacation without seeing Kissimmee.

But if you want to stay at a cheaper hotel, eat a cheaper restaurants, or experience some cheaper tourist attractions you might end up in Kissimmee. The range of things to do in Kissimmee ranges from tacky touristy to stunning nature beauty. And Kissimmee is where a lot of people work in the Magic Kingdom call home.

And since the majority of jobs at Disney World are service jobs paying in the $8-12 an hour range, where some people call home is a cheap hotel. (Read the Orlando Sentinel article, Magic Kingdom brings joy, if not riches, for long time Disney employee.)  Homelessness is an issue in Central Florida. And not just the living in the woods or or an underpass variety, but families living out of cars and vans.

That is the world that writer/director Sean Baker (and co-writer Chris Bergoch) chose to explore in The Florida Project. Specifically kids that live in a hotel in Kissimmee.  It’s the kind of off the beaten path kind of film that the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places blog has championed for 10 years now.

Go see this movie. (It opens today in 187 cities.)  Then use your voice (and your cell phone if you have to) to tell the stories waiting to be told in your own backyard.

P.S. When President Obama was in the White House one of his spiritual advisors was Joel Hunter who was then the pastor of Northland Church in the Orlando area. Hunter recently become the founder and chairman of Community Resource Network in central Florida whose vision “sees a future where homelessness is eliminated through the collaborative effort and collective resources of government, business, nonprofit, and the faith community.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Producers and directors buy a property because they like the story. Actors buy it because they see them­selves in a part. ”
Jerry Lewis in The Total Film-Maker
From the post Writing Actor Bait

Mark Twain’s one of my favorite writers from the South. [My character in American Made is a] kind of southern rascal, Huckleberry Finn kind of character in modern day. And also the fact that, the kind of flying that you could have in the 80s, that kind of adventure, those kind of escapades – that was it. You’ll never have that time period again, so these kind of cowboys were very unique. And also one of my favorite films, which was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is based on a true story but had also that kind of you know – it’s a very layered film. It’s very humorous, but it’s also about American history.”
Actor Tom Cruise on what attracted him to the Gary Spinelli screenplay
ScreenRant interview with Alex Leadbeater  @ADLeadbeater

P.S. I grew up in Florida in the 70s, went to college in Miami in the early 80s and especially enjoy the Scarface to Cocaine Cowboys retelling of stories from that era. American Made puts its own topspin on the “same thing, only different” school of Hollywood filmmaking and I enjoyed the ride. Nice touch by director Doug Liman and editing crew for adding Linda Ronstadt’s 1977 version of Blue Bayou to the American Made soundtrack.

P.P.S. Speaking of American made, in this 2010 post I mentioned that Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and George Cooney all lived in Kentucky at one point in the late 60s or early 70s. You can add Harry Dean Stanton, Jennifer Lawrence, and The Father of Film to the list from the Bluegrass State. Oh, and actress Sarah Wright, who plays Tom Cruise’s wife in American Made—she’s from Kentucky, too.

Related Posts:
Mark Twain’s Florida
Cocaine Cowboys and the Future of Film
Complex Stories/Simple Characters
Writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Thanks for the Plug TomCruise.com

Scott W. Smith

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Sam Shepard on a Farm in Iowa

“I almost died once…I almost died the first time I saw your mom.”
Sam Sheperd’s character Gil talking about Jewell (Jessica Lange) in Country

“This movie observes ordinary American lives carefully, and passionately. The family lives on a farm in Iowa. Times are hard, and times are now.”
Roger Ebert 1984 film review of the movie County

country-movie-poster-1984-1020209539

While Sam Shepard never married actress Jessica Lange the two did have a long term relationship that produced two kids. And they made some movies together including Country (1984) that was shot in the greater Cedar Falls/Waterloo area in Blackhawk County were I lived for a decade.

According to a People magazine article Shepard even proposed to Lange while they were on location in Iowa.

“I swept her outside into the cold wind & snow & popped the question. We jumped up & down together like little kids, giggling in the snow.”
Sam Shepard on proposing to Jessica Lange

Though the couple were together from 1982 they split up in 2009. In various interviews Shepard spoke of regrets in relationships. Life can be hard—just like life in the movies. In the movie Country the real world and the fiction world overlapped.

Scott W. Smith

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[Movies] have an obligation to be sort of timeless. A good story is a good story, it doesn’t change. The Searchers is still The Searchers. It’s A Wonderful Life is still charming, Dirty Harry is still suspenseful, Jaws is still terrifying. These are movies that are prime, pristine examples of storytelling. The Exorcist is as compelling today and is absolutely frightening as it was when it was first released. It didn’t age. I took a friend of mine to see it recently, it scared her out of her wits.”
Writer/Director Shane Black
Interview with Alex Young

Related post: Study the Masters-Martin Scorsese 

Scott W. Smith

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Today I’m going to the premiere of the doc This Cold Life at the Florida Film Festival. It will be anything but cold today in Maitland/Orlando, Florida as the mid-90 degree temps are some of the hottest in the United States.

Much of This Cold Life was shot in Longyeabyen, Norway, “the world’s northernmost town.” Darren Mann directed the doc and is someone I did camera work for years ago for TV programs he shot in Minnesota and Iowa. I look forward to seeing him at the premiere and seeing a part of the world I don’t recall ever seeing before.

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“There are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
Unknown (Though often attributed to Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky)

I’ve always been fond of the above quote, and over the weekend I realized that the last two Best Picture Oscars were examples of each.  Moonlight being “a man goes on a journey,” and Spotlight representing “a stranger comes to town.”

Moonlight and Spotlight are not only one word titles with nine letters that end with “light,” but there is a Miami connection as well. Moonlight is about a boy raised and Miami, and the stranger coming to town in Spotlight is when the Boston Globe hires Marty Baron (Liev Schreiberwho was the executive editor at The Miami Herald.

As the editor at the Boston Globe, Baron oversaw the investigative team that earned a Pulitzer for their coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. If the movie version is true, it was Baron’s being a stranger to Boston culture that helped him pursue truth at whatever the cost.

“Over the course of 2002, we probably did almost 1,000 stories on the topic. We went to the court to have documents unsealed that the church had hoped to keep secret, documents that addressed the fact that the church knew these priests had abused and continued to abuse children. It forced the church to address issues that had essentially been swept under the rug for 40 or 50 years.” 
Marty Baron
Leigh University / Department of Journalism & Communication

P.S. Baron is currently the editor of The Washington Post and says, “I see a lot of people getting out of law school who can’t get jobs, but the ones with journalism majors still can. The people who have learned the tools and who are open to working in a variety of different media will find opportunities, and they will succeed.”

Journalism may have hit a wall around 2008, but it’s being revamped offering opportunities for storytellers with multimedia skills. So if you’re a film school grad looking for work, don’t ignore the chance to use your producing, shooting, writing, and/or editing skills in journalism.

Scott W. Smith

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