'Prince of Broadway' Director Sean Baker on No-Budget Filmmaking, Improvisation, and Long Release Cycles
Touching and darkly hilarious, Sean Baker's second feature Prince of Broadway is about a scrappy knockoff peddler in midtown Manhattan who faces an unexpected paternity dilemma. Prince was released on DVD today and is one of my favorite low budget films from the past few years. In the following interview, Sean and I talk about about no-budget filmmaking, on-set improvisation, and interminable release cycles. Here's the trailer:
Did the idea for Prince of Broadway occur to you in one of these back-of-the-store operations in New York, or if not, what was the impetus for the project?
The impetus of "Prince of Broadway" was actually the desire to shoot in Manhattan's wholesale district. It is one of the few remaining ungentrified sections of New York City and I've always considered it to be the most chaotic, colorful and energetic corners of the city. I always wondered what would look like on film. So Victoria Tate, the film's associate producer, and I set out and researched the world of the wholesale district for close to a year. At that point we knew we wanted to use Karren Karagulian as a shop owner, but besides that had no idea what this film would eventually be.
During the first month of research many people suggested that we look for Prince Adu. They said that he would be very interested in this project being that he had always expressed the desire to become an actor. We finally found him working security outside of a legitimate sportswear shop. Within a few minutes of meeting, Prince said to us, "If you put me in your film and make me the lead, I will help you cast your film, find locations, and help you tell an authentic story of the West African experience in this district." We walked away from that moment knowing that we found our other lead. At that point we understood that this film would be about the relationship between two men who do business in this neighborhood.
It took another six months to realize that we needed a catalyst or something to change both of these men's lives. This is where the baby came in. I asked my friend Darren Dean to co-write the screenplay. We finally started shooting approximately a year and a half after first setting foot in the neighborhood.
In the credits of the movie you state that the actors participated in improvisation. Was this mostly tweaking of dialogue, or did the direction of scenes change in the process?
This was mostly tweaking of dialogue. I ask my actors to put our scripted dialogue or notes in to their own words. If they felt comfortable going in a different direction, that was fine. I don't think it ever changed the direction of a scene, however it may have sparked ideas for a new scene all together. Besides performance, there is a selfish reason I ask my actors to do this. I edit my own films and quite honestly, I like to be entertained in the edit room. Variations and alternate takes keep it fresh in those lonely and dark months of editing.
You have two careers that, while both related to film, couldn't be more different in terms of style. You produce puppet shows for MTV (Greg the Bunny, Warren the Ape) and you shoot low-budget indie films that appeal to an entirely different audience. Does one practice support the other?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to have a more mainstream project support my less mainstream projects. "Take Out" and "Prince of Broadway" were completely funded with the money that I made from the TV shows. It has paid off because my newest film that I am in post-production on now was paid for by other people... yay! Only took 20 years. Haha.
But also, Greg the Bunny gave me experience in working with improvisational comedy. Although "Take Out" and "Prince of Broadway" may appear to be dramas on the surface, there is just as much humor as drama in both films. This is very important to me because I feel life is full of humor, even in our darkest moments. Working on comedy shows reminded me to always retain that sensibility and gave me practice at the same time.
Are you looking to move onto larger projects (in terms of budget and resources)? What's next?
I just wrapped a film called "Starlet" starring Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great granddaughter of Ernest. The budget was larger than Prince but still quite modest. I will refrain from saying too much about it... I'm paranoid that way.
I think there is a sweet spot for the types of films I want to make that I am not quite at yet.... so to answer your question, yes, I am hoping for the budgets to increase with every film. I have gotten the reputation for stretching the dollar but you can't do that forever. Shih-Ching Tsou and I made "Take Out" for 3k.... and I highly doubt we could pull that off again.
Both Prince of Broadway and your last film, Take Out, took years to reach theaters. How was this process?
Too long. "Take" took 5 years to get to the theaters. "Prince" took 3 years plus another year for DVD and digital. Quite honestly it was just a really bad time for indies to be released. There was no money and so we waited and waited. It's actually quite boring so I will not go in to details, however the big break for Prince of Broadway was when Lee Daniels came on board to present the film. That really brought more attention to the project and most definitely helped us land our DVD/digital release with New Video. There were no stars attached to Prince so Lee Daniels essentially became our star.
Sean Baker is a New York native and a graduate of NYU film school. His most recent feature PRINCE OF BROADWAY, about a street hustler in Manhattan’s wholesale district was released theatrically in 2010, presented by Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS). Winner of 18 international film festivals, the film was also nominated for Independent Spirit and Gotham Awards, and named one of the best films of 2010 by the Los Angeles Times. TAKE OUT, Sean's previous feature, co-directed by Shih-Ching Tsou, is a social-realist drama about an undocumented Chinese immigrant in New York City. It was released theatrically in June 2008. It went on to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and released on DVD by Kino Lorber Entertainment. Sean is also a co-creator/director/executive producer of MTV's WARREN THE APE, and FOX and IFC’s GREG THE BUNNY.