To the untrained eye, The Florida Project would appear as nothing more than another indie flick — a festival darling, in fact — that stands in stark contrast to the tentpole blockbusters The Walt Disney Company pumps out almost exclusively these days. While that's all true, Walt fans might also pick up on the clever Disney reference in the title. That (oft-misunderstood by the film press) tie-in comes courteous of the film's co-writer and producer, Chris Bergoch. He, along with co-writer and director Sean Baker, not only conceived of a story that would take place in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom but also shot the film on location in Kissimmee, Florida.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Bergoch about how he developed and injected authenticity into his script, how he and Baker went about casting the film's young stars who star opposite Willem Dafoe, and if there were any other Disney easter eggs us fans should look out for when the film opens this October.


Kyle Burbank: So, I know you and Sean like to keep things close to the vest, but could just give us a brief overview of what you think the story of The Florida Project is?

Chris Bergoch: I would say that it's quite simply just the story of children growing up in the shadow of Cinderella Castle in homeless families that are struggling to make ends meet and how the kids find magic and adventure despite all that in their own unique way.

KB: Obviously the title The Florida Project refers to Walt Disney World and I know that that's also not an accident in this case. My question to you is, which came first: the title or the story?

CB: So the title, for sure. Well, wait a minute now let me think about that. How about just the spark came first. The spark of the idea, it was 2011 and my Mom was living in Kissimmee almost on the border of St. Cloud. When I would go to the theme parks while I would be visiting her, I was driving along 192... I remember one of the times I was down there… all these kids were playing in one of the motel parking lots and they didn’t look like tourist kids or anything like that. They just were playing.

I just kept driving home after that and I told my mom about it and she said, “Oh yeah, there are families that are living in those motels, it’s such a sad situation.”  She knew about it from just living there and I was like, “What?” It tugged on my heartstrings.

Once you took note to it, you start seeing more and more of it... So there was no story yet, but that's when I knew that would make a good backdrop for a story. Also, the title is sort of a play on words, thinking about ”the projects” — you know, subsidized apartment buildings.

KB: After that spark, how did you come to write the project and bring it to life?

CB: Well. I had written up a little three-page or four-page document way back in 2012 and what's fascinating to me is I recently went back and read it. So many things stayed exactly the same and we always had a little girl protagonist. We always had this very ... I said I'm not gonna get into detail but we always had a very, very, very specific ending, I’m talking about this last sequence of the film, and that last scene never changed but the overall story evolved quite a bit from the original. Basically, once Sean and I started doing research trips, that research informed the story and so we would learn specific details from the people living there and we would take it and sort of reshape the story around something that we heard from them that would be interesting, versatile.

I’ll even tell you a detail like one of the things that Sean and I had heard that we couldn’t even believe was that some of the people that are living in some of those motels: they're not allowed to establish residency there, it's against the rules and what has to happen is once a month you have to pack up all your belongings and vacate the premises for just one night and then check back in the next day. And it seems really silly but it's just sort of one of those loopholes of how they get away with living there but you can't really you know, stay there for more than 30 days. So it was kind of sad because all these people are just, they just want a place to live and they have to pack up all their stuff and take it out and then spend the night somewhere else. So things like that we knew we had to we work into the story, that’s an example of how our research can inform the storytelling.

Also, at one point, it was going to be about a boy and a girl having a little romance and the boy was perhaps going to be from another country and he was just visiting Orlando, and then I saw a movie called When Marnie Was There — a Studio Ghibli movie that was playing at the time and I thought, “What if we make it about two little girls?”

There was something about a friendship of two girls that seemed more appealing for the story we were coming up with and less cliché to me and Sean. But I guess that's in keeping with what we’ve done with Starlet and Tangerine too so now we have this trilogy that have these relationships between female characters and in this film you have the doubled relationship, you have Moonee's relationship with her new friend Jancey and you also have the relationship with her mother, Halley.

KB: Being familiar with that area, did you already kind of have an idea of some different places you wanted to shoot or at least kind of show before you headed down there?

CB: Absolutely. We hired great people to assist us with locations after we got rolling for production but we did many research trips and for the course of about, gosh, like two years, we would go there and spend a week at a time just immersing ourselves in the environment. So part of that trip was me taking Sean to all these places, because I had basically location scouted this whole film my entire life and I wanted to take him to the spots that I thought would be really cool and visually interesting to represent that area. Places like the Wizard gift shop and absolutely Orange World was at the top of my list. It's a place I'd been going to since I was four years old, and that’s back when they actually used to sell Orange Bird products in it!

So basically like lots of the kitschy, tourist gift shops along 192, I had loads of them. And there was this castle and it was I had never been to. It's on 192 when you're going in the direction away from Disney property and it looked like it used to be green and painted it white and turned into a bar or a club and then that shut down. We had sequences where they live at the Magic Castle and that was supposed to be the competing Castle and they had this whole imaginary backstory about how there used to be this battle at that other castle and they won and that’s why the other castle was all closed and abandoned and worn down, that stuff never made it into the film, but we just soaked up all these locations during the research process and had this huge list that couldn’t possibly all ever fit into the film. Sometimes it was due to just the need to streamline our script, which was reaching that 100-page mark, and other times it was due to things out of our control. We had places being demolished before we could use them in the film, US 192 staples like XANADU: Home of the Future which was high on my locations wish list, and another big example was the old “Splendid China” Theme Park which was just off of Route 192.  It closed in 2003 but stood there rotting away for over a decade and one of the earliest sequences involved Moonee taking Jancey to this abandoned theme park, and, using their imagination, they have just as much fun playing in the ruins of the former attractions as they would in the major theme parks nearby. But just as we were going into production, the last of the remains were all cleared out to make way for a new Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville-inspired resort. So blame Jimmy Buffett for not getting to see that magical sequence!

KB: As you just mentioned, the story takes place at the Magic Castle Motel, which is actually a real motel in Kissimmee and you guys shot there. Did you encounter tourists that were headed to Walt Disney World in addition to these people that were living there? 

CB: Surprisingly I did not see a lot of tourists. There were a few people that lived in the motel that became our friends and allies during the shoot, they were really cool. But yeah it's very interesting, you know I actually stayed at the Magic Castle way back, I think it was the 25th anniversary year, 1996 and what I would do is I would splurge and do two nights in a Disney resort — that trip it was the Boardwalk because it just opened — and then the rest of the trip, like five additional nights, I would go to a lower budget accommodation and for that trip it was the Magic Castle and I loved it. Because I just loved how it was just this castle that was purple and awesome.

KB: Did you actually get to meet with some of the people that lived there ahead of times, like during your research trips?

CB: Less Magic Castle people and more people at some of the other motels in the area. Lots of times we'd go, Sean and I and producer Shih-Ching Tsou would just, would just drive up to these motels and we would, you know, people are always hanging out outside their doors, just walk up to people and start talking to them and telling them what we were doing and lots of times, they don't want to talk to you at all and they're just like, "What are you talking to me for? Get out of here." But then we would go to other motels and get people that were more than willing to just open their arms and tell us whatever we wanted to know.

We would take them out to lunch and ask them about their life there and what brought them there and you hear heartbreaking stories over and over again, and we did our best to give roles to as many of them as we could.  The role of Bertha is an example of that.  Then in addition to some of those people that we talked to, there was one fellow named John who was a manager at one of the motels that’s now also closed. He was a fantastic resource and definitely inspired bits of the Willem Dafoe character. We always had the character of Bobby as this manager, like a caretaker type but hearing John’s stories gave us more insight into the types of frustrations someone in that role could face on a daily basis.

For instance, there's this sequence in the film, no spoilers, but there's a sequence in the film that we basically wrote around the first time we met this guy, Sean and I went to the motel grounds to look and there were kids in the playground, so we didn't know this but he saw these two guys lurking around the kids on his monitors and he came out there ready. He had a bat in his hands, or wait, I think it was a drill actually! He was like, "Can I help you?" And we were just like, "Okay we were just here to talk, can we talk to you about this film we're making?" And then immediately, he knew we weren't gonna be trouble or what he might have thought we were gonna be and then he just kind of let his guard down and said, "Sure come to my office." But he was ready with that drill.

KB: One of the calling cards of yours and Sean's is kind of finding these unknown talents; people that have never even acted before and bringing them to the screen with great results. So, in Starlet you h the late Besedka Johnson who was 80 years old, never acted and she had a role in the film. Then you had Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine — the latter actually won a Spirit Award for her performance. And then I know I've heard in this film, Bria Vinaite, Sean  found on Instagram, but I wanted to know about the kids. Was that more of a normal casting process or is another thing that you just kind of happenstance?

CB: Wow. So that's really a good one because the character of Jancey who is played by Valeria Cotto, Sean discovered her in Target on 192. She was with her mom in Target and he just approached her and Ive her Mom and basically told them, “We’re having casting calls this week for kids, we’re looking for kids.” I guess it was her bright red hair that made her stand out as someone that Sean had to just try because you know, you try to get a contrast and we already, were zeroing in on Brooklynn Prince who plays Moonee at that point so it would have been a nice contrast but also Valeria came in and was great in the audition, she was such a natural performer.

We did have formal auditions, we were lots of times auditioning in the motels themselves. We just posted flyers everywhere we could and had these local casting calls around the area and that's how Brooklynn came in, actually. So when Valeria came in, what's cool about her is a lot of the kids don't like to improv and these films are, we have a script but also we want people to just drift off the script, just stay on the scene ... What I like to say is that we color a picture and then we want to give them crayons and see what colors they're going to bring to the picture that they’re going to help us color in. Lots of times, you know remember I being in the casting sessions, it was me and Sean and Shih-Ching and we would just throw random stuff at the kids, like, "Okay you're at the motel and we're in the pool, but you guys think that's your pool and you want to kick us out. Go." So Valeria, she was one of those rare cases where she could just riff off that and you know, "Alright, it's time for you kids to get out, this is our pool, what are you even doing in this pool?" And it was just making us laugh and so that was I guess the secret of why she got the role.

There was one other girl who came so close, she made us cry... She comes into the audition and one of the things I threw at her was I was like, "Who's your favorite Disney princess?" And you just want them to talk and tell you stories. And then so she says Rapunzel, I ask why she likes Rapunzel and she says, "Well it's because I just feel lonely a lot and I don't really have many friends and I just feel like her when she's trapped in her tower." I was tearing up. So we managed to put her in the movie in a cameo cause she was so good and she needed to be in the movie.

KB: The movie opens in limited release on October 6th, just days after Walt Disney World's anniversary — is that also a coincidence? 

CB: When we were shooting the movie, I remember joking to Sean, “If we are ever in a situation where we are discussing who would come on as a distributor, we have to encourage them to give us a release on October 1st of 2017.” I wasn't even looking at the calendar back then, I didn't realize it wasn't a Friday or anything, but just basing it on the fact that that's when Walt's Florida Project opened. So then on a fateful day in June, it actually turned out that we were getting October 6th, the first date in the first week of October that would be a Friday and that was a dream come true and sort of Cosmic fate, and then furthermore, the fact that we're having our New York Film Festival screening, which will be our U.S. premiere on October 1st, so it just keeps getting crazier and crazier. Pure Disney Magic Synchronicity. Synchronidisney!

KB: So are there any, besides the fact that it's called the Florida Project and it's very close to Disney World, is there any little Disney cameos or Easter eggs that our readers should look out for?

CB: Well, we would be complete idiots if we are making a movie called "The Florida Project" and we didn’t include Orange Bird in there somehow, cause to me Orange Bird goes back to the days of leading up to when it opened October 1st, 1971 and just in all that early period of the park. And how Florida Orange Bird was a big presence in Adventureland, you know?

KB: Maybe on the Blu-ray release? Maybe we'll see some deleted scenes and stuff.

CB: Yeah, that would be really cool. But you know, there was still a lot in there that I think if you just happen to be bored one day and look at it a second time, you could probably find a lot of various things. If you look closely, you might notice little tiny things in the background… I would go up to mega-talented production designer Stephonik Youth and place little homages in, a sharp eye may or may not see Gill [Willem Dafoe’s character in Finding Nemo] swimming around among some toys somewhere. It seemed like the right thing to do! Willem was really amazing and healing with the rest of our amazing cast really “plussed" things, as Walt used to say. This whole thing has really been a dream come true. We open in limited release October 6 and then expand to more screens after that. I hope people get the chance to seek it out on the big screen and hope they enjoy this little adventure as much as we did creating it. And if we’re lucky, people will leave the theater and perhaps even be motivated to google search more information about the real Halley’s and Moonee’s out there. That would be the most magical of all.

The Florida Project opens in select cities on October 6th. 

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.