Sep 16, 2010

Conversation: Sean Baker, The Prince of Broadway

First things first: This post marks the end of the longest posting draught in the short history of this little film blog. Its been a very busy summer. Its my hope to post on a regular basis again starting this fall.

Lets play catch up, shall we? Sean Baker's Prince of Broadway was one of my favorite films among the contenders for the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You prize in 2008. After winning at Boulder, Torino, Woodstock and Los Angeles film festivals during its long festival run, Baker's film was nominated alongside his previous feature Take Out for the Independent Spirit's John Cassavetes Award for the best film made under $500,000. At Hammer to Nail, Michael Tully called the films' "two of the finest American social realist pictures of recent memory." It opened a couple of weeks ago in New York and last week in Los Angeles.  Here's a chat I had with Baker via email last week.

CEC: Both of your films visit underrepresented corners of the city to reveal immigrants living on the margins. What draws you to these type of tales and how specifically did Prince of Broadway come about conceptually?

Sean Baker: I would say that I am drawn to tales of the city in general.  Being that NYC is so diverse, and in many ways an immigrant city, I always found it unfortunate that there remained many groups and cultures underrepresented in New York cinema.  I think my last two films are a response to this feeling.  With Prince of Broadway, I didn't want to cover the same territory that Shih-Ching Tsou and I did in Take Out. Being undocumented doesn't define somebody. It is (hopefully) merely a temporary legal status. I knew if one of the lead characters was an undocumented immigrant, the film would be much less focused on their plight and more with how their status effects their everyday life.

Prince of Broadway stemmed from my desire to shoot in the wholesale district of Manhattan.  Associate Producer and actor, Victoria Tate, and I spent many months in the research phase, interviewing and socializing with the men who work in the wholesale district.  At first, I wanted to write a story about a rivalry between two shop owners on Broadway... similar in style to a film such as Wayne Wang's Smoke. One day, while making rounds in the area and interviewing some of the West African hustlers who make their money selling counterfeit goods, I came across Prince Adu (working a legit security job). He was the first person who showed genuine interest in what I was doing and, within a couple of minutes, expressed to me that he wanted to act and bring the story of a west African immigrant to the screen. I realized two things at that point.  One, I wanted to broaden our story to focus on the life of a West African in this district and two, Prince Adu would play that role.

We still did not have a story however. At some point, someone asked me why I wanted to shoot in this area.  I answered by saying that even though I’ve lived in Manhattan for close to 20 years, every time I enter the wholesale district, I feel that I am experiencing the city for the first time… almost through the eyes of a child. It was at that moment that I realized that placing a child in the center of this chaos would not only be dramatic, but hopefully get the audience to experience the area the way I do.

I had just wrapped up the IFC's 2nd season of Greg the Bunny and decided to use everything I made from the show to make the film. I asked Darren Dean, a friend and fellow filmmaker, to come aboard and co-write the screenplay with me. Victoria, Darren, Blake Ashman-Kipervaser (Associate Producer) and Stephonik Youth (Production Designer) set out as a team and moved quickly to take advantage of the winter months. The title of the film was obviously inspired by Prince Adu's name. It seemed appropriate and further calls to mind New York films that I personally love - Prince of the City, King of New York and The Pope of Greenwich Village.

CEC: How did you find financing?

Sean Baker: I have been incredibly lucky to be a part of the Greg the Bunny franchise which has made it possible to self-financed my films up to this point. The budgets have been very low, plus I do not have a family to support so I have been able to take chances. Also, I must mention the film festivals that provided generous cash awards. Prince of Broadway was mastered and prepped for release with the monies received from the Los Angeles, Canary Islands, Vladivostock, Woodstock, Torino, Belfort, and Cleveland Film Festivals. The film would not have made it to this point without the festivals.

CEC: The most visceral sequence in the film for me is when Lucky is given his would be son by his ex-girlfriend while trying to sell some bags to tourists. It had to be a tricky scene to pull off.

Sean Baker: From day one, we referred to this scene as the "operation baby drop." It was one of the few scenes that I had blocked out and shot-listed. We had filming permits so it wasn't as tricky as it may appear. The one thing I didn't expect was the cheering and applauding from the on-lookers across the street. When the NYPD came to check our permits, they would chant "PO, PO, PO PO!" It added so much to the chaos that I shot it and worked it in to the scene.  This film is all about happy accidents.

CEC: At what point did Lee Daniels see the film and how did you make your way from the festival circuit to distribution?

Sean Baker: We received a couple of offers after our festival run. However we felt that the money wasn't good enough given the period of time that we would be licensing the film. Elephant Eye Films came on board to do our foreign sales. They had just released Sebastian Silva's The Maid and I was very impressed with their line of films. When they offered to release the film, I jumped at the opportunity. Deliverables took a little awhile because I was in production on MTV's "Warren the Ape", plus I had to swap out alot of the music. Erick Sermon, from the famous hip-hop duo EPMD, came on board and generously provided me with six original tracks. We finally mixed and mastered the film and here we are.

Lee Daniels originally saw POB as a judge at the Independent Spirit Awards. We were nominated for the John Cassavetes award. I spoke with him shortly after the event and we discussed the guerrilla filmmaking style employed in both Take Out and POB. David Robinson from Elephant Eye was a producing partner with Lee on The Woodsman. Plus, they are the foreign sales rep for Precious so when the idea came about that Lee could possibly "present" the film, all it took was a call from David.& Lee generously agreed to lend his name to the project to help it along.

CEC: What were your influences when conceiving the project? I kept thinking of the Dardenne Brothers while watching it.

Sean Baker: The Dardennes were most definitely on my mind, as were Ken Loach, John Cassavetes, Lars von Trier and Jerry Schatzberg. The one film that I was thinking about the most while making POB was Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. I don't think that is in anyway apparent when watching my film.  The influence had less to do with the style of filmmaking and more to do with Abel's utter willingness to push the envelope and take chances.

CEC: How did you go about finding performers to play Levon?

Sean Baker: Levon is played by Karren Karagulian. I have known Karren for over ten years and know he has the potential to carry a film. He was in bit parts in my previous features and in a short that I produced and edited. I hope to work with him again very soon.

CEC: You serve as your own cinematographer and editor. How does wearing all those hats inform your directorial style? Obviously you retain a tremendous amount of control.

Sean Baker: Yes, I will always want to participate in the editing of my films. I see editing as 50% of direction. With POB, I made a two hour and five minute cut and then worked with my team to streamline it to one hundred minutes.

Cinematography is something that I have done on my last two films because of budget constraints.  I simply couldn't afford a DP. I even credit myself as 'shooter' out of respect for the true cinematographers out there. Looking back on both films though, I am happy I made that decision. With Take Out, Shih-Ching Tsou and I had to remain so clandestine that if we were any larger than a two person crew, the jig would be up. With POB, I think it was very important that I was doing camera operation because it allowed me to be very intimate with the actors. In some scenes, it was only the actors and I in a room together.

CEC: In what ways are filmmakers and hustlers essentially the same species? Watching your film again, I couldn't help but account for some similarities.

Sean Baker: Hustling has many definitions and at times refers to illicit affairs.  When filmmakers use the term "beg, borrow and steal", in actuality the most we ever steal is a shot or two. Most of the time, we hustle, that is by trying hard. Indie filmmaking is about hard work, persuasion, high energy and not being afraid of living hand to mouth.

Jun 3, 2010

Mar 26, 2010

On The Eclipse

By Evan Louison

Conor Macpherson's work has never offered itself to an American audience without the caveat that Ireland’s mystery, its people and its traditions, would always remain one step beyond American's understanding. Yet in all his work, Shining City and The Seafarer included, there exists a universality that transcends this cultural and geographical. The same can be said of his latest picture, The Eclipse which like Shining City contains a widower plagued by ghostly memories of his bride and like the The Seafarer maintains the conceit of a heaven that can be reached if you live a good, rich life.

McPherson's tale focuses on an Irish shop-teacher/widower named Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) who volunteers as a runner at the local literary festival, shuttling writers of certain famous (or infamous) ilk, back and forth from their quarters to the various readings and events at which they are expected to shine. All the while, mysterious spectral figures and noises haunt him, growing increasingly explicit and over-gored, resembling his institutionalized father-in-law, his late wife’s father, who strangely enough, is still alive. Michael leads the lonely life of a single father, nobly carrying on his work for the festival, secretly writing stories of these haunting visions. And remembering his wife and the suffering she endured before her death from cancer, which appears to be the source of all his nightmares.

It is here in the context of these late-night visitations and the ongoing festival that he stumbles across a quite beautiful writer, Lena Morelle, with whom he slowly falls in love (a brilliant Iben Hjejle), and her not-so-beautiful or pleasant to be around ex-lover Nicholas Holden, the darling of this literary set, self-important et al, played in an annoying, brash tone by Aidan Quinn. Mr. Quinn is not to be found at fault here, he’s brought great emotional and honest performances to the screen in the past and will again, it’s just that his character, a gauche, bravado ridden, pompous ass of a writer is so obtusely written, that the cards are tipped immediately, we read quite clearly that we are intended to hate him, and have no real choice in the matter of choosing. In this, the story falters, disappointingly, and we are drawn more and more to distracting elements of reality that seem hokey or modern than the underlying mystery of the supernatural that Mr. Macpherson clearly hopes for our sense of intrigue to be spurred by.

The most beautifully composed part of the story happens about three quarters the way through, when a harrowed and spent Michael, exhausted from the rush of demons never ceasing to plague him, and a quite unnecessary and ugly fight with Nicholas, awakes in the light of the morning to his dead wife, looking as she did at death’s door, sitting at the edge of the bed. She changes before our eyes, looking younger, more vibrant and full of life, as she must have when Michael first met her. She pulls herself closer to him, a soothing touch of comfort amid the storm of his story, finally a ghost of solace. It is a touching, all too real moment, note-worthy, and of the picture’s finest. It contains in it the essence of the story I believe Conor Macpherson wanted to and perhaps set out to tell: One of loss, of the paranormal, of memory, and eventually, of some kind of resolution.

Ciaran Hinds turns in another graceful turn as his warmly welcomed, perennial, brooding everyman. The wonderful, underexposed Danish actress Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity, The Boss of It All), with her innate ability to quiet and punctuate a scene, no matter how violent, no matter how dominated by men much larger than she, is equally fine. However as the rivalry between Hind's modest, small-town Irish Joe and the arrogant American author reaches its crescendo and the visions become more explicit, and more reminiscent of Evil Dead and its descendents, the piece comes unhinged. The film has the ability to scare, this much is true, but not to leave us affected in the way it would like to.

Mar 3, 2010

Rotterdam comes to BAM

I didn't get the chance to cross the pond last month for the 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam. Damn recession. This irked me to no end, in large part because I regard the festival as the world's most intricately programmed cinematic event, one that invites both traditional crowd pleasers (Slumdog Millionaire screened among the hundreds of titles at last year's affair) and works that stretch the boundaries of cinematic representation in bold and innovative ways (I missed Lav Diaz's 8 hour Melancholia last year, but from those who forged their way through it, I hear it's a trip). The IFFR is an indepensible event of the cinematic calandar and I look forward to making my way to that surprisingly inviting Dutch port city in the future.

Lucky for me and Brooklyn cinephiles in general, BAMCinematek has forged a new partnership with the indelible Dutch film festival of record to screen its Tiger Award competition features as part of an annual program to take place each March. As one of last year's IFFR Young Film Critic Trainees, I had the opportunity and obligation to see all last year's competition films, a group that contained some pleasant surprises, but no real revelations. Still, it was an honor and a privilege to sit on the FIPRESCI jury (even as a junior member with only a partial vote). We ultimately settled on awarding our prize to Edwin's outlandish and subversive Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, a choice which as time passes I'm even more satisfied with than a year ago.

I'm happy to report that Rotterdam@BAM, which begins tonight with a screening of Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's much lauded Mexican feature Alamar, includes a group very impressive competition films. Although I haven't had the chance to see all of them as I did last year, several among the works I have had a chance to see stick out as the work of incredibly promising new filmmakers.

Set along the beaches of Costa Rican resorts, Paz Fabrega's Cold Water of the Sea shared the Tiger Award with Alamar and Anocha Suwichakornpong's methodical and illusive Mundane History. It is a ravishing and quietly moving little story of the unlikely encounters between a local family that is supported by the tourist economy and a young couple who are staying at the resort within which the family makes a living. Centering on the wayward seven year old daughter of one of the maids and a young, malaise filled woman who wets her bed and fears diabetes, it is a film that contains not a single uninteresting image. Fabrega withholds just enough to keep us off kilter and searching within her frames for clues to these people's lives. While she evokes the stylings of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Lucretia Martel, her unlikely milieu and careful mise en scene lack any sort of familiar derivation. This could have easily devolved into a simple tale of the bored bourgeoise and the watchful underclass, but the picture transcends these expectations and leaves one quietly refreshed and delighted.

Insidiously disturbing and yet almost never less than great fun, Georgian filmmaker Levan Koguashvili's Street Days centers on a middle aged Heroin addict named Checkie (an absolutely brilliant Zura Begalishvili), who spends most of his time trying to score with a small pack of equally ravaged older men in a small Georgian hamlet where everyone knows everyone else's business. A peppier, less formally austere take on the themes of Police, Adjective, Koguashvili's film shows great empathy for this broke and and unskilled junkie and his cohort while reveling in the corruption which grips the town from head to toe. Busted by the cops, Checkie is forced to score heroin for the son of a prominent minister (and his former childhood classmate) in order for the police to shake down the goverment official. The moral conundrum which ensues is handled with great delicacy and much humor, but their is no escaping the sense that this is a diseased place, haunted by the fall of the Soviet Union and the introduction of street capitalism.

Perhaps the most formally challenging film in the competition, Chicago based filmmaker Ben Russell's Let Each One Go Where He May is made up of thirteen shots that each run ten or so minutes. Shot in Suriname, its quiet investigation of the places upon which the international slave trade was formed is built for maximum glide. It's a moving postcard of both the modern and indigenous aspects of that country, a film that asks you to truly take a journey into the past with it in ways that the most ornate historical biopics can only flail at. Make sure to watch it on a full stomach. I'll be on hand for the 2pm Sunday screening to discuss it with director Russell.

Feb 4, 2010

On Promised Lands

Shot for five weeks during during the waning days and aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Susan Sontag's first and only documentary Promised Lands is one of the most perceptive and troubling looks at the seemingly never ending Arab-Israeli conflict. Of her four films, it's the one she considered her most personal; history has revealed it to be her most relevant as well. Promised Lands is part visual poem, part cinematic essay. Its an overwhelmingly sad work, yet one which treats both sides with something approaching empathy and fresh intellectual engagement. It dispenses with title cards and objective voice over, dwelling instead on the daily activities of soldiers and civilians, both inundated with the psychological effects of war.

Intellectuals and physicists fill in the ideological gaps on both sides of the debate, but the film's engagement with the literal conditions of war is its most profound aspect. People of both faiths continue to pray to their God as soldiers lie on the fields of battle, graves yet to be dug. PSTD suffering men reenact their worst nightmares for sympathetic male nurses. Palestinian children go to and from school in the Gaza Strip under the watchful guard of armed Israelis.  While containing quite a bit of hard information and no small amount of political editorializing on the part of its interview subjects, it is these  images, some as haunting as any I've seen in a war documentary, that allow this work to stand the test of time as none of the prodigious author's other film output has. It opens tonight at Anthology for a week long run. 

Feb 1, 2010

An evening with Jim Finn tonight at MoMA

One of the best films I saw this year at Sundance was Dane Mads Brugger's The Red Chapel, a madcap peek inside the repressive walls of North Korea that won the World Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize on Saturday. Tonight, another filmmaker who has made a highly unusual film concerning that befuddling totalitarian country will visit MoMA. The museum's An Evening with Jim Finn will include a screening of the the versatile filmmaker's mindbending faux North Korean artist colony doc The Juche Idea and a couple of short films, Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (2009) and la loteria (2004). I first encountered Finn's work while sitting on the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You panel. We admired Finn's startlingly original concoction, but it wasn't ultimately one of our finalists. Still, there seemed to be a general agreement in the room that The Juche Idea was one of the most intellectually rigorous of the films we saw; of course, it would struggle to find audiences. The film follows a South Korean filmmaker who ventures into the great repressive north to revive the legendarily campy Juche cinema sponsored by that country's mad cinephile in chief, Kim Jong-Il. Using the techniques of Asian propoganda, verite documentary, B sci-fi interludes and various pits of archival footage from North Korea cinema, Finn leaves Kim Jong-Il cinematic platitudes in tatters, exposing with vicious satire the excesses and dangers of ideological purity mixed with maddening self-delusion.

Jan 5, 2010

The Most Overlooked Movie of 2009: Exhausted

It's the one nobody told you about. The one you missed. The one you may never get to see. Yes, even in this age of Netflix Instant Watch and streaming everything, there are films that lurk in the shadows. The Most Overlooked Movie of 2009 is one of them.

Developed in the his bathtub, South Korean director Kim Gok's Exhausted, which went quietly into the Dutch night after a World Premiere in Rotterdam (it had its US debut at the Syracuse International Film Festival of all places), was the most unforgettably terrifying narrative film I glimpsed in 2009. I counted fifteen walkouts at the P&I screening I first caught it at; I had just seen the brutal and brillant Tony Manero (not sure how that didn't land on more best of 09' lists) and thought there was no way I was going to get anything more readily stocked with human cruelty than that, but two hours later the world looked a little different. Exhausted is auteur cinema that stretches the limits of decency about as far as I care to stomach, reimbuing the term horror film with potency and sacrilegious inventiveness. It was certainly too much for most serious festival audiences outside of typically adventurous outposts in the aforementioned Dutch port city and Kim's homecountry turf at Pusan. While transcending the level of porn (it does not hope in any way to arouse or titillate; heavens help those that it does) or snuff cinema (with its sublime trash aesthetic and lack of actual death), it maintains the stench of the merely profane. Gutter Cinema was avant-gardist and IFFR stalwart Kevin Jerome Everson's preferred moniker after seeing Gok's painful, essential film, but it's an oddly graceful if ultimately unforgiving gutter.

An unnamed pimp and prostitute/girlfriend live and work in a dive apartment where men on the outskirts of a destitute, unnamed, post apocalyptic South Korean city come to have sadomasochistic sex with the flaccid, semi-retarded woman at the film's center. They have a domestic routine of sorts, eating cheese sticks and porridge, attempting to fetch new bowls and silverware, taking walks along a dirt and industry strewn beach that inevitably turn into yelling matches and fights. They occasionally go and hang signs that read "We have girl". These excursions lead, of course, to more chases and hysterics, which play in a madcap, outrageous way in Gok's gauzy, wide compositions. Eventually a homely young woman takes notice of the prostitute's powerlessness and after one of many escape attempts on the part of the whore, rescues her from her provisional refuge among trashed tires on a beach, but she too has intentions for the young woman that prove to be the most degrading and disturbing of all.

The first spoken line of the film is "You have a lot of shit in your stomach", a line which pays off quite unexpectedly, at a moment late in the picture, once your stunned mind has been convinced that this terrifying film can't get any more horrifying. It pretty much sums up what's on display here. This is the dirt cinema we've been looking for since Paul Morrissey; A by product of not just Morrissey but of filmmakers as varied as the Kuchar brothers and Takashi Miike, Exhausted exists on its own plane of depravity in the annals of modern narrative cinema, but unlike anything else that might fit that description, it is not without its share of plainly expressed truths about codependency and that small desire for self-destruction that exists in many of us.

The desperate inarticulateness of the characters and the rough, gauzy Super 8mm images make the surroundings seem as threatening for this woman in peril as they did for Monica Vitti in Red Desert, of which this is some sort of perverse remake, another film of sexual malice amidst the ruins of modernity. Yet where the green clad temptress of Antonioni's filmic universe could find some small salvation in her child, the only children in the land Exhausted share the color of Ms. Vitti's jackets, one which expresses a small oasis of hope in the cesspool of the industrial West in that film, but only affirms life's passing and pain in Gok's uncompromising picture. It has a visual rigor, a representational courage and a discomforting amorality that are rare even in these nihilistic times.

The test of watching it certainly seems like no mere empty provocation; I've glimpsed the entire thing once in a cinema and two or three times on a screener in the last year and I've yet to come to full terms with its mix of the grotesque and the sublime, the deranged with the even more deranged. It is truly the bleakest film I have ever seen.

Taking Off w/Forman on hand tonight at Film Forum

Wrapping their Madcap Manhattan series tonight, Film Forum will screen Milos Forman's often name checked but rarely played debut American feature, Taking Off. Perhaps the Czech wildman's most formally off kilter narrative, it features Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin as a pair of squares searching desperately for their daughter, who has disappeared into the bohemian East Village with various lefty and druggie types. Made long before Forman entered his "cinema of quality" phase (something even the most uncompromising or inventive European directors have always halfheartedly embraced or furiously struggled against when coming to America), it's a small dynamo of a film. Having recently screened at one of Cinema Nolita's final weekly screenings, tonight offers the chance to see it in a rare 35mm print with Mr. Forman on hand before the 7:20 showing.