It might come as a surprise to you, but “The Florida Project” was shot at a real motel in Orlando, Florida, with real people living at the establishment — and star Willem Dafoe thinks that was a big deal because it “informed everything.”
“It’s outside of Disney World and there are people living there,” Dafoe said during TheWrap’s Screening Series at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles on Thursday night. “We’d go knocking on their doors, asking, ‘Can you help us with this at a certain point? There’s going to be this cue and you’re going to open your door…’ People participated! It was really beautiful … It’s not like they were choosing the shots but they really set the tone, and you can’t make stuff up in good faith when they are watching you. They guide you.”
To research for his role of the motel’s manager in the film, Dafoe met a guy who used to managed the place. And initially, it was just to see how he talks and how he represents himself, but it turned into so much more.
“More importantly, and the really surprising thing, was his beautifully simple attitude towards his job, that he knew it wasn’t a great motel but he was going to make it the best motel he could and he really cared for those people and he had a pride even with his modest talent, he could make it better for them,” added Dafoe. “It’s not an empathy that’s worn on his sleeve; it’s practical, he wants to watch the ball game, he wants peace and he understands their sense of well-being affects him and his affects him.”
Because of the responsibility Dafoe has in the role of the motel’s manager, he doesn’t think this part is like anything that’s come before it. While he usually plays “lone wolves,” in his movies, he played someone who is “serving a community and playing a responsible person” in this one. And moreover, he worked with actors that are unknown — which he says was the only way to make this movie.
“I can honestly say that something about it was familiar, I mean, maybe from my work with The Wooster Group, we worked with kids,” he said. “The Wooster Group people weren’t trained, and we were making things with people that weren’t trained as actors… I’m used to this amateur aesthetic almost: you can go deeper with that, and for these actors it was my job to fit in with them. They were really setting the terms and that was the only way to approach this material — to shoot in a real motel. If we had a more high-powered production, if there were more recognizable actors, it would have made them shy and it would have made them anticipate the result and also the people living there wouldn’t have shared their stories and wouldn’t have been present to guide us and guided us in a certain level of authenticity … You can’t make all movies like this but for this material, it was the only way to make it. If we had more money or more trained actors, we couldn’t have made this movie.”
About working with the kids, including lead Brooklynn Prince, in particular, Dafoe called it a “parallel experience” because the kids were hanging out and getting sugar rushes and playing on set while also filming some of these detrimental scenes.
“I love these kids, but they were pain sometimes too,” Dafoe added, laughing. “That was reflecting the story we were telling. There was no acting involved — they were sweet. We all had to look after them because this was a new experience for them, so we had to make sure they felt safe and played and did things they loved to do without getting too hyped up.”
“The Florida Project” was directed by Sean Baker. Dafoe has been nominated for several awards for his role in the film, including an Academy Award in the category Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
Watch the video above.