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Posts Tagged ‘Sean Baker’

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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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“What [documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple] does is she really immerses herself— you really feel like with her films you’re on the strike line, you’re getting close to her subjects. That’s what we wanted to do [with The Florida Project]. We basically wanted to—very similar to they way I approached Tangerine—though  laughter, and through simple entertainment of being around these characters, I’m hoping audiences will embrace little Moonee. Love her so much that at the end when the credits are rolling and they’re going home they’re discussing the real Moonees that are out there. And perhaps what they can do to help the real Moonees. My number one goal with this movie to shine a light, because education is always the first step towards removing the stigma of homelessness. So that’s really the first goal, to have people interested enough to at least talk about it and look into it. For example, I didn’t know that there was even a term the hidden homeless. I didn’t know there was a hidden homeless population. It wasn’t until [co-screenwriter] Chris Bergosh brought this to my attention. And from there on it’s really about how much the audience wants to get involved. …I’m in a privileged place. I have this platform. I’m lucky enough to be given money to tell stories. …My hope is to use this entertainment medium that I’ve been trained to do to help the world a bit. To perhaps have people think a different way.”
Sean Baker
Filmspotting podcast interview

P.S. Barbara Kopple’s Harlan Country USA (1976) and American Dream (1990) gave slices of American life in Kentucky and Minnesota and both also won best feature film documentary Oscars.

Scott W. Smith

 

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I’m back to livin’ Floridays
Blue skies and ultra-violet rays
Lookin’ for better days
Jimmy Buffett/Floridays

I still have a few more days of posts in me about The Florida Project, but today is a nod to my own childhood in Central Florida. I took the photos below this week on one of those ideal Florida days that don’t come around as often as people think—sunny, blue skies, 70 degrees.

I’ve been going to Lake Eola in downtown Orlando as far back as I can remember and it features one of the few iconic landmarks in the city (the water fountain), and is the longtime home of swans and swan boats.

 

 

Walking around Lake Eola was one of the things people did for fun before Disney World came to town. It was a simpler place. I’m not one that agrees that low wage tourism jobs is totally to blame for the homeless situation featured in The Florida Project. 

Sure it factors into the equation. But a wide variety of people have been drawn to Florida for over 100 years looking for a great vacation or a better life. Some find one or the other, fewer find both, and unfortunately some like Halley in The Florida Project find neither. (There’s a lot of truth in the t-shirt sloan that says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”)

The Florida Projects helps continue the conversation of how we’re going to address the hidden homeless that is a nationwide dilemma. (Read this article regarding the homeless “crisis” in Silicon Valley.)

P.S. I don’t know anything about the organization Hope 192/Hope Community Center, except their stated goal/emphasis “is to assist those living homeless or in motels and hotels along Osceola County’s 192 Corridor.” The real life Halley and Moonies. And the provided some research assistant to co-screenwriters Sean Baker and Chris Bergosh while writing The Florida Project. Check out their site and consider making a Thanksgiving donation.

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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It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
It’s a Small World —Walt Disney World

Last year Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture and I expect The Florida Project to at least get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year. The odd connection there is not only were both films set and shot in Florida (Moonlight in Miami/Liberty City where the main area code is 407, and The Florida Project (Orlando/Kissimmee where the main area code is 407), but the distributor for both films is A24.

Is A24 scouring Tampa, Jacksonville, Apalachicola for the next Florida story they can bring to light? Are they regular Twitter followers of the @FloridaMan_?

But for an entertainment company that’s only been around for five years they have an impressive track recording including some of their better known films; Swiss Army Man, Room, and The Lobster.  And they still have a movie coming out this year that is also getting Oscar buzz, Lady Bird. 

Now that I think about it, one of A24’s first films was Spring Breakers (2013) which was shot in St. Petersburg area so they definitely have a Florida thing going on.

And why not, they’re just tapping into a great tradition. What’s often at the top of the greatest film of all time list? Citizen Kane, which is a story set where? Right, in Florida. And often at the top of the all time greatest comedies is what? Right, Some Like it Hot. Yes, also a story set in Florida.

Filmmaker Sean Baker was asked why he thought his film The Florida Project was getting more attention than his previous five films and he wasn’t 100% sure. But he had some ideas.

“I think A24 is a major part it. A24 has a pedigree right now. People are looking for A24 as a place where they can see great films. Not that mine is a great film, but I’m just saying that all the other films that A24 puts out are great. So I think that people are expecting a certain thing from them. They’ve very strategic with the way that their films are put out there. With our film they are doing a platform release—it’s almost on its fourth or fifth week now. New York, L.A. and we’ve slowly opened in other markets and allowed world of month to take place. So there’s that word of mouth thing that’s happening which is great.”
Director/editor/writer Sean Baker
The Radio Dan Show
November 7, 2017

Which brings us to Drake. The Rapper, not the school. Drake used to have a home in the 305 but these days Toronto is his home base where he feels more grounded. (The 406 according to a Google search.) Anyway, the rapper is moving into TV and movies with his debut as producer being The Carter Effect, about basketball player Vince Carter.  (Carter played high school ball in Daytona Beach, Florida. See a theme here?)

“Days before Carter Effect debuted, Drake attended a private screening of A24’s The Florida Project and became obsessed with the Sean Baker-helmed film about a destitute mom and her 6-year-old daughter living in the shadows of Disney World. ‘That was one of my favorite things I’d seen in a long time, just because it taught me something about a world I would never think of and what it was like to live there. It was just very pure and very human,’ he says.

“Though neither side would divulge exactly what they are collaborating on, A24 production head Noah Sacco says it encompasses both film and TV. “When we spoke with them, they articulated their passion for shepherding new voices. We look at what they’ve achieved in the music industry. And it made a lot of sense to us,” says Sacco. “We found that we saw eye to eye very quickly.”
The Hollywood Reporter 11/8/17
Drake’s Hotline to Hollywood by Atiana Siegel 

So look for an A24/Drake collaboration down the road. Now if you want to see a photo of Drake at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa (the 515) now—here it is:

drake-university

P.S. Speaking of the 305 and the 407 did you know that in college football the Miami Hurricanes are currently 8-0 and ranked 7th in the country in the AP poll and the University of Central Florida is 8-0 and ranked 14th. From the fun connection file; Miami’s head coach, Mark Richt, was the quarterback behind Jim Kelly when I was a walk-on football player at Miami. And UCF’s coach, Scott Frost, back in 2007 was an assistant at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa where I was living at the time. And where I was living when I launched this blog in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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