For the past decade-and-a-half, cinematographer Sean Price Williams has been a staple of the New York indie-film scene, lensing features for (naming just a handful) the Safdie brothers, Alex Ross Perry, Michael Almereyda, Robert Greene.
The Sweet East finds Williams moving to the director’s chair with a script from film critic Nick Pinkerton. Deliberately provocative and very funny, The Sweet East begins with a Pizzagate sequence that separates high-schooler Lillian (Talia Ryder, Never Rarely Sometimes Always) from her classmates in D.C. From there she drifts throughout the Northeast, mingling with a cast of outsiders who all take a special, often sexual interest in her, among them a disorganized band of Antifa-esque punks, an over-eager filmmaking duo (Ayo Edebiri and playwright Jeremy O. Harris), and closeted Neo-Nazi academic Lawrence (Simon Rex).
Fans of Pinkerton’s film criticism and Twitter account will be pleased by the wordsmithery of his dialogue, especially Lawrence’s extended monologues on D.W. Griffith and Edgar Allen Poe. That dialogue is married with silly visual gags, including an outrageous, Troma-inspired massacre sequence. The Sweet East never takes itself too seriously, and doesn’t ask you to either. But the movie is not cynical, Williams tells me. He can’t stand cynical people or art. (The opening audio featuring the Pledge of Allegiance should clue one in on where this film’s heart lies.)
The Sweet East premiered at Cannes in the reimagined Director’s Fortnight section this spring, but to Williams the real prize was always playing the New York Film Festival, which happened later in the fall, and where we talked on the rooftop of their EBM Film Center. With his NYFF screenings wrapped, Williams traveled to a Phillies playoff game the night before our chat. His voice completely lost from the shouting one does at a sporting event in Philly, he spoke directly into my recorder in a quiet, raspy tenor.
The Film Stage: Looking at the still and the poster, it reminded me of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits. It has a similar grainy quality, and Talia kind of looks like Emily Browning. Then I realized the leads sing in the beginning of both movies.
Sean Price Williams: That’s right, she does “New York Groove.” Shit, did I rip it off?
Did Alex say that?
No, he never said that. But he did say that something I said at the Q&A was something that he said. He’s always ready to give me a hard time. But I would definitely be very upset if I thought that I did take anything from him. Or that I’ve learned anything from him.
You were looking at Walerian Borowczyk posters.
I had a more grand idea for the poster, and we didn’t get it together in time. It’s painted. So basically Match Factory said, “What kind of posters do you like?” We had Borowczyk posters all around us where we were editing, because he’s my guy. So we said, “Well, how about something like this?” That’s what they came up with. It is pretty close to those posters.
Transitioning to the director’s chair, were there things like “I’m pretty confident I can do this” and other aspects that were more of a question mark?
It wasn’t that different for me. I knew I was insecure about building relationships and trust with actors. We became friends, but that always happens. That’s normal. But to be able to tell people, “Can you do it more like this or that?” Knowing how to talk to actors––I’m still insecure about it. Sometimes I would tell Talia something and it just seemed to confuse her. Then Craig Butta, the producer, would have to come in and clarify what he thought I meant, to make sense to a person that isn’t me. I’ve known Craig for 25 years, so he knows me very well. He used to be an actor, so he knows how to talk to actors. I still have a lot to learn in that regard.
But as far as directing, I was doing it just like I always do––I just didn’t have anyone to answer to. I did it how I would do it if someone else was directing: I take the camera and figure out how to best block scenes, choreograph the scenes––things like that. I have to do it there with the actors, because I don’t have a brilliant vision for shots; I don’t think that way. Maybe there’s one scene that I know, “Oh, it would be amazing if we did it this way,” but for the most part it’s pretty much on the fly, like I normally do it.
Were you clocking things as you’re working with other directors––“Wow, that’s a unique way of doing that”––or the opposite, where a shoot is a trainwreck and you learn what not to do?
I have issues with all of the directors I work with at some point or another. But also, I’ve learned from most of them… even Alex Perry. Being deliberate and rigorous about getting it right: it’s work. It’s not all fun. We had a lot of fun. But sometimes it’s like, “OK we actually have to make sure we get this right.” I’ve learned that from seeing which films that I’ve worked on be successful. It’s always the films that we did try a little harder and were work. Good Time was a lot of work.
Was Good Time your first time doing helicopter shots?
No, I didn’t even do those shots. I suggested they use helicopters because they were talking about doing drones, and it was the wrong tool. I said, “No, it’s gotta be helicopters.” They didn’t know if they could afford it in the budget. I didn’t end up going up, because the more people you put in helicopters, the less agile they are. So it was the operator that came with the helicopter and Josh who went up, and then they directed through walkie-talkies to the car. They could’ve done it easily somewhere else, but they wanted to do it right where they wanted to do it, which is right by the airport. You’re not supposed to fly helicopters there. It could’ve been good enough, but Josh and Benny always have to push everybody a little bit harder. That’s something I wouldn’t say I admire, but I think it’s important. I do want to bring that: just push a little harder.
No helicopters in this movie, though.
No. I did helicopter shots in a couple other things years ago. I like being in a helicopter. I don’t like the way drones move; they’re slow. We did some drones in this thing that I just did in Scotland. We put a 16mm up. I had not done that before, shooting film from the sky. It’s nice. I didn’t want the camera to move on a gimbal. I don’t like those movements; they’re awful to me. It’s the same with a lot of rigs people use to stabilize handheld––those are really terrible-looking things. We had a couple Steadicam shots in our movie, and I usually don’t like that either. I kind of regret having Steadicam in there at all. It should’ve been handheld or dolly or something.
What were the Steadicam shots?
When Lillian escapes from being locked up and she’s walking down to the tents, that’s Steadicam. There’s maybe one other, but most of them we cut out because I just can’t get into it. It’s a specific tool and I just didn’t think it was the language that we were speaking.
The lighting is so unique. There’s a tangible fuzziness. The light from the Juul seems to fade into the device, for instance.
Again, I don’t go in with a strategy. I talked to Danny April, my gaffer I’ve worked with on a million things. I’ll throw at him a movie that I’ve just watched. Before the first shoot, I watched the Sting documentary Bring On the Night, and the way he’s shot in the interviews looks beautiful. It’s an outrageously good-looking movie for what it is. I was like, “Danny, this is what I’m going to do.” Nothing in our movie looks like that, in fact, but it’s just so we get the tools and the right lights. I didn’t want to use a lot of LEDs, but we did because we had to move fast. Plus our crew was young, and they’re learning. There’s a little bit of a school of film, a school project feeling to the movie: first time this, first time that. Me as well: first time directing.
A lot of people are apprehensive about working with first-timers. But you seem very into that idea.
It’s more fun to work with people who are trying something out and they’re also trying to prove themselves: to themselves, or to me, or to their parents––I have no idea. But they’re not just doing things automatically. They don’t have set ways of working. I’m like that. If I start to use the same camera or the same lenses every time, I would be bad at what I do. There’s some lighting decisions in this movie that make no sense at all, but people call them out to me and I like that: “I have no idea why there’s a green light in his truck when he’s driving her away from the massacre. It’s not real. It wasn’t thought-out very much.”
You act as one of two cinematographers on the film and you pulled your own focus. Where did the idea for doing that come from?
I asked my former New York City camera assistant to work on the film. He was unavailable, so instead of trying out someone new, I decided to pull my own focus. It should have been the decision from the beginning, but I was afraid it would distract me. The 16mm documentary filmmakers were certainly doing all these duties. In fact, it is their films that bring me the most courage and inspiration still. No matter how many times I watch the “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” performance by Otis Redding in Monterey Pop, my heart rate accelerates. Pennebaker letting his shot play out, feeling him find the shot, makes you feel absolutely present on that stage. It’s generous because he lets you in on the process and is profoundly moving to me personally.
How did you approach the pacing and rhythms of the story? Is that something you and Nick worked on in the script, or later when you’re shooting or editing?
It was hard to get it. I would love for Nick to publish the script––like 500 copies at Metrograph or something––because it’s intentionally structured very challengingly. Right when it’s supposed to end, when you feel like it should wind down, there’s another chapter and another chapter. And we shot all that. I wanted the scene with Rish [Shah], the Mohammad character, to be especially slow, especially quiet. Right when you want the movie to end, you’ve got to sit through this whole thing. And then there was a dream sequence after that; that was probably the most expensive shoot day in the film. I insisted it be in the film, but again: it’s exactly when you want the movie to end. We cut a lot of stuff out just because we decided maybe to give the audience a little more of a break [Laughs] and stop being such assholes.
The editor, Stephen Gurewitz, is one of my closest friends. We lived together for years. We would get into fights during the edit, because I felt like I was selling-out when we were cutting things out. There was a bit in the center that was hard to find the shape of. A lot of it was because I wasn’t doing a great job directing. Tempo and stuff like that was not always considered when I was making decisions on set. Again, I’ll learn.
I’m impressed with the comedic timing of the jokes. It’s not just in the writing, but also performances and the delivery.
When we were making it, I considered what we were making a comedy. A lot of people were like, “Oh, it’s really hard to make a good comedy.” I said, “Yeah, all right, fine. Well, we are making one so who cares.” Then we made it, and in the edit I was like, “This isn’t a comedy at all actually.” I got really upset about that. We played in Cannes, and there were some laughs, but mostly just from people that were with us. It wasn’t until we showed it here this week [in New York] that I realized it is a comedy. Thank God. Because I had only seen it in foreign places with subtitles, with a translation––it just was not working as a comedy. But here it did, and I’m happy.
Because Nick and I just make each other laugh. That’s most of our friendship: just trying to make each other laugh. Or we argue about what a good film is. But it’s mostly just: he cracks me up. He’s one of the funniest people that I’ve ever met and he’s so smart. That was why I wanted to work with him, and I want to do it again, I hope. The next one is… well, we’ll see. It probably isn’t the next movie we make, but there is one that we’ve had our heads on for a long time.
A script from Nick?
Photo by Sean DiSerio, courtesy of New York Film Festival.
I talked to Paul Verhoeven about writing satire and he said it’s just him and Ed Neumeier in an office cracking each other up: rolling on the floor laughing, trying to one-up each other.
Exactly. Nick and I had this train ride from Baltimore. We got to Penn Station and sat at both of the bars there for hours, figuring out this movie. We were just trying to get more and more outrageous. That was it. That was how it was written. I mean, he wrote the script––it’s his script, no question about it––but it was a process that we did together.
With Nick’s role on set, was there a hierarchy? “I know you think that, Nick, but as the director, we’re going in this direction.”
It’s kind of rare that a writer gets to be on set. But Nathan Silver had his co-writer Chris Wells on set for Thirst Street. It was great because we were rewriting the movie as we were shooting it, because the writers were there. So I wanted Nick to be around. At first I thought maybe he would have opinions on what I was doing and we might have some friction, but he never did. He never stood in my way or anything like that. He said, “Look, it’s your part now, so you do it.” There’s a couple lines in the movie that I know he wishes weren’t, [Laughs] but they were my inclusions.
I was going to mention that, because I know Nick doesn’t like Earl Cave’s line, “This seemed so much bigger when I was young.” But that got a big laugh at my screening. I think the joke is early enough that it clues you into the tone of the movie.
I think it’s totally appropriate. There’s lots of visual gags, too, that are mine that Nick rolls his eyes at. But that’s fun. The copy of Mein Kampf filled with old candy was my idea. It meant a lot to me, and it’s never gotten a laugh. I have issues with the film, of course––and he does––but that’s what’s going to make us want to make another one.
I was thinking about Lillian having sex in the beginning of the movie acting as a key point to not make it a question about whether or not she’s going to lose her virginity, to not make it this journey of a virgin.
The beginning of the movie was always that. Is that her first time having sex? Nick and I talked about that. Did she just lose her virginity? We didn’t land on a yes or no. When you put a girl in situations with guys the whole movie, it’s obviously what’s going to be at stake here. Is she in danger? Is there sex involved? So we get it out of the way at the beginning. Then the scene with Lawrence, they don’t have sex. Originally they did. But I didn’t like that. I thought that it would be destructive to the film.
There’s a great quote from Nick on an old Film Comment podcast. About Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day he says, “It’s also about a very universal difficulty, trouble every day, which is: if you are a human being with any kind of pulse and any kind of sex drive, you are in constant agony because it’s absolutely miserable stuff, dogging your every step.” And I saw that same idea in Rex’s Lawrence character, just him longing after her.
Yeah, but Nick has a lot more sex than I do in real life. Maybe that’s why in his version he wins, and in mine he loses.
The other night at the afterparty, I asked you what movie would be the best introduction to your work as a cinematographer. You said Thirst Street, which I confused for a moment with The Great Pretender.
But The Great Pretender would be equally interesting. Both of those movies are just wild. I just did another movie with Nathan Silver this year [Between the Temples] that I’m excited about. The thing with Nathan is: the more outrageous you present something, the more he’s going to like it. His movies are wild because of that. Just to see Nathan smile is a great satisfaction. On The Great Pretender we really went for it. We had some dumb pieces of plastic that we were shooting through the entire movie that just made it complete mush and colorful. It was a lot of fun and liberated. That film and Christmas Again, because I did that one alone and it worked out well. It’s very pretty to me.
Do you see The Sweet East as cynical?
No, no. I remember when Happiness came out, I hated the movie so much. I was 20 maybe, 22. I recognized a cynicism there and it revolted me. I can’t stand cynical people. I know people think I am sometimes, and it’s absolutely not true. I’m not even sarcastic––I don’t tell sarcastic jokes or anything. When I made Frownland with Ronnie Bronstein, our whole thing was to not be cynical and to really be human. Even though it’s a harsh movie, it’s not cynical. I don’t want to ever come across as cynical.
I think Nick is a very earnest individual as well.
Yeah, we both are. He’s extremely sensitive and earnest for sure. I think it’s a fairly optimistic film. It is “just a movie,” but I can say––with the same sincerity that I tried to bring to all the characters––that I think a movie can make a real difference to people. But it has to be direct and not loaded with cynical side-steps.
Camera: Aaton Super 16mm XTR and LTR
Lenses: Canon 8-64mm S16 lens, Zeiss Super Speed S16 primes
Lighting package: Total mixed bag of new LED lights that need a lot of improvement and some larger Aputure LED lights that are great. And certainly a sweet dedolight kit
Colorist: Jason Crump and Ian Bostick at Metropolis Post