After winning Best Picture for “Moonlight” a year ago, A24 is back in the Oscar race with many strong entries, including Sean Baker‘s “The Florida Project.” The film centers on a precocious young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she goes on adventures with her friends and rebellious mother (Bria Vinaite) while living in a ramshackle budget motel outside of Disney World. Willem Dafoe costars as Bobby, the kindhearted and patriarchal motel manager. Gold Derby recently spoke with Baker, Dafoe, Prince, Vinaite, and cinematographer Alexis Zabe about their work.
Baker reveals he wanted to write and direct the film to shine light on “the issue of the hidden homeless in the U.S.” The idea had its origins through conversations with his co-writer Chris Bergoch. “Basically he had become aware of a situation in Kissimmee and Orlando in which budget motels were becoming the last refuge for families and individuals – sometimes with children – who basically could not secure permanent housing.” He continues, “This juxtaposition of children growing up in budget motels right outside of the place we consider to be the most magical place on Earth really grabbed my attention.”
Dafoe has won several critics prizes for his performance, and with Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice nominations, he’s the Oscar frontrunner. “He’s a complex character in that he has to deal with all the different residents in lots of different ways,” describes the actor of his character. “He’s part father figure to the children, he’s part janitor, he’s part policeman. He’s all kinds of things, and with each person, the way he deals with them is quite specific.” Dafoe has twice contended at the Academy Awards for his supporting roles in “Platoon” (1986) and “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000).
Prince, who competes at Critic’s Choice as Best Young Actor/Actress, describes Moonee as “a trouble-maker” who “likes to get into mischief.” She praises Vinaite as “the coolest girl I’ve ever met,” someone who “loves aliens like I do.” She also reveals that on the set, Dafoe would “play thumb-war with me,” and treated all of the first-time and non-professional actors “like we were the same. He wanted to blend in with us.”
Before “The Florida Project” came along, Vinaite had no aspirations of becoming a performer. She recalls in our interview, Baker “actually found me on Instagram. He reached out via direct message.” Despite trepidations over casting a novice in a leading role, “Sean really felt like I could do a good job.” She took on-set acting lessons with coach Samantha Quan and found guidance from Dafoe, who “treated all of us like we were equal.” She adds that “anytime I need advice or need to talk, he’s always been there, so I really appreciate him.”
“We wanted to really see the story through the eyes of children,” reveals Zabe. In his shots selections, the cameraman “focused on the colors, on the Florida landscape, on the funky kind of architecture” to create “this kind of reality that’s almost like an amusement park.” As well, “we also had usually a very low camera” to “stay at the height of children, and really seeing the world through their eyes.”
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