The stereotypical dream of success, as far as independent films go, has long been based on the magic vision where a filmmaker begs, borrows and invests their money (and the money of family and friends) to make a film that gets a premiere at a major film festival, wins an award at the film festival, gets signed to a theatrical deal and then said filmmaker gets to make their next project, as a household name, without financial hassle. In the case of Sean Baker’s “Prince of Broadway,” a film about Lucky, a hustler in New York City’s wholesale district who is forced to adapt to a new way of life when a former fling drops a baby off on him “just for two weeks,” reality has at times mirrored the dream: “Prince of Broadway” won the top prize at the LA Film Festival back in 2008 (complete with a $50,000 cash award), currently has a theatrical distribution deal (the film opens today in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5) and the film is being presented by filmmaker Lee Daniels, the current closest name indie film has to being household, thanks to Daniels’s Academy Award-winning “Precious.” Which is why, when I call Baker to talk to him about “Prince of Broadway,” I’m surprised when he admits to being tired.
“I have to warn you,” Baker explains, “I’m in LA. I just woke up because we were… we’re doing street team stuff here and I was up very late going out postering and things like that.”
Waitaminute. A filmmaker with a theatrical release in LA, being promoted by Lee Daniels, is doing his own street promotion? Where in the dream is this mentioned?
“Yeah. You know, because the release is pretty small I’m making sure that I’m out here spearheading the whole guerrilla campaign as well. We have a street team with posters and postcards and I’m postering all over town; It’s kind of crazy.”
And thus the reality within the dream begins to climb through and poke at me. When it comes to independent film, the work never ends. As a filmmaker, you’re often wearing many hats on set, but when the film is finished, your role just morphs. For many, filmmakers become self-distributors, marketing experts or, in this case, street team leaders.
“It’s something I learned from “Take Out” [Baker’s previous film] and it’s a necessary evil. I mean, it really is. I have to tell you, it is not fun to be out at the Arclight giving posters and postcards and reviews out to people and have them saying ‘oh, yeah, I heard about this film… and what is your involvement?’ ‘Hey, I… I don’t know, I’m just part of the movie. I sort of have an affiliation to a certain degree but… I don’t know, just see it, see it, check it out, it’s good, it’s good.’ I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
You could question Baker’s commitment or his feeling burned out after only a bit of self-promotion, but that wouldn’t be doing the filmmaker, and the story behind “Prince of Broadway,” justice, because this isn’t just one night of self-promotion. This is the culmination of two years of work, beginning with the premiere at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival.“It’s been a long run. When the film didn’t get distribution right away, you know, we stayed on this, I think, primarily due to… well, there are a few different reasons. I think that we learned a hard lesson about not having a sales rep with us at our premieres. That was a big deal, but, two, I think the recession really hit hard because we did get two offers from reputable companies but they weren’t good enough. They weren’t even going to pay back the $35,000 that it cost to shoot the film, so we waited and we played up the film festival circuit and it was great. It was an incredible experience. Then the following year we had won some awards, monetary awards that allowed us to get closer to mastering the film ourselves, because it was actually $35,000 to shoot but to master it was another $45,000 because I had to buy music, I had to color correct, I had to soundmix and it was at least that. So, anyway, over the course of the year we had won some awards that had gotten us close to that point and then I went away and worked on a show for MTV [“Warren the Ape”] that brought in the rest of the money to master it and to see some of the release out. It was… the time was necessary in a way.”
For me, this begs the almost unfathomable, though realistic, question of “how long is too long” to work on and wait for your film to succeed? When do you throw in the towel? For Baker, after that first year, why did he persist?
“In this case, I never really lost any momentum, meaning I always had faith that we would release it. I also promised the cast and crew and… the money, I could’ve taken that initial win at the Los Angeles Film Festival, split it up amongst everybody and said ‘Let’s get drinks’ but instead I said, ‘Guys, this $50,000 has to go into the movie and we have to keep going with this in order to get it released.’ But I promised that this would happen so I didn’t lose faith. Maybe some of the actors started to be like ‘Okay, guys, let’s move on, this isn’t going to happen’ but i said, ‘No, no, it’s going to. It’s going to happen.'”
“With “Take Out,” see that had like a five year lag, and that was due to our distributor just not having the money and waiting and waiting, I think because they had like four films ahead of us or something, so that was the most incredibly frustrating… To wait five years for “Take Out” to come out, when it was only two years on “Prince,” I was able to take it. Hopefully that will never happen again. I want to work on movies that can actually get released in a timely fashion.”
Lest we focus entirely on the trials and journey after the film was made, it’s important to take a look at the film itself as well. In this case, focusing on the old filmmaking opinion that you should never work with children or animals, and how Baker’s experience on “Prince of Broadway” flies in the face of the notion.“Aiden [Noesi] has to be, or was at the time, the most well-behaved kid in the world. Plus he was very comfortable on set because of our small crew and his mother being present at all times, so he was actually easier to work with than most of the adults. He was 18 months when we shot so he wasn’t acting obviously. It was more about documenting his reaction to things and documenting him watching these crazy adults around him who were repeating lines and repeating actions. It must have been a very surreal experience for him but I know he had fun everyday.”
“He never cried, except for one time when we shot our DNA office scene in which he went into a doctor’s office and I think the 18 month old recognized the doctor’s office as a place where he gets shots and suddenly all the tears were just flowing, just pouring out and he was screaming and we didn’t know what to do. Never do I want a child to be uncomfortable so we just pulled it off in one take, Prince Adu [Lucky in “Prince of Broadway”] comforted him onscreen and we got out of there as fast as possible. Crying actually works for the scene, it really works for the scene but we, at the time we were shooting this, we didn’t even see that. All we saw was a crying child that was obviously very uncomfortable and we just were like, ‘we have to get out of here as fast as possible.'”
If the kid didn’t cause trouble, what was it like when it came to other actors, predominantly non-professionals?
“Darren [Dean] and I wrote a script and some of the actors read the entire script, some weren’t even interested, some just read their scenes, but in every scene there would be dialogue, like a traditional script and we just told the actors, ‘You can throw this dialogue out the window if you’d like. Our goal was to make it as real as possible so if by putting it into your own words, you can enhance it and improve it, please do that.’ And then everybody just took that and ran. Most, 90% being non-professionals didn’t, or weren’t, interested in memorizing lines anyway. We did have a few lines that had to be hit for exposition sake or dramatic effect, lines that were just important for the story but we, for the most part, allowed it to flow, and that’s why I give credit to everybody at the end of the film. I have a co-screenwriting credit with Darren but then the following title card credits all actors for creating this dialogue in a workshop-type environment.”
“I always see this film as a stepping stone, especially for all the actors involved. This is a way for these guys to parlay it into an acting career. I think they can, they can use this film, it’s a good showcase for their talent. I’m just looking to get this film out there for my own sake, to show it to the world and, hopefully get into a situation with the next film, which I think is happening by the way, in which I won’t have to pay for everything out of my own pocket. The goal is to get the film out there, and use it to parlay to other stuff.”
So where does Lee Daniels come to play in all of this? How did the director of “Precious” wind up becoming a very vocal cheerleader for Baker and his film? It all starts with the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Baker’s “Prince of Broadway” was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than $500,000.
“He [Lee] was on the nominating committee for the Independent Spirit Awards, so he had seen both “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” and called me shortly after the ceremony and said, ‘hey man, i just want to say I liked both your films and I would love to rap with you sometime about how they were pulled off for such a low budget and in such a clandestine-like style’ and I said, ‘yeah.’ We had a 10 minute conversation and we said we should definitely work together sometime down the line and, a few months later when he came onboard.”
“We signed with Elephant Eye and Elephant Eye Films had just released “The Maid” so I was really happy and their slate of films was just incredible. I was really in good company, and I realized that they were the foreign sales rep on “Precious. “I then realized that David Robinson, who is one of the heads over there, was a co-producer on “The Woodsman,” so he worked with Lee in the past and there was already a relationship forged. I don’t know who brought it up, it may’ve been a friend of mine, the idea of, perhaps, Lee presenting the film in the same way that Oprah and Tyler Perry presented his film in the hope that it would get more eyes on it. And David said ‘Great idea,’ and he reached out to him and, that evening, Lee said ‘Definitely, I’m onboard.’ It was a really fast process. In 24 hours we had the idea and he was already onboard. And it’s been great. He’s been doing events with us, like the Apple Store event, he’s been doing Q&As, he’s been doing press and he’s really there to help support the film and he’s really been doing a great, generous job.”
What’s next for “Prince of Broadway,” is the process from here on out going to be simpler than it has been getting to this stage for Baker?
“It always depends on that weekend, right? This weekend for us, and that’s why we’re pushing hard. If we do well this weekend, it’ll expand at Sunset, and that can go for as long as we can keep alive there. Then we go out to the Pipers Alley 4 in Chicago on October 1st and then we’re off to… at that point, we don’t have anything booked yet, but we’re hoping to do San Francisco and other theaters throughout the States. We do not have a VOD or DVD deal yet. We’re looking for that to happen over the next month. Everybody should know, yes, they can put it in their Netflix queue, but they may be waiting a little while.”
So what advice does Baker have in general for filmmakers, or for filmmakers looking to go a similar route: shooting on the cheap, taking advantage of a more loose, small crew, run-and-gun film mindset?
“I would say have an entirely separate budget for a distribution strategy in case your film does do festivals but just doesn’t get that deal because right now there are so many great films out there that don’t have proper deals or deals at all and I feel, if everybody had that, I’m just throwing out a number here, $100,000 to make the film, it would be great if they had an additional $100,000 to release the film. Really strategizing about distribution I think is a very important thing.”
“In terms of just the ins-and-outs of making a small film like this, just make sure you’re covered, that you’re doing things safely, that you are getting insurance when you’re doing bigger scenes where you’re shooting in public. There is stuff you can’t skimp on because you’ll get yourself into trouble… you can take risks, but not risks that put anybody in any jeopardy or you’re getting yourself into a bad legal situation. That’s not fun so I would say just do things properly and definitely have the distribution strategy thought about from day one.”