From Punk House Aesthetics to Art House Cinema: Filmmakers Sean Price Williams and Nick Pinkerton

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The first weekend of December is a homecoming of sorts for cinematographer-turned-director Sean Price Williams. His first feature, the Cannes-premiering The Sweet East, will make its local debut with a brief run at The Senator Theater from the 7-9th.

The Delaware-born filmmaker grew up in rural Maryland before making his way to UMBC and cutting his teeth at Video Americain locations in Baltimore City and Washington DC back in the late 90s. It’s here he’d pick up a particular penchant for 16mm—what would be his signature format in a career as one of the most sought-after cinematographers in independent film—attending screenings at MicroCineFest and The Mansion Theater, which were once staples of Baltimore’s underground film scene but are long-since gone. 

The Sweet East screenwriter Nick Pinkerton is another VHS veteran (of New York’s legendary Kim’s Video, where the pair met). Pinkerton, a film critic, and Williams also co-host the “City Dudes Blindfolded Series” at Roxy Cinema in NYC, a monthly secret screening curated by the pair to give light to their own underseen counter-canon of cinema. It is debatable whether it is more didactic or just for fun, but regardless, the pair’s inclinations are that of old-heads on the edge of culture, constantly prodding the current while simultaneously out of the times. 

The Sweet East gets its picaresque in motion after their ingenuous heroine Lillian (Talia Ryder) narrowly escapes conspiracy-crazed Andy Milanokis in a Pizzagate-like scenario. She runs off from her class trip to DC with the crusty Caleb (Earl Cave) to Baltimore, finding herself in that kind of DIY space/music venue/art gallery/punk house that has been rapidly disappearing in the last decade—both as a result of gentrification as well as the fallout following the tragic Ghost Ship fire in 2016 that saw a crackdown on previously under-the-radar informal spaces.

For Williams and the Cincinnati-born Pinkerton, environmental authenticity was key to their approach. With some dumb luck, they were able to shoot at Tarantula Hill, a totemic DIY spot in West Baltimore, mere weeks before its lease expired and proprietor Twig Harper left town. Once another example of the many improvised venues endemic to the punk scenes Williams and Pinkerton came-of-age in in the late 90s and early 2000s, Tarantula Hill stood in the late 2010s as a time machine, a ghost floating between their youth (both remembered and imagined) and the much neater, cleaner places they see now. It is a jumping off point for their atemporal and amoral trip up the American Northeast. 

Ahead of their residency at The Senator (with Q&As featuring Williams, Pinkerton, and Ryder on 12/8 and 12/9), I sat down with Williams and Pinkerton to talk about the times and places that The Sweet East is dreamt from.

Alex Lei: Exploring the DNA of the film, are there influences that are key to the work?

Nick Pinkerton: A lot of that came after the fact. The initial stages were more kind of plugged into personal experience or observation of things that were going on in the broader world. Probably because both Sean and myself are so steeped in movie culture and various other kinds of cultural influences, those things certainly came in. But I don’t think either of us approached the thing necessarily with an idea of “Let’s make a movie that’s like A, B, C, or D,” but more a matter of processing experiences or second hand experiences, or speaking to the contemporary world. 

Sean Price Williams: The places were a lot of this. I came up with an idea while we were scouting Hellaware for a movie called Black Rasputin that I got really excited about—this is 12 years ago—and I wanted to make that in New Hope in that part of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. “Whatever we do we gotta shoot something there.”

We talk about DC, you don’t really see the Mall very much in movies. People don’t shoot a scene there unless there’s Secret Service. And then in Baltimore, for some reason, before I think of John Waters I think of Bedroom Window which was mostly shot between Mount Vernon and stand-in locations in North Carolina.

NP: Wilmington.

SPW: Yeah, and the very first shot in Bedroom Window is a totally phony composited apartment outside the Washington Monument. It’s just not real. Being a first time director, not really knowing what you’re supposed to be standing for when the pre-production is happening I’m like, “Well, one thing for sure is we’re not faking any of these places. We’re gonna go to the real places cause I’m a serious director, and as a serious director that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” If we have a scene set in Philadelphia, we’re not going to shoot it in Brooklyn. 

NP: I think it was summer of 2018—when this was very much a fantasy project—Sean and I took a four day road trip where we went to more-or-less all of the locations that were mentioned in the script. We really had no other intention than being in those places and getting some of the atmosphere, letting that then flavor the script a little bit, figuring out particular qualities to these places that could then find their way into the script.

SPW: We also were trying to shoot in Trenton on Ernie Kovacs Way. Like—there’s a name of a street like that in Trenton—we definitely have to have a scene here, you know? It was a peppering of movies and whatever. 

It’s like you’re finding the locations and then imagining the movie around it.

SPW: Almost. A little bit.

NP: They’re also locations that in—most all cases—Sean and I had some previous experience with. We both spent time up and down the eastern seaboard. We weren’t operating from a sort of purely theoretical idea of these places. From very early on it had been written with an idea to go into a lot of the little nooks and crannies and find some new images.

SPW: And I remember Trenton was exciting to me because my friend, who’s from New Jersey, told me that it’s the only state capital in the United States with no functioning hotels. Something like this. That’s a place that needs a little boost, a little help.

NP: Yeah, hopefully we’ll bring a lot of Sweet East tourism there.

Let’s hone in on Baltimore. Sean, you were down here in the late 90s, going to noise shows, going to MicroCineFest…

SPW: I was back and forth, and I knew more of the cool kids in DC. It was like The Make-Up and some of these like Bikini Kill satellite people. To me DC was just far cooler as far as the people that I would meet. And Baltimore was just like… I was coming from a very rural part of Maryland, so I was just scared of Baltimore a little bit.

It was really soon after I moved to New York that I made friends with guys at Kim’s Video and band people and they would tell me about going to to this place in West Baltimore—I don’t think it’s in the same house [as Tarantula Hill] but it was some of the same folks.

Anyway, they would talk about the shows there, and I was jealous. I was like, “Oh man, really? I wish I would have known about you back then.” I just felt like I was missing out. What I did experience in Baltimore was The Mansion [Theater—a former funeral home on Greenmount and York]. They would show stuff pretty regularly. All these things are cataloged online which blows my mind. You can look at The Mansion schedule and the MicroCineFest schedule—Nick and I are pretty obsessed with this period of like 90s 16mm movies that God-knows-where they’ve gone. There’s so few success stories compared to all the very memorable films that I would see.

NP: What’s interesting about that is in some ways one of the least well internet archived periods is the late 90s when the internet certainly existed, but most of this circulation of information around underground spaces still relies on print calendars.

SPW: I think those people didn’t have computers. 

SPW: The MicroCineFest in Baltimore was down in a little weird factory zone. You kind of just parked your car wherever you could. It’s a very industrial area. I think still, even maybe, down there are abandoned factories and stuff. But it felt like you were entering another planet. Then you’d see that there were other people there, so you felt better, you know. And they’re all people that look like you or me. I mean, myself, right? Sorry.


Baltimore back then, the film scene was John Waters and Barry Levinson. That’s kind of pie in the sky and inaccessible. But then all the stuff that Skizz [Cyzyk] was putting on with MicroCineFest…

SPW: Skizz was, as far as I could tell, the leader and he also worked at the video store where I worked, so I knew him personally. And that’s how I even knew about things happening, because he would say, “Oh Sean, you should come with this” cause he was working there with me at the store. We had another employee at the store who had a short film that played before Brothers McMullen at Sundance and we thought “Man. This guy made it. He made it.” And then I don’t think he ever made anything else.

NP: Well, I mean, why continue when you’ve touched the fucking sky? Played before an Edward Burns movie?!

SPW: I think that we were not thinking that [they] were going to make it.

NP: To what Sean was saying earlier, my mother lived in Alexandria, Virginia, for a number of years, so kind of around the same time we would have both been in the sort of DC-Baltimore Metro area with some regularity. I’m a couple of years younger than Sean, which isn’t much, but the difference between nineteen and seventeen is kind of vast.

So my memories of Baltimore are also kind of tied to the 90s and also to having to have my mom drive me up so I could go to Reptilian Records in Fells Point and Atomic Books back when it was still in Mount Vernon. But I couldn’t stay over or anything like that. Also kind of echoing what Sean was saying, I feel like in the 90s DC and Baltimore were on kind of equal footing in terms of cool stuff that was going on.

Maybe over the last 20 odd years most of the weirdo culture stuff has gone up to Baltimore, and DC is really, if not entirely, a much more kind of white collar, bureaucratic city. I think there was still some kind of cultural sediment going on, which I get a little less of a sense of [now]. I don’t think at the point, when either of us would have been spending time there, that Baltimore had quite the cultural cachet it would have in the late aughts or some time after that.

NP: Yeah, which is too bad ‘cause there was plenty of cool stuff in Baltimore, like Atomic Books, I’m pretty sure it’s Atomic that was there, now it’s totally in a different place, right? 

It’s up in Hampden now.

SPW: And then Reptilian… I mean, Soundgarden is still around, but even that is a much cleaner, cuter version than what it was. 

NP: With Sean and myself being in our mid-40s, when we got to New York it was probably the tail end of it seeming like you could still have a low-overhead existence and do cool stuff. By the end of the aughts that seemed to be less and less feasible to people. You had a lot of people and bands, or people who were kind of doing art that didn’t have a great potential for profit, who were going to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Even the DIY spaces in New York… I never really bought into the legend of 285 Kent, for example. Like who wants to go to a DIY space and see fucking Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork in the corner? There’s something slightly dubious about that. Whereas you set foot in Tarantula Hill and that looks like the real thing..

SPW: Now I can’t even find the flyers I used to keep for all these things in those places. I don’t know where they are now. When we were preparing, I was looking up Tarantula Hill online and it just said: “Closed”. But then I was in Baltimore with Eric Hatch and Jimmy Jimmy Joe Roche, they were like, “No, I think he’s still there. Let me make a call.”

It felt like time traveling. All those places in Baltimore, they don’t exist anymore, “Now you’re telling me I can go?” When we did finally get to check it out the next day, it was pretty unbelievable.

Was the sensory deprivation tank still there?

SPW: There’s two. 

NP: One of them’s in the movie.

SPW: Yeah, though it kind of just looks like a girl getting out of the shower. But anybody who knows the place would get that joke. We’re so happy about that. You know, some of the road signs after they leave Baltimore, the names of towns and the road I grew up on, are there. And it’s a joke for nobody. No one will laugh, and maybe you were in the place where somebody lives on Blue Ball Road.

I think Twig’s not in town anymore. Eric Hatch was saying he thought that after you shot, his lease on the place was expiring in two weeks.

NP: If I remember correctly, he was getting ready to outfit a van to live in. 

SPW: Oh yeah, he was getting the van ready, or maybe it was ready. But I mean, is somebody buying that place and doing anything with it? It’s a pretty authentically difficult part of town to bring people to, I think.

And we had an adventurous night filming there. We had some security, and pretty early on there was a fight with the security guard and a local. The security was local, so they knew the terrain.

NP: Do you recall what the conflict was, Sean? Our security guys knew where to find him, went to his apartment, got our traffic cone back which honestly we probably could have lived without.

SPW: That’s right. Yeah, the traffic cone was just the beginning. Then there was a block party developing right around back from us. And the numbers of the party were growing and growing. And our security guys at one point said, “You guys might want to start wrapping this up.” They’re gonna be drinking back there and it only takes so many brilliant ideas before they’re in your movie. 

NP: I also remember when we were setting up craft services in the road between that little piece of like “wasteland” and Tarantula Hill, one of the guys from the neighborhood came up and was like, “You’re gonna wanna get that packed up before it gets dark, because that’s when the rats come out.” 

SPW: Also, I had a friend who was a locations guy in Baltimore and whenever there was a film production around there was like this kind of scam of guys coming in getting into fights with locations guys and stuff just so that they could sue Disney or whoever was in town. I said, “Well, we’re not Disney. You’re not gonna get much money from us if you try to sue us.” Our crew is mostly like 20-25 year olds who’ve never been to Baltimore. We took some of them for crabs earlier, those that we could spare for like two hours. 

I’m interested in the “tense” of the film because you guys talk a lot about the movie itself, like the satire or prodding that it’s doing is very current, but a lot of these spaces you’re approaching seem to be more from your memories of 2004 or 1998.

SPW: All the guys living in that house are definitely not very contemporary. I’m sure those are fashions somewhere, probably in Eastern Europe. They’re modeled after a 90s idea of crusty punk kids. The costume designer and I, we very much were doing a 90s, or almost like Repo Man sort of styling of the people that are living there, and it seemed to suit that.

I was a little insecure when we were shooting because Twig was there, he’s in the movie. I don’t want him to think that we’re making fun of the place cause I sincerely just love this, to be able to go and be a part of something that I wasn’t a part of, you know? 

NP: The contemporary world isn’t all the contemporary world. There’s a lot of 1998 that’s still around. There’s a lot of 2006 that’s still around, depending on where you are. I can go back to Cincinnati and probably four nights a week a garage rock band is playing. The things that have existed there’s still going to be, at least in some places, a passionate audience for them.

Even in terms of production design, the house that the Lawrence character [Simon Rex] lives in—I think a big mistake that a lot of production designers make is they don’t think about the sedimentary layers that various generations leave in a space. And I think a lot of the worst period production design is like a movie set in the 1950s, and you don’t see any of the 1930s there. Whereas, realistically, living in 2023 I can still find bits and pieces of 1935 and 45, and so on. It is a throwback, but those throwbacks exist in the world to this day. 

People do choose to live in a time, even if it’s not the time they happen to be living in. I think, for Sean and myself, we’re not necessarily creatures of the 2020s. If you look at Simon Rex’s character, this is somebody who decided he’s just gonna live in the 19th century. Whereas when you get to New York, and I think this is kind of true to New York—at least true of the kind of “cool kid” crowd that Talia’s [Ryder] character starts running with, it is very of a moment, even if that moment is made up of other recycled moments.

It’s not something I’ve really thought about that much before, but I think in some ways it is kind of a time travel movie. It’s not all contemporary, it’s people who have decided that they’re going to attach themselves to one era or another. So, Talia’s our little time traveler.

SPW: One more Baltimore thing. I was in Scotland for two months working on a movie, shooting on 16mm, I was like, “You guys you need to see what 16mm is gonna look like. Let me show you Pink Flamingos.” And people in Britain—there’s a few brilliant movie people—but for the most part, they don’t know anything about movies anymore. They’re so reduced to streaming and working. The reactions to these guys watching Pink Flamingos was just unbelievable.

When I told them I watched this with my parents when I was a teenager that blew their minds. It was the most disgusting, worst thing that they had ever seen. And then it’s on the Criterion Collection. Sure enough, it’s not the blow job, or the prolapsed anus, or the things that are really disgusting to me—that dogshit eating just was too much for them to handle, and I couldn’t believe it. In 2023, fifty years later, it’s still the most shocking thing these people had ever seen.

NP: And Divine eats that dogshit—just to bring things full circle—in Mount Vernon, right outside of the original Atomic Books location. That’s what they call a “kicker” in the journalism biz.


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