Q&A with Sean Price Williams
Over the last two decades, Sean Price Williams has distinguished himself as one of New York’s favorite independent cinematographers. His expressionistic eye magnified the grimey qualities of Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (2007) to a scuzzy sublime and his subsequent work with the Safdie Brothers — The Black Balloon (2012), Heaven Knows What (2014), Good Time (2017) — reinforced his talent for finding beauty amid the chaos of New York daily life. Written by film critic Nick Pinkerton, The Sweet East is Williams’ directorial debut. It follows a young woman’s (Talia Ryder) encounters with weird pockets of America while traveling across the Eastern Seaboard.
The Sweet East is now playing in U.S. theaters.
Q. We read you asked film critic Nick Pinkerton to write a film focused around MAGA and punk rock. What about these two topics interested you when it came to making your directorial debut?
A. IT’S NOT TRUE! I saw Nick almost get into a fight with a bunch of teenage boys from the midwest on the subway once. It was pretty nerve-wracking. Nick loves the absolute worst punk music too. We have very different music tastes. Our conversations were pretty fast and filled with fantastic movie concepts. It’s impossible to identify the exact seeds of The Sweet East.
Q. What about the Eastern Seaboard inspired you to make a film about it?
A. It’s where I have spent my whole life. And I really do not see any of the places I have lived, outside of NYC, photographed faithfully. There is a lot of beauty, which I cannot even pretend to think we covered, in the mid-Atlantic. Of course, I had to leave each place to see the beauty.
Q. The Sweet East makes excellent use of traditional filmmaking techniques — painted backdrops, intertitles, miniatures — that you don’t see much of these days. Why did you decide to include these in the film?
A. There are so many old tricks in filmmaking that I wish would come back. Matte paintings informed a lot of very imaginative imagery up until the late 80s. Intertitles are handy. Miniatures are beautiful objects in themselves to photograph. They don’t need to be realistic, just evocative. I am not against the tools of today. We used them as well. But it does seem like a lot of CGI leads to very familiar kinetics and creatures with slight variations.
Q. You’ve mentioned you were thinking a lot about Troma films while making The Sweet East. Do you have a favorite film from their catalog?
A. Troma is a big part of the history of independent filmmaking in NYC. Many of the films that they produced and distributed rattle around our heads frequently. When we were up against a very practical challenge where budget limitations informed the reality of a particular scene, I leaned into the guidance of 1989’s Beware! Children at Play.
Q. What is the last film you saw and loved?
A. I watched the new 35mm print of Winter Kills, which I have seen dozens of times, but it was a particularly pleasing viewing.
Q. What have you been listening to lately?
A. John Cale live bootlegs. Too often.
Q. What’s a project you’d like to make someday, however impossible it might seem now?
A. I have said it several times but I think it’s important to make a proper Swamp Thing adaptation. No one has gotten close to what that character has to offer.
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?