‘The Sweet East’ Director Sean Price Williams on Politics, Unions and the Film Establishment

“I never really wanted to be a cinematographer,” says Sean Price Williams, who has nevertheless shot nearly 60 indie features, some 50 shorts and seven series since 1999. “I didn’t even know what that job was. I’ve always wanted to direct, but didn’t have the means to make a movie.” At age 45, the widely respected lensman is finally getting around to his solo feature directorial debut, “The Sweet East,” pictured above, premiering in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. The Match Factory is repping sales.

Why the wait? “I wasn’t putting it off,” he says. “I just didn’t think anybody would ever give me money to do it.” Through his longtime collaborator and “Sweet” producer Alex Ross Perry’s agency connections, they enlisted stars like Jacob Elordi and Talia Ryder to secure financing. His adventure comedy follows a South Carolina high school senior (Ryder) who breaks away from a class trip to start her own journey. “She guides us through different scenarios that illustrate idealogues in contemporary America,” he says. “They’re representations of current beliefs and situations.” The lineup includes Elordi as a Robert Pattinson-type star trying his hand at an indie film and Simon Rex as a white supremacist college professor.

“There’s very much a political element to it,” he says. “The world has the easiest time saying America is a problematic, fucked-up place, and I feel so differently about it. Part of our mission was to let no one look non-foolish, including filmmakers, because part of the problem [in our discourse] is that everyone takes themselves so seriously. I love the idea of making a conversation with our movie.” He screened 16mm D.A. Pennebaker concert docs for the crew. “I also like the idea of a feature that’s shot like it’s a rock concert from 1968,” he laughs. 

Delaware-born, Maryland-raised Williams, who’s filmed indies for the Safdie brothers (“Good Time,” which starred Pattinson), Michael Almereyda (“Tesla”) and many first-time directors, dropped out of college and “learned everything just by doing it and being on set.” He worked at Kim’s Video in New York City’s East Village, where he met “Sweet” screenwriter Nick Pinkerton, and apprenticed with documentarian Albert Maysles. It led to him co-directing a 2011 feature with Jean-Manuel Fernandez, the out-of-print thriller “Eyes Find Eyes,” and helming the doc short “Robert Downey: Moment to Moment,” plus a few others.

Like the cinephile clerk he once was — and still is, as he works with Perry to sort through the Kim’s Video collection rescued from an Italian storage space by doc filmmakers — Williams isn’t afraid to speak his mind. “There are established filmmakers loved by established film lovers, and I’m not interested in that kind of academy,” he says. He plans to publish a book version of his “top 1,000 films” list, which has been circulating in the industry for years.

Down the road, Williams wants to direct ’80s/’90s-style “sexy thrillers,” but feels ambivalent about finding a rep. “I have agents for cinematography, and I must be their worst client, because I say no to everything,” he laughs. “I like things that come to me organically.” He also takes a contrarian view on unions due to “all the harassment [from them]” on his shoots. “I have zero interest in joining a film union. People explain to me how they’re not the enemy, and it all lands on, ‘There’s health benefits.’ We don’t have universal health care, and the unions have to keep it that way or they’d have no power over us. And these terrible accidents on sets don’t happen on non-union movies. They happen on Tier 1 [low-budget] union movies where people aren’t looking out for each other.”

He calls his “Sweet” shoot “kind of a party. I wanted everyone to feel respected and get paid well.” Just don’t expect him to try for a big payday from Netflix. “I hate them,” he laughs. “I’m a video store guy.”

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