A Conversation with Simon Rex, Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Nick Pinkerton & Sean Price Williams (THE SWEET EAST)
The Sweet East was written by Nick Pinkerton and directed by Sean Price Williams. The film stars Talia Ryder, Simon Rex, Jacob Elordi, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Earl Cave and Rish Shah. The film follows Lillian (Talia Ryder) as she goes from place to place, experiencing absurdities brought upon her by many different characters. It debuted at the Cannes film festival of 2023 in the Directors Fortnight category. For Nick Pinkerton, this was his first script. Meanwhile, Sean Price Williams has been working in the film industry for over a decade as a cinematographer on incredible projects such as Frownland, Good Time and, Her Smell. Simon Rex, known in the past for his rapping skills under the name Dirt Nasty and his comedic chops in the Scary Movie franchise recently starred in my number one movie of 2021 Red Rocket. He returns with a performance that rivals his legendary turn in Red Rocket. Talia Ryder is a major talent and is one of the best young actors out there. She has made appearances in Never Rarely Sometimes Always as well as West Side Story, before starring in this film. Earl Cave hails from Australia and provides an electric turn in this film. Previously he acted in The True History of the Kelly Gang and the show Alex Rider. It was a complete honor to speak with these people about their amazing new movie in the following conversation edited for length and clarity.
Hammer To Nail: Basic question to start but I am wondering how each of you got involved with the project. For Nick and Sean when did the inception of this film begin and why? And for Talia, Earl and Simon, how did you all get involved?
Sean Price Williams: Nick and I are good friends. We got closer through the process of making this movie. You could say that about the whole movie though. Everyone has become friends through this film. I am really glad we made it…that is not your question though. Nick and I felt there was something important to say but, we also just wanted to make a movie. We felt it was time. Nick had never written a script before. He is such a good writer it made sense for him to write one.
Nick Pinkerton: Just as a side note I would like to say that I do not think the movie is important because no movie is important. I do hope it was interesting.
Talia Ryder: That’s a good sound bite.
Nick Pinkerton: The first version of the script was written in 2017. When Craig Butta got involved that was the kickstarter. The script then started circulating a bit.
Sean Price Williams: Alex Ross Perry got it to agents for us. He had a very good reputation through all the actors who have worked with him. He became really helpful with getting the script out to real actors. That is how we got Talia. Through the traditional agent method. I am grateful for that process.
Simon Rex: Alex Coco, who produced this movie, also produced Red Rocket. He and I became friends on that project. He mentioned to me that I should meet Sean Price Williams because he had a project if I was interested. Of course I was interested because I knew who he was. We sat down, had lunch, and got to know each other. Not too long after I was told the movie would be shot in 2 chunks. It was 3 weeks and 3 weeks more or less. I was not involved in the first half of the shoot. I remember my manager and agent having an aversion to working with a first time director. They were just doing their job and were concerned. They told me after the heat I was getting from Red Rocket, it was important to make the right next move. I told them I am going with my gut because I liked Sean and I trusted him. I pushed back and I am glad I did.
I remember sitting with Alex Coco and my manager in LA and watching what they had already shot. It was a really good selling point because I could tangibly point to the look, the world and the vibe of the movie. I remember my manager in 20 seconds being like, “I was wrong, let’s do it.” Is it immature of me to say I was right? I was going to do it either way. That was how I came on board. Funny enough, when we were just in Cannes on stage talking about the movie, I was under the impression Sean wanted me for the movie because of Red Rocket but he was actually a fan of my early music. He had been a fan for years and told me that was the impetus for me being involved in the project. I was so shocked. I had no idea he was a fan of my silly music under Dirt Nasty. He told me that the song “What am I doing with my life” was his anthem at one point.
SPW: Earl was a last minute addition. This role was very difficult to cast. Nobody wanted to do it. No Americans wanted anything to do with this role. This is why we have so many A list Australian actors in our films, they are willing to go for it. It was actually Alex Coco’s idea as well. Other than Simon, I did not know any of these actors when casting them. I had not seen them in anything. It was all just based on who they were as people.
TR: It was based on vibes.
HTN: That all makes sense, and the film is definitely a vibe. I think something that attributes to that vibe is that it was shot on 16MM. For Sean and Nick, why did you feel this story needed to be shot in this film format? How does this choice play into the super-contemporary themes? Like you might expect digital to be more appropriate. and for the actors, what’s it like working with film vs digital.
SPW: I just wanted to make the movie so I was not too hung up on that. Originally we were going to shoot it digitally but then, I went to NYFF that year and every movie that I liked was shot on film and every movie I did not like was digital. I hated that it was that clear but I told my producer, Craig, we have to shoot on film. Usually when you say that to a producer it’s a complete joke. And he just said, “Ok, cool.” That is how it went with every idea. He was so positive. I could tell him that a character is going to be a muppet and he would say, “oh that’s interesting.” It does seem like a kind of vintage or retro thing to do, shooting on film. Personally, I think it is very immediate and I am most comfortable with it. I knew that if I was going to be directing and shooting, I would feel best if it was on film. With digital I over think it because the monitor shows you exactly how it will look. I keep asking myself, “is this exactly right?” I love that Christmas present of getting the footage. I love talking to actors about shooting film versus digital.
SR: It is definitely a little more pressure because you do not want to burn through film and waste money. With digital you obviously have more luxury because if you mess up a moment it’s not the end of the world. I feel a slight added pressure to nail it when it’s on film. You do not want to waste that precious film. That is really the only difference as far as I am concerned.
Earl Cave: It makes things more finite. You cannot be reckless. It is a physical copy of something and it actually exists. It’s in reality as opposed to a bunch of 1s and 0s.
TR: I think it’s so different. I started acting because I was a dancer. My introduction to performance was going out on a stage and doing something in one take. When shooting on film I think there is that element of you having one shot to do this thing. There is something imperfect about it but that is how you make something feel real. When you do something on stage it is never perfect because you have to do it all at once. It is way more aesthetic and there is something magical about hearing the literal film rolling in your ear.
SPW: The camera I really love to shoot with is the Aaton, partly because of the sound it makes. It is the best sound. The prr of the Aaton is especially great. There is something very comforting about it. I could fall asleep to it. I agree that it is kinda like performing on stage when you know you have limited takes.
NP: I have seen some people refer to the movie as having, “a grainy, 70s style vibe” and this suggestion that there is something extremely retro about shooting on film is weird because Kodak still makes film and there are still labs that process it. Just because there is a different technology available does not mean that this somewhat outmoded technology can’t still be accessed. I do feel insane when people write about the exceptionality of the movie being on film because up until 15 years ago everything was!
SPW: I really hate when they say “grainy 70s.” It is the lamest thing to write.
HTN: Well I will be sure to not call it “grainy” in this article. Simon and Talia, your guys’ onscreen chemistry is unreal, I think one sequence that particularly stands out to me is when Simon is showing Talia his home for the first time. At one point he offers her the clothes of his relatives and remarks that they are, “not too contemporary.” He then states “but I sense that you aren’t either…that’s a compliment.” for Sean and Nick what was the thinking behind this line and for Simon what are you pulling from for this incredible role which somehow rivals your performance in Red Rocket.
NP: Simon’s character is very victorian. He does not belong to the century he lives in. He is very at odds with contemporary life. This fantasy that he tries to put onto Lillian is the running tension between them. When he says that line she just responds, “I know.” It is not, “Thank you.” She pushes back quite a bit later when they are picnicking. He says, “you were born too late,” she rejects that idea and says, “why too late, why not too early?”
SR: Thank you for the compliment. It was a lot of fun to play another irredeemable character who is likable. That is fun to play and it is fun to watch. On the page, when you read this, obviously he is a nazi sympathizer and fancies himself as an intellectual. I even think that when he says, “but I sense that you aren’t either,” that is wishful thinking. He wants her to be this thing. It was a lot of fun to play this intellectual because in Red Rocket I was a street hustler. This guy had an education. I had to do a little bit of learning for this role. There were so many more of those long diatribes that did not make the cut. The relationship with Talia was a lot of fun. It was not like I kidnapped her. She was not there against her will. It was still a clandestine operation where I was sneaking her around and there was the money. That within itself felt like its own movie. When it is on the page it makes your job so much easier. I am lucky to be working with really good writers and directors these days. That really is everything. It all starts on the page.
EC: I will admit a good script does help.
TR: I’ll admit it too.
SR: There are a lot of bad scripts out there.
SPW: I like to think that you can make something great out of a bad script but it is rare.
HTN: The script was great. Talia you are incredible in this movie as you go from moment to moment so effortlessly not giving a shit while having amazing chemistry with whoever is projecting onto you. If you could talk about the importance of body language in your performance and for anyone else if they want to talk about working with Talia feel free.
TR: You guys want to talk about me? You can go first haha. I had an amazing time. It was really cool to be able to get to do what felt like 5 different movies. Each of the worlds had their own vibe that Lillian got to step into. It was great to play a character who is really figuring herself out and what she wanted as she went along. There is nothing set in stone about what she is doing. She does not plan to run away or be cast, there is just a lot of stuff happening to her and it is cool to see how she navigates and deals with this world that is coming at her really fast. Its cool to see how many ways the world can surprise you if you start to be excited about it and seek out adventure. She was a really cool person to play.
SPW: I co directed a movie years ago and there was a romance at the core of the film. It was a good friend of mine, a young actress with a man and it was unbelievable the lack of chemistry. It was just impossible. These two people had absolutely nothing between them. We had to get rid of it, and it really was the core of the movie. It just did not work though. I was concerned going into this that we had an actress who had to have great chemistry with 5 guys.
TR: If there is one thing I can do it is have chemistry.
SPW: It was amazing there was never an issue. I was convinced every day that the chemistry I was seeing on set was real. That was just one of her brilliant contributions.
EC: Every character is instantly infatuated by her. Talia herself possesses that characteristic.
NP: In many ways Talia and Lillian are very different. I appreciated that, as I have gotten to know Talia off the set, how much invention went into the character. She created an entire vocabulary. You might think that she is being herself on camera, but she actually built this character and her entire grammar. One thing they share in common is that people want to be on their side. We had one scene that did not make it into the film, but I remember when Talia did the scene with a new actress and within minutes they were exchanging phone numbers and making plans for when they were back in New York. She just has that quality.
SPW: Talia will give everybody a chance…until they slip up.
HTN: Talia your character finally lights up when she is dancing with and talking with Jacob Elordi at a bar, I mean, who the hell wouldn’t light up, you look at his character after sharing a very funny dance and tell him he’s “retarded,” he remarks that, “you have a love affair with that word.” From the incessant cigarette smoking to offensive language, the film seems to embrace a subversive bent against mainstream politeness. What was your thinking behind the reactionary vibe of the film?
TR: She is 17 and she likes to be provocative to get reactions from people around her. She is also flirting. She has to say something mean but also make it obvious that she is flirting. What better way to tell someone you want to sleep with them than by calling them that word.
NP: When you say, “Reactionary vibe,” the film has some reactionary characters, but that is absolutely not the position of the film itself. We are writing about a 17 year old girl from coastal south carolina. I am sorry that is how I believe that girl would talk. People have also written up stuff about the use of the word, “Tranny.” Do you honestly think a white supremasist is going to say, “transgendered woman?” That is just not how he would talk. If I am going to address certain kinds of people in this world, then they should speak the way that they actually speak. Reactionary, I wholly reject that idea. This is a progressive film.
HTN: I had seen some people saying that so I was just wondering what you thought of it.
NP: I think they are fucking dumb! The problem with making a movie that allows people to think for themselves is that some people are fucking stupid. I have seen a couple people refer to the movie as fascist. First of all, if you think Simon’s character is actually convincing, that says a lot more about you than the movie we made. I am of another era but these things used to be understood. Depiction does not mean endorsement. A movie’s central character does not have to be likable.
HTN: I certainly did not see the film as an endorsement of its characters and I loved everything about it. At the hour and 5 minute mark one of the white supremacists turns up to wreak havoc on the set of the film. This results in an extremely comical and shocking shootout that features incredible moments like Elordi’s face exploding, and Jeremy’s afro being shot. I would love to know about your thinking behind this moment as well as the practical execution of the violence it all looks great. Also if anyone wants to comment on what it was like working with Elordi.
SPW: The massacre was something I dreamed of. I am an action movie lover. We had a very small budget so we were not going to be able to do the most convincing action scene. It was a comedy after all so it felt like the perfect opportunity to have these visual gags. For the Afro, I really thought that it had to have been in a movie before, to my surprise I have yet to find a film where that happens. Maybe a cartoon. It is not going to get me the next James Bond movie, but we had a lot of fun making it. Jeremy is an old friend and he told me he would do the movie. He would go totally MIA day of shoot, everyone would be nervous but I had faith and he showed up.
TR: Watching Ayo and Jeremy improv together was one of the greatest acting gifts of my life. The two of them together was absolutely incredible.
SPW: Jacob was actually the first guy to sign onto the project. I have not seen him since we shot though. He is the only guy we are not hanging out with all of the time from the movie, but he is a very busy dude.
SR: We start shooting the sequel in a couple weeks. Haha.
HTN: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, I am such a fan of all of your guys’ work and I look forward to seeing what you do in the future.
SPW: Sorry that we do not really answer your questions, we are just using them for us to all talk haha. Thank you for setting us up to amuse each other
HTN: I would prefer that to a rigid conversation. This has definitely been one of my favorite interviews I have done.
SPW: Cool, Well, thank you.
– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)