US Highway 192 – one of the main routes into Disney World Orlando – is a strip of bootleg merchandise stores and garish motels. The tourist trap would appear an unlikely spot for this year’s most magical looking movie, but in The Florida Project (the new film from Tangerine director Sean Baker), the 15-mile stretch to the magical kingdom is a fantastical wonderland of wizards, castles and oversized oranges and ice cream.
The Florida Project sees life on the strip in Osceola County through the eyes of six-year-old Moonee (played by Oscar tipped Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who lives with her 22-year-old mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker found on Instagram) at the Magic Castle Motel. To Moonee, everything is enchanting, even if the reality is less of a fairy-tale. The family is homeless and the Magic Castle Motel caters more to the dispossessed than those in search of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Baker’s social realist film chooses to magic the child’s world view out of this bleak reality, instead letting the film mirror Moonee’s experience of her world with its explosion of pastel colours. “This film is through the eyes of a child. It’s not just real, it’s a little bit elevated,” says production designer Stephonik Youth. “All the colours are exaggerated in the way they were when you were a kid, everything tastes and looks more vibrant.”
When production began, Youth’s problem wasn’t that everything looked rundown; it was quite the opposite. The film’s co-writer Chris Bergoch was initially inspired by trips along Highway 192, but it was many years before he and Baker got financing to shoot The Florida Project. In the meantime, the area had been cleaned up. “When Chris was researching, the whole area was a lot dirtier. We were shooting when it was getting beautified,” explains Youth, who is also Baker’s sister. “I had to take it back to the five years prior when it was in much worse condition.”
Youth began a process of grunging up the locations like the Magic Castle Motel, but was careful not to tread on the sensitivities of the accommodation’s real life residents. The place of the film’s key set pieces is – like most buildings in The Florida’s Project – a real life, commercial operation.
By the time they came to shoot, the Magic Castle Motel had undergone a lurid paint job. Another location the team wanted to use had been rebranded Paradise Inn, so Youth had to create the ’50s futuristic signage for their imagined motel, Futureland Inn. But the new lick of paint at the Magic Castle Motel proved inspirational, giving Youth a colour scheme she could run with. As a result, the film is a unicorn birthday cake of hot pinks, mint greens, egg yolk yellows and perfect blue, courtesy of the Florida skies. “That colour and vibrancy was a blessing in disguise,” she recalls.
The Orlando location offered a number of equally cartoonish architectural gems. Moonee and her two friends Jancey and Scooty hang out in front of Orange World with its dome top resembling the fruit. On their adventures, they march by Wizard Gifts (a Disney merchandise knock-off store with a Dumbledore style magician façade), and they dine on the goodwill of others at Twistee Treat, an ice cream stall in the shape of a cone and an American soft serve tradition since 1983.
In other moments, the children’s imaginations do the work where the consumerist fantasy stops. They find adventure in pastel coloured ghost town apartments; they go on a Jungle Book style safari in lush green fields. Occasionally the magic on screen cast a spell on the shoot itself; the scene where a perfect rainbow appears above the Magic Castle Motel was not CGI, but an actual weather phenomenon.
Moments like this play out like the tastiest Instagram posts. It’s not entirely coincidental given the way Youth operates in her space. “Every frame I wanted to look like a beautiful photograph; I was constantly running in and out and placing colours in a strategic way even though I wasn’t framing but I was working very closely with the cinematographer for every frame to be fantastic like Disney but have it grunge and grit.”
Cinematographer Alexis Zabé puts this another way, describing the aesthetic as “blueberry ice cream with a sour twist”. Because for all The Florida Project’s beauty, there is also truth. “We did see the families moving all the time from the motels across 192,” says Youth, of the adult issues behind the fantasy. “You’d see families with shopping carts full of their stuff with their kids. So that’s there.”
The Florida Project is in cinemas from 10 November