Sean Baker’s new film, Prince of Broadway, is a terrific example of powerful storytelling with a modest hook: a hustler in New York City’s garment district is given a baby, told by his ex-girlfriend that it’s his and he must take care of it. The result is a feature film that is both charming but also risky, one of the best American indie films of the last couple of years. Prince of Broadway wraps up a long festival run to finally make its way to theaters this month, starting with a New York engagement this weekend. Seek it out, because you will not be disappointed. I asked Sean Baker if he’d answer a few questions:
Me: The film premiered at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won its first of many awards and it has always been a beloved film. Why did it take over two years to finally land Prince of Broadway in theaters?
Baker: In my opinion, the recession affected the indie film industry greatly. Smaller boutique distributors either went under or became more cautious of films without known actors. We did receive a couple of offers early on… however we felt that the money wasn’t good enough given the period of time that we would be licensing the film. David Robinson and Kim Jose of Elephant Eye Films came on board to do our foreign sales. After they released Sebastian Silva’s The Maid, they offered to release Prince of Broadway. We just had to finish the film, meaning final sound mix, music clearance and color-correcting. That took at least 6 months because I was working on MTV’s Warren the Ape. But finally everything was completed and Lee Daniels came on board. Like Take Out, it took forever to get to the theaters but we don’t see that as a negative. We needed the time to get things in place for this to work properly.
Me: When you walk down the garment district on Broadway now, what memories of making the film, come back to you?
Baker: It is actually the people and the interactions that I have fondest memories of. The working community there were so generous by telling us there stories and letting us in to their world. Somebody that I don’t mention nearly enough is Mohammed Bzeih who plays the role of Ali. At the time we shot, he was a 23 year old Lebanese-American entrepreneur who ran his own shop on Broadway (a totally legitimate shop that sold sportswear). Not only did he give us a great performance but also, along with Prince Adu, acted as a consultant and fact checker. He would help make our dialogue accurate in the details and at the last minute even provided us with the clothes that were used as set decoration in the front of Levon’s store.
Me: What was Prince doing when you found him? How did you find him?
Baker: Victoria Tate (associate producer and actor) and I were already doing research in the area for over a month and many people kept telling us, “Find Prince Adu, he’ll want to talk to you.” When we did finally run in to him, he was working security at a small clothing shop on 28th Street. Immediately, he said to us, “I heard about you guys. If you put me in your film, I’ll help you find actors, find you find locations and help you find the right story to shoot here.” We interviewed him for a few minutes, got his contact info and left. As we walked away, Victoria and I turned to each other and said, “I think we found our lead.” Prince is immensely talented and I hope this is the start of a successful acting career for him.
Me: Was it difficult to shoot in this relatively underground culture of Manhattan?
Baker: Not as difficult as you would think. Very time consuming, but not difficult. It took a year of getting to know people, gaining trust,socializing, etc., but once those relationships were forged, we were able to move forward like any low budget indie. Darren Dean, who co-wrote and produced the film, made sure that we were properly insured and permitted to shoot in the area.
Coming from Take Out, I was blindly optimistic that another business would allow us in to their shop and allow us to shoot. How wrong I was. Because the script called for a back room from which counterfeit goods were bought and sold, businesses were afraid that we would make their actual business look bad. Plus, I don’t know what I was thinking, hoping that they would allow us in during working hours to shoot a film. So Darren proposed renting a small shop for a week, set dressing it and shooting there. It was so small that we needed to build a rolling wall that would make the shop appear bigger than it actually is. It was that kind of producing skills that were necessary on a shoot like this.
Me: How do you balance making personal independent feature films, with making broader TV comedy, like Warren The Ape?
Baker: Honestly, Warren the Ape helped me complete Prince of Broadway. Without it, I’m not sure we would ever get to this point. It’s truly a blessing to be part of the Greg the Bunny/Warren the Ape franchise because it gives me directing/writing/editing practice between films and basically funds them. Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy (my co-creators on the show) are incredibly talented guys and my collaboration with them hones my skills when it comes to narrative comedy. Although my last two films are categorized dramas, there is humor in all of the human interactions. I think this stems from my work on Greg/Warren and my love of the comedy genre.