Filmmaker Sean Baker on His First Cannes Selection, ‘Florida Project’

Though he’s a New York City native, Sean Baker’s last two films — 2012’s “Starlet” and 2015’s groundbreaking, iPhone-shot transgender comedy “Tangerine” — were quintessentially Californian life studies. His fifth feature, “The Florida Project,” carries his warm observational skills across to the Sunshine State; following a precocious 6-year-old girl (Brooklynn Prince) through an eventful, sometimes blissful summer, it boasts Baker’s highest budget to date, and an unpredictable ensemble including Willem Dafoe. It unspools in the Directors’ Fortnight strand at Cannes.

Congratulations on your first Cannes selection.

It feels like I’m definitely playing in a different arena. The lineup this year is so exciting for a cinephile, especially in Directors’ Fortnight. I actually feel like I’m living a weird little dream, because I’m in the same section as Abel Ferrara and Bruno Dumont — both directors who had an influence on this particular film.

The Florida Project” is a bigger production than your previous ones. Should we expect something very different?

It’s still an indie, just not a microbudget indie. My work has always been rooted in realism, but “Tangerine” elevated that to a kind of pop vérité; I really loved discovering that style, so I wanted to continue. Being in the Floridian environment, there’s a sort of style that’s imposed on you: my cinematographer and production designer really embraced those Floridian colors, so there’s a hyper-reality to everything.

“Tangerine” pushed the envelope by being shot on an iPhone; here, you’re working on 35mm. Why the change?

We’re still employing some of the guerrilla filmmaking techniques we used on “Tangerine,” but I had a bit more to work with this time — part of the reason we went with the more controlled, classical feel of 35mm was we were trying to tell the story through the eyes of a 6-year-old. And her world is always somewhat candy-coated, so I wanted it to have a gloss, to be rich. Digital is great, I see the benefits and beauty in both formats. But it doesn’t give you that organic quality that celluloid brings.

You’re working with a mixture of stars and unknowns. How did you approach the casting?

I absolutely wanted locals: I didn’t want to just bring a bunch of Los Angeles people in to play Floridians. We had a casting call, and 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince came in from Orlando, and within seconds, we knew she was our lead. No matter what anyone thinks of the film — I don’t want to brag or boast about it, or presume what others will think — she will be a star. She’s the best. child actor I’ve ever seen.

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