The Florida Project: Structure Without Structure

The Florida Project: Structure Without Structure

This week we are going to be talking about The Florida Project, by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.

I am so excited to be talking about this film, especially a week after the Oscars, because this is a film that probably should have been competing for Best Picture. Bria Vinaite probably should have been competing for Best Actress, and Sean Baker probably should have been competing for Best Writer and Best Director.

If you haven’t seen The Florida Project yet, I am going to try to avoid spoilers until we get to the end, and I’ll give you some warning first.

What Sean Baker did in this film, like what he did in Tangerine, if you listened to my Tangerine podcast, is really quite inspirational for any writer and quite complex, in its structure and its form. Sean Baker shot Tangerine on about 600 grand. He shot it on an iPhone– a feature film shot on an iPhone! And he shot this movie in a budget somewhere around 2 million dollars.

So these are extremely low budget films. Beautiful, successful, powerful, low budget films. Which is very exciting if you are an emerging screenwriter.

As an emerging screenwriter, you can take the success of The Florida Project as a sign that you can do this yourself.

You can do this yourself at a very high level, and you don’t need a lot of money.

Here is Willem Dafoe, who has obviously done some huge movies, who isn’t doing this film for the money– who is doing this because someone has written a beautiful role that he just needs to play. And seeing the performances that Sean Baker, second time in a row, has gotten out of these extremely inexperienced actors—Bria Vinaite along with little Brooklynn Prince, who gives one of the finest performances you could ever ask for, and she is seven years old– shows you just how much you can do with very little if you have the right script and the right actors.

I also want to talk about the form and the structure of The Florida Project. Because The Florida Project is not put together like most movies we see at the theater.

Rather than hurling us into the action, or into the plot of the film, it just kind of drops us into a world. And lets us wander with the characters through that world, watching their lives as if we were living them.

Watching The Florida Project is like watching Beasts of the Southern Wild in pastels.

You might feel like you’re just drifting through a world, but you’re actually being propelled on an extremely powerful journey, into the experience of some extraordinarily compelling characters whose lives are changing forever, and whose journey will change the way we see ourselves and our world.

The Florida Project is an incredibly hopeful film that takes place in a world that should be filled with despair.

It takes place in a rundown motel just outside of Disney World, where a bunch of low income families are attempting to raise their children in these tiny little one bedroom motel rooms.

The movie is primarily seen through the eyes of children, and it centers around a really complicated and beautiful relationship between six year old Moonee, who is played by Brooklynn Prince, and her mother Halley played by Bria Vinaite.

Moonee is not quite old enough to recognize her mother’s problems, her destitution, her desperation, her drug addiction, her violence, her despair. Instead, she sees her mother through the eyes of any child– through these beautifully idealistic, Disney World, pastel eyes. This child who is having the time of her life, in her own private Disney World with absolutely no supervision, and absolutely no awareness of the danger that is all around her.

And what is gorgeous about this film, what makes us feel connected to these characters, is not that these characters are perfectly good.

Because the characters in The Florida Project are not perfectly good– not the kids, and not the parents. They’re not all doing all the right things all the time. Sean Baker is not “saving the cat” here at all.

Because what connects us to these characters is not that they’re doing the right thing, but that they’re coming at life with an open heart, from a place of love.

And what is really beautiful about all these characters, no matter what their problems, no matter how misfit they are for being parents, all of these families, all of these people, are coming from a place of love. They all love their children. Some of them are terrible with their children, but they all love their children. They all want them to have better lives.

And Halley, in particular, is as fun of a mom as you could ever want. Halley is open to anything, completely non-judgmental of any behavior that Moonee chooses to engage in. She loves and accepts her child exactly as she is, and all they do together is have fun.

Of course, Halley is also stoned out of her mind all the time, struggling to make ends meet by mooching meals off of her one employed friend, ripping off tourists on fake perfume and worse, and running a lot of other scams that are incredibly unhealthy for both her and the people around her.

But Moonee doesn’t really see any of that. We see it, from a distance, in the same way that Willem Dafoe’s character, Bobby, sees it.

Bobby is the incredibly harried manager of this crappy motel, who is like the father to all these troubled children who live there and to all the parents who live there as well.

We see these fractured family units where there is no one to watch the kid, where it is impossible to watch the kid, have a job, pay your rent. And we follow the kids as they run wild through a summer of fun, in a dilapidated world just a stone’s throw away from Disney World.

And even though The Florida Project appears to have no structure, you are absolutely never bored.

So how do you build structure that doesn’t feel like structure?

Because in 80% of The Florida Project nothing is happening. 80% of the movie we are just watching a bunch of kids play together. And yet, we don’t feel like it is amorphous or structureless. In fact, we feel totally drawn in and compelled.

So what are those techniques that these writers are using and that this director is using to pull us in?

The first technique Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch use in The Florida Project is the power of visual storytelling.

And I am not just talking about the incredibly beautiful shots, and the incredibly beautiful costumes, and the incredibly beautiful mise-en-scène of this piece in the way it is shot. Because that is compelling and powerful, but ultimately, if that is all you have, you end up feeling like you are in an art gallery. It is fine to look around for a little while, but people tend to browse for a few moments and then they tend to lose attention.

What actually roots us in these characters also isn’t just the great performances. And, yes, the performances are fabulous. And, yes, these characters, even these kids, are fully alive on the screen. But guess what? That isn’t what roots us into these characters either.

What actually roots us into the characters in The Florida Project is a screenwriting and directorial concept called vignettes.

As I’ve discussed in depth in earlier podcasts, a vignette is a moment of visual action that captures the essence of the character from the very first moment we meet them.

What Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch do such a great job of in The Florida Project is using those vignettes to provide an underlying structure for the character’s journey.

They root each of these characters in action, allowing us to immediately understand who they are and what they want. And then they attack those desires with obstacles, to force the characters to make new choices. No matter how small the choice may be, there is always a goal and there is always an obstacle that leads to it.

As an example of this, we are going to look at the opening sequence of the film, which culminates in a spitting contest.

We are watching a bunch of kids and they have a very clear goal, their super-objective is to have a good time and that is what they do for most of the movie.

They do it in a way that we wish we could. I wish my childhood was as much fun as these kids’ childhoods, although I would never trade my childhood for their childhood either.

But, these kids are living in a magic kingdom, in a place where there are no rules and there is no responsibility, and there are no consequences. And, in that beautiful magic kingdom, they start the film. And they are practicing spitting from that balcony of a neighboring motel onto one of the resident’s cars.

Oftentimes we think as we are writing, “if I am going to start my movie I need something really big,” but the truth is you don’t need something really big, you need something really small.

You need something really small that the characters really want to do; in this case the characters really want to spit on that windshield.

And it needs to connect to a super-objective, which is they want to have fun. Then you need an obstacle. In this case the obstacle is the neighbor, who comes out and screams at them and tells them to stop.

And what happens? The kids don’t stop; in fact, the kids don’t care at all. The kids end up cursing her out and spitting all over her car and all over her and all over her kids.

So, in this case we have a bunch of kids, and all they want to do is spit on the car of this resident of the neighboring motel. And they don’t even probably know the resident; they are just enjoying their little spitting game.

They have a want and they are rooted in the action and it is visually fun to watch. And we watch them do a verb. Not sit around in a state of fun, but rather doing the verb, the little goal, the little task that is going to pull us through their story today.

And what happens is, the obstacle of the chastising neighbor forces the kids to reveal their how: how they are different from any other children. And what we start to get is structure.

So what’s their how? Most kids, if an older woman came out and started yelling at them “get down here!” would flush with shame and come down and accept their punishment. But these kids have a completely different how, and their how is rebellion.

These kids, who have absolutely no fear, who have absolutely none of the societal constraints of any children that you’ve ever met, start cursing and spitting on that older woman, and then promptly run away.

And even though this seems like it’s a little nothing episode, what it actually is, is the beginning of a structure. Because it has all the elements of a structure. It has a character with a super-objective– a big want. It has a tangible goal that is rooted in an action. It is confronted by an obstacle. The character reveals their how and they make a big choice.

And this is what leads to the next little beat of structure, which is that Bobby the manager gets alerted by the neighbor that these kids have done this terrible thing. And he goes and knocks on Halley’s door.  

Halley, at this moment, is also rooted in action with her daughter. They are having a great time together, and Halley is puffing on a cigarette. Bobby comes in, and he is an obstacle to their fun.

The average mother, having found out that her child has done something wrong, would punish her child, or criticize her child, or chastise her child, or yell at the child. But not Halley. She also has a unique how, which she reveals from this very first vignette.

Halley defends her kid.

Halley doesn’t give a crap about society’s rules, she doesn’t give a crap about the neighbor. And it is only when Bobby forces her that she reluctantly agrees to have the kids help out.

Which leads us to a new want. “Okay, we want the kids to clean up this car.” And the kids’ super-objective is to have a good time. And, what could be just a really boring scene becomes a really fun scene, because Halley is going to do it, but she doesn’t really agree. And the kids are going to do it, but they are having way too much fun doing it, which creates an obstacle for the neighbor who wants them punished.

And then, to make it even more fun, the neighbor’s kid wants to help! Because she wants to connect with the other kids, creating a new obstacle that shows a new how.

And before you know it, those friends have actually connected, and the girl who was spit on now has a friend, and we actually have a structure driving us forward into the story.

So, nothing has happened except a bunch of naughty kids have spit on a woman’s car. But what we actually have is the beginning of a relationship, the beginning of a story.

We have The Normal World of a mom who has no rules, of a manager who is trying to do the right thing in a world where even the parents are children, of the neighbor, a grandmother raising her daughter’s kids, trying to impose some kinds of rules and morality in a world that doesn’t have any, trying to punish a bunch of kids who simply cannot be punished because they truly don’t care.

And what we are going to watch– again, and again, and again, and more, and more, and more– we are going to watch these kids have the time of their lives! We are going to feel like we are just drifting through time, but we are actually going to have structure, because the characters are going to come into scenes with wants. Every little game is going to have a goal. Every little game is going to have an obstacle. Every little game is going to have a completion. And even though we are just kind of drifting, it doesn’t feel like drifting.

Now, would that be enough?

If you are writing a screenplay can you simply have a bunch of little episodes that barely string together? Can it just feel like a summer where today we are going to play this and tomorrow we are going to play that, and the next day we are going to play something else?

Well, yes. And no.

Like with any screenwriting, it all comes back to theme. You have to ask yourself, does this fit my theme? What is the movie really about?

When we look at The Florida Project, what the movie is really about is that moment where you finally realize that Disney World isn’t Disney World.

It is about lulling us into a nostalgic childhood that gets punctuated by a moment that we can’t process, or that we don’t want to. It is about seeing the world through the eyes of a bunch of kids who can’t really see the bleakness of the situation around them.

It is about looking at the world through rose colored– or pastel colored– glasses. So, it makes sense that the movie should feel like play.

And at the same time, if all we had was play, it wouldn’t be enough. And therefore we need structure.

We’ve talked about scene-structure: the structure of these little scenes that allows even these little moments to hold together and move us forward. And we’ve talked about how those scenes can start to be stringed together to create a journey for those characters. But, we are still left in a world where nothing is really happening.

And that means we are going to need some turning points. We are going to need some big moments in what I call the hot relationships of the film.

The hot relationships of the movie are going to be the way that we tell the story to ourselves, and ultimately the way that we get moved or failed to get moved by the movie.

And there is no doubt about it, this is the story of Moonee and Halley. This is the story about a child losing the dream of her “perfect” mother. This is a movie about the fish bowl getting shattered. This is a movie about living in Disney World and the moment you realize that it isn’t.

So, how does that work?

What we need are to see the punctuating moments of the downward progression of this relationship.

And what is really special about The Florida Project is that these punctuating moments are handled elegantly and without a lot of fanfare, without a lot of drama.

We don’t see the emotional agony of the parents; in fact, we don’t even see the decisions getting made half the time. Rather, we see them through the eyes of the child. They barely register for the child, but they register for us, and we are seeing the relationships change.

So, when we start off, yes, we have a mother who is high all the time. But she’s got a good friend, and she has a loving relationship with her daughter. And she’s got a good scam that she is running which keeps her in food and shelter.

All Halley wants is to pay the rent so she can stay in her motel room. And for Halley, a single, very, very, very young mother, this is really the hardest thing in the world.

And all that Bobby wants: he wants Halley to pay her damn rent. And he doesn’t want to have to kick her out, because he is actually a caring person. But he has a boss, and he has got to get the rent from her, and she doesn’t have it.

So, we watch Halley get herself a job. Now, the job she gets isn’t a legal job, because her how isn’t a legal how. She is never going to play by society’s rules. Instead, she is going to buy a bunch of fake perfumes and she is going to sell them to tourists at a nearby hotel.

But that’s going pretty well, and she and Moonee are bonding, and they are having a great time together, and they are making money, and she is paying rent… and then her territory gets taken away.

And this isn’t a scene structure. This is an act structure. This is a movement in which we have watched a progression as a character found a solution to a problem.

And then one little moment changes everything!

A security guard catches her, takes her perfume, she almost gets arrested. She can’t go to jail again. She can no longer sell at that nearby hotel. And she will never solve that problem in that way again, she now needs another way.

The next thing that happens is she loses her best friend, because her friend’s son and Moonee end up accidentally burning down the neighboring abandoned housing complex. And her best friend decides that Moonee is no good for her son.

Now, is this really Moonee’s fault? Probably not. And we are basically thinking, “Wow, I mean, I get it, you’ve got to protect your kid, but a little judgmental don’t you think?”

Because we know this kid is just as much of a troublemaker as Moonee. And because there are things that we don’t know, because Moonee doesn’t know, and we don’t actually realize that this character has her reasons.

And, once Halley’s lost her friend, she also loses her source of food. So now it isn’t just about paying the rent. She can’t get the free food anymore because her friend, who works at a diner, isn’t willing to give her free food anymore. And we are thinking, “Wow, I get it, but man that is rough!” Because it wasn’t really Moonee’s or Halley’s fault about the burned down housing complex. But again, her friend knows something that we don’t know.

So, Halley has got another obstacle, and Halley responds to that obstacle in the way that only Halley would; she reveals her how once again.

Her how is to go to her friend’s restaurant and order everything on the menu, and force her friend to bag it up and rub it in her friend’s face.

Halley’s way is to pull power on her friend. And we watch the slippery slope– now she has lost her friend for real. And that loss is going to bring her to the next loss, as she finds a new way to pay the rent, a way that Moonee is not aware of, and even we—the audience—aren’t fully aware of (even though we suspect, just as Bobby suspects, just as her former friend suspects).

And that slippery slope leads to a confrontation between her and her former friend, and that confrontation leads to violence, and that violence leads to revenge, and that revenge leads to Protective Services being called, and Protective Services being called, ironically, leads to Halley cleaning up her act, and giving her drugs away, because she doesn’t want to lose her child when the inspection happens. And that small step in the right direction ironically leads to the devastating conclusion of the film…

Just a warning that there are some spoilers ahead…

Because all this is leading up to the moment where Moonee is taken away from her mom, and her “perfect” childhood is changed forever.

And what is so powerful about this movie is that we are allowed to fall in love with Halley.

We are allowed to fall in love with this drug addicted prostituting teenage mother. We are allowed to fall in love with her the way Moonee is in love with her.

Seeing her through a child’s eyes, feeling the fun and the love even in this troubled relationship, even as we get glimpses of the problems. Even at the moment when we see the shocking violence pent up in this sweet young girl, when Halley brutally beats the friend she feels betrayed by. And we, just like Moonee, want to stay in Disney World. We want to believe that we are living in a pastel dreamland. We want to believe it is going to be okay. We don’t want to look at the societal problem.

And what is beautiful is that Sean Baker doesn’t show us the societal problems by getting on a soapbox and saying, “this is what happens!” He shows us with simple images– images in which we are seeing how many kids are living at this motel, how many parents are struggling with exactly this problem, how many people! Not bad people. People trying to do the right thing, but doing the wrong thing.

And like Moonee, we want to stay in Disney World.

Which leads to this beautiful ending where Moonee escapes from Protective Services and runs to her friend’s house—that very same friend that she met right at the beginning—and when those tears burst through at what she’s about to lose forever.

And she takes off running with her friend, in a sequence that may be real, or may be pure expressionism, somehow out of the dilapidated streets of her motel home and into the perfectly manicured ones of Disney World. Past the smiling happy white couple, down the main street of Disney World, and towards that magical iconic castle…

You can interpret the ending of The Florida Project in any way you want.

We may want to believe, just like Mooney wants to believe, that they have slipped through Disney’s security and will somehow find their way back to that perfect childhood.

But at the same time, there’s a part of us that knows that there is no way back. That she is actually being taken from her mother one way or another, and moved to some kind of foster care, and that whether she returns to her mother or not, there is no way this story can ever have a Hollywood ending.

And the entire structure of the film, as loose as it may seem it’s all been built for this one purpose: so that we can feel the devastation of losing that perfect childhood, at the same moment Moonee is feeling it.

Structure isn’t about A leads to B and B leads to C and C leads to D. It’s not all about the plot.

And don’t get me wrong, plot can be important. And if you are making a big Hollywood movie, a big action movie, maybe we can even say that it should be important.

But structure doesn’t have to be a totally linear experience. Structure is actually just five things—a want, a need, an obstacle, a how, and a completion. And all it takes is for a character to keep coming to those completions– to keep coming to those moments of choice– to give us the feeling that we are moving through the movie.

And that happens at the moment level, and that happens at the scene level, and that happens at the act level. It happens over the course of the movie, because a movie is just a simple story about a hot relationship, about a bunch of characters trying to get something they desperately want, and going on a journey as they try to get it that changes them forever.

***

Since we’ve been talking about out-of-the-box films, I would love to take a moment to tell you about two new classes that we are now offering at the studio and live online for our students.

           

The first one is called The Inner Game and it’s about getting past those blocks that cut you off from your best writing and into your characters at your creative source. It’s taught by Audrey Sussman, PhD, who is an extraordinary hypnotherapist who actually uses hypnotic techniques to get you past your creative blocks, your career blocks, the thinking that gets in your way as an artist. And it combines that inner work with the outer work of hypnotic writing exercises that get your writing flowing at will.

We are also introducing a new class called The Writing Lab for our more advanced students. It’s a once a month class where teachers both from inside and outside the studio will bring their most cutting-edge techniques. It’s 6 hours of writing exercises and one month you might be doing hypnosis for writers, another month you might be doing meditative writing, another month you might be learning to attack your writing through improv or dialogue or philosophy or psychology. But it’s a place for our teachers and our guest lecturers to bring the kinds of writing exercises that they have always wanted to explore and to share them with you and it’s a place to generate a tremendous amount of pages not from the conscious place but from the subconscious place.

So those are two very exciting additions to our program. If you would like to check them out, you can find them on our website WriteYourScreenplay.com

Over his years in the entertainment industry, Jacob Krueger has worked with thousands of writers, actors, and other artists in pursuit of their artistic goals. Jacob is an award winning screenwriter, playwright, producer and director. Jacob’s screenplay, The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) won him the Writers Guild of America Paul Selvin Award and a Gemini Nomination for Best Screenplay. The NBC film, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (And the Band Played On), and produced by Goldie Hawn, was based on life of gay hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard. The film won Stockard Channing a SAG Award and her first Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Sam Waterston a Gemini Award for Best Supporting Actor. He has collaborated on original film musicals with Tony Award winning composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon) and with four-time Academy Award Composer Michel Legrand (Yentl, The Thomas Crown Affair).

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