Director Sean Baker auditioned 300 girls to find Brooklynn Prince, the 6-year-old at the heart of his drama about impoverished children living in the shadow of Disney World. Then, instead of Britney Spears, he found an actress to play her mom on Instagram.
In late spring 2016, director Sean Baker was on the verge of postponing production on his film The Florida Project, already six years in the works. After seeing nearly 300 girls to play the film's 6-year-old protagonist Moonee, he still had no frontrunner in sight. He continued to pore over headshots and considered expanding his target pool to include kids from Los Angeles and New York, even though he was adamant about casting a Floridian. Then, along came Brooklynn Prince, a Sunshine State denizen who ultimately became the centerpiece of the film about a struggling mother and daughter living in the shadow of Disney World.
"For some reason, she didn't come in for our first few casting calls," recalls Baker. "Then one day she came in. Within seconds, she won us over. Brooklynn just had everything I was looking for. The wit, the energy, the cuteness."
What Baker, 46, had long been hoping for was to create an ode to the Our Gang franchise of the 1930s, with its ill-behaved and impoverished kids making mischief against the backdrop of the Great Depression ("I actually have a Little Rascals poster on my wall — every film of mine has made a wink to the characters," he says). Coincidentally, around 2010, Baker's longtime writing collaborator and fellow NYU grad Chris Bergoch found himself becoming obsessed with Florida's homeless children.
Bergoch's mother had recently moved to the Orlando area, and during visits he would drive along Central Florida's Route 192, rolling past its dollar stores, gun shops and budget motels accommodating those displaced by the housing bubble. "I noticed these children playing on the side of the road outside motels, playing whiffle ball and hide-and-go-seek, and thinking, 'What's going on here? Who are all these kids?' " he says. "It's happening right near Cinderella's castle, and that was what tugged on my heartstrings. That's what clicked with me, and that's what made me say, 'Sean, I think there is a story here that we have to figure out from these kids' point of view.' "
Together, Bergoch and Baker wrote a two-page treatment, but they couldn't land even a development grant, let alone financing, despite the fact that Baker had just wrapped his fourth feature film: the 2012 art house indie Starlet, set in the world of adult movie actresses. So Baker shelved the project and instead turned his attention to what became his 2015 breakout, Tangerine. That film, about a transgender sex worker who discovers her boyfriend has been unfaithful, opened the door for Florida Project. He and Bergoch secured a grant from the nonprofit Cinereach and started making trips to the Kissimmee-Orlando area, huddling in low-budget motel rooms while they fleshed out the treatment.
That's when Alex Saks, who produced The Florida Project, first caught wind of the film's intriguing premise. As a then-ICM sales agent, she helped negotiate the Tangerine acquisition and slipped the bare-bones Florida Project plot to her client, newbie producer Andrew Duncan, who was transitioning from the lucrative tech startup world to indies. They loved the idea so much that Saks decided to leave the agency and form June Pictures with Duncan. Florida Project would mark one of the first films they would produce together.
June Pictures agreed to finance the $3 million film and give Baker final cut, but they wanted a recognizable name to play Moonee's negligent mom, Halley. Baker initially considered Britney Spears. "I thought I could definitely get a performance out of her," he says. Adds Saks, "He really wanted a sort of pop star to play this role and thought of Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, too."
There were some meetings, says Saks, but nothing panned out. "There was something that was bothering me about entertaining anybody for the role of Halley who was [famous]," explains Baker. "I mean, playing somebody who lives in poverty and you know they're one of the richest people would be a weird thing on many levels."
Then, late one night while stuck in an Instagram wormhole, he stumbled upon Bria Vinaite, whose posts hawked her marijuana-themed clothing and accessories line, aptly named ChroniCal Designs. "She seemed to have a real strong persona, a real wit. She was self-deprecating. She had a youthful energy and wasn't taking herself too seriously," says Baker. "She had a physicality that just worked perfectly with the hair and the tattoos and I thought, 'You know what? I have a feeling about her and I can't exactly put it into words, but I do feel that we should give her a chance.' "
Vinaite, 24, remembers the exact day she received a call from Baker: "May 8, 2016, my life changed," she jokes. "I definitely didn't think it was real because I don't think anybody would ever assume something like that would happen through a social platform. It took me a few days to kind of really get that it was real."
She wasn't familiar with Baker's work but googled him and quickly binged on his movies, then flew from New York to Florida for an audition, which she nailed. Still, that meant the supporting male role of the patient and paternal motel manager had to be filled by a veteran actor with name recognition. Willem Dafoe, already a fan of Baker's work, heard that the director was still casting and got his hands on the script. Baker flew to New York to meet with the actor and detailed exactly how the film would be shot and what it would be like visually ("Like ice cream," says Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe). Dafoe, 62, sparked to Baker's vision, even if it meant working opposite a 6-year-old with little on-set experience as well as a first-time actress. Still, he felt zero reservations. "When you have a lot of people not used to performing and perhaps aren't familiar to audiences, you have more of an ability to really disappear into the fabric of the story," says Dafoe.
Of course, the most important character to cast was Moonee. And even after he discovered Prince, Baker still needed to make sure this tyke with just a few local commercials under her belt could deliver a deep, textured and emotional performance. He got his answer after they filmed a shouting match scene in which Prince had to argue with a Department of Child Services worker. "I'm like a really, really good girl so the fighting with the DCS lady was really, really hard," recalls Prince, who is now 8. "I don't fight with people, and I got so upset, my hands started shaking. I apologized to the lady after. Like, 'I'm so sorry that I got so mad.' "
The 35-day shoot in summer 2016, which took place mostly at the real-life Magic Castle Inn and Suites, was marred by turbulent Florida weather. It was an endurance test for the kids, including Valeria Cotto, a girl Baker discovered at a Kissimmee Target store, and Christopher Rivera, a boy who was living in one of the Route 192 motels. "From 100 degree heat and 100 percent humidity in Orlando in the middle of the summer to shooting with a 5-year-old [like Cotto], it was just like all of the odds were stacked against us," says Saks. "We had to keep closing the set down due to thunderstorms, which really screwed things up."
Adding to the chaos was the deafening noise from tourist helicopters that flew overhead every 15 minutes. Eventually, Baker and Bergoch just wrote the helicopters into the script because there wasn't any getting around them. The final film, which Baker also edited, became a mix of the planned and the unplanned. "One scene might have been covered in a long Steadicam one-shot, where repetitions and rehearsals were necessary," says Zabe, who shot on 35mm film. "The next we would cover handheld and very free-form, trying to capture the scene almost in documentary-style, and then maybe cover the next scene in more traditional coverage."
A24 bought the film in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere in the Directors' Fortnight section, becoming another vibrant, Florida-set film for the distributor, which also shepherded 2016's Moonlight to a best picture Oscar and 2012's Spring Breakers to critical acclaim.
"The biggest thing for me was trying to retain improvisation behind the camera," says Baker. "You can't have that if you're so tight with structure and schedules. Everyone thinks that shooting on 35mm and working with kids would be the big obstacle. Yeah, of course it's a headache and kids are different to direct. But it wasn't disastrous."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.