Sean Baker's latest movie, Prince of Broadway has been hitting up all the film festivals. It was just at Locarno this summer and more recently at Woodstock where it was well-received. Talking with this independent filmmaker was quite an experience. I learned about his work, of course, but also things about the "old New York" that I didn't know. For example when the topic of speakeasy bars came up, PDT (Please Don't Tell) was mentioned. Apparently $20 drinks were not the first thing that Crif Dogs has kept a 'secret'.
"You know Crif Dogs? That place used to be a pot shop. You used to go in and they'd have these..it was so obvious, it was so incredibly obvious. They had like a Jamaican flag... and all you'd do is just like... and what are they selling I mean there was like a poster on the wall and like a couple of CDs it was so obvious that it was a front for weed and then everyone would just go in the back [what is probably now PDT] and get the weed. It's always been a hot spot for some reason."
Sean shares his thoughts on his last film, "Take Out", a story based around a Chinese delivery man, how he came to NYC "right at the end.", why Angelenos all look the same, and his 3am karaoke nights in Flushing.
Your film Take Out did pretty well --it won some awards and had a theatrical release in NY. How did it do abroad? We should have held out for an A-lister. So that’s why with Take Out it hasn’t gotten much exposure in Europe and in Asia, not that Fribourg is bad... they have regulations like where they can’t take you…once you’re on the B-list level…. but domestically, critically… I’m amazed… we are 100% on rotten tomatoes... financially it's done basically what all the other indies are doing right now you know it's just barely surviving because the markets so bad and nobody seeing movies and if they are they’re downloading for free so… it’s still playing in Los Angeles though. Hopefully it gets a DVD release.
Where are you from? When did you come to NY? I grew up in New Jersey, literally 40 minutes outside of the city… and I used to come into the city in the 70s when my father went into the work and I got to see NY during the Koch administration and then I think the Dinkins when I moved here to go to NYU in ’89. I’ve been here now for 20 years. I came right at the end. The very end of it.
42nd Street was... there was still a few grind-house theaters up there, squeegee workers were still out on the street and then Giuliani really cracked down with his whole quality of life campaign and really gentrified New York. Whether that’s for good or for bad. He really changed a lot then so I got to see the transformation. When I came to school was when the Tompkins Square riots were going on and stuff like that.
Did you always want to be in film? Tell us about your influences for the type of films you make. I always knew I was going to do this. I went to NYU for film and TV. This is before indie films became big and mainstream so I didn't know much but the mainstream. When I came to NYU... everyone wanted to make the next Die Hard. And then one day, it wasn't even NYU that really opened my eyes to everything, it was being here in the city and going to all the alternative art house theaters and realizing that there was much more out there. Then I remember one day I took a stroll over to the library, the clock tower library on 6th ave, and I rented a Eric Rohmer film called Claire's Knee, it's a French flick and I remember that distinctly as some sort of change in me, a shift in my focus because I definitely from that point on explored foreign film. I went back I relearned everything, I relearned, I fell in love with Cassavetes, I explored neo-realism, I re-taught myself everything. I had known the history of Hollywood but I did not know the history of cinema. I became more inclined to want to make those sort of movies.
What is your favorite movie and why? The Idiots will always stand out as one of my favorite films of all time that's Lars von Trier, I think it's the second dogma film, and the reason is that because when I saw it, it moved me so much yet he wasn't using any of the conventional means that normally manipulate the audience. Like there wasn't sweeping music to bring you to tears, there wasn't lighting and anything to get in the way of pure content and emotion. I was still almost moved to tears, or moved to tears... and I was just so happy that someone was able to pull that off without manipulating the audience in the conventional way. Of course he manipulated the audience in some way but you know I was really really still impressed and I think that's what made us jump into Take Out because we realized we could make it with very little money and maybe we could accomplish something similar but before that we had made another film on 35 millimeter which was very young, a young movie, I was only 24. Right after school and very much one of those autobiographical like Kevin Smith movies, it was little darker, much darker actually and that's probably why it didn't do so well. It is on DVD and premiered at South by Southwest. Even though it might not appeal to everybody it's a very accurate look at guys in suburbia USA.
How did your first movie, Four Letter Words, lead to the other projects in your career, say something so different like Greg the Bunny? [The editing for that movie] was a long hard road. But then when I was in post-production on that, that's when we created Junk Tape the public access show here in New York, that became Greg the Bunny. I went to school with some guys, funniest guys in the world and Dan Milano who does the voice of Greg. He's just like this comic genius, he's an improv genius. So we basically bonded on a friendship level and because we were all film students at NYU and Spencer Chinoy, Dan and I, we were able to make this comedy show and it worked well and it was fun to hang out. That's the sense of humor that I'm into from Monty Python to South Park, that type of stuff. We were able to get close to some of that stuff with Greg. Fox gained us a major fan base which I think is still around to this day. We need to do another incarnation of Greg soon, its lasted this long, unless we do something soon we are going to lose it.
it was a little more locked down because I don't know Mandarin. I wrote the script in English and she had to translate it in Mandarin. So all the Mandarin dialogue was locked down and all the English stuff that takes place between the delivery boy and the people getting the deliveries that was a little more improvisation. There's a stigma sometimes with working with improvisation. But [with Prince of Broadway] the improvised is simply the dialogue. Every scene had a beginning middle and end..it was just the dialogue. some people think you are not doing your work if you don't have the full fleshed out script. that's just an opinion I guess.
Do you have a typical day when you are in NY? Lately because I am getting most of my emails from overseas, I wake up to all my emails coming so it's the first three hours going crazy trying to catch up, what festivals we are getting into, what's going on and then now we are on film festival circuit and Take Out is still out now. Trying to get the film sold that's the biggest thing. The post production and the selling is really more about being locked in a room.
What NYC nightlife do you like to take part in? I used to be, you know a Ludlow guy, hanging out there all the time before and now it's not appealing anymore. A lot of the 90s was all about raves. Lately I've been hanging out a lot in Flushing, late night karaoke deep into the heart of Flushing, that's what I like to do. I just I have a lot of friends in the Chinese-American community. For some reason or another those are the funniest parties, those are great underground wild. You ever go to a karaoke at 3 in the morning in Flushing and it is crazy. Those rooms will be destroyed by the end of the night. There's alcohol flying off the walls, drinking games, nonstop fun for hours. I haven't seen anything like that for awhile.
What are some of your favorite NYC areas? Flushing, going there for food, it's amazing. I like hanging out in East Chinatown, the Chinatown mall. East Broadway, I feel most comfortable just like shopping for obscure DVDs on the Bowery. I just like being there, there's that and then there's some many different places to explore. You don't really get to explore Inwood much but I went up there recently that was really great and I shot a lot of Prince of Broadway in the Bronx.
Do you have any apartment horror stories? I lived on 23rd street, above a Chinese take-out place. That one was cockroach infested and one morning, this girl, she woke me up she said there was a cockroach drinking out of our eyes. 'Cause they get the moisture from the eye. So this other time at the same apartment I turned on the oven to toast a piece of bread and I went back to my room and when I came back the entire white wall was just speckled with hundreds of cockroaches. The heat drove them out.
Do you think you are ever going to film outside of New York City? Yeah, I think so. There are some stories that we are developing right now that might take place in Florida. Or I would really love to shoot in Taipei because there are night markets there, plus there is bin-lang there, bin-lang it's like beetle nuts that they eat. It's like their caffeine or their sugar, I mean their coffee. The bin-lang girls are scantily clad 19 year olds who sell bin-lang to the taxi drivers and the local people. It's amazing you can see it in Taiwanese movies. They're called beetle nut girls, beetle nut beauties. It's this whole other side of the world that's just so fascinating. I would love to shoot in Taipei, I want to shoot a film against some of the background. It's all about where the money comes from but I'm pretty sure I'm going to shoot one more film in New York.
LA versus NYC? That's a no brainer. How could anybody move to a city where you spend a minimum of 2 hours a day in a car? Why would you want to do that? It makes no sense. Los Angeles is a great place to visit but I really wouldn't want to live there except for of course the weather. Have you noticed also that LA style, everybody looks like Cris Angel, with their wings somewhere on them. They have to have wings either on their shirt or jeans. It's not really...not that I'm saying my style is sophisticated right now but you know what I'm saying.
If you are interested in seeing Prince of Broadway, a distributor is still being sought. As far as Take Out goes, it's being screened throughout the country but the NY run is over for now.