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We tried to keep our crew small enough [on The Florida Project] where we weren’t a big presence that would suddenly bring artifice to the scene that we were shooting…they were ready to go and improvise behind the camera, and sometimes throw the schedule away. As long as I was proving to production and my financiers we were going to make it. [Meaning avoiding overtime or adding additional shooting days, and getting the film shot within the budget.]

…One of the scenes that kind of goes with this sometimes documentary style way of filmmaking is the scene with the cranes that a lot of people actually think might be one of the best scenes in the film. I wanted to shoot Willem interacting with the cranes and we were going to workshop a scene right there one morning. It was one of his last days I believe, and I wanted to make sure we had enough of the Bobby character before he left to go on to another show.

So these three cranes lived on the property. They would come up every morning and tap on the window of the lobby and the real clerks of The Magic Castle would come out and feed them Cheetos—they were addicted to junk food. The morning of my Steadicam artist is setting up rig and suddenly we all get emails and we look at it’s like ‘Do not shoot the cranes. They are an endangered species, if anything goes wrong this is a federal crime and this will shut us down our whole production.’ And I look over and the production offices are on the other side of the The Magic Castle—I knew it was going to take a while to get to me, so I said ‘Guys roll camera, Willem go inside the lobby, come out and do something, I don’t know what to tell ya.’

So he comes out and he has that wonderful interaction with the cranes, and he comes up with that line ‘No harm, no fowl.’ And my great Steadicam artists Mike McGowan, who worked on Moonlight, did that really nice move into him and suddenly it was like ‘Cut—alright, sorry.’ They made us move on, and that was the one take we got.”
Writer/Director Sean Baker
DGA podcast #98 The Director’s Cut

 

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“Well, as a rule about 50% you have in your mind before you start the picture, and the rest you develop as you’re making it.”
Writer/Director/Actor (and silent film comic genius)  Buster Keaton 

“Going into a day we were 70% structured, 30% was left up to the film gods to give us happy accidents.”
Writer/Director/Editor Sean Baker on shooting The Florida Project

Yesterday I read the New York Times list of The Best Movies of 2017 and since the writers (Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott) put The Florida Project at #4 I feel justified in continuing to blog on that movie that I’ve been doing for the past month.

“We actually scripted a rainbow. The kids were supposed to have seen the cows and then look up and see a rainbow. We were going to have a CGI rainbow where they chase a rainbow through a field, but two weeks earlier we were shooting at The Magic Castle and suddenly everyone goes there is a real rainbow over the motel and I thought if we shot that it would save the production 50 grand. ‘Get the camera down there. ’ You know it’s a 35mm camera— it took seven whole minutes to get it down there and when we did we only had moments to capture it because it was fading. Those two little girls knew what to do. They just jumped right into that little talk about the leprechaun and ran off into the parking lot. So there are happy accidents and also moments of desperate improvisation in front of and behind the camera. That’s just the way I like to work sometimes.”
Sean Baker (who co-wrote The Florida Project with Chris Bergoch)
The Director’s Cut podcast interview with Paul Schrader

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Valeria Cotto and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project

Speaking of rainbows, here’s a scene that I think the young character Moonee in The Florida Project would enjoy. Where Judy Garland ponders if there is such a place where there isn’t any trouble.

Related posts: The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florida Project

Scott W. Smith

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“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey

Katie Holmes in “Pieces of April”

Since it’s Thanksgiving Day and I’ve been writing a string of posts the last couple of weeks on The Florida Project, I thought it would be fitting to repost some thoughts on Pieces of April That 2003 low-budget indie film set entirely on Thanksgiving Day could be a cousin of The Florida Project.

Both are simple yet complex films. Pieces of April starred Katie Holmes who played April, a different version of the Halley character (Bria Vinaite) in The Florida Project. 

Yesterday I stopped at a connivence store here in the Orlando area and saw a real life April/Halley. She looked around the same age as the girls those movies, but looked more tired, worn, and dirty. She sat leaning against a wall next to a large backpack.

Since I was stopping in the store for a protein bar I bought an extra one I was going to  give to her. A clerk came in from outside as I was checking out and said to the other clerk, “If she’s not gone in ten minutes, I’m calling the police. She’s been asked to leave three times.”

When I got outside she was still there and I gave her the protein bar and a dollar and she thanked me. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving dinner or the promise of a better life. But it was something. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (co-written with Chris Begosh) may not change the world, but the words of playwright Tom Stoppard come to mind:

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love)
Above quote spoken by character Henry in The Real Thing: A Play

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. A fact I didn’t learn until years after falling in love with the movie.

In December of 1998, I received a phone call from my mother in Iowa. She had bad news. She’d been diagnosed with cancer. I went to her as soon as I could. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Over the next fifteen months, my sisters, my brothers, and I traveled back and forth to take care of her.

“During this time, my mother urged me to keep writing, but it was difficult. One day in my office in Brooklyn, I started opening files on my computer and came across notes I’d written a year earlier for a story about  girl with a broken oven trying to get her turkey cooked.

“In my notes, I had named the girl April after the moody, unpredictable month. The month when it is sunny one moment and rainy the next. In my notes, she was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Most surprising was the reason why I’d decided April was making the meal: She was attempting to bridge an estranged relationship with her mother who was sick with cancer. 

“That’s when I knew this was a story I had to write.”
Writer/director Peter Hedges
Pieces of April; The Shooting Script—Introduction

May you all write stories that “nudge the world a little.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. So after I wrote this post I saw the trailer for the Katie Homes directed the film All We Had about a mother-daughter relationship where “everything around us is collapsing.”

Related posts:
Goal. Stakes. Urgency. (Tip #60)
Protagonist= Struggle
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B+C)

Scott W. Smith

 

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When I was 21-years-old film school student in Los Angeles I was an intern for a cable TV show called Alive & Well that was taped in Marina del Rey, California.  Once the guest on the show was Los Angeles Dodger great Steve Yeager who I knew went to high school in Dayton, Ohio. I asked him how he liked L.A. and he told me, “If you live in a plastic town long enough, you don’t even notice the plastic.”

It was a just a comment in passing, but it’s really quite profound. Something that’s stuck with me for a few decades.

Growing up in central Florida in many ways meant growing up in a plastic, tourist-centric world.  One of the things I enjoyed about The Florida Project is how they visually captured a part of Florida that is pure kitsch. 

Yesterday I actually had a video shoot in Kissimmee, Florida where director Sean Baker and his crew shot The Florida Project and took the photos on this post of a couple of places featured in the movie. (I did drive by The Magic Castle, but didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to be that guy looking to photograph the hidden homeless.)

“I had eye candy to work with [while making The Florida Project]. I was given eye candy just by shooting in the location we were shooting. And then, of course, having an amazing cinematographer Alexis Zabe to capture that. And my production designer Stephonik Youth who was able to help us enhance it by just a hair. Shooting along Route 192 was actually very easy because it was giving me so much to work with. You have essentially these small businesses that were at one time focused and targeted towards tourists, so they used the Disney mythology and themes and basically ripped them off to attract tourists. So you have brightly colored motels that have themes such as The Magic Castle or The Alligator Motel—there were a lot that we didn’t use. And a lot that had been shut down over the last ten years. The situation going on there is that the local government and the city are trying to beautify the section to bring it back. So if we’d have shot this film five years ago we’d actually have had more to work with. It’s in a transitional place right now.”
Filmmaker Sean Baker 
Filmspotting podcast interview

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P.S. In the post Screenwriting Quote #54 I touch on the Midwestern roots of Walt Disney and his own Main St. childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Walt Disney died in 1966 so he never saw Walt Disney World (which opened in 1971) come to life. I semi-joke that before Disney came to town, Orlando barely had indoor plumbing and air-conditioning. Despite the urban sprawl here many good things followed in the wake of the success of Disney World. And many family memories made with people passing through town. (A record 88 million visitors have visited Florida this year so far.) But The Florida Project reflects the law of unintended consequences in the lives of a group of people for who life is not a vacation.  But the struggles and mental issues of the character Halley in The Florida Project are far deeper than to simply blame a tourist economy. But the contrast and visual candy that Baker used in The Florida Project made the pill a little easier to swallow than if he’d set the story in Dayton, Ohio. (Where there are quite a few Halleys thanks to Dayton/Montgomery County currently being known as the “overdose capital of America.”)

Scott W. Smith

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[Brooklynn Prince] is just so incredible and she worked very closely with Sam [acting coach Samantha Quan], but to tell you the truth with her in particular she is a born thespian. I mean she is really acting. There is a true performance there, a true character that she found. She is wise beyond her years. I just can’t speak more highly of her, and just love her. She just brought so much to the table and I can’t even imagine [The Florida Project] without her. …For the three kids, Brooklyn,  Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto,  [Sam] made it a really fun summer camp environment for the kids. It was shot over their summer, so we were taking their summer away from them, so we wanted to give them the best experience possible. And at the end of every day—you have a limited number of hours you can work with children because of child labor laws, so you get to that six hour mark and you have to let them go. And [Brooklynn] would never want to go. Well it’s the law, get out of here [laughs]. I think because it was so much like a family unit. the kids were having fun, they were having workshops, experimenting, that by the time we actually got them in front of the camera they understood their characters enough where if I did have the audacity to ask little six year old to improvise it was fine. They would actually be able to pull it off. And especially Brooklynn. Brooklynn has that innate, genius ability to comedically improvise. Which is incredible at that age.  Near the end of the film, we just spend time eating with her brunch at a higher end hotel that her mother brings her to. And I just wanted to document her eating. Just a series of jump cuts of her eating. What I did was just roll two, thousand foot mags on a 35mm camera so it’s like 20 minutes. And we just watch this girl eat for 20 minutes. And Chris [Bergoch] and I have scripted lines,—we do have a full screenplay— but I encourage improvisation on top of it. So she got through her 15 scripted lines in a minute and a half and we had 18 minutes to burn. So we just ask her questions, what do you think that taste like? What do you wish that tasted like. And sometimes I’m feeding lines to her, or taking her lines—like if she gives me something that’s almost there, I can quickly figure something out with Chris, and deliver the line back to her and she’ll feed it to us. It was wonderful to see her do that. It was like stand-up comedy night. We had 40 cast and crew just watching this little girl eat.”
Sean Baker , director, editor, co-writer on The Florida Project
Filmspotting
 podcast interview #652

I think my favorite line in the movie is when Brooklynn says while eating the she wishes her fork was made of candy so she could eat it when she was done with her meal. Maybe that was a scripted line that she just delivered real, but it felt improvised, fresh, in character and totally something a six year old would say.

Scott W. Smith

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Will one of the results from The Florida Project be the youngest Oscar nominee ever, and the first Instagram star to receive an Oscar-nomination? Time will tell.

“Casting is one of the most important things—if not the most important thing for a film like [The Florida Project] that’s character driven. And I said that we are not going to make this film, and production better be prepared to not move forward unless we find our present-day Spanky McFarland. I really was looking for today’s Spanky. It took a while to find Brooklyn. Brooklynn Prince is her name and she was a local hire. I wanted kids to be from the Orlando/Kissimmee area, it was important for me. For their accents and etc. I just really felt that we should be casting the kids locally. So they could go home at night and feel comfortable in their environment. 

And she was in the database of a local casting company. She had done some commercials.  She had done one small indie. And you know what, I honestly throw her in the same camp as Mickey Rooney, Jodie Foster, I really do feel she’s a born thespian.

[We looked at] a couple hundred perhaps. We put out in a couple counties that we were looking for children and they didn’t have to have prior experience. We were looking for personas. And I was also doing my street casting at the same time. We were closer to production. I was living down there [in Central Florida] so I was going through Walmart, I was going through Target and that’s were I found Valeria [Cotto] . I saw this little girl with striking red hair and I went up to her mother and said we’re hold auditions please have her come in. She came in, she really impressed us and she turned out to be five years old which cut two hours off our day, but she was worth it. We made production adjust to that. 

And there’s a whole new world, a whole new way of casting these days.  I’ve used social media in the past with Tangerine. Using Vine and You Tube to find castSo Bria [Vinaite] we found her on Instagram. My financiers allowed me to take this risk and roll the dice. She was green, yet enthusiastic and very motivated. She came down a month early and also worked with my acting coach Samantha Quan [@SamanthaQuan] and she got to that place where I believe she was holding her own with Willem [Defoe] by the second weekend. I’m just so proud of her. Mela Murder who plays Ashley in the film came from a short film called Gang that I saw on Vimeo that I thought she was amazing in. She has quite a range. And then there’s the conventional ways of casting and that’s how Willem came into this picture. That’s how Calab Landry Jones  came to us through the agencies.”
Director/Writer/Editor Sean Baker on casting The Florida Project
The Director’s Cut podcast interview with Paul Schrader produced by the DGA

Related posts:
The Florida Project
The Cinematic and Journalistic Roots of The Florida Project

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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