'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sean Baker and Brooklynn Prince ('The Florida Project')

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"I finally broke a million," laughs the writer/director Sean Baker — a man heretofore best known for shooting a movie using iPhones — in reference to the budget of his acclaimed new film The Florida Project as we sit down at the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Baker, a darling of the indie community who looks much younger than his 46 years, continues, "If you added up all of the budgets of my first five films, it's still under a million dollars. And suddenly I was able to work with a couple of million, which was really nice." It turns out, though, that the most pivotal element of The Florida Project wasn't all that expensive, but was still priceless: namely, Brooklynn Prince, who was just 6 when she won the role of the main protagonist, a child residing with her young single mother in a motel near Disney World. "I'm very, very blessed to have Sean Baker," says the precocious Prince, now 7, after Baker vacates the hot-seat and she briefly replaces him in it.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below, following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and David Rooney, THR's film critic and chief theater critic, about the recent New York Film Festival.

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Baker, who is New Jersey born and bred, became obsessed with filmmaking at an early age, making home movies through high school and then enrolling at NYU Tisch. After graduating, he co-created and periodically directed, wrote and served as a cinematographer on the TV sitcom Greg the Bunny, which aired for three seasons between Fox and IFC. That helped him to pay for his first films — Four Letter Words (2000), Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008) — which played the festival circuit and established him as an artful filmmaker who tells stories about people living on the margins of society. Another hallmark of Baker's work, from the beginning through the present, has been filling out his casts with people who, prior to working with him, had not been actors. "I don't like to call them 'non-actors,'" he emphasizes. "I like to call them 'first-timers,' because the thing is that it hurts them in the eyes of the industry if they're seen as non-professional or non-actors."

Baker's 2012 film Starlet, about an amateur porn actress in the San Fernando Valley, marked the beginning of a big-screen partnership between Baker and his former NYU classmate and Greg the Bunny collaborator Chris Bergoch; they co-wrote that film and subsequently co-wrote both Tangerine, Baker's 2015 breakthrough about a transgender Los Angeles prostitute looking for her cheating boyfriend/pimp, and The Florida Project. Interestingly, Baker points out that Starlet is stylistically much more like The Florida Project than Tangerine, and reveals that it initially was his and Bergoch's intention to make The Florida Project right after Starlet, before the opportunity arose to make Tangerine with the brothers Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass serving as producers. The most famous talking-point about Tangerine is, of course, that it was shot on iPhones, a decision that Baker insists "came from a very organic place" — in short, he had to work within a tight budget, discovered special apps that enhanced the iPhone's cinematic capabilities and realized that it would be less intimidating for first-time actors to perform in front of an iPhone than a traditional camera setup.

Tangerine's critical, commercial and awards success put Baker on the map in a bigger way than ever before and led to his receiving a larger budget for The Florida Project. The idea for that film had originated with Bergoch, a Disney buff with Florida connections who came across a news article about — and then witnessed with his own eyes — the occupants of the motels along Route 192, which had changed as a result of America's recession; he shared the idea with Baker, who realized that a film about a child living in one such motel could make for "a present-day Little Rascals." They co-wrote a script, and then Baker shot the film over 35 days in the summer of 2016 — on 35mm film, not iPhones or even more advanced digital cameras, because, Baker confesses, "I was fearful of becoming 'the iPhone guy,' so I wanted to go 180 degrees in the other direction." Tangerine admirer Willem Dafoe was the only 'name' in the cast. "I surrounded him with 6-year-olds and a lot of first-timers," chuckles Baker. The standout was Prince. "She's incredible," he gushes. "I'd honestly put her in the same category as a Mickey Rooney or a Jodie Foster. She's a born thespian. She understands Method. And she understands character. It's incredible to see her work."

"I've always been in acting since I was 2," says Prince, a homeschooled second-grader from Florida whose father is an environmental scientist and mother is an agent turned acting coach. Way back then, as Prince recalls, a friend of her mother who works as an agent reached out to see if the youngster might want to try out for a movie. Prince's mother then asked her, and Prince liked the idea, so they proceeded. "I fell in love with it at that audition," she says, and she got the part. It was for Robo-Dog: Airborne, a film set to be released later this year, and the producer of that film was impressed enough by Prince to cast her in another, Monsters at Large, also due out later this year. Prince says those experiences came in handy when the opportunity came along to star in The Florida Project: "I took all of that information and I just made it into Moonee."

Prince landed the part of Moonee — not to be mistaken with Mickey or Minnie — after meeting with Baker and Bria Vinaite, the first-time actress Baker cast off of Instagram to play Moonee's struggling mother. Soon, Prince was on set with Baker and Vinaite, as well as Dafoe (who she'd never heard of) and a bunch of other kids (several of whom actually live in motels like the one in the film, and are the sort of people Prince hopes to help by promoting the charity Hope 192). "We did improv a lot," she recalls, citing a funny scene involving dripping ice cream that appears in the trailer — but she was equally skilled at scripted material, including some, such as the film's final sequence (the pic's only one shot on an iPhone), which were very emotional. "I just thought about that situation," Prince explains. "It just really touched my heart."

The Florida Project had its world premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where, with Baker and Prince in attendance, it screened out of competition and was greeted with a 10-minute standing ovation. "I was just very, very happy," Prince recalls. "Happy that we had gone that far." With Baker and Prince in tow, the film subsequently screened at the Toronto and New York film fests, winning passionate admirers and champions along the way, and opened in select theaters Oct. 6 to a formidable 97 percent favorable rating from critics on RottenTomatoes.com. "My friends can't see it" because of some bad language, Prince notes, but her parents can, and she cares just as much about what they think. "I hope today I just really, really make them proud," she says. As for the future? Prince intends to continue pursuing both of her passions — acting and dancing — but is open to whatever comes after The Florida Project: "I don't know. It's in God's hands, you know? But I want to direct a movie or two. I want to be the first kid director." Anything else? Sporting a shirt emblazoned with the names of her heroes — Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning, Emma Stone, Daisy Ridley and Gal Gadot — she squeals, "Be in a movie with Elle Fanning!"