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Trust Fund Kids, Crust Punks and a Neo-Nazi: Sean Price Williams on His Directorial Debut

Williams talks "The Sweet East," moving from cinematography to directing, and why he thinks movies made with union labor aren’t very fun.

12:15 PM EST on December 7, 2023

(Leia Jospe)

Sean Price Williams has shot some of your favorite movies, whether you know it or not. Since he arrived in New York City and began working at the legendary Kim’s Video in the late '90s, Williams has helped to set the look and tone for independent film, lensing works from the Safdie brothers, Michael Almereyda, and fellow Kim’s clerk Alex Ross Perry.

But the 46-year-old Williams always wanted to direct his own film. After debuting at Cannes and playing the New York Film Festival, Williams's first solo-helmed film "The Sweet East" opened last Friday at the IFC Center, with a wider release to follow. Written by film critic Nick Pinkerton, "The Sweet East" tells the tale of Lillian (Talia Ryder), a teenager separated from her high school classmates on a trip to D.C. during a Pizzagate-style incident—an opening which should give you a sense of the film’s thumbed-nose priorities. Lillian travels up the East Coast, meeting with trust fund crust punks, self-obsessed indie filmmakers (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris), and a middle-aged neo-Nazi college professor (Simon Rex), remaking herself as she goes and in the process expressing a nature as fluid and flexible as that of her country. 

It’s one of those films that treats the world as one big joke, a place where you laugh to keep from crying, full as it is of vicious absurdity lurking inches beneath the mundane. If you can stand an above-average percentage of poking and prodding, you’ll catch one of the wildest displays of directing bravura you'll see all year. Williams uses this story as a skeleton on which to hang a vast array of cinematic styles and techniques, recalling John Cassavetes in one sequence, "Picnic at Hanging Rock" in another. The film is crammed with wall-to-wall music, deploying classic film scores, American industrial rock, even an Edgar Allen Poe-referencing theme song (“I’m a Cat”) sung into the camera by Ryder. America might be a nightmare, but at least there’s something on the radio.

It sounds like a lot, and it is. To pull it off, he called on a whole network of collaborators new and old, from longtime friends Perry and Pinkerton to ubiquitous 2023 presence Jacob Elordi, consciously exiting his comfort zone. Yet the goal, he said, was always “to make something I’d like. It’s stuff we talk about, it’s [about] an America that we obsess over.”

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Hell Gate: How did you start conceiving of this film? Did you develop the script with Nick Pinkerton?

Sean Price Williams: Kind of. He came up with something he thought I would respond to. That was part of the test. He knew there were things I would relate to, that I would connect with. We went on a train ride together from Baltimore after the Maryland Film Festival and he had a pretty rough draft of it already, and I helped streamline it with more conventional connections and transitions. He was making something that was more conceptual and I brought a little bit of the conventional. The script is his, but we were changing it as we were shooting. The whole scene with Ayo and Jeremy at the audition, their back and forth, was almost entirely them. It was about six lines in the script, and they managed to elaborate. It was an eight-minute take, originally, and that was all off six lines on the page. 

What appealed to you about the story?

I told him to write a script because he’s a writer, and he wrote a script which was kind of a "The Big Chill" in Ohio. I had zero interest in that. So that was part of the challenge, to make something I’d like. It’s stuff we talk about, it’s an America that we obsess over together when we hang out. So it’s a combination of things he knows that interest me as a friend. 

You co-directed a film, "Eyes Find Eyes," some years ago.

Very different experiences.

Can you tell me how?

I was not very involved with the prep at all on the first one. The guy I co-directed it with, Jean-Manuel Fernandez, is a friend, a good friend, and we were supposed to make a movie based on a Hermann Hesse book, "Knulp," and the producers flaked. We got the rights and everything, but these producers totally bailed on us and were real assholes. We were pretty angry and upset about that, we’d done screen tests and were pretty far along. 

So he and another guy wrote a script out of anger and I came in and did much the same as with "Sweet East." We drove from Paris to Brussels and I made it into a thriller. They had written an art film and I made it a thriller, kind of. So we did that, and then I was in Japan shooting a movie for somebody else while he was prepping that, and we had no Wi-Fi, no phone, I wasn’t involved with casting, I wasn’t serious enough. I just sort of showed up, and Paulo Branco was the producer, he’s a big hero but he’s also an amazing jerk and liar and thief and all that sort of stuff, which was known, but I got to experience it firsthand. It was dispiriting, but it was also due to my lack of initiative. I made mistakes, it wasn’t all that he didn’t pay us. And the film got disappeared. It played in France and that was it. During COVID, I uploaded it. We had to steal the DCP from a lab in France. The co-director knew the guy at the lab and he gave it to us, and that’s why we have it at all. We shot that in 2009, and I was not interested in directing anything for a while at all.

There weren’t any scripts? 

No, I was just making money shooting movies. I don’t get paid much working on these little movies, so I have to keep working all the time. There was no time to take a break to develop properly. The mistake I learned with the first one was that I wasn’t really involved with the preparation, and that takes time. Then just before COVID, I did a TV show in London, and for the first time I had money in the bank, and then COVID happened and I lost it all paying rent. While that was happening, I started working on the lookbook for the movie, like, well, while we’re here doing nothing, let’s start dreaming up that movie Nick wrote three years before.

I imagine your goal was to make this film very different. How did you do that?

Easy. I just wanted to make everybody in the whole film feel like they were having the best time of their life while working. Because I know it can happen, it doesn’t have to be torture making these movies, even when there’s not a lot of money. It’s not about that, there’s ways to treat everybody and create an experience for everybody. I was convinced you could make a great movie and not have to make it torture. We put together a crew of people, mostly friends and people I love working with. The camera team was small because I was operating and doing focus, so I had a couple of new people I worked with in the camera department. Young people. 

Also, we’re non-union, so you’re doing what you’re wanting to do, you’re not just doing a job. That’s a big attitude difference between non-union and union films.

Could you tell me a little more about that?

People are doing what they want to do. They’re there because they want to express themselves, or feel useful, or whatever it is that makes people want to do the different jobs on a film set. They’re doing it because they want to do it, or because they want to learn to do the next thing, whatever it is. Just get experience, all that stuff. 

When you’re working on a union job, it’s mostly people who are just there as a job, and it can be a very different environment. The energy is very different. With our style of filmmaking, everybody can do different things, jump in and do this and that, have their say on this and that. There’s more collaboration between departments. 

The union idea is that you don’t interfere with anyone else’s department and you don’t allow anyone to interfere with your team. The gaffers all over are the team, but there’s only one of them on set, so that doesn’t make the film set a team. It’s a team of people who are not there. 

To me, it’s not conducive to—unless the money is there, and people are getting paid well, then they can be great at what they do. On a small-budget movie that’s union, it can be really tense and not a lot of fun, and I think it should be fun. So I was trying to make a film set that was really pleasurable, and my producer Craig Butta is one of my best friends, my oldest friends, he was right there with me on that. Also going to the different locations, not just shooting New York state as other cities—we had to go to all the places, we had to go to D.C. and to Baltimore. We could have shot that Baltimore scene in Bushwick, we could have shot Philadelphia in Brooklyn. But part of the joy of the whole thing was in taking everybody out like a school trip, we took everybody on a road trip, like a family.

You’ve worked as a cinematographer for quite a long time, and you were both cinematographer and director on "The Sweet East." Are those roles different forms of vision, or are you able to synthesize them into one job?

I could never direct without operating the camera, I don’t think. I probably could, someday. I actually wanted another cinematographer when I was thinking up the movie, I wanted this Belgian cinematographer Manu Dacosse, I think he’s really great with light, and I thought I might learn a lot as a cinematographer watching him work, because I’ve never watched other cinematographers work, I’ve never been on set with other cinematographers, so I still have never had that experience, I’ve learned on my own, and it shows. [laughs] It’s just too abstract if I’m not looking through the camera. 

I also would have my friend Peter Buntaine help, we’d do the loose choreography of the scene and I would throw him in with the camera just to get a documentary sense of what it looks like. We’d do one take like that, and then I would take the camera and say, okay, this is how we’re going to do it, I’ve got it. But I still have to see through the camera to direct anyone, really. It’s a limitation, but I’m aware of it, so that’s nice, at least. I wouldn’t necessarily have to do the focus, next time, but operating…I was a little bit on autopilot as a cameraman on this one, more than I would be, because I was focusing much more on the directing because I was nervous, at first.

It must be hard to divorce those things.

When we made this movie "Frownland," I wasn’t available all the time to shoot, because I was working at [Kim’s], and sometimes Ronnie [Bronstein], the director, had to shoot it himself, and at first didn’t think he could do it, and I was like, of course you can, because I’m convinced anyone can do it. And he did a great job. The light meter is not that hard to figure out. And I think directors are very often undervaluing their own abilities. Often, we’ll light a set and think, this is how it’s going to be, and then the director will come in and say, can we please turn some of these lights off, and everyone goes [inhales] exposure, exposure, and then they’re right. The director’s eye is actually important to respect, no matter what.

Did making this film give you more sympathy for some people you’ve worked with in the past? 

Exactly what you just said, it gives me a lot more sympathy. I even wrote to a couple people after making it, I apologize, I understand now. You shoot sequences that you think are the greatest thing on earth, and then you see a cut of the film and they’re gone, and you think, how, why? They say, it didn’t work. I used to get so upset and disgusted, what are you talking about? Of course it worked, we killed it. 

But now I understand these things. We had to lose things in this movie because I didn’t get it right. I do understand a lot better now. When anyone else is on set, like as a DP, I have a camera cart where I can put my stuff, my coat, my phone. When you’re a director and you walk onto the set of a low budget movie, you walk onto a set and you don’t know where to put your jacket. You’re alone. That was really important for me to feel. Even though as a DP I still had a camera cart. [laughs] 

I’m learning a lot even with this process [of promotion], it consumes a lot leading up to the release. I signed up for it, but I get it now. One movie takes over your life, and not just for the shooting period, the editing. It just keeps going.

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