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Posts Tagged ‘The Florida Project’

“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Just as Sean Baker talked about the unusual influence of The Littel Rascals on his indie film The Florida Project, screenwriter Scott Beck talks about the unusual influence of the origins of the monster movie A Quiet Place. 

It started with Charlie Chaplin—and I’m 100% serious. In college, we were watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton [movies]. And one of our favorites is a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And the thing about Jacques Tati is he was working in an era of when there was sound so his films may be dialogue free, but he’s using sound in ways that’s extremely comical or enlighting, or would tell something about who the character is. [So we thought] what if we combine that with our love of Alien, and of Jaws, and these incredible genre films that were not only rich in being terrifying but also really rich in character, too.
Scott Beck (who co-wrote A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods and John Krasinski)
Q&A at WGA Theater/ video posted on The Inside Pitch Facebook group

You may not have the benefit of ever going to the University of Iowa to study the films of Jacques Tati like Scott Beck and Bryan Woods did, but through the magic of the Internet you can get a taste of Tati’s work and influence here.

P.S. For a deeper dive, check out The Complete Jacques Tati DVD/Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.  

Related posts:

Mr. Silent Movie
Silent Clowns
Harold Loyd vs. Buster Keaton
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)
The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florida Project
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (part 2) with a Charlie Chaplin example

Scott W. Smith

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Two things happened fairly recently to The Florida Project:  It ended the year on several top ten films lists including The New York Times and AFI, and Willim Defoe received an Oscar nomination.

This week it was announced that 5% of digital download sales (through February 5) would go to Community Hope Center —a central Florida charity group that assists people in need. Click the A24 website to download today through iTunes, Amazon, or one of your other favorites places.

I don’t think I wrote about any one film in 2017 more than The Florida Project. Here are links to all 13 posts:

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

A24, the 305, the 407…and Drake

The Florida Project a Whole New Way of Casting Via Instagram, Vimeo, and Walmart

Sean Baker on Directing Kids (Brooklyn Prince) in The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

Happy Accidents and Desperate Improvisation in Filmmaking (Part 1)

Happy Accidents and Desperate Improvisation in Filmmaking (Part 2) 

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

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And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within

One Particular Harbour written by Jimmy Buffett & Bobby Holcomb

(Warning: Long post today. Only wrote it because I think it needed to be said. You might disagree, but that’s the purpose of discourse. If you want something short, here’s a link to the screenplay and the press kit for The Florida Project ).

Over the weekend I learned that there’s a Margaritaville Resort Orlando being built and it seemed like the perfect place to round out my run of posts centered around The Florida Project.

The Jimmy Buffett/Key West-inspired resort is being built in Kissimmee on U.S. Route 192 in the shadow of Disney World—and is just 10 miles away from The Magic Castle Inn and Suites where they filmed most of The Florida Project.

Since this is my last planned post on The Florida Project I must address the mouse in the room. Yes, there is much I admired about the acting, the writing, and the overall production of the movie including the cinematography of Alexis Zabe . 

I love that it shined a spotlight on the issue of the hidden homeless. And I’m glad it will now be an ongoing part of that conversation. The movie has a 100% top critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I think it will be remembered at Oscar-nomination time.

But the conversation that I haven’t read about is the responsibility of the mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) If she has a mental illness then we can end the discussion and know that her circumstances need to be addressed on a professional medical level.  But if she’s not mentally ill then it’s fair game to speculate how she got there and why she appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

This indie film is a character study, so let’s study Halley a little bit more. I like that screenwriters Sean Baker and Chris Bergosh didn’t give us a back story or dump a lot of exposition on us about Halley.

But how did she and her daughter come to live in a low-budget, extended stay hotel in Florida? (If she simply ran away from her problems at home with hopes of a new life in the palm trees then that path is well-worn and comes with the disclaimer: “Results may vary.”)

Perhaps The Florida Project isn’t about the problem that there’s not enough affordable housing in parts of the country (as some have said), but a cautionary tale on how not to live your life.

At every turn Halley shoots herself in the foot.

A while ago I saw a video on the internet (if I find it I’ll post it here) and the person was telling students that they only needed to do three things to have a shot at a good life in America. (In the U.S. there is the extra advantage over other parts of the world in that that clean drinkable water is a given.)

  1. Finish school. (At least high school, ideally college.)
  2. Don’t have a kid until you are out of school and can support yourself and your kid.
  3. Get a job. Keep it. And do it well.

What happens if you don’t accomplish any of those? Halley is Exhibit A. 

Too harsh? Maybe. Or maybe just the harsh reality of what happens to those who give the finger to any kind of structure in their lives. The Halley’s of the world are not going to make that 10 mile journey from The Magic Castle to Margaritaville Resort Orlando (or even a basic 1-bedroom apartment) without a lot of grace. And hard work.

One summer when I was in college I worked in a factory where if you punched in late to work you were given a warning, if you punched in late a second time you were sent home for the day, if you punched in late a third time, you were fired. Halley’s F.U. attitude has no chance of being hired at a place like that, or keeping a job like that if she got it.

There were factory workers there who had been through various hardships and challenges. Many were part of the working poor. Some lived at home and drank what they earned. One guy told me that if he didn’t take quaaludes he wouldn’t make it through the day.

You didn’t have to be Theodore Dreiser to know you were watching An American Tragedy unfoldOr part American tragedy and part of the American dream.  Some were taking a night class or two at a community college and chipping away at a degree and hoping for a better life. Heck, I bet the majority of them did okay. (Probably one or two are planning to move to Margaritaville Orlando as soon as it opens.)

If Halley is hoping for a better life, she’s sure not doing much to that end. (And I’m not sure another stripper job is the answer.) This is not the edgy character April in Pieces of April who has issues but is trying to make amends to her dying mother by cooking a turkey for her family  on Thanksgiving. No, this is a young woman hustling her way through life—and that includes her doing prostitution work in a hotel while her daughter hides in bathroom.

Halley appears to have no support system; no parents or grandparents to take her in, no boyfriend to share the load. The closest person that can bring her a hint of redemption is the manager Bobby (Willem Defoe) and he’s close to kicking her out of the hotel for bad behavior.

In literary terms Halley’s joined the end of the rope club. In real life the Halley’s of the world often end up dead sooner than later.

But they don’t have to. If you’re a Halley, find an extended family member, a social service group, or a faith-based group to help you get back on your feet. I don’t think anyway wants to see their daughter or sister go through what Halley (and by extension her daughter Moonee) go through in the movie. May you find shelter from the storm in that one particular harbour. (If you’re like Halley and in Central Florida contact the Coalition for the Homeless in Central Florida/407.426.1250. Their website says they’ve helped nearly 1,000 guests move from one of their programs to permanent housing just in the past year.)

It’s one thing for a movie to open our eyes, another thing to stir our hearts, but it’s all just poverty porn if all we do is talk about fine acting and beautiful cinematography.

P.S. Brooklynn Prince (who plays Halley’s daughter Moonee in The Florida Project) was named today as BEST YOUTH PERFORMANCE by the Seattle Film Critics Society.

Update: After I wrote this post I ended up reading dozens of reviews on The Florida Project before I came across this a Film Comment review by Cassie da Costa that gave a little push back: “We never get any particular sense of who Moonee and Halley are as individuals beyond their predicament and pluck, and why they are at the center of the movie, instead of, for instance, Scooty and Ashley, or Jancey and Stacy, or Bobby and the young delivery man named Jack who seems to be his son. It seems that all of these characters are on screen because they’re interesting—they have unpredictable, confrontational personalities, and live in a rarely depicted, insular community where their eccentricities interweave and conflict—but not because Baker has genuine emotional insight on them or their circumstances.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 8.51.58 AM.png

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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Vero_2693

The past week has been crazier that most which explain the largest gap between posts in maybe a couple of years. Trying to get back in the saddle with a photo I took at  the end of November. It’s at the Vero Beach Museum of Art . They have a current exhibit of Master of American Photography which includes the work of many that have inspired me since I was a teenager; Ansel Adams, Arnold , Margaret Bourke-White,  Edward Weston. But the piece I really wanted to see was was Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in 1936.

It’s one of the most well-known photos in American history. And it’s a photo that’s not far from The Florida Project that I’ve been writing about since that movie came out last month.

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Here’s a little history on the photo.

Scott W. Smith

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