Sean Baker’s 2009 Independent Spirit Award nominee “Prince of Broadway” starts its U.S. theatrical run this Friday, September 3. Baker provided indieWIRE with an exclusive clip and commentary from his feature that premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival back in 2008. Baker and the film’s producer, Lee Daniels (“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire”), will both be on hand to take part in iW’s Meet the Filmmaker series this Thursday at Apple’s SoHo store.
“Prince of Broadway” is the story of Lucky and Levon, two men whose lives converge in the underbelly of New York’s wholesale fashion district. Lucky, an illegal immigrant from Ghana, makes ends meet by soliciting shoppers on the street with knock-off brand merchandise. Levon, an Armenian-Lebanese immigrant, operates an illegal storefront with a concealed back room where counterfeit goods are showcased to interested shoppers. Lucky’s world is suddenly turned upside down when a child is thrust into his life by a woman who insists the toddler is his son. While Lucky copes with his new domestic dilemma, Levon struggles to save a marriage that is falling apart. The seedy side of the wholesale district is revealed through a journey that continually confronts the interplay between what is fake and what is real.
Set in the shadow of the Flatiron building and soaked in the colorful bustle of Broadway, the film is as much a brutal drama as it is a tender comedy. Shot in a fast-paced guerilla style that is akin to the hustler lifestyle, the film reveals the lives of immigrants in America seeking ideals of family and love, while creating their own knock-off of the American Dream. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]
Background from Sean Baker
I’ve been on quite a journey with my latest film “Prince of Broadway.” After we spent a year on the festival circuit, we spent another year orchestrating its release. We were fortunate enough to have Lee Daniels come on board to officially present POB and help it on its way. Currently we are in the marketing and promotional stage so it’s been awhile since thinking about the film on a creative level. When asked to write about a scene for this piece, I had to re-visit the film as a writer/director. It is actually quite tough to break down and analyze the decision-making process behind directing because much of the film came very organically. In other words, I set things up so that I would be directed to a certain degree. So instead, I decided to write about the technicalities of shooting the scene.
I modeled the production of POB after “Take Out” a film I co-directed in 2003 with Shih-Ching Tsou. (Finally got its theatrical release in 2008). Making that film was such a liberating experience because financial constraints forced us to shoot in a very unconventional manner. We had a skeleton crew and used the environment to dictate many of our actions. I was very happy with the results and wanted to use a similar approach with “Prince of Broadway.” My intention with this film was to truly blur the line between documentary and narrative fiction filmmaking, not only in style but also in the execution. My hope was that the lack of control on set would provide us with happy accidents that I never could have orchestrated myself, at least not on our shoestring budget. That is not to say that total chaos was welcome, but a certain amount was always appreciated.
The African Restaurant Scene
Ironically, it was one of the few scenes that I had shot-listed and blocked out however it almost spiraled out of control because the guerrilla production style. It comes approximately three quarters of the way through the film. In some ways this article is a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film, perhaps check it out first and then read this. Basically this is the scene in which our lead Lucky, played by Prince Adu, makes the decision, although a reluctant one, to take responsibility of the baby and not abandon him the way the baby’s mother did.
The entire scene runs several minutes. It takes place in a restaurant in the South Bronx. Lucky (Prince Adu), his girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga) and the baby (Aiden Noesi) are having lunch. This scene follows an incident in which Lucky got in to a street fight after accusing his friend of stealing from him. Karina notices a bruise on Lucky’s cheek and confronts him about it. Lucky explains that he lost all his savings on a deal gone bad. This is too much for the patient Karina, who feels Lucky has not taken on the responsibilities of a parent. She can no longer support him if he continues to blame others for his situation and not attempt to change for the better. After an argument that takes place in front of the child, Karina decides to leave Lucky. Although Lucky protests, she tells him that she is leaving him. Our clip begins as Karina exits the restaurant.
This was one of the first scenes that I had written when Darren Dean (producer/co-writer) and I began fleshing out the script. Darren would write some scenes and I would write others. This particular scene was one that I had fleshed out. I knew this would be the pivotal scene in the film because Lucky almost loses the respect of the audience and then regains it ten fold. Prince Adu brought us to the location one afternoon in pre-production and we immediately knew we had the right spot. The large window facing the subway station gave us the backdrop we were looking for. The timing of the scene, the focal lengths and the sound editing were all very clear to me at a very early stage. I thought I had the scene figured out however there was one crucial element missing. Darren read what I had written and liked it but suggested adding the waitress coming and dropping off the check with the abandoned baby. He saved my ass! It provided what was missing, the comic relief that breaks the tension. I really have to thank Darren for elevating this scene to something much more than what it would have been.
Shooting the Scene
This was a winter shoot and it happened to be a very cold day in the South Bronx. We had the permission to shoot in this restaurant as long as we didn’t interfere with business. I had done this with “Take Out” so was comfortable shooting in that sort of environment. I didn’t expect the one waitress who wanted to laugh out loud during our takes… strike one. Keyali called us from lower Manhattan and told us she lost her voice because of the flu…. strike two. Aiden showed on set with a cold and mucus was pouring from his nose…. strike three. Our sound person, who will go nameless, didn’t like the fact that we didn’t own the street…. strike four. And finally, the large window began fogging up because of the extreme cold outside… strike five. It’s been thirty years since I’ve been to a baseball game… there are 5 strikes, right?
We were fighting too many obstacles. Keyali was kind enough to battle through the scene even though she was struggling with her voice. She did an amazing job. Once we had the dialogue of the scene taken care of, we moved in chronological order to the following sequence in which Aiden is left alone. I covered the interiors first, basically documenting the child sitting alone and playing with his food. Stephonik Youth, our production designer, was just off camera interacting with Aiden. Stephonik gets production designer credit on this film but she wore so many hats. In this case, it was all about keeping Aiden interested and happy so that he would remain sitting long enough for me to grab the shots we needed. This took a lot longer than I anticipated because I needed a very specific shot of the subway cars coming in to the station over Aiden’s shoulder. Subways run every twenty minutes. I believe we got this by the third time the subway arrived. That’s an hour of waiting.
Then we moved outside in to the cold. The telephoto lens went on the camera and I attempted to get our reverse. Once again there was the issue of the subway but now we had the added complication of not owning the street. The composition called for us being right out in the middle of an intersection. We were just about to get our shot when two people walked across our frame. It was fine and would have worked nicely, just adding to the action of the scene. However, our sound person hollered out to the passer-byers resulting in them turning and looking directly in to the lens. I said, “Well, we are out here for another twenty minutes guys.” With that, my sound person pulled his XLR cables from the camera and walked. I turned on the camera mic, got the shot, and asked Darren to find us a new sound person. I don’t blame the guy (we were standing in the middle of an intersection in the freezing cold) but I did tell him there would be days like this.
In the end, we did end up actually being one shot short for the scene. The close-up of Lucky when he says, “Find a new daddy,” had to be picked up at the very end of production. We realized after an assemble cut of the scene that the master shot didn’t get across the fact that Lucky was giving up as a father. It was one of our few pick-ups.