Cannes 2023: Sean Price Williams and Nick Pinkerton on The Sweet East
America’s fraught political present meets the less savory corners of cinema’s past in The Sweet East, the first feature directed by celebrated cinematographer Sean Price Williams. Penned with typically acerbic wit by film critic Nick Pinkerton, The Sweet East stars Talia Ryder in a should-be-star-making performance as Lilian, a high school senior who impulsively runs off while on a class trip to Washington, D.C. Joyfully taking up with a group of anarcho-punks, Lilian quickly assumes a new name, only to ditch her new friends and begin a roundabout journey along the Eastern seaboard, encountering a radicalized America of neo-Nazis, leftist art kids and sexually repressed Islamic extremists.
Poking at both sides of a politically divided nation, Williams and Pinkerton fashion a panoramic burlesque of modern America from a series of barely exaggerated characterizations: an academic moonlighting as a white supremacist (Simon Rex, in a role seemingly tailored made for the ex-MTV VJ coming off his performance in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket); a hunky celebrity (Jacob Elordi); a gun-wielding Pizzagate truther (Andy Milonakis); and a castle-dwelling cult leader played by former Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes.
Propelled by the intoxicatingly scuzzy aesthetic Williams pioneered in films by Alex Ross Perry and the Safdie Brothers, and littered with invocations of everything from softly cancelled silent cinema giant D.W. Griffith to the decidedly un-PC backwaters of the Troma Entertainment catalogue, The Sweet East savagely send-ups modern day social anxieties at the same time as it sharply tweaks the codes of a respectable indie filmmaking model whose own self-perpetuating mandates threaten to suck the vitality from an endangered art form.
Following The Sweet East’s premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight program at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, I sat down with Williams and Pinkerton to discuss the roots of their friendship in the New York cinephile scene of the early-2000s, the film’s inflammatory subject matter and how sometimes, in order to survive, you have to simply laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Filmmaker: Do you remember when you guys first met? Does it go back to the Kim’s Video days?
Sean Price Williams: We didn’t know each other then, because we were at rival stores—kind of. He worked at Avenue A and I was on St. Mark’s, and the Avenue A kids were bad kids that stole money and probably stole tapes. They had a few unique tapes over there that I was worried they might try to steal that we didn’t have, so I would basically find excuses to get those tapes to our store. I went over there to take things from Avenue A while he was there, but I never would’ve engaged because, you know, those were bad kids. And I was very serious about our store.
Nick Pinkerton: Something of a point of pride is when Avenue A shut down, the New York Times ran a piece about the first of the many Kim’s closures to come. The headline was: “The Customer Was Always Right? Not at Kim’s Video on Avenue A,” which then went on to detail how aggressive and awful we particularly were.
Williams: When I first started working on St. Mark’s there were a couple of guys there that were really mean. I hated them, so we got rid of them and it became a nice Kim’s.
Pinkerton: Good cop, bad cop.
Williams: One of them took a hammer to the printer and I fired him. I didn’t have the authority to do it, but I said, “You’re fired,” and he went away. He had been there, like, three more years than me, and I was like, “You’ve been here too long! You’re outta here!”
Filmmaker: How did you eventually cross paths?
Pinkerton: I think it was Michael Chaiken.
Williams: Yeah, he’s a bridge for me with everything. Maybe I remember talking to Nick, but I knew his name because he was the only critic that would bother reviewing some of the movies that I shot for the Village Voice and whatnot. That really meant a lot: “Wow. You’re the guy!”
Pinkerton: The crumbs off the table that they gave me [laughs]. I think we first met on Union Square north when you and Chaiken were coming from 19th street AMC after seeing, like, To Rome with Love or something.
Williams: I don’t know what we were seeing, but I remember that it was around there.
Pinkerton: We had known one another a little bit for a couple of years, but our real love story began when we were both jurors at the Sarasota Film Festival and went from the hotel we were both staying at to pick up our badges, a 20-minute walk through downtown Sarasota which is not a walk that any person takes [laughs]. We had a very long talk about Walerian Borowczyk the entire way, who is very much, let’s say, an inspiring force for the film. It’s not often you meet a man you can just talk Borowczyk with.
Filmmaker: You’re both kind of pivoting a little bit with this film: Sean, directing your first feature; Nick, writing your first screenplay. Sean, can you talk about the impetus behind wanting to direct? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Williams: I never wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t know what that even was when I was in school, but it’s what I ended up doing, because there’s a lot more work for a cinematographer than a director. Now that I’ve directed, my bank account is the lowest it’s been in years, so it’s definitely not something I can sustain right now. But it was a good time for us. Craig Butta, our producer, had a kid and was getting more serious. We all wanted to try something that we hadn’t done. I convinced Nick to write the script, and if Nick is going to write a script the first time, then I’m going to do something for the first time, and Craig’s going to do something for the first time. A couple people in the crew, a couple of the department heads, were doing their jobs for the first time.
Filmmaker: Nick, I think you’ve told me that you worked on some films when you were younger.
Pinkerton: Yeah, I went to a production program. That was the thing I started out thinking that I wanted to do: be an auteur. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t really understand how shit works at all and go, “Oh yeah, I’ll go to Wright State University and major in film production. Four years after that, I will emerge as an established auteur.” [laughs] Then you get a little bit of seasoning and start to understand: ”Wait a doggone minute, nobody has ever actually come from this place and managed to get a movie made”—other than the great Jim Van Bebber, who is also a dropout like myself. It just didn’t seem feasible. It was a fantastic bang-for-the-buck program, and I had great professors, including the late, lamented Julia Reichardt, but ultimately, in all likelihood, I’d have wound up being a camera loader on Kroger’s commercials made in the greater Cincinnati area—which is nice work if you can get it, but not really what I had in mind. So, I kind of backed into criticism because it allowed me to have a relationship with film where I could control what I was doing somewhat.
Williams: My story is really similar. I definitely went to school to be a director, then I came to New York and started shooting videos for websites in ‘99/2000. I don’t know who was streaming in that year; I never saw anything I shot because I never had any friends with a computer that could even play that stuff. But yeah, that was like $75 to shoot a standup comedy act with Charles Grodin’s daughter, shoot some rappers doing sketch comedy with guns in a taxi or something. Just weird, random stuff. It was a good way to get to know New York pretty quickly. I was at the Chelsea flea market shooting this interview and this guy that I knew from the video store saw me. Then he comes to the video store and says, “You shoot stuff? Do you know how to shoot film?”“Absolutely, that’s what I like to do.” “My friend needs a cameraman for his movie.” And that’s how I met Ronnie Bronstein and did Frownland.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that you asked Nick to write a script. Did you give him any guidelines or ideas about what you wanted?
Williams: Definitely no ideas on my end. He wrote something that was very personal to him, a thirtysomethings Ohio movie. I said, “I don’t think this is what I’m interested in.” But he likes to say that I said I want to make a MAGA movie.
Pinkerton: That is correct.
Williams: Don’t use language like that.
Pinkerton: So the two directions were MAGA movie and punk rock. And did I ever deliver, baby!
Filmmaker: How did the script take shape from there? Did you set out to write a kind of a road movie about America?
Pinkerton: The seed idea was that it would be a high school senior who got separated from her class on a senior trip to Washington, D.C. The very early idea was that we were going to go down to D.C. for the Trump inauguration. We would get an actress and shoot on the ground during the inauguration, do a Medium Cool thing and build out from that.
Williams: That would’ve meant that we had this very specific timeframe that we had to get our shit together. We didn’t deliver on that.
Pinkerton: Moreover, not only were we incompetent and not able to get it together in that timeframe, but as soon as I started thinking about it: why would there be a senior trip in D.C. during the inauguration, when every single hotel is booked? That makes no sense whatsoever. I did most of the first draft while at Sundance in 2017, which happened to coincide with the inauguration. So everybody is pink pussy hatted out, and I’m covering the VR section for Film Comment…
Williams: Oh God.
Pinkerton: At one point there was a conference where somebody’s like, “Yeah, we’re trying to get a petition together. We get 5,000 people to sign it and if they do we’ll get Donald Trump to do our VR experience.” Because I didn’t have a great deal to do outside of going to the VR tent, I just went to some stupid bar, probably the Double Down or something, getting the shallowest shots that barely dampen the bottom of your glass…
Williams: The worst place to drink on Earth.
Pinkerton: And from there I developed the basic outline of the film, which was then developed a great deal over the following five years.
Williams: Then we did our train trip from the Maryland Film Festival. We took a train trip from Baltimore to New York and really worked out a lot of stuff together there. We got to Penn Station and stayed in the bar in Penn Station, Kabooz’s, for hours.
Pinkerton: I recall getting back at four o’clock in the afternoon or something like that, and we’re hanging out at Kabooz’s. Mike Bilandic showed up, and I think maybe Stephen Gurewitz [the film’s editor] pulled up as well. As I was getting up to go, I pulled out a $20 bill. I was like, “That should cover my drinks.” And the bartender was like, “You’ve had 17 drinks, it’s currently 1 AM.”
Williams: Yeah, we figured a lot out on that trip.
Pinkerton: With Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri’s characters, [the filmmakers] Matthew and Molly, it was Sean’s idea that it would just be more interesting if they were African-American.
Williams: I wanted it to be Jeremy and Janicza Bravo, but Janicza couldn’t do it. She was going to do it but had a scheduling conflict, so she had to bail. I thought that’d be really fun to get them together.
Pinkerton: We were discussing these characters, and the way they sort of complete one another’s sentences. They could be siblings, they could be lovers. And on this trip I told Sean: “They’re a bit like Tomax and Xamot from the G.I. Joe cartoons…” They were twins where, if you harm one, the other would be wounded.
Williams: One had a scar on his face. That’s what differentiated them.
Pinkerton: And when I brought this point of reference up, Sean just started cackling.
Williams: This is the level of stupidity that this movie was made from. It continued on the shoot, too, because Nick was there almost the whole time. So we were still being foolish, adding all the time.
Filmmaker: Were you thinking about who might be in the film when you were writing? Like Simon Rex, for example—I can’t imagine he was in mind before Red Rocket.
Williams: He actually was in mind before Red Rocket, but I didn’t know that he was even acting. He wasn’t when we wrote the thing. No, I was thinking of Bradley Cooper for that part, but he was busy preparing for A Star is Born or whatever. So he was unavailable for comment. It was not realistic that we would ever make the movie. We were just dreaming big and we didn’t really have any reason to believe that we would ever make the movie, I guess. It was fantastical, even just the idea.
Pinkerton: I think Sean always had thought of it as a movie-movie, with stars in it. I had a very kind of modest idea, like, maybe we get $100,000 and do some grubby thing.
Williams: Because we could do it with our friends. We’ve got friends that could have probably played all those roles.
Pinkerton: But by virtue of the fact that Sean lives a charmed existence, he somehow willed it into being.
Williams: Craig Butta, the producer, I think needed to get out of the house, get away from his new kid or something, so he and I started having meetings to prepare the film. We were taking meetings with different money people and feeling really good about ourselves, I think just because we did the meeting at all, even though there was no success or results. Then Alex Ross Perry got involved and got the script to agencies, so then actors were seeing the script and that started to make it seem a little more real. Then Jacob Elordi got it and immediately wanted to do it.
Filmmaker: What about Talia?
Williams: Talia came a little bit later, when I started looking for the girl. There were two non-actor girls, and I thought one of them would be really interesting. But she was kind of scary, actually. She was really close to the real girl. I said, “This is not going to be easy for me, a first-time director managing the life of this underage girl.” That was the other thing. We had just been so impractical legally—so yeah, OK, let’s get a real actor. And, of course, we were more than happy with how it all turned out. But Talia was the very first actor I saw for the part, which to me felt like it couldn’t be her, you know? Because that’s never how the story goes. She was the first one I met. Very originally, we talked to Maya Hawke, but this was years before, when she was still in high school. I have a tape of her reading for the movie, actually. Then I talked to other people, but Talia asked questions about the character before she did her audition that were so impressive that made me think, “Whoa, this is a different level of commitment and thought she’s bringing.”
Pinkerton: Ultimately—and this extends to Jacob and everyone in the cast—if the movie works at all, a very important thing was that the people who were on it wanted to be on it. They either wanted to work with Sean or liked the script or, hopefully, some combination of the two.
Williams: I never saw Talia act before. Rish Shah, Jacob—I’ve never seen these people act. It was really just that they wanted to do it and I like their personalities. I’ve done movies where you sometimes get TV actors that are not that famous, but kind of famous. They come into movies and have the worst attitude, and the whole time I’m just thinking, “Why on Earth did you agree to this?” It’s really bad and a very poisonous effect on the whole thing, so I really didn’t want that.
Pinkerton: Sean has cultivated a group of people that he works with repeatedly—Danny April, his gaffer, for example. So there were a lot of friends who were brought into the fold, then we had people like Talia, Jacob, Simon, Ayo, and Rish, who were unknown quantities at first, but by the end had become our friends as well. And I hope something of that translates, that even the “X factors” who were coming in from another context came because they wanted to do this thing.
Filmmaker: You’ve obviously shot a ton of films, Sean. But did you learn anything specific from directing for the first time?
Williams: I learned so much. Like in the prep—normally, I hate all forms of prep. I get really bored and anxious. I don’t like to be in an office, people asking questions. But we did it. Again, I was working with people that I know and like, and they know me, and know my moods and when to ask the question for the tenth time or not. I don’t think I made trouble for them, you know? But, also, they would answer the question before asking me, because they knew what my answer would be. But I still learned a lot about all the time that you feel gets taken away from you being a director in the prep. During the shoot, though, I felt really at ease and comfortable. A couple of times there would be something where the actors needed help a little bit, or they just wanted me to tell them something, and I would have to figure out how to fake it a little bit. But it was really mostly a total breeze on the shoot. Best time I’ve ever had on a shoot. After the shoot I learned one big thing: I shoot movies, we shoot a great scene, a great shot, a great performance. The movie’s cut and it’s gone. What the fuck? It just didn’t really work. That’s not possible—you failed the movie, you know? Now, having had to lose things that I love, I know better. I wish I’d known how that really happens before, but I do now, so I’ll be a better collaborator after this.
Pinkerton: Sean, ostensibly a first-time solo director, is also somebody who has been on sets for 20 years, and very often, by virtue of his non-union status, is working for first-time directors. This is a man who knows how to run a set, and who is very often the most seasoned person on a set he’s working on. It’s worth mentioning that we did a brokeback shoot where we shot one half of the movie in fall of 2021 and the other half in May of 2022, because the events of the film take place over the course of an entire calendar year, and we wanted to have the sense of changing seasons.
Williams: I really wanted seasons, but the winter was so mild. People were in t-shirts in November upstate.
Pinkerton: We actually got snow during the Mohawk Valley Massacre scene. It came in late. On the first half, by virtue of being both cinematographer and director, I think you were slightly more hands-on in terms of operating, and I was perhaps somewhat more of use coming in and answering questions about motivation and whatnot. And when we came back, I think you were more comfortable handing the camera off to Peter [Buntaine] and spending time with actors.
Williams: I was definitely better with actors during the second half.
Pinkerton: Thankfully we just had very good people throughout who were able to do without us.
Filmmaker: What was it like for you on set, Nick? Were you talking with the actors during the shoot about the characters? I’m curious what your role was.
Pinkerton: I tried to be involved as much as Sean wanted me involved.
Williams: Sometimes Nick really just had to explain what the fuck the words meant [laughs].
Pinkerton: I did not want to be in the mix if I was not required or needed to be in the mix. I was just concentrating on tightening things up, doing little day-by-day revisions.
Williams: He extended this one scene the night before and we gave these pages to the guy who was the most incapable of even getting like, three words together. And we had to chop that out of the shoot pretty quick. It was really bad. I was worried I was pissing you off or something, but it was great to have Nick on set. I’ve only done one other movie where the writer was on set—well, now it’s two movies—but before this it was Nathan Silver and his writer Chris Wells. It’s great having him on set, too. That’s why I learned that I really wanted Nick to be around. It’s really handy, plus we’re all friends.
Pinkerton: There were lots of little nip-tucks.
Filmmaker: Is it true the script was originally much longer than what was ultimately shot?
Williams: I mean, Simon’s character, Lawrence, his monologues were full-page things.
Filmmaker: How did you guys whittle things down?
Williams: Early on, when we were shopping the script around, we were adamant that none of this dialogue be changed. It was really important that whoever it is does the whole bit.
Pinkerton: Point of fact, I think the script is 108 pages; the movie is an hour and 44…
Williams: Yeah, we were pretty on the money.
Pinkerton: But, for example, the Mohawk Valley Massacre scene, in the screenplay it’s a single line: “A massacre occurs.” Now it takes up five minutes of the film.
Williams: And Nick’s idea was that it would be shot like Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake, where you don’t really see anything happen, it’s just all off the screen. And I said, “No, I want this to be a full-on—”
Pinkerton: Ivan the Terrible.
Williams: Yeah, or like a Troma film. I haven’t said that to any of the Europeans, because I don’t know if they really even know what that means, though Troma always was in Cannes. They used to set up a table in the market.
Pinkerton: I had been going with “the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight.”
Williams: For me it was Beware! Children at Play, the Troma-distributed New Jersey movie with a really silly combat scene.
Filmmaker: Speaking of influences, you mentioned Borowczyk. I read the interview you recently did with Skolimowski and you mentioned him as well.
Williams: We had my Borowczyk posters in the room where we were editing, just as inspiration. And our poster that Match Factory came up with, we just showed them Borowczyk posters and gave them that image. He’s, for me, a visually manageable hero, instead of being like, “Wow, how on Earth do they do that?”, which you don’t get really inspired by. I guess the auteurs do.
Pinkerton: We’re not doing the Goodfellas tracking shot.
Williams: Yeah, you know, great—you spent three days to get one shot. We can’t do that. Borowczyk’s magic is really hard to identify, too. We were watching Emmanuelle 5 before coming here, because it starts in Cannes. There’s this one scene which is just a three-shot thing with kissing, and I had to watch it five times. There’s no way to explain the way things move and his framing, it’s just so singular.
Pinkerton: An equal weight given to sort of objects and people—
Williams: You can try to talk about it, but you just gotta feel it, you know? I think that the only sequence that makes me think of Borowczyk’s filmmaking is when Talia’s running through the forest and her clothes are getting ripped off in close-ups—
Pinkerton: It’s very La Bête.
Williams: That’s a really high point for me in the movie, and Stephen did that edit on his own very quickly. I think one thing with digital editing is you can really belabor things and get so hung up on them. It’s foolish, because you’re still going to watch the movie a year later and be like, “Oh, we could have really trimmed that.” You know, it’s gonna be the way it is for the rest of your life. But this is some of the best stuff Stephen’s edited, even the nighttime terrorists dancing at the end. Actually, not terrorists.
Pinkerton: Not terrorists. I will briefly note this was a very deliberately laid trap, and it’s been delightful to see motherfuckers wander right into it [laughs]. I’ve now seen, I think, a couple of reviews and tweets and other things where people say Lillian runs in with “a cell of Muslim terrorists,” or “Jihadis” or whatever. I don’t see these guys plotting any terror attack whatsoever in the movie. I see them as being well-armed men in a country full of firearms with white supremacists running amuck. At no point do I see them talking about blowing anything up whatsoever. You’ve just told on yourself, my friend, when you call them terrorists. All I hear them talk about is making EDM and ”Going into town.”
Williams: And they pray, but that’s fine. That’s healthy.
Filmmaker: The movie obviously touches on some inflammatory subject matter. How are you guys navigating this?
Williams: I think it’s really soft. If we’re going to be called provocative or whatever, we really should have been provocative. To me, the most provocative thing is just seeing that hardcore magazine underneath the one that Talia picks up, which is just dogs with erections. I’m like, “We needed more of that in this movie.”
Pinkerton: I think it’s this rich, Renoir-esque—
Williams: Yeah, it’s A Day in the Country [laughs].
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the silent and early cinema aesthetics used in the film?
Williams: Plenty of [D.W.] Griffith.
Williams and Pinkerton: The Schüfftan process.
Filmmaker: Yeah, you use a painted backdrop at one point.
Williams: Yeah, a silent movie technique. It’s a mirror with a hole cut out of it—something that you normally do in a studio, very carefully and precisely measured arrangements of things. But it’s something that I want to do again a little more.
Pinkerton: Apropos of that, there’s almost no visual instruction in this screenplay. But there was one bit in that walk-and-talk with Lillian and Mohammad. They come to an overlook in the woods and it’s described as looking like this painting, Kindred Spirits, by Hudson Valley School Painter Asher B. Durand. And we got to the location, and there just wasn’t anything that really looked like that. So we said: “You know what? We’ll just Schüfftan this.”
Williams: And that was the very first day of the shoot, so we’re taking a chance here on looking like real assholes to the whole crew. But I think everyone kind of enjoyed watching us set this mirror up with this badly printed print of the painting in the middle of the sunlight. Everyone’s just kind of standing there looking at it, and the actors are like 50 yards in the distance. It was a pretty weird thing to start with. But again, we were like, “Yeah, this is the kind of movie we’re going to make.” But the silent movie thing— well, Griffith was a provocative thing, even just quoting Griffith or talking about him, though that’s really foolish.But it’s like, no, we should be able to know a little more about Griffith and not just Birth of a Nation and insensitively portraying the African-American experience. As a filmmaker, he’s pretty baffling. The Avenging Conscience, this thriller that he made, I watched that recently. His techniques in that movie—I think some of those silent films are even more free with tone and experimentation. I really think that people should give them another shot. These guys are trying a lot of crazy stuff out in one movie. And it’s really, really beautiful for me.
Pinkerton: With regards to the Griffith influence, the idea was not to imitate the politics of Birth of a Nation, which I’ll go out on a limb and say I find quite odious, but to attempt to make a sort of national epic, which is very much what Birth of a Nation attempts to do. To have that swinging for the fences mentality, and perhaps also to bring something of Griffith’s spirit of Victorian melodrama to the thing. You know, Lillian being cast out into the harsh elements at the end is straight out of Way Down East. Even the title of the movie came from my parsing various Griffith titles and snagging certain recurring words, and this ties into of Sean and I’s shared love of the Eastern seaboard. Griffith for a time had a studio in Mamaroneck, and when you watch Way Down East, it’s all Eastern woodlands you’re seeing in that film, which are very particular and distinctive from California woodlands, which one sees a great deal of in American pictures. The idea was to get something of the bucolic spirit of Griffith. And I should add with the Schüfftan process shot, Rish has a couple of lines which are from an unproduced Griffith stage play: “It’s yours, little one. Yours for anyone who has eyes to see.”
Williams: I didn’t know that was from that.
Pinkerton: Even the character Lawrence, that was Griffith’s stage name when he was, for a time, treading the boards.
Williams: And it’s Griffith’s Edgar Allen Poe movie that Simon and Talia are watching in the house.
Pinkerton: I should hope it’s understood that we have a very healthy dose of skepticism towards David Wark Griffith [laughs]. This is not the best guy of all time.
Filmmaker: Because I’m a non-New Yorker, can you explain to me people’s desire to label this a Dimes Square film?
Williams: I don’t even know how that’s possible. I saw that in one piece, too. I mean, I’ll drink a martini in that neighborhood and I go to the Metrograph. Nick works at the Metrograph. He works in Dimes Square, technically. Maybe that’s what it was all about?
Pinkerton: It’s just so silly because Sean and I are in our 40s. We’ve been hanging out forever. And we know certain people who are associated with this… thing.
Williams: The Ion Pack guys, I guess.
Pinkerton: We’ve been doing our same bullshit for 20 years.
Williams: We’re old guys. We’re not trying to be, I don’t know, skaters.
Pinkerton: Just two elderly men who some young people condescend to hang out with.
Filmmaker: Before we go, it would be remiss for me not to ask how Gibby Haynes got involved in the film.
Williams: Originally, we were supposed to shoot his scene during the first half of the shoot. Paul Schrader was the first guy I asked to play that part. I thought it’d be really fun to get him in front of the camera and just be a blowhard. Listening to that guy talk is a lot of fun. It’s a sonic experience that is unique to him. I really would have liked that. Then he said no. So we were like, “We’ll do it in the next half of the shoot.” We had a list and went through so many people that I was sure would’ve been delighted to give us a half a day of their time, people that lived in New York, and there was either no response or “no.”
Pinkerton: We were looking for people in a certain age range who would have some immediate recognizability—Charles S. Dutton-level actors.
Williams: Exactly. By that point in the movie, you’re kind of ready for it to end.
Pinkerton: You’re praying for it!
Williams: If you saw a face, you’re just like “Whoa, what the fuck is he doing in this?” It would’ve been really fun, I thought. I had thought of Gibby, because he used to do appearances in ‘90s movies: Freaked, Dead Man, about a dozen movies you’d never heard of. But I didn’t know he even lived in New York. Just by chance, a friend of mine, Joey Frank, who lives in Red Hook—you know, Red Hook is like its own little community—had mentioned bumping into Gibby the day before. I was like, “Oh wow. Do you think he’d be in our movie?” He’s like, “Probably. I’m sure I’ll bump into him tomorrow and I’ll ask him.” He bumped into him the next day, and it was like two days before we were shooting. Gibby was like, “Yeah, sure.” We texted—I was too afraid to call him—and we hadn’t met until about an hour before the shoot. Craig had been working with him with the dialogue. We were shooting other stuff. Craig comes in and I said, “How’s Gibby? Is he awesome?” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s something. I don’t know. We may have to go a little bit off the script for this.”
Pinkerton: I had my buddy, the literary critic Christian Lorentzen, do a reading for us. He had a monkish aspect about him and, having done some stage acting around that time, had everything down cold. I was like, “Obviously, it should be Christian.” And this is me eating crow, but Sean was like, “No, we have to get Gibby in.” And Gibby is a very talented and intelligent man but, like myself, cannot memorize lines.
Williams: When we were downstairs, it was going better. But then it was that thing where you just freeze up when you have the camera on you. Which is weird, because there are a lot of great interviews of him on camera being absolutely incredible.
Pinkerton: What’s in the finished movie is not at all in the script. It’s the result of the fact that Talia cannot keep a straight face while he’s talking.
Williams: We did his coverage first and it was like, ”Damn, this is not really working.” It wasn’t funny. It was pretty painful. I was like, “We got what we need. Let’s get Talia’s coverage, and Gibby, would you mind reading? Just read the script now, you have it in front of you, and then we’ll have it on camera.” So I’m on Talia’s face and he’s reading off the page this ridiculous shit that Nick wrote with his accent. I don’t know what he was doing, but I started laughing, Talia sees me and that’s it.
Pinkerton: Again, this is my mea culpa. As soon as Sean’s shooting Talia’s coverage and she’s cracking up, I’m like, “Goddammit, Sean, you made the dumbest decision of all time and it worked out so great.” I remember scampering over to Sean during that scene and he’s like, “It’s ‘Garbo Laughs.’” So, the scene became infinitely better thanks to a horrible decision that Sean made.
Williams: The night screening people were really laughing a lot during that scene, which was really cool, because I still don’t know what the hell that scene is, in a way. But her laughing is great.
Pinkerton: To my mind, it ties the thing together. Somebody who has been confronted with all of these tribal identities and been offered all of these possible choices and, ultimately, either has been thrust away from them or consciously rejected them, finally takes an essentially comic view of the entire thing. And it’s a sad thing, this comic abdication—because one should be able to invest in the world—to have to finally go: “I just have to laugh. That is all that remains to me.”
Williams: That’s what I think the movie should be for people. The news and the world we live in: really try to laugh. At the end of O Lucky Man! he smiles.
Pinkerton: There’s a level of surrender to it, but it’s also just survival instincts. If you’re not gonna snuff it, you gotta find something to muddle through with.