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"The Florida Project" Director Sean Baker Talks About Film's Lasting Impact

Image: Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in the film “The Florida Project”.
Image: Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in the film “The Florida Project”.

Director Sean Baker’s critically-acclaimed 2017 movie “The Florida Project” brought audiences into the world of an impoverished six-year-old and her mother living just miles from Disney World.

On Jan. 23, the filmmaker will return to Central Florida as one of the Winter Park Institute’s featured guest speakers at Rollins College for its 2018-19 season. Baker joins Intersection to discuss the lasting impact of the film and the severity of the homelessness epidemic.

The film tackled the issue of “hidden homelessness” in America, which describes individuals and families who frequently jump between temporary housing situations — like budget motels, RVs and family members' couches.

Baker said that he was both surprised and intrigued to learn about the scope of the hidden homelessness problem when his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch brought the idea to his attention.

“Living in New York and L.A. for a while, I think like all of us I thought of homelessness as people you see on the street, and that doesn’t entirely define homelessness in the United States and in the world. There’s a population of the hidden homeless which are people who are technically homeless but [are] still struggling to keep a roof over their heads at any cost,” Baker said.

The decision to set the movie in Kissimmee, near the theme parks, was deliberate for Baker and Bergoch. Baker said they wanted to show that homelessness is a problem that can occur anywhere in the country while removing the stigma surrounding it.

“To know that there were families who are technically homeless living within miles of a place that we consider almost a paradise for families and children — the irony was just so in our face that we couldn’t ignore it,” Baker said.

“The Florida Project” premiered at the 2017 Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and the film was a life changer for the cast. Child actor Christopher Rivera, who played one of the friends of the film’s young protagonist, was living out of a motel before being cast in the role of Scooty; Rivera was later offered a full future scholarship to Rollins College.

“You know, everybody says, ‘Oh, the success of your film is William Dafoe being nominated for an Academy Award.’ I mean, yes, that’s nice. But for me, this film is about truly changing lives, and what it has done for Christopher is what I’m most proud of,” Baker said.

A Conversation with an American Filmmaker  takes place at the Bush Auditorium at Rollins College on Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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