The Florida Project [Q & A with Willem DaFoe]

This has been on my radar for a while, it opened back in October at the nearest art house theater, but I was unable to make it over in time to catch it before it went away. Fortunately, with some Oscar buzz and awards season all around us, the lucky opportunities crop up here in the L.A. area on a frequent basis. We got an email from the American Cinematique that they were holding a screening at the Egyptian and that Willem DaFoe would be on hand for a Q and A. Here is where I love technology, I bought tickets within three minutes on line and we were set.

In what feels like a Cinema Verite film, “The Florida Project” follows the life of a child, living on the edge of poverty and being destitute. Moonee is six, it is summertime, and Disneyworld is almost next door. That sounds like heaven for a child but the truth of this story is that dreams are not always as close as we want them to be. Moonee’s Mom is Halley, a women who seems to have no plans or purpose. She seems to be getting by on some sort of assistance and an entrepreneurial use of wholesale perfume that she can purchase at a discount. They live in a budget motel that sits among the commercial pilot fish businesses surrounding the Magic Kingdom.  Far from being a downer however, “The Florida Project” is full of the exuberance of  childhood innocence. Moonee is not a particularly likable kid. Like her mother, she has little respect for those who don’t go her way and she has a mouth to match. That however does not make her bad, but it does show that she needs a lot more attention and a better role model than she is getting.

Actor Willem DaFoe plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel. He is the one professional actor in the cast, everyone else is just getting started or is playing a close version of themselves. They are all very good but DaFoe holds things together in spite of being a somewhat peripheral character to the main events. The ragtag community that seems to have developed in the motels in the area is greatly enhanced by Bobby’s tolerance of the characters, despite his frequently justified exasperation with them.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the film last night was the script. The movie often feels improvised and as a result very realistic. DaFoe was adamant that there was indeed a script and that is largely what was shot, but he also said that the kids were encouraged to “play act” the way they thought the scenes would work. Kids do and say things spontaneously, and a lot of that ends up being kept in the film along with the original actions and dialogue.  It seems obvious that this is especially true of the scenes with the kids. There is no way they could have been memorizing those lines and performing the way they did while still coming off so naturally. Brooklynn Prince is a fireball of a personality and she clearly injects Moonee with personality plus.

The actor did mention that the sequence with the ice machine was developed after the film had been started. It is so subtle, you might not be aware that the second character is supposed to be Bobby’s son. It was a small touch to the film to help establish that the character of Bobby had a background that was not all that different from some of the tenants of the hotel.

Bria Vinaite plays the Mom who clearly loves her child but is not very well prepared to take care of her. She draws out the belligerence of the character while also imbuing her with a sense of love and caring for her daughter. Watching the story, it is likely that you will feel frustrated so often with these two. Moonee can be excused because she is a kid and doesn’t always understand the nature of her own actions. Halley though is an adult and she just can’t seem to put things into a perspective that seems adult like. DaFoe revealed that during some scenes, Director Sean Baker had Vinaite wearing an earpiece and gave her directions when the camera was far back from the scene. Many of the episodes where she is selling perfume to the tourists involved him directing her from across the street.

This movie shows friendships that are built and those that are destroyed and some that just abruptly end because of the circumstances. For the kids, it involves a little heartache and at the end of the movie, Moonee and her recently acquired best friend Jancey appear in a scene that may be real or may be fantasy. Someone directly asked that question of DaFoe last night and like a true artist he shrugged his shoulders and said “you tell me.”

Willem DaFoe is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Supporting Actor Award at this years Oscars, and certainly this was his reason for making the appearance. The show was sold out and while the movie received a warm reaction from the audience, it was the actor who the crowd seemed most responsive to. I’d say a good 80% of the time was spent on “the Florida Project” but several other roles and films were mentioned as well. I was most interested to learn that Wes Anderson’s approach to two of the films he made with the actor were completely different. “The Life Aquatic” was much looser and while not really improvisational, Anderson allowed the actors huge latitudes in how the dialogue and characterless played out. On the other hand, DaFoe described the animatics that Anderson had created for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, including voices and dialogue done by Anderson himself. DaFoe laughed and said it could easily have been released in that form, the attention to detail was so thoroughly planned.

My overall impression of “The Florida Project” is positive with some reservations. It does meander a lot. There are elements that are very sad which sometimes seem to be glossed over. The actions of the Mom and Daughter seem to be real and reflect their point in life, but that does not make them forgivable, only understandable.

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