Moving Pictures
Dec 07, 2023, 06:28AM

The Ecstatic East

Sean Price Williams on his new film The Sweet East, playing this weekend in Baltimore.

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NICKY OTIS SMITH: Seeing The Sweet East felt ecstatic and immediate—like an orgasm, or a grenade. I took it as a kamikaze film, but you've called it optimistic—is there hope in oblivion, “a journey into light”?

SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS: I think breaking rules and being free of formula is ecstatic. We watch so many screwy movies made by screwy heroes and maniacs that I’m lost in the right and wrong way to do anything. But if it’s feeling familiar or formulaic, then I get upset. And there are a couple scenes in the finished film that are normally covered, but I like the performances in them, or the lighting is so wrong that I can live with them.

Because we made the movie entirely as we wanted to, and that we all had so much fun making it, I can’t help but feel optimism—optimistic about the film, and optimistic about the possibility of making more films so pleasurably. I don’t know about kamikaze. While making it, we all felt it was special and hoped that the joy of making would be felt by the people who watch it.

NOS: You and many others have lamented the abysmal/non-existent state of film financing in the United States. What's the best case scenario for filmmakers trying to work with $100,000 or less in the next decade?

SPW: I never thought any human would ever trust me with a film budget of any size. I think age and the combination of Nick, Craig Butta, the producer, and myself just seemed right. We pretended we were going to make the film with zero hope for several years. We faked it ‘til we made it, really. I’ve shot feature films for much less than $100,000. And the less money there is on the line, the more the filmmaker should experiment. There’s nothing worse than an inexpensive movie trying to look like a studio film. Be social. Recognize good people. Trust instincts. I think one filmmaker working today that exemplifies artistry, outside of the budget conversation, is John Wilson. He’s made these films for years, almost exactly the same way, with or without HBO. Absolutely pure vision. Technically harmonized to the heart of the films. Also beautiful tributes to America. He should get a National Medal of the Arts. The Ross Brothers also make really great films with whatever means they have available. They’ll always surprise and inspire me.

NOS: I think the movie has gotten a lot of disingenuous criticism. I don't know how anyone can walk out of this film and honestly say it's unrepresentative of America today, or say that it's “shock for shock's sake.”

SPW: It’s a tough time. People are dropping like flies. And the ones left are looking to connect any way possible. I’ve avoided internet social networking very easily as it never suited me. I don’t want to get into some old man’s perspective on what’s wrong with our country in some general way here. Our film is a diet satire. Every time it may feel real, we break from that with a little fantasy. It’s not a documentary, but I think it’s relevant and hope it makes people talk to each other with passion. It’s ridiculous how the internet has given people this feeling that they are so informed. It’s crazy. Very grown-up people suddenly standing for things that meant nothing to them 10 years ago. Authorities on political values and systems and histories suddenly. I don’t think there is any shock for the sake of shock in the film. Every surprise is there to facilitate the adventure.

NOS: A negative review from Slate: "Lillian doesn’t really qualify as a misanthrope, because she doesn’t seem to believe in anything. And neither does The Sweet East, except, maybe, that believing in something is for fools, for the pathetic, for the pretentious, for the ones who have been scammed and scarfed into it." This is a desperate and passionate film—how do you respond to people who’ve called the film and the filmmakers “indifferent”?

SPW: Well, a lot of what I love about our country is the passion that I’ve already mentioned. And the creativity and imagination we need to live in these times. We need to take positions, if only to have a dialogue which can lead to understanding all sides. It just can’t be about being right. That’s where we fail. We wouldn’t make a movie about people that don’t care. The dudes in our film are all smart and serious about something. It doesn’t mean that Lillian should care about the same things. But she measures her interest in their interests, and gets out when she wants. Lillian comes from a place, and family of people, who do not care about much, so she is simply affected by meeting people who do care. I think Nick and I very much relate to this experience as teens ourselves. I’m reluctant to over-explain how to watch a movie, but it’s pretty obvious to me that we don’t insist on Lilian always telling us her feelings throughout the film.

NOS: I grew up in Tribeca going to the UA Union Square, the Loews Village 7, Village East Cinemas, Clearview Chelsea, AMCs on 19th and in Kips Bay, and the Regal/UA Battery Park. Do you have any fond memories of any of these chain theaters or is it all mush compared to the city’s bevy of rep and first-run theaters?

SPW: I grew up in Maryland in a town that lost its only newsstand and both movie theaters around 1987. My film consumption was VHS and late-night TV. Cable didn’t reach us, but I read TV Guide cover to cover to make sure I wasn’t missing anything while sleeping or at school. When I was 18, I was driving between Baltimore and Philadelphia to see anything even remotely foreign, anything that was even British. We had a Regal in Delaware. I have fondness for these chains. My friends all worked there while I started my video store employment. I saw Rumble in the Bronx five times opening week. I went to watch the shootout scene in Heat over and over. I’d see anything with Gwyneth Paltrow several times.

I moved to Baltimore to work at Video Americain and take film classes at UMBC. The Charles Theater was the main jam. Seeing cast members from John Waters’ films serving popcorn meant that the legacy was still active. It was still one big screen and could be dirty or classy depending on the crowd and film. I got to see Buffalo ’66 and Gummo there. And The Senator was the place for some grand events. I’ll never forget seeing Saving Private Ryan there on opening day, around 10 a.m. I was the youngest person there by 40 years.

The Orpheum in Fells Point, run by George Figgs, was amazing. 16mm rear projection. I can still smell the place. Chocolate and soda. They’d rent prints from New Yorker films, so I could finally see the Ousmane Sembène films that weren’t yet on home video. Imamura, Kiarostami. As well as The Crimson Kimono... I discovered a little passion for Zachary Scott from a screening of Ruthless. The Mansion was another venue for alternative, truly independent films. Skizz Cyzyk, with the Micro Cinefest, was an important figure. It was a very healthy scene. I moved to NYC at the end of 1999. I guess I made the opposite move from yours.

I was at the Toronto Film Festival with the Video Americain guys when 9/11 happened. It was very abstract and as impossible for me to imagine as anyone who wasn’t there those days. I’m sure you know New York has changed a lot. Some of the theaters you mentioned are gone. But we have so many new ones that I really love.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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