“Filmmakers Know ESPN Better Than Cinema”: DP Sean Price Williams on Shooting The Great Pretender With a DSLR and Today’s Film Climate
While shooting a commercial in Thailand cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good Time, Golden Exits, Marjorie Prime) contracted an ear infection. He let me rattle questions into his ear canals despite it. Two months prior The Great Pretender, the second feature film he had shot with writer/director Nathan Silver (Thirst Street, Stinking Heaven, Exit Elena), premiered in the Viewpoints section of Tribeca. Following the screening, Sean revealed that the film had been shot on a DLSR camera that could fit in one hand, with plastic, sparkle filters taped over the lens, completely eschewing a matte box.
He managed to photograph Brooklyn on his prosumer camera rig with character, with a neon grime that seems to rub off bug burnished electrical tubes, and with cramped close ups that omit the chin and forehead. Colored light and claustrophobic close ups might sound familiar to those who’ve seen Williams’s recent work, but they’re not a throughline (See Marjorie Prime). Here, close ups are turned to out of necessity, for lack of money and setting, but maybe, for this cynical comedy of Brooklyn-based solipsists, those close ups were the right choice either way.
Williams didn’t like the edit of The Great Pretender he had seen before the premiere, but he was impressed by the cut that world premiered at the festival. He’s candid about the films he doesn’t like, even the films he’s worked on—even ones he didn’t. He’s sincere in his distaste for the state of the industry, and is aware that he sounds like an old man when he declares he prefers “old guy movies” to contemporary films like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
Filmmaker: When you do commercials, do you get to play around with tools you wouldn’t have otherwise?
Williams: I don’t think that’s the case. I haven’t done too many, to be honest. But I don’t find it to be any real liberating thing. Producers have specific gear that they know the names of that they want, you know? I’m sure some people have more freedom when there’s a little more time and stuff, but I haven’t found that to be the case. You can try out some lenses that you haven’t before, but experimenting, I don’t know. There’s just too many people watching.
Filmmaker: I saw The Great Pretender at Tribeca, and Wobble Palace, which Williams also shot recently too, at SXSW.
Williams: I haven’t seen [Wobble Palace]. Eugene [Kotlyarenko] was tampering with it to the very end. When we were making that film I didn’t understand it. There was all this weird technology stuff that I didn’t get, because I don’t do any of it. I don’t have a smartphone. I would wait around while he was fiddling with these phones and stuff to directly record. So it’s really like I only worked on half of the film.
The Great Pretender I hadn’t seen ‘til the Tribeca screening. I had seen an earlier version and thought it was pretty bad. I didn’t have much hope for it. But when I saw it at Tribeca I was pretty elated. It’s actually pretty close to the original intention of it, but they really found something with the material. We didn’t do reshoots or anything, they just restructured it. They’re really smart people, Nathan [Silver] and Jack [Dunphy], the writer.
Filmmaker: You weren’t there for the color grade?
Williams: I was for two or three hours. I had to go to France to shoot something. I hadn’t seen it before, so I just scrubbed to a couple of scenes, some exteriors and a bedroom scene that I was really particular about—scenes we were wondering about how we’d grade. Usually I don’t even know how to do a grade like those intense tech guys, so it probably turned out better because I wasn’t there for it. They made great decisions, so, I give them all the credit. Color grading for me is pretty painful. I try to do it in camera. I grew up shooting movies that didn’t get a color grade, or if we did it was a favor and I wasn’t able to be there. I try to get it as right as I can in the camera. But sometimes you need to be able to say to production “we can fix it later” on these low budget things.
This was originally a webseries, and we got to play a lot. It was a great opportunity to experiment. There were no producers, no one that we were really beholden to, and our producer Matt Grady and Nathan, our director, would get more excited the crazier it got. That’s why I like doing some of the little things still.
Filmmaker: How was the schedule?
Williams: There weren’t very many days, but they weren’t stressful days. There was some nap time. And often after we’d wrap we’d all still hangout and talk about what we were gonna do next, so you’re kind of always on.
Filmmaker: This is Nathan’s first fully scripted feature. Does that mean there was also his first shot list?
William: No, never a shot list. So far his two movies have been — other than documentaries — the least worked out. There isn’t really an assistant director to help us move along because they don’t know what we’re doing. We had a good one on Thirst Street, a French girl, because she figured out what we were up to, but we find it pretty organically because we really know each other’s tastes.
The scripted thing, I’m excited for Nathan to get more and more into that. I like his older things that I wasn’t involved in because I don’t understand how they came out. Even Thirst Street, I don’t understand how it turned out the way it did. But Stinking Heaven is a totally wild invention of a weird world, and I know almost everyone involved in that movie. I’m just like “How did you create this terrible place?”
Filmmaker: Nathan briefly mentioned that you had been talking with Dario Argento at Locarno at some point, and that this might’ve been the genesis of some of your ideas about color.
Williams: No. I had been playing with that stuff for awhile, and some LEDs [ARRI Skypanels] had come out that made it possible without using giant lights with really thick gels. It just became a lot more possible in the last two and a half years. I also kinda wanna stop doing it a little bit, because it is fun but it’d be nice to contrast it with something a little more natural. I don’t know. I don’t have any great plan. I think Nathan and I will keep screwing around with that stuff. We should do at least one more to make a trilogy of weird, colorful, gooey movies.
I also did a movie a few years ago that was almost no color at all, and I looked at it and it didn’t look like much. So maybe I’d like to get a little more bombastic. 2016 was when I shot Thirst Street, Good Time and Jobe’z World with some buddies. They’re all just crazy colorful and kaleidoscopic, I mean even Wobble Palace at the end of the year was doing stuff with color too.
Filmmaker: Can’t wait for Jobe’z World.
Williams: Yeah, I hope people can see it. I guess [Matt] Grady picked it up right?
Filmmaker: Did he?
Williams: Maybe. I don’t know if that’s official but there was bar talk, you know? I call Matt Grady (founder of Factory 25) the Schindler of indie cinema. Jobe’z World is a perfectly fun 65 minute whatever.
Filmmaker: I know in the Q&A you said you shot The Great Pretender on a DSLR. Were you able to use Skypanels?
Williams: We had one Skypanel and a couple of little lights. We didn’t have that for Thirst Street. Those were all just gels. We didn’t have a Skypanel, I don’t think. That’s right: my lighting crew was all students and didn’t know how to use them. But they carried the shit around and did all the work, so I’m not complaining. They picked some of the colors too. I wish there were a lot more colors.
Filmmaker: Are these colors premeditated in any way? The colors tend to stay consistent to their space in The Great Pretender.
Williams; Yeah, I mean it’s all atmosphere for me. I know there’s color psychology. I’ve got the books that’ll tell you what color will make you feel what, but I don’t believe it. It’s atmosphere, and there are certain colors that look better on people’s skin. There’re just experiences that I’ve personally had with colors that make me know how I feel about them, and I just go with that. A white girl’s not going to necessarily look good with green light in her face, but then maybe she shouldn’t? There are some directors that just hate the color green. There are two that I’ve worked with that don’t want any green in their films. Even with wardrobe, even if there’s like a tree. Sometimes [color] is a reference to a movie too, but usually not.
Filmmaker: Is it important for you to practically justify the source of your light?
Williams: Not really. It helps me think about it initially. I need it as a launching pad, but I really want to get away from that. I’ve watched some Dutch films recently and there are all of these beautiful, senseless color choices. I love it. It’s dynamic and it’s great. There’s no reason for it other than that. I really wish I felt free enough to do that. Some directors don’t like or understand it. They’ll be like “Why is that light there?” And then you’ll know that’s a conversation you can’t have. “Okay, you don’t buy it. Let’s say we turn it off? There’s no reason that color’s coming from there, other than that that style would complement this one. It looks better to me.” You know? You have three different things happening. One of them might be justified but the other two might be a stretch. “Oh, that’s coming from a cell phone light just off frame”—you can get pretty carried away with it. But when I’m setting up lights I’m still stuck with that: what’s motivating? What might motivate? Even if it’s an extreme color that’s not realistic there has to be something that I think it’s coming from.
Filmmaker: There’s been no opportunity to break from that?
Williams: It could probably happen with Nathan. I’d love to sit down and show him some of the films I’ve been watching and ask him if we’d be ready for something like that.
Filmmaker: There seems to be at least some kind of language you’re sticking to in The Great Pretender.
Williams: Mostly from the hunger of not having real production design. We’re shooting in one apartment and trying to make it different apartments. We’re shooting in one bar and trying to make it three different ones, so that means you shoot close ups. Also, because the camera is this little digital SLR thing, there’re parts of the image that I don’t really like to see. We were shooting on one lens and I didn’t have a matte box for it, so I just bought some plastic things and taped them to the front just to break it up a little bit.
The very last scene we shot was a shot of Keith and Maëlle walking down the street at night. Just to kind of match the rest of the film’s weird colors, we found a street near Nathan’s house by chance, where there was this weird green light coming out from a building. We had them walk through that. You do have to make it a whole. The street has to feel like it’s the same world. Nathan and I were also feeling really down on Brooklyn. We needed it to feel gross and full of horrible people, ugly streets and ugly scaffolding. It had to be ugly. Those were our rules.
Filmmaker: What exactly did your makeshift rig comprise of?
Williams: The Sony A7s Mark II. We did a center crop basically, a 1.8X magnification, so that I could use my 16mm 8-64mm Canon zoom lens on it. I don’t think it’s mine, but I borrowed it from somebody so many years ago that I basically inherited it. It’s a good documentary lens. It’s a great lens, but for all these new cameras with their 35mm sensors you have to zoom in on it. So you lose quality, but that doesn’t bother me. Hate to turn 4K into 2K, or however that works, but it’s all OK. I’d be pretty happy shooting around on a DVX100 Mini DV camera even. But I’ll never get to shoot with that.
Filmmaker: Didn’t you almost shoot Heaven Knows What on one?
Williams: Yeah actually, we shot tests with it. Casting tests, like with the girl Arielle [Holmes], shooting her around on the street. Me and Josh, and her and Ariel Pink would kinda be in it too. Josh put together a little thing with all of it, I hope I have it somewhere, it was like a little 5 minute teaser thing with some cool music and shit.
Filmmaker: I feel like a large part of creating a usable “look” on a low budget has to do with making the highlights roll off with some character. These highlights definitely have that. Can you talk about how you managed that limited latitude?
Williams: The Sony sensors handle highlights very well in my opinion. Windows blow out in a nice way. The Sony FS7 is my favorite digital camera. I don’t miss the details. Most other digital cameras reveal their electrified, fried true identity. Harsh stuff.
Filmmaker: That shot with them sitting by the creek with those wild highlights kicking off the reflections, did those sparkly filters have any adverse effects on your highlights?
Williams: That was mostly just the light at that time of day, the swan drifting in, and just blowing it out. Those filters help break up the image for sure. But not the one with the sparkles, that was just a kind of cloudy plastic.
Filmmaker: I was also wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you guys shot for a “big” look, something that was initially meant to read on an iPhone and laptop screens, and how you acquired that big look with a small rig and minimal means.
Williams: I don’t think we were going for a big look. But I don’t watch any television. I left television in the early ’90s—maybe I left TV after Night Court—so I don’t really have the small screen grammar in me. I watch movies movies movies, and mostly the old ones that were made by movie watchers. I think a lot of filmmakers today know ESPN better than cinema. But that’s ok.
Filmmaker: Are you frustrated if you’re not heavily involved in developing the language of a film?
Williams: If I read the script and there’s stuff in it that suggests or reminds me of another film, then I’ll throw something the director’s way, a film or a photograph. I ask them for photographs usually, to guide me. Not movies so much, because they’ll tell me a movie they love and I’ll be like “Yeah but that movie kind of sucks.” So I try to let the photos guide me a bit more. But I don’t come into anything with an idea. I guess that’s probably why I lose out on some jobs. Some directors are writers that aren’t very visual, and they want to hire a DP that will tell them how to make it look. I think that’s ridiculous; that’s the director’s job. I mean, I can enhance or help, but they have to have something that they know. I can’t tolerate a filmmaker that’s not visual, that doesn’t make sense to me. Unfortunately, most movies these days are made by writers. Writers should write the script and get it produced or don’t. A lot of the greatest filmmakers were not necessarily the writers. Now we’re stuck with people who write. They are the ones who get the money to make the movies now.
Filmmaker: I’m guessing you don’t like to watch many modern films?
Williams: Not really. Nor do I like to watch American films. I’m not watching American ’70s movies anymore. I’m not getting much out of that right now. Stuff like that that used to really excite me when I was in my twenties. I’m not really there anymore. But new stuff? Not so much. At festivals I try to catch things, but I try to go to less of them because they’re not really about the movies anymore.
Filmmaker: What have you been watching?
Williams: I don’t know. Trashy stuff. ’80s Dutch movies that I’ve been watching on airplanes. Strange television things from a long time ago. I like watching people argue quite a bit. William Buckley, Firing Line. I’ve been going down weird tangents. I’ll find an actress I like that’s been dead for 30 years and look her up and watch everything she’s in. It’s kind of all over the place. You never know what will stick. I watch a lot of bad movies, but that’s okay. You feel good when you find one that nobody knows.
But yeah, new movies man, I don’t know. When we were at Cannes I saw that new Lynne Ramsay movie You Were Never Really Here. That felt like a crime it was so bad.
Filmmaker: Thank you. Completely agree. Everyone loves it too.
Williams: Yeah, it’s a joke. If someone loves that movie they’re asleep at the wheel. You can’t have a conscience and watch that movie without feeling like she should be incarcerated. Joaquin’s walking around the whole movie with an expression that says “What am I doing here?” It’s so obvious, it’s like get out of this movie please! You’re too good for this movie! First Reformed I loved. Some of these older guys are nihilists now, or they have nothing to lose or something, and they’re just going for it. So I like older guy movies more, maybe. That punk new Godard movie [The Image Book] I’m dying to see, I’m sure it’s amazing. The last one was so fierce. Those guys still got fire.
Filmmaker: Did you see Goodbye to Language in 3D?
Williams: Yeah yeah, Godard in 3D. I was in euphoria.
Filmmaker: Those scenes where you could blink your left eye and see one shot and blink your right eye and see another — and then they eventually meet.
Williams: But I mean, why’s it gotta be him still that’s showing us what to do with our tools?
Filmmaker: Are you able to watch your own films with any objectivity?
Williams: Yeah, I think so. I try to watch them when they’re being cut and help out if it’s welcome. I think I’m pretty objective. I get upset about things getting cut sometimes—not because I pulled off some great shot because I never care about that, but because I think they’ve made an overall mistake. It happens, maybe a little too often. It’s never something like them putting in a shot that’s a little out of focus, I don’t care about that. It goes with the turf when you’re making things organically like that. When you don’t want to rehearse and you want to just make it happen, there’s an energy there that ensures it’s not technically perfect every time. But yeah, I don’t mind. I’m happy to watch things. I haven’t seen Wobble Palace. There’s something else that I haven’t seen that I shot—oh, it’s this thing at Slamdance that I don’t wanna watch.
Filmmaker: You once said you still feel like you haven’t shot a real film. What will it take for a film you’ve shot to feel real?
Williams: I guess I just started making a couple, I don’t know. But it’s an embarrassing thing to say because it means I have some conservative standard on what a real movie is. That’s like someone saying “That rap music isn’t real music!” When I say that I sound like an old man. I remember seeing one of the movies I shot in a Leonard Maltin book. So it’s like “Ok, that means it’s a real movie right?” I don’t know. “Are Joe Swanberg’s movies in here too? Those aren’t real movies!” You know? If there’re a couple of movie stars in your movie does that make them real movies? I have a top 1,000 list of my favorite movies and none that I’ve worked on are in that list. Maybe that’s what it will take.
Filmmaker: You actually have that list written out somewhere?
Yeah. It changes. Every 6 months I go through and swap some things out.
Filmmaker: Do you have a rough idea of the top—
Williams: I don’t have them in order. Then I’d have to change it every day. If… is my favorite movie. If… by Lindsay Anderson, ever since I was a little boy. It’s sort of the film I live by in some ways, which might sound really obnoxious. One of my favorite DP’s was a camera operator on it too—Chris Menges, one of the greatest ever. I watch these small movies he did in the ’80s, Comfort And Joy and Local Hero, they’re so beautiful and so simple—that’s a real movie. They’re so script-based and every decision serves this beautiful simple thing. How do you get there?
Filmmaker: Can a compromise on the cinematography end break a movie? Do you think any compromises you’ve made have done so?
Williams: I don’t think any of my contributions are important enough to make or break anything. But, it’s painful sometimes, very often, yeah. The thing is, they’ve got these things structured now where you have 18-25 days to shoot and that’s it. You have to get it. You do or you don’t. Sometimes there’s unpredictable weather, and sometimes those things work in your favor. You can have to shoot something in a light that you never would have wanted to, and it makes it more interesting. But you can’t really consider things. You just go in and get whatever you’ve got. There’s something exciting about that. It’s frustrating when you can’t go back. There’s no day to reshoot. If what you shot doesn’t work, you can’t go shoot it again on these smaller-level movies. Maybe they’ll have two or three days built in at the end for pickups. I’ve only worked with a few directors that have done that. But I don’t think my contributions make or break anything
Filmmaker: Any such compromises on The Great Pretender?
Williams: No. I think there was one little complication at the end where we only had one light for a night scene on the street. You couldn’t even see one of the dudes’ faces at all. I felt bad about that because he was such a nice guy. He came all the way out to do this thing and he wouldn’t even be able to see his face!
Filmmaker: Will you do bigger movies?
Williams: There’s not going to be any bigger movies for me because I don’t want to join the union. So I’ll work with the little guys and the just-not-so-little-guys. Hopefully I’ll continue to have access to the tools that I need to do something expressive with. Once you have bigger budgets you get to have all of those tools. But maybe I’m not a tool guy anyway. I don’t like the structure of the union and what it has done to movies. It’s really painful and terrible and I just don’t want to be a part of it.
I have a cut-off, basically, but it’s self imposed. I’m gonna go to Japan to make a movie this year with some people and it will probably be a remarkable experience with some good people and hopefully we make a good movie. I’ll hope that this stupid distribution end of our industry changes, because it’s appalling right now. There’s no advertisement. I don’t know, I’m not smart enough, but somebody’s gotta come up with a way to generate attention for different kinds of movies so that we’re not all watching the same thing at the same time.
And I don’t want to talk about the video store days again, because that would just make me look like such a sad sack of shit brand. But we all know it, we all remember it, those of us who are old enough, and know that there was something there. But there’s an internet now. I don’t understand how people aren’t getting to the things that they would obviously like. I introduce movies to people and it’s like how have you not—this movie was made for you and you have no access to it all. It happens to me too. Movies come out that I would have wanted to see but I have no idea that they even existed or came out. I don’t know! I said I’m not reading Cinema Scope anymore, but that’s not their job. I hope there’s a change, because then we can also keep making these movies. There’s a lot of people that want to put money into movies hoping they’ll make it back, and it’s very hard. There’s money out there.
Filmmaker: Much of your job is to remain open to the needs of the story and director’s wishes, but have you picked up on any pattern or inclination that’s snuck itself into your work?
Williams: I hope not, but people have their gimmicks and that’s what makes them successful. When a DP has their thing or their look I think they get hired to do just that thing. I would rather be more amorphous and always try something different and try not to make something my thing. I’m only capable of so much, there are things that I just don’t know how to do. So I’m probably not openly broad enough to be able to do just anything. My possibilities are limited. But, you know, I like to zoom in on people’s faces, or on a girl brushing her hair. I could make a film of just that and be happy. I don’t know if there’s one thread that I have, but there probably are things. I always shoot random things on my own, random birds or something, that usually find themselves into the edit. Just the simple little “look at that” pleasures.
Filmmaker: You directed a film back in 2011. Any itch to get back into that?
Williams: That was a horrible experience. But, I always wanted to direct. I didn’t want to shoot. I didn’t care about anything else, so hopefully I get another chance. But I don’t know how to present ideas to people in a way that would convince them to back me. I don’t know. To be committed to one shoot for so long is difficult, and I’ve just been bouncing from one to another so quickly. It would take a lot for me to stick with one thing to the very end. But I’d like to. I’d like to be the one calling the shots. I think I’d make a pretty wild movie that’d be pretty fun and enjoyable—and commercial. I would want to make something that people would see but also blow their minds a little bit and make them cover their mouths.