Sean Price Williams Hosts A Screening of Phantom Of The Paradise in 35MM

Sean Price Williams is one of our favorite working cinematographers today, he is known for shooting movies for The Safdie Brothers, Alex Ross Perry, and Michael Almereyda, but he boasts an impressive list of over 102 credits. Sean also worked as an archivist and cameraman for the Maysles brothers for over a decade. You may have also caught him selling DVD’s at Kims Video in the east village in the early 2000’s. Sean is known for his unique vision and lushness that he brings to film. He is the favorite among many, but the other alluring part of him is his deep love and wealth of knowledge for cinema. He watches more movies than anyone else we know and has impeccable taste. So it naturally only made sense that we would want him to host a series of films he loves. The first one is this Thursday 10/21 at 7 PM. We scored a 35mm print of the Brian De Palma film Phantom Of The Paradise, on his recommendation of course.  You can get tickets here

Following the screening will be a Q&A with Sean Price Williams.


Illyse Singer the Roxy Cinema Curator sat down with Sean to talk all things film.


When did you first fall in love with film?


Spielberg, right? Our generation, everyone loved movies, because we were growing up with them. I don’t want to think too much about it, but there was kind of a griminess when I was born in America.  It was a pretty down and out place, but then we had all these ideas of space. We were taught in school there is no limit to what we could do in our life, we could all become astronauts and go to other planets. We could go to space if we wanted, and they made movies about it. And we could watch it on TV. It was a pretty absurd time to be a kid and movies were a big part of this hopefulness, this endless hope, I guess. What could we do when we grow up? And at some point, I realized I wasn’t going to go to space or anything like that, but what about making the movies, and really It was that.  In middle school I started shooting things on my friend’s video cameras and we made the original Green Knight, it was back in 1988 or something like that.  My mom was my wife, I know that I can remember that part. I got a shot from above and I was pretty proud of that, and then I saw Day For Night on PBS really late at night and Jacquelyn Bisset was so beautiful and I thought I should make movies for sure and then beautiful women would be in my life, because where I grew up had the ugliest people on earth.


I watched a video yearbook from my high school, and it was just amazing how terrible everyone looks, the fashion of the 90s doesn’t help. When everyone thinks 90s were cool just watch an episode of one of Howard Stern’s first shows, the hairspray is terrible.


I love the notion that this idea of beauty inspired you, and that’s never a bad thing, just from a young age you wanted to be surrounded by beautiful objects.


Yeah, and I started to get into really pretentious music at the time, I’d be listening to Philip Glass when I was 14, whatever the library had, I would listen to a lot of classical.


Where do you like to pull inspiration from?


Well, if life was better that would ideally be where I would pull things from, but the experiences I’ve had in life are pretty limited, so other movies, but it’s really music also. Music sends my brain somewhere. I misunderstand lyrics all the time, so I think the songs are about something they’re not, and I listen to a lot of music in foreign language, so I also just interpret myself what they’re about. This is really corny but hanging out with certain friends, I’d say we get a lot of ideas when we hang out.  We really come up with stuff together, but that’s why it’s frustrating how little we’ve actually made together, because in our conversations we’ve written 3,000 great movies, so really that’s the main inspiration as corny as that sounds.


You Watch more movies than anyone I know, how many movies would you say that you’ve seen what are your favorites?

It’s been terrible lately; I really haven’t been watching enough. I get hung up on downloading and I’ve been buying so many films and not getting the chance to watch them, I really need to make a change.


What are some of your favorite films that left an indelible print on you?


That’s such a terrible question.  If I always say is my favorite movie. My dad bought me a copy for like a dollar when I was 9. He knew I’d like the machine gun on the cover. I was really into guns when I was little and that’s my favorite machine gun that he’s got. So, I got it and used to watch it a lot, but I didn’t understand it because I didn’t know what surrealism was and it made me really afraid of high school and college, and then when I was older, I found out it was a really well respected movie, and I was 9 when I found it so then I realized I guess I have good taste. So that’s always been a big one.


The Bertolucci film The Conformist and The Last Tango in Paris, they used to be so perfect to me photographically to me that they intimidated me, and I thought I could never do anything like that, but then lately when I watch them, I see through the threads a little bit, they’re still absolutely stunning and brilliant, so I think I can’t do it but I understand how it’s done.


Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Jess Franco movies where he’s operating the camera himself and I really like it when a director is operating the camera himself, what am I interested in, what are we going to show. It makes me think a little about Warhol’s stuff and some Morrisey films. That kind of stuff is really on my mind now as I’m preparing to make a movie, and no one is going to be telling me what I can and can’t do. We just went to lunch, and I said I just want to edit it in the camera, we’re shooting on film and t’s just going to be edited in camera, it’s not really possible but maybe some scenes.


Watching The Velvet Underground documentary and whatever the school of New York is, filmmaking, it doesn’t really exist right now. I want to see if we can get back into that, bring that avant-garde flavor back to bigger movies.


Watching the Vogel programs, there is really far out stuff, great programs, I’m missing too many of them.


Again, if you asked me now I’m going to say different things than I said 10 years ago.


When I first moved to New York and we discovered Anthology for ourselves we did a lot of the essential cinema, I don’t really enjoy a lot of that. Straight up Avant Garde cinema can be really unbearable and then some of the guys are heroes.


If you always had a choice between film and digital, would you always choose film?


No, I think there are a lot of things shot on film that shouldn’t be, or they just don’t do anything with film and that makes me angrier.  I really want to like digital more and more. I like my digital Bolex camera but its so unreliable. I was going to shoot my film in digital but then I decided it must be film. There are these inherently crummy scenes that need that little extra touch. I shot so much Mini DV in the early 2000s. Often now I get jobs and I’m like why can’t we just have the Panasonic DVX100 with its pretty lens and nice color, and it’s already charming all the nostalgia for that. Why aren’t we shooting more on those cameras? I’d love to! It’s just the ease of the camera, you do wackier stuff, you’re running around you’re trying things out more you can be so nimble with those little cameras and there is this idea of getting these cameras larger to be more professional or getting a bigger chip in them to be crispier. You know it’s just boring direction, that’s the problem with digital, the cameras just get too big and clunky to work with.


Do you have a favorite place you like to shoot?


For urban cities – New York, Paris, or Tokyo. I have so much fun because I feel like it’s very easy places to shoot to get away with things when you’re not making a big show of your presence. When I was in the Ukraine and parts of Russia for countryside, I think its magical. I loved every single shot I shot in the Ukraine.  It’s all beautiful. I‘m saying that about something I’ve done, and I don’t normally talk that way about it, and also most of the movies made in Ukraine over the history are easy to look at and the people look good too.


What’s your favorite kind of light to work with?


That changes all the time too, you know I never really learned how to light things except by making a lot of mistakes and I still am pretty much a novice. When I see big movies, I really have no idea how they would even know how to order that many lights. I just never really had the opportunity, so it’s always practical lights. Now there is new technology with battery powered, really strong lights that have full color range and it’s easy to work that way but I still kind of like to shine a light directly at someone. I don’t know why. It used to be all-natural stuff and I was pretty proud of what I did naturally, but now I play around with artificial light, and now that you can have any color you want everywhere it’s hard figure out what colors go together. That’s what I’m still learning. There are a lot of people who have philosophies on color and psychological philosophies on color which I don’t think is the same for everybody. So, for each scene what makes sense here and let’s push it and get more adventurous. I haven’t shot anything in so long, I feel like I’m going to be lost next month when we shoot my movie. I want it to be color, I don’t want it to feel very natural.


Also, to add, I do like to shoot black and white. I always try to suggest it, even though it’s not very realistic usually for whatever reason, that’s what I’m told at least. And I want to spend more time with contrast and things like that instead of colors, that’s another direction that I’d like to try.


Are there any other DP’s that you’re inspired by recently?


I don’t watch enough new movies to be inspired by, and a lot of the new movies I Like are despite the photography even. Sometimes I don’t even think it looks good, but I love the movie. That happens often, Like Benedetta, the new Verhoeven movie. I don’t really like the photography that much, but the movie is so great that it’s good and it’s not distracting or anything like that. There is one Belgian Cinematographer Manu Dacosse he does these movies with Fabrice Du Welz that are great to look at. He does some bigger budget movies that proves he can work on a bigger scale, but I find them to be a lot less exciting. I wish he would do more of the 16MM and low budget. He’s really brilliant with very low light, which I really admire… He’s the new guy I really dig. There are good Cinematographers in Portugal and Romania, they’re still impressing me.  I mostly just only watch old movies. Chris Menges is my man. I can just watch everything he’s done in his whole career. I’m just so impressed by the decisions he makes. Lighting, framing, movement. There is always something and I’m just like God damn how did he make this scene so memorable? And he works in commercial stuff, and he does traditional coverage, but his frames are just so beautiful usually.  There are some good British guys too form the 60s, 70s, and 80s.


If there was someone now who was studying now to be a DP in school, is there any advice you would give them?


Well, I still think of myself as not having achieved anything I’ve wanted to, so I wouldn’t want anyone to do what I did. But I do think that going to school is… well you don’t need to go for a full thing. Get your hands on equipment. Charge up your credit cards, get your hands on whatever you need to make as much as you can to play around with and make a lot of mistakes. I don’t really understand what getting a degree is going to do other than costing money. I hate when people ask me if they should finish college. I don’t want to be responsible for that.  I think people mostly go to school to make their parents happy. Unless you’re going for a very specific thing you need training for.


So your advice is get out there make as much as you can.


Yeah, and I love telling people that because I want them to get out there and come be on my crew. Because I love having crazy young guys that are just excited to be doing stuff and then they’ll listen to my bologna and my jokes and maybe they’ll laugh. So, I say they should all drop out of school and be on my crew. It’s funny some of the people that have reached out, I’m now friends with some of them and there are a couple people that I genuinely think are amazing filmmakers.  I’ve been writing to them since they were young and that’s very meaningful because it’s not often. I don’t know how anything I’ve done has really touched somebody, I think that’s pretty cool, and I just can’t see it myself.


I think that’s so great, it’s so important to be open to mentoring younger people that’s what keeps the evolvement of art going, that interconnection.


Yes, it’s also these kids seem to know more than I do, more than just lighting or operating it’s what you’re coming up with, how you’re thinking to shoot the movie, how you’re working with the director. Are you inspiring the director to take chance? All that is the job of the Cinematographer.  You see filmmakers who work with the same cinematographers over and over. Well, the DP’s work itself doesn’t seem to be that inspiring but definitely the relationship is. That they inspire each other and that’s a big deal.


I am excited to be working on this series with you and bringing in films that you love and inspire you to share with an audience.  Why did you choose Phantom Of The Paradise?  


Wait, I definitely want to bring in Ed Lachman and share something together. I would love to talk with him about film.  He’s another person I love. He’s crossed all kinds of genres and all sizes of films, and not just because I have the fortune of knowing him. He really is incredibly inspirational and continues to be. I think it’s because he’s watching so many movies himself and he still loves going to the theatre. He’s really one of the only filmmakers I see in NYC out at theatres. That’s really crazy to me that I don’t see more filmmakers. It’s actually frustrating to me, but Ed is watching everything. New movies, he’s going to festivals, he can’t get enough. I think that’s so beautiful, and I think that is what keeps his work good and he’s been able to do so many different things. We could show any one of his movies at the Roxy.


Phantom of the Paradise isn’t for the cinematography. I don’t know. I don’t know why I picked it. Gabe and I thought ASAP ROCKY would love it because of the style and intensity of it and the craziness of it. I’ve watched the movie so many times and I never remember what the next scene is and I can always watch it again. And I do know that the very end song. This shot of him in the tanto which is the big synthesizer room.  He’s in that room, they produced a whole bunch of stuff for great musicians, anyway the shot of him in that room with the song playing is one of these great examples of how important an exciting ending song is like Repo Man also. I remember this scene, we have this theme song to get to at the end, that’s going to be fun to hear. It’s one of my most favorite things to wait for, that you’re excited for. It’s just a really full movie of really goofy ideas. It’s a goofy movie, but also kind of scary and De Palma is still figuring out his camera tricks. There isn’t split focus in that yet. His visual language isn’t in place yet so it’s a little more bonkers. I really love the films right after it. The photography, the mood, his silly sense of time and place. So, this one is before he figured it out it’s a little more bombastic and the music is great. I‘m not related to Paul Williams, but I wish I was. It’s definitely going to be fun!