Savannah Film Fest: How 'The Little Rascals' Inspired 'The Florida Project'

"It's just been a wild ride," says Sean Baker, the co-writer and director of The Florida Project, as I sit down with him and his co-writer Chris Bergoch at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, following a screening of their dramedy about kids growing up in a motel in Florida. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, subsequently screened at the Toronto and New York film fests and opened in select theaters Oct. 6 to a formidable 97 percent favorable rating from critics on RottenTomatoes. Baker summarizes: "It's been exhausting, but wild and great."

Our post-screening Q&A ended a little after midnight, but you wouldn't have known it was that late from the enthusiasm of the more than 1,100 filmgoers who packed the Trustees Theatre — they gave a rousing standing ovation to the two men, who have quite a history of their own. "We met at NYU film school and worked on each other's films," says Bergoch, explaining that they subsequently teamed up on a TV series, Greg the Bunny, and a spinoff, before co-writing the last three films that Baker has directed: 2012's Starlet, 2015's Tangerine and now The Florida Project — all films about people living on the margins of society, primarily starring people who had never acted before Baker hired them.

It was Baker and Bergoch's intention to follow Starlet with The Florida Project, but they "couldn't get financing," recalls Baker. "We had a lot of rejection and a lot of nos," adds Bergoch. So they first made Tangerine — a film about trans people in Los Angeles that was shot entirely on iPhone 5s and received rave reviews — and its success helped them to obtain grants to do research and eventually financing for The Florida Project.

The idea for The Florida Project traces back to Bergoch's mother, who lived in Orlando, near Disney World. "I would visit my mom, and that's when it came to my attention, all of these children," Bergoch remembers. "I saw them playing hide and seek in one of the motel parking lots, and they didn't look like tourist children, and then I would notice them at another motel and another motel." He began sending Baker articles from local media about this strange post-recession phenomenon of people who were on the brink of homelessness living out of motels. "And we knew that we could find a story there," says Baker.

Baker also saw an opportunity, with this story, to offer his own take on a film series that long has meant the world to him: The Little Rascals. "They've had a tremendous influence and inspiration on my entire career, and I've always wanted to make a Little Rascals [of my own]," he says. "And if you think about what they were, they were basically comic shorts set against the Great Depression. Most of the characters in The Little Rascals were actually living in poverty, but the focus was the joy of childhood, the humor that comes from watching and hearing children. And so we thought we could use this opportunity to make a present-day Little Rascals."

But what The Little Rascals had — and The Florida Project would need for it to be a success — was great child actors. "We were getting very worried that we weren't gonna find our 'Spanky,'" Baker confesses, "and then one day [then-6-year-old Brooklynn Prince] walks in, and she just had the energy, the wit, the little puffy cheeks that we were looking for — I mean, she had everything! And she had some prior experience. Her mother was an acting coach. She was in some commercials. So she understood basically what a set was run like. But I had no idea she was gonna be so incredible." These days, Prince, now 7, is generating Oscar chatter of her own.

More than anything, Baker and Bergoch hope that people who see The Florida Project are entertained and moved. But they also hope that people take away a better understanding of and concern for the problems it highlights. "We have an affordable housing crisis in this country," Baker says solemnly, "and our hope is that, by shining a light on this, people will look into it in their own community." He adds, "It's about changing the way we think about this and removing the stigma."