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.