The Florida Project: Location Shooting & Realism

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The Florida Project: Location Shooting & Realism

In The Florida Project, a precocious six-year-old courts mischief and adventure with her friends while her mother is forced to explore increasingly dangerous possibilities of providing for her daughter. Written, directed, and edited by Sean Baker, the film premiered at Cannes in 2017.

In The Florida Project, a precocious six-year-old courts mischief and adventure with her friends while her mother is forced to explore increasingly dangerous possibilities of providing for her daughter. Written, directed, and edited by Sean Baker, the film premiered at Cannes in 2017. With a budget of $2 million and an overall domestic gross of $5.9 million, the film was just barely managed a profit. Although it was not a commercial success, it was a highly regarded critical hit. The film sports a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and was chosen by both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of 2017.

With a 52.6% to 47.4% dialogue to action ratio, it’s clear Baker paid clear attention to his use of dialogue and action on the page. Many experienced screenwriters strive for a 50-50 split between dialogue and action, and here Baker is able to achieve nearly that. As a drama taking place largely in one location, it makes sense that dialogue would consume a little more of the screenplay. The conflicts between characters are mainly resolved through dialogue, with little action, yet the dialogue truly bring us in to the poverty-stricken world of the characters. The film also features 62.7% of its scenes outdoors, marking The Florida Project as a rare outlier when it comes to ultra-low-budget features. For films of this size, it is typically more cost effective to place scenes indoors, where the crew has fewer variables to worry about during production. But by placing 120 of the film’s scenes in one location, the Magic Castle motel, Baker was able to allow for the numerous outdoor scenes. Furthermore, the film was entirely shot on location in Kissimmee, Florida. This provided Baker and his crew to simply utilize the established and icon buildings and motels alongside Highway 192 just outside Disney World. To keep costs low when filming inside Magic Kingdom for the final scene, Baker filmed on an iPhone 6S Plus without Disney’s knowledge. The Florida Project also houses very few action set pieces and absolutely no scenes requiring CGI, so the production team was able to put more resources into the location shooting, large cast, and use of child actors.

The Florida Project features 45 characters, yet many of these serve as extras and random motel guests which our main characters will run into occasionally. Our main characters are really just Moonee, her mom Halley, the hotel manager Bobby, Scooty, Jancey, and Ashley. With such a large cast despite a relatively low number of important characters and a particular focus on the child actors, the film also had to pay close attention to the actors it was casting. As a result, the film only features two established actors, and only one in a significant role—Willem Dafoe. Our main character Moonee and her mom, are unknowns—although Brooklynn Prince who plays Moonee is thought to be a breakout star after this film. Because the story is told through both the perspective of Moonee and her mother, it is difficult to label one as the protagonist over the other, yet I feel Moonee would certainly encapsulate the role a bit more.

In terms of significant scenes, scenes 180-193 come up as the most significant. These are the final scenes of the film, which showcase Moonee running away from child services to find her best friend. The two of them then escape to Magic Kingdom in a scene which blurs the line between childhood fantasy and reality. This ending is certainly the emotional capstone of the film, delivering a final powerful sendoff to the uncertainty of the character’s lives. Scenes 130-136 come up as second most significant. In these scenes, the drama between some of our main cast begins to be resolved— albeit with a negative outcome for our protagonists. Halley’s confrontation of Ashley leads Ashley to call child services and causes Moonee’s ultimate separation from her mother. Scenes 23-27 are third most significant, and it is here that we’re introduced to Jancey as well as the daily life of Moonee and the layout of the film’s setting. Coming up as fourth most significant are scenes 110-114, and it is here we’re shown a brief scene depicting the troubles of striking up a permanent residence in a motel. Overall, I’d say the ranking of these scenes is accurate.

By looking at the dialogue vs action by scene plot, we can discover a few things about the overall structure of the story. Stories with a clear three-act structure will often show that structure through this plot, yet as The Florida Project is not one of those stories, parsing out those acts becomes a little more difficult. While act one is easy to denote as between scenes 1-26, the second and third acts of the film blend together heavily. Furthermore, while most films show a peak in the middle of act two, The Florida Project features a lull in the action. This could potentially denote a down-beat in the action and emotional journey of our characters. The final few scenes of the film are also short and dialogue-free. This shows us that the film has a montage ending, resolving the film by “showing” the audience information rather than “telling” us.

The number of appearances by top characters and the dialogue breakdown by character plots may be the most interesting to look at with this film as they truly show the heavy use of the films “others” characters. “Others” characters represent the individual characters in which the film doesn’t feature heavily in terms of dialogue or appearances. In The Florida Project, the overall grouping of these “others” play a significant role, however. While Moonee appears the most with 26.9% of all appearances, “others” come in second with 18.4% of all appearances. More interesting, “others” compromise the majority of dialogue with 22% of all spoken lines. While it is common for “others” to account for a lot of the appearances in a screenplay, it is incredibly rare for them to account for much of the dialogue. Typically, you’d see “others” rank first or second for appearances but nearly last for dialogue. This just shows how important these “others” are for creating the natural world of the film’s story and how budget-intensive actors were for the film. Actors with an appearance are paid far less than those who are given dialogue, and it seems many of these less significant characters are given a line or two of dialogue. Our protagonist, Moonee doesn’t even come in second for dialogue. Instead, her mother who makes the third most number of appearances with 14.6%, accounts for the second most dialogue with 21.5%. Moonee comes in fourth with 13.2% of dialogue. Yet these numbers make sense considering their roles in the film. Moonee is only six-years-old, so as a result her character is more active than she is talkative. Whereas the main adult characters, Halley and Bobby account for the second and third most dialogue. In this regard, Halley and Bobby are both driving characters, moving the plot and story forward through their heavy speaking roles.

While the film was not expensive to make, The Florida Project was never going to be a commercial hit. While a critical success, A24 could have puts a few reigns on Baker’s vision in order to ensure a greater profitability. While the use of a single location for the vast majority of the film helped with costs, we still explore various nooks and crannies of the motel. Although the scene heading may be the same, the various set-ups required for the crew to do takes up a lot of time. And by shooting outdoors in Florida, you have to deal with factors like rain, humidity, and background noise. Paired with the few amount of hours child actors are allowed on set in a given day, the shooting window for many of the film’s scenes on a given day was small. As I’ve talked about, the sheer number of characters in the film outside of an important role also play a large part in inflating the film’s budget. Should the film have been budgeted at $1 million instead, The Florida Project would have seen a far greater return on investment. Although commercially, it may be easy to suggests these cuts and changes, creatively they are hard to recommend. As a critically lauded film, the film obviously did something right. It is unlikely the film would have been praised by critics in the same way had it compromised its vision in the name of increased profits. Overall, the film’s juxtaposition of the wonders of childhood against the hard realities of poverty makes The Florida Project truly stand out.

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