A Conversation With Sean Baker (PRINCE OF BROADWAY/TAKE OUT)
Back in November, before the Spirit Award nominations had been announced and before even more festival awards had been handed to him, Sean Baker and his Prince of Broadway team was enjoying their Best Feature Narrative win in Woodstock. Combined with their Grand Jury Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Jury Special Award in Torino, Baker was in the enviable position of having earned back his film’s production budget without having yet sold his film. Still, finding a theatrical distributor remained an important goal for Baker and co-writer/producer Darren Dean. Now, just days before the Spirit Awards (and days after winning more awards in Boulder and Los Angeles yet again), Prince of Broadway remains without a home, a head-scratching development for a film that has proven itself to be a genuine critic and audience pleaser whenever and wherever it shows.
Prince of Broadway and Baker’s previous feature, Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou), are competing for the same trophy at the Spirits: the John Cassavetes Award for best feature budgeted at under $500,000. Take a zero off that number and that’s around what both films cost to make. But though they were lower-than-low-budget productions, they also happen to be two of the finest American social realist pictures of recent memory. Before that, Baker made another feature, Four Letter Words, which found the writer/director probing more personally familiar terrain: a keg-fueled night-in-the-life of a group of friends in suburban New Jersey. He is also a co-creator and creative force behind the cult series Greg the Bunny. But it wasn’t until 2008’s one-two punch of Take Out and Prince of Broadway that Baker had finally arrived (read the Hammer to Nail reviews here and here).
Though this discussion occurred months ago, it nonetheless provides candid insight into the mind of an on-the-cusp young filmmaker who is still trying to navigate his own way through the convoluted world of independent film production.
H2N: I’d like to get a sense of where you guys are right now with Prince of Broadway. It seems like every festival has gone extremely well.
SB: Yeah. Now, the festivals are just being lined up and we’re getting into competition, which is a great thing. And we’ve been pushing that now. And now we have Marrakech, Torino, Belfort, Buenos Aires. In Miami we’re not gonna be playing in competition but they’ve asked me to be on the jury.
H2N: Had you screened Take Out there?
SB: No. She knows me, Tiziana (Finzi), I met her at Locarno. She’s a big fan of the film. So now that she’s the new director of Miami, I think she’s really trying to bring younger movies in there.
But it’s just been frustrating, because it feels as if… this is my third film and now I’m learning lessons that I should have known before making my first film and it’s really just frustrating, like about not having a world sales agent going into Locarno. It’s not like we had that much time, though, we only had three weeks of prep and it was obviously a dream to go to Locarno. But I was busy mastering the movie and re-cutting—I’d made slight changes after Los Angeles—so we didn’t have time to find a world sales agent. And they’re telling us now, “Why didn’t you have us for Locarno?” It’s not like I didn’t want you guys!
H2N: You’re like, “I was busy making the movie? That helps, to actually have a movie.”
SB: I have to say, Sao Paolo was a little depressing because there were many Europeans there and they were telling me the same thing over and over and over again. They were like, “Well it’s gonna be very hard for you to sell in Europe now that you didn’t have a world sales agent in Locarno.”
H2N: Why is that, though? I mean, it seems like, can’t you go to another festival and get recognized there?
SB: That’s what I thought. Especially being that we have these other festivals lined up.
H2N: They’re saying because you’ve already had your European premiere.
SB: They wanted to be there at the premiere to make the big sell. Very frustrating.
H2N: And do you think that the way the world’s changing now those rules are still the same?
SB: It seems like they are. I think so. Domestic, no. And that’s why I asked you about what I should do about my domestic sales rep. Because I think being that there are so few companies out there now, it seems like the filmmaker can do it on their own. But, at the same time, I don’t want to take that chance after learning these lessons the hard way.
H2N: And that becomes part of the job. Like Lance Hammer with Ballast. It’s not just making the film. And you have to realize, do you want to keep making films or do you want the next six-to-twelve months of your life focused on distribution?
SB: I know. Margaret Brown, I met her at Los Angeles. At a party, we were all talking about self-distribution and service dealing and stuff like that. She’s like, “No, I don’t care, I don’t care what the deal is, I’m just gonna get my film out there and make my next film. I’m not gonna spend the next year of my life trying to market my movie. I wanna make new movies.” That’s a cool way of thinking, but at the same time, it’s hard to think that way when it comes down to the dollar.
(An updated clarification by Sean Baker, something that H2N respects and supports in this particular situation: “Reading my response to this question, I realize that my words could be misinterpreted. I was only paraphrasing and in no way quoting Margaret. My point was that I am impressed that the creation of her art came first and foremost. I wasn’t implying that Margaret does not care about the business end of filmmaking.” H2N feels confident that one would not have misconstrued Baker’s statement in the first place, but we nonetheless respect his desire to set the record straight.)
H2N: But you’re fortunate right now with Prince, you guys have, you know, give or take, you’ve made your budget back by winning festivals that give actual cash prizes!
SB: Yes, yes.
H2N: And even with Take Out, at that point did the distribution company (Cavu Pictures) help out with finishing costs?
SB: Okay, with Take Out, we’re in a weird situation right now, because we had a fairly successful theatrical run. Critically, you know, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, good reviews and everything like that. However, while we’ve had a few offers about DVD and VOD, nothing’s been locked down yet. And I just want that film… I don’t want to wait another four years. The film was made in ’04, we waited four years for a theatrical, I don’t want to wait another four years for it to get on home video. And that’s my other job. So I’m working with Prince but I’m also trying to sell Take Out.
H2N: And that was always a strictly theatrical deal?
SB: No, Cavu is also working with that as well, but they have their hands full with The Dukes. They are helping out and they will be part of whatever deal is made. However, I’ve learned my lesson. I have to be as proactive as possible.
H2N: I think that happens with a lot of companies and distributors. Even bigger ones, you think they take care of everything but there’s a hierarchy there too and some things get lost in the shuffle.
SB: Yep. And we have a great DVD ready to go. We have deleted scenes, we have all the interviews with the cast and crew, we have commentary recorded, we have artwork. It’s all ready to go. We feel like, if certain companies saw this it would be a great package.
H2N: Let’s talk about Take Out. It seems like a lot of that was based around improvisation or you were working with that element. Did you build the movie as you were shooting it or did it come together in the editing room?
SB: Totally editing. We had a script. Well, in terms of dialogue, it was more tightly scripted than Prince, because I don’t know Mandarin. So we had to write the script in English. Shih-Ching (Tsou, co-director) had to translate everything to Mandarin. The script actually looked like an outline because half of it was Mandarin, half of it was English, so that I could see where we were and that Charles was hitting the right lines. When we were on the set we didn’t really have continuity or a script supervisor. We were doing that. So, after we did a take I had to look back at the script and say, “Okay, are you sure he covered this?” (both laugh)
H2N: But even within that, when you say ‘deleted scenes,’ how big was your assembly?
SB: There was this big opening sequence that actually was cut from the film because it reminded too many people of the Pulp Fiction opening where, you know, Samuel Jackson and Travolta are driving and going to Frank Whaley’s apartment. People thought I was ripping that off, which I wasn’t.
H2N (nervous laughter): Oh, God.
SB: The movie started off with the two debt collectors, you know, the two guys who bang on the door? And it spends about five minutes with them. I love it, but people just saw it as a Pulp Fiction rip-off. But it actually had the two guys outside of the building, smoking cigarettes, talking about girls, whatever, you think they’re two nice guys. And finally the door opens up, they grab it before it shuts, they walk up—it’s like a one-take following them all the way upstairs to the fifth floor, where they bang on the door. But the whole time you just think they’re two guys who you don’t know are about to beat this other guy up.
H2N: And at what point did you personally, or you guys, decide to cut it?
SB: We actually showed that at Slamdance.
H2N: You did?
SB: Yeah. And then, I think it was Kevin Chinoy, who is the producer on Greg the Bunny. He said to me, “I really feel as if your film should just open up with the pounding on the door, cuz everyone’s gonna think you just totally ripped off Pulp Fiction.” And so, as soon as I made that cut, it played every other film festival like that.
H2N: Was that hard for you? Or did it make sense?
SB: As soon as I saw that it worked on a pounding of the door, it was one of the easiest cuts. Actually, I’ve been… I’m an editor, that’s how I pay the rent, basically. So, in terms of cutting darlings, I’m much more accepting of those things than most directors, I guess you could say. I guess it comes from Greg the Bunny, because Dan Milano, who does the voice of Greg, he’s just this comic genius who just goes off and we get so much material that so many darlings are left on the editing floor that I’ve gotten used to it at this point.
A lot of Prince, Prince was hard to cut down but I was the one who was able to make them, while Darren (Dean), the producer and co-writer, was like, “No, make this a two-and-a-half hour movie!” I was like, “No, dude! Trust me.”
H2N: That’s another thing I wanted to bring up. Darren has talked a good bit about how with you guys, it comes off as a happy medium. The movie is really sweet. It feels, if you’re not paying close attention, or you’re watching it from another room, that it’s some gritty urban movie, but if you’re paying attention and you’re in there, there’s a sweetness and a lightness to it. Is that perhaps a balance between you two, do you think?
SB: Well, Darren came on late in the game. And I think it was because I really needed somebody to help me formulate the script. But actually the story was already there.
H2N: And you had that tonal vision in mind.
SB: Yeah, I mean, we had the whole beginning and middle and end. We knew what was gonna happen. No, but, Darren definitely did bring a lot of that to the table in terms of adding those moments where I thought it might be a little bit too comedic or lighthearted. They actually worked as a great comic relief/breathing room area. Such as the scene where the waitress brings over the check. That was Darren, ya know? I almost said no. I was like, “Too much.”
H2N: It needed it.
SB: It needed it. So yeah, maybe you could say it is a happy medium. It’s more of a medium between ultra-indie, which sometimes I’m thinking, and ultra-Hollywood, the way he’s thinking. I think that’s more of it.
H2N: That movie more than Take Out, even. Take Out to me is, the film I would compare it to is The Bicycle Thief, and I know everyone throws those terms around, but in this case I really mean it. But Prince to me is like, halfway through watching it I thought, “This is like 3 Men and a Baby or some shit!” In a great way. I was so happy to be watching that story in the guise of a gritty urban drama. In both cases, however, it seemed like the tiny productions enhanced these feelings. Do you like this place where you’re working, in this budgetary realm?
SB: I love it, actually. If it was just slightly easier to pay rent, I would stay here. I would love to make another film like this very soon with Shih-Ching. We have a treatment ready to go. Whether it’ll take place in East Chinatown or whether it’ll take place in Taipei County, I don’t know. But it’s there. It’s a Mike Leigh-ish family drama and it’s all ready to go. I think it might be Taipei, just because the money might come from there. And also, we’re gonna employ, I don’t know if you know about Taipei County but it has these night markets that are amazing. Almost like a bazaar that you can find in Iran or something. Every night, these streets are shut down and from 8pm until three in the morning they’ll have these great street markets where you can buy and sell anything, and that would be the backdrop to the film. Because I really like these colorful urban backdrops.
But, again, at the same time, it would be great to make this film in East Chinatown because I know East Chinatown. The Fujinese people over there, there have been no films about them. Just a regular family drama that takes place over there. I haven’t seen that before. It would be focused perhaps on three generations, so you would see that first and second generation of kids who were born and raised here, completely Americanized yet at the same time talking Fujinese or Mandarin when they’re at home with their parents. And I just feel as if it’s a point-of-view that hasn’t been shown yet.
H2N: And it seems like you’re not looking for actors and doing it on a bigger scale. Not like you’re taking an ethical stance or have a manifesto about that.
SB: Exactly. Though, at the same time, Shih-Ching does think that she might be able to pull some Taiwanese actors and celebrities so that it will sell easier in Taiwan and in Asia. But over here they’re unknowns, so.
H2N: And that gets into that thing of just the unfamiliar face.
SB: Yes, that’s so important.
H2N: Where it could be an actor but not having the recognition adds an automatic freshness. Especially over here, I’m sure you can get away with that and not insert a ‘really familiar face’ into a bunch of unfamiliar faces.
SB: I think that’s really important, for films like this.
H2N: I want to maybe go back to when the filmmaking started, before Four Letter Words, when did you catch the bug? Were you creative always?
SB: It goes all the way back to first grade. I think my mother brought me to the public library to watch the Universal Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman trilogy or something like that. And from that point on I was making super-8 films. I think the first super-8 film was called Space Wars. (loud laughter from both) You know what that is, right?
H2N: No, I don’t know. Is that a reference to something? (more laughter)
SB: I think the next one was like, Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind. (even more laughter)
H2N: But shooting on video at that point?
SB: No, no, no. It was super-8 up until ‘83ish. And then when we got our home video camera, it was one of those, you know, the VHS portable packs. Yeah, and then I shot stuff in high school that won local county arts fairs and stuff like that. So then I got into NYU. Going to NYU with the intention of saying, “I’m gonna be the next John McTiernan, the next Die Hard director.” And one day, walking over to the clock tower library, and renting Claire’s Knee, just because it looked like an interesting box cover. That just changed my world, right there.
H2N: So that wasn’t a class, that was just you…
SB: That was just walking, I didn’t have to be spending a hundred whatever it is at NYU. But, no, NYU was important because that’s where I met Dan Milano and Kevin Chinoy and a lot of the people I work with on Greg the Bunny. So that was obviously incredibly important for contacts. But that whole change in my focus was because I had a day off and went over to the library. And then, once I got into Eric Rohmer, that led directly to all other French cinema. From there, I found Italian Neo-Realism. And then I found, because of them… I worked backwards! I got into Cassavetes after I went through Italian Neo-Realism to British Social Realism in exploring Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and everything, and then finally working all the way around to Cassavetes and I was like, “Oh my God!” That’s where most people start! And of course, Cassavetes is God, and I have a Husbands poster on my wall.
And then, a few years later, Von Trier and the Dogme 95 movement happened and that was really what said to me, “I can make this film on video,” and that’s what got us to do Take Out.
H2N: But that’s so tricky, I feel like. I don’t know, you see these movies shot on video and I still have baggage, personally, and that’s why your work this year struck me as being almost integral to it as opposed to being a budgetary choice. Sometimes you need the remove, but something about Take Out, it had the weight of a celluloid distance but the immediacy of video.
SB: Well I’m glad you saw that. I know that with that film, more so than with Prince, it had to be video. There’s no other way we could have done it because number one, I needed that small little camera in that space. Plus, I knew I was going to be capturing almost documentary footage of them cooking and stuff like that, and I had to do that on the fly. I couldn’t be dealing with changing magazines.
H2N: And they’re clearly an operation that is running, you can’t be like, “Hey, can you guys just shut down here for an hour?”
SB: They would push me out of the way. (both laugh) Sometimes I was shooting and he would literally just push me to get in front of one of the woks. They weren’t going to allow us to take over in any way. Which was great, I’m so happy that happened. And sometimes we’d be able to just go off and do what we wanted, like in the refrigerator and the bathroom when we were shooting. They didn’t care what we were doing, we just went back there and shot.
H2N: Do you keep in touch with them at all or not?
SB: Miss Lee. I don’t know if I told you, but we lost contact with her. She changed her phone number, so we actually opened up the film here in New York without her knowing. It sucked. Because we really wanted her to be part of the celebration that this movie was finally being released.
H2N: Of course. She’s such a force in it.
SB: And the first couple of reviews just kept mentioning her. And I think the Village Voice called her ‘a real firecracker’ or something. And so we were upset that we didn’t know where she was, and her daughter actually saw—thank God we did some PR with the Chinese papers, or on Chinese TV. Because she saw a story on it and she said, “Mom, isn’t this your film?” And Miss Lee contacted Shih-Ching and she was able to come out and do Q&As. It’s great. She’s still working here in the city, she’s at a Laundromat on the Upper West Side. I would love to put her in another movie. We’re trying to figure out whether we should put her in this new one, but the thing is, she’s from Malaysia, so she wouldn’t really work as part of this family that we want. We wanted to make her the grandmother character but accent-wise they would know right away.
H2N: It could dupe us stupid Americans, but I guess you want it to be more authentic than that.
H2N: Four Letter Words you shot on film, right? It feels like the world was different when you made that movie. What was that, 2001?
SB: No, that was shot in ’96.
H2N: Really? But South By was like…
H2N: Wow. And why was that?
SB: That’s a combination of things. Dark days, in terms of partying too much when you’re in your twenties.
H2N: What’s that like? I’ve never heard of that!
SB: But more importantly, the film was written as inspired by Rashomon and Mystery Train. So it was a three-story structure. Which totally didn’t work. But I was too young to see that it didn’t work. And I was just going for this gimmick. So we actually didn’t get into film festivals in ’98 when we wanted to.
H2N: Was the film longer or was it just cut differently?
SB: It was cut differently. It was actually probably longer by three minutes because it played with different angles. So it was depressing. And then I took an Avid class at The New School and that’s where I met Shih-Ching, and I used that class to re-cut Four Letter Words. And as soon as I started cutting it in a linear style I was like, “Oh my God, this is like ten times frickin’ better, plus I feel it has a chance now.” Even though, looking back on it, you know, it is a young movie, but I’m happy that I at least made it at that age. I’m also happy that it is, in my opinion, it’s a pretty accurate view of guys in the suburbs. I would say it’s a little more realistic Kevin Smith. So I’m glad I made it at that age. What the film did was that it allowed me to get a lot out of my system about my background, and therefore, I never want to do that again!
H2N: Purge your past in one feature!
H2N: But, when I watched it after having seen these two, you know, it definitely shows its age and all that, but it seems like you’re still, the approach you seemed to be taking was, “How can I be honest,” not clinical or anything, but how to find the humanity, through note-taking and improv, instead of just ‘making a movie about idiot dudes.’
SB: It was definitely genuine in its intention, I know that. It’s just, its execution wasn’t so hot, but I went into it following Mike Leigh’s model of working with his actors to develop the dialogue. And I didn’t do that again with Take Out or with Prince. Prince was more on-the-set improvisation.
H2N: What do you think about the idea of, I guess lately there have been a lot of white filmmakers going into other cultures to make films, like Chris Smith with The Pool, August Evening, Ballast, and a lot more. I got in an argument with someone who was being critical of that and I’m like, “And if they made a movie about people from their own direct backgrounds you’d criticize them for that.” Have you gotten any of that, or are you cautious of it as a filmmaker?
SB: Yes, I’m cautious of it, but only first when it played back at Slamdance (referring to Take Out). Somebody wrote a review saying like, “This is the new trend of filmmakers trying to show how the other side lives,” or something like that. I’m cautious of it, but the way that Shih-Ching and I went into Take Out, and the way that I went into Prince with Tori—Victoria Tate, she was the associate producer—she and I really did a ton of research. In both cases, we really engulfed ourselves into those worlds. And I feel like we became part of those worlds in a way, and so it wasn’t just us, like, observing from the outside. I really feel like we got to know it well enough where we were warranted in bringing it to the screen.
— Michael Tully