It is a bit strange for me to interview a director without first having seen the film, but U.S. directors Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch (famed for their 2015 “Tangerine”, shot on an I-Phone) kindly welcomed me to a press discussion of their "The Florida Project", premiering here at Cannes.
The interview made me curious to see it. The story apparently is about a mother and daughter who live in a motel in Florida, part of what the director termed the "invisible underclass" of America. It was inspired by co-writer Bergoch’s driving down a highway in Florida near his mother's home and seeing children playing in the parking lots of these motels. "I didn't know before they actually lived there," he said with astonishment, his eyebrows raised.
Subsequently he and Sean, both former NYU Tisch students who have collaborated together for the last twenty years, wrote the script together. They based their knowledge of their characters on interviews with families in these motels.
In their movie, Willem Dafoe plays the motel manager.
"I really enjoyed this film," enthused a fellow journalist from Scotland. "It reminded me of Ken Loach. You are actually with these people of the underclass. Not looking at them as strange or other."
"We wanted to keep the politics of the film a bit disguised," director Sean explained. "It's there. But not in your face. So as to reach a larger public. The underclass is not often represented in cinema [in the US]. We wanted to tell a story of human beings, and have audience ask questions about the issues themselves."
One journalist noted how joyful the movie is, with an edge of impending catastrophe.
"One never knows," he interjected with excitement. "Whether the lead's fatal flaw will lead to tragedy at the end."
"I was careful to have each scene balance both a sense of tragedy and joyfulness," Sean responded. "Especially so in post-production. We carefully worked on the pacing, to keep that balance from beginning to end. "
"And how does your film end?" I asked, curious.
"No plot spoilers!" quipped Chris. "All I will say is it is a realistic story, until the final scene which turns to fantasy."
No one would even hint to me what that "fantasy" end is.
Except for the little girl who played the lead, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince.
"At the end I am a bit destructive," she said impishly.
"Are you not a happy little girl in the movie?" I whispered to her.
"I am both happy and sad," she said mysteriously. "Happy when I am playing. And unhappy because I am a little girl in a situation of economic struggle."
"And what do you know about situations of struggle?" I asked my seven year old interviewee, who was squirming cross-legged in her chair with a spree of giggles.
"My parents explained it to me. That there are families that struggle. No, I have never met anyone in struggle myself. Except for a child with special needs. But that is not the same thing. By the way, would you like me to spell my name for you? It's M O O N E E."
“And my name is Jancey!” said her fellow actress, curled up on the seat next to her. “I bet you cannot spell it!”
As the round-table came to an end, Prince and her fellow actress--red haired six year old Valeria Cotto---were dialoguing with New York magazine journalist Kyle Buchanan about their acting career.
Unusual for interviewees at Cannes, the two actresses each had a tendency to raise their hand and jump up in their seats, when responding.
"My favorite scene?" Prince raised her hand with a joyful grin. "When I stamp on a bag of my mother's tortilla chips!"
She gave me a fierce happy look.
"The Florida Project" plays this Saturday at Cannes; in the US, distribution awaits.