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    ‘Florida Project’ director discovers drama in Sunshine State’s ‘hidden homeless’

    Sean Baker, director of “The Florida Project.”
    Lionel Cironneau/AP/file 2015
    Sean Baker, director of “The Florida Project.”

    TORONTO — Like director Sean Baker’s game-changing 2015 iPhone-shot “Tangerine,” his just-opened film, “The Florida Project,” also looks at scrappy outsiders clinging to the margins of society. But his follow-up film wasn’t going to happen, Baker says, “unless I found the present-day version of Spanky McFarland.”

    McFarland starred in the popular Depression-era shorts featuring Our Gang and the Little Rascals, about an integrated group of rambunctious poor kids. Baker grew up watching them on TV. “Our Gang and the Little Rascals have been an inspiration through my entire career and all my previous films,” Baker said in an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Florida Project,” fresh from accolades at Cannes, was one of the most buzzed-about titles.

    But the arduous casting process to find his Spanky “was getting scary,” Baker says, until he and casting director Carmen Cuba met 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince.

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    “She’d had a little experience and we were worried about meeting kids with experience. But she had none of that Hollywood polishing and grooming,” says Baker. “She knows how to play to an audience but it’s not like she has attitude or a diva thing about her. She’s just a little girl full of heart and one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met.”

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    Prince plays Moonee, the spirited daughter of a young, single mother (newcomer Bria Vinaite) who struggles to make the $35-a-night rate at the Magic Castle Motel on modern-day poverty row: Route 92 in Orlando in the shadow of Disney World. Moonee and a band of other unsupervised kids, to the consternation of Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), engage in Rascals-like antics and inventive play such as ogling topless bathers, spitting on parked cars, scamming ice cream from tourists, and gleefully invading an abandoned condo complex as though it’s a haunted house.

    Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch started research on “The Florida Project” in 2013. The film could have been set anywhere but Baker liked “the crazy, sad juxtaposition of children [nearly] homeless next to ‘the happiest place on earth’ just a mile way.”

    “I didn’t even know the term ‘hidden homeless’ before,” he said. “I live in New York City so I’ve seen homeless people, but I never thought about the ones who are 35 dollars away from being on the street.”

    Despite his success shooting on the iPhone for “Tangerine,” Baker shot “The Florida Project” in 35mm for aesthetic and personal reasons. “I’m known as the iPhone guy, and that’s great, it’s part of the democratization of filmmaking,” he said. “But I’m a cinephile. I know there are very unique characteristics of film that you cannot get with digital, no mater what anybody says. It’s the responsibility of a filmmaker, if you have the means — and if you don’t, by all means, shoot on an iPhone — to push for keeping film alive.”

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    Baker cites Italian neorealism, particularly DeSica’s 1948 classic “Bicycle Thieves,” as the major influence on his naturalistic films that combine seasoned actors with nonprofessionals. “There’s a nice chemistry between [veteran] actors and first-timers,” he said. “Even after five films, I don’t know how it happens.”

    His attraction to fresh faces (he discovered Vinaite on Instagram) initially made Baker wary about casting two-time Oscar nominee Dafoe, easily the biggest star that Baker’s directed to date. But Bobby is the “connective tissue” that holds the film together, so he needed an actor who was both experienced and up for adventure.

    Dafoe, he said, “is globally known but he’s so transformative and such a great actor that it only takes seconds for you to stop thinking ‘Willem’ and start thinking ‘Bobby.’ He knew he was going to be surrounded by first-timers and kids and he was willing to be patient which, thank God, he was, and thank God I was working with a gentleman.”

    “Sean looks like a kid and he’s sweet like a kid but he’s very accomplished. He’s done more work than most people know,” said Dafoe, who was in Toronto for a day before flying back to Australia, where he was shooting “Aquaman.”

    DaFoe’s research for his role included meeting with some real managers of so-called welfare motels. Bobby, he said, “is just doing his job. He’s the best thing these kids have . . . he’s one of them. There’s this beautiful tension between him wanting to cut them some slack and wanting the place to run smoothly.”

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    The actor embraced the challenges of working with a newcomer like Vinaite and a scene-stealer like Prince. “I’m in this game to be awake and to make things,” Dafoe said. “So to work with people who are bringing something, who have a personal stake and are a little reckless, it’s liberating for me. . . . It takes you closer to clarity and to the bottom line of what connects us.”

    Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.