My first thought walking out of The Florida Project was “those weren’t actors.” Or more accurately, “those people weren’t acting.” That’s not an insult – it’s a compliment to your work. What I mean is that it felt like the people on screen, particularly Bria Vinaite and six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, weren’t pretending. I sensed none of the artifice that has come to define Hollywood filmmaking: actors cleanly delivering lines, posturing into arched positions, carefully hitting lighting cues, etc. The stars of this film are wild and erratic and basically perfect.
Amateur, and perfect.
After finding critical success with his iPhone-shot feature Tangerine, director Sean Baker decided to do at least one major professional upgrade for this go ’round and shot on 35mm film. I’ve heard him say that the whir of celluloid going through the camera helped keep the actors focused, and was a reminder that every second was like burning money. I have no idea if that was an effective directing technique for first-time actors (I suspect not), but I certainly can’t complain about the results. The Florida Project is loose and free in a way that is completely compelling - even if I wouldn’t have minded a bit tighter plotting at times.
The only recognizable member of the cast, Willem Dafoe, definitely adds a certain level of gravitas and legitimacy to the project, which is a strange thing to consider after I heaped compliments over the naturalistic acting. But that also befits his character, who is the calm at the center of a fuchsia storm: a low-cost-of-living motel in Kissimmee. The tenants are poor, unruly, semi-permanent, and only a stone’s throw away from Disney’s Magical Kingdom. But it’s that contrast of the American dream and American reality that informs every aspect of the film, and helps the film transcend standard narrative drama.
One of the most compelling aspects of the characters is simply the language they use. It’s foul, profane, and nothing short of shocking when coming from the mouth of a preschooler. Even simple acts like taking selfies in a bikini are laced with a layers of meaning that luckily do find fruition even within the film’s story. But it’s how natural (and wrong) they felt in the moment that really helps to define the characters.
So while you may have had some stressful days on set working with kids and rookies, I have to think that projects like these make your days fulfilling. Whatever your process, it certainly added up to worthwhile product.