Interviews

“A Year of Vomiting Color”: Sean Price Williams on Cinematography

Williams talks about his relationship to cinematography, including his latest work in Thirst Street, the truest visual smorgasbord of all.

Thirst Street, directed by Nat Silver with cinematography by Sean Price Williams

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams has been revered by critics and indie film fans for the better part of the last decade. While drawing particular influence from master filmmakers like Robert Altman and Roman Polanski, his visual thinking stays fresh by constantly seeking fellow image makers — whether cinematographers, photographers, or others — who make the vulgar and common beautiful.

Williams’s singular eye has kept him in-demand; you’ll see his name in the credits of four movies in 2017 alone. Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime is a tale of technology simulating humanity and Good Time — the latest from Queens natives Josh and Ben Safdie — is a sprint through the New York City underworld. Golden Exits (which has yet to receive a theatrical release following its Sundance premiere) marks Williams’s reunion with Brooklyn-based director Alex Ross Perry, who has worked with the cinematographer on his four prior features.

However, Thirst Street, directed by Nathan Silver, is the truest visual smorgasbord of the batch. To tell the story of flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge) as she fixates on a one-night stand in Paris, Williams draws inspiration from 1970s European art films and cinéma du look to weave tapestries of color that both beckon and repel viewers in following Gina’s descent. Ahead of Thirst Street’s screening at New York City’s Quad Cinema starting September 20, Williams discussed his unique gift for imbuing stories of misanthropes and criminals with raw emotion and neon glamor.

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Thirst Street, directed by Nat Silver with cinematography by Sean Price Williams

Jon Hogan: Your first film experiences in New York City grew from your time working at now-closed East Village fixture Kim’s Video and Music. There, you met future collaborators like directors Alex Ross Perry and Robert Greene and actress Kate Lyn Sheil as coworkers. Why was Kim’s such fertile ground for cinematic creativity?

Sean Price Williams: Because it’s a library, and that’s what libraries should be. We could immediately be learning and catching up on the history of cinema with what was available to us, which was a lot compared to now. You have to illegally download, otherwise you don’t have a choice, because the streaming options aren’t very good as far as the history of cinema. I’m shocked by how little Filmstruck actually has. People are like “there’s so much.” No. There’s so little.

JH: In terms of streaming libraries, what elements of the canon are missing or not readily available?

Thirst Street, directed by Nat Silver

SPW: The first 100 years of cinema are barely represented at all in a legal way online. I encourage everyone to download … I think we have to encourage that if there’s going to be any kind of education for cinema at all. Otherwise it’s just directed to us by Netflix and Amazon, whatever their licensing agreement is. That’s not a way to be guided.

JH: You worked with the late documentarian Albert Maysles. What lessons did you learn from him? How does your vision change when filming documentaries like Maysles’s Iris or Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine?

SPW: When I first came to New York, I was shooting stuff for this website that had no means at all. We were shooting mostly documentary stuff (parades, events, concerts, things like that), but I’m not an avid documentary watcher. The documentary and the feature stuff were always criss-crossing, and I didn’t really think of it as two totally different things. I was always trying to make documentaries seem more cinematic with some sort of language that might seem more interesting on a big screen.

When I worked with Al, I knew his movies. I loved his movies. They had an elegance that was cinematic and totally unique to them. When I would go through his dailies as his archivist I would see things in the dailies that were confirmation about the unique kind of eye he had. It’s not something you can really pick up and learn. You can learn some things, but you can’t imitate him. He was impulsive and instinctual.

Thirst Street, directed by Nat Silver with cinematography by Sean Price Williams

JH: Your impressionistic use of color in Thirst Street is the highlight of the film. When Gina (Lindsay Burdge) visits a fortune teller, for instance, her face and hair are composed in various tones of red, almost appearing inorganic. However, the background boasts other colors. How did you go about creating these colorscapes?

SPW: Last year for me was a year of vomiting color between Good Time and that and another movie I shot called Jobe’z World. I had a gaffer in New York that I worked with a couple times that encouraged it. We got really nutty because there was a new light that came out early last year that we started using that made it very easy to dial in different colors. Then when I got to France to make Thirst Street, we just had lots of little lights and gels.

In the fortune teller scene, I had no idea what a fortune teller in Paris looks like. None of us bothered to really go and find one. Some on the production said they knew, but they all conflicted. We played with color there. It was an early enough scene that it made it okay to get colorful in the rest of the movie.

JH: With much of the action taking place in a Paris strip club, Thirst Street features plenty of moving, writhing bodies. What draws the attention of your camera in dance performances?

SPW: Hair. (laughs)

The trick is — and most dance is filmed badly — you either feel like you need to shoot the whole body or need to find small details that express what the dance is doing. And if you do anything in between, you’re kind of failing all of it. You’re missing something.

Thirst Street, directed by Nat Silver with cinematography by Sean Price Williams

JH: I did enjoy the shots where you segmented the bodies and focused on a particular body part. A leg. A head.

SPW: There’s a great dance film by Claire Denis called Towards Mathilde that has the greatest examples of focusing on a hand or a foot. The cinematography in that is just outrageous. As far as dance photography, it might be the best at isolating parts and following them. It’s very hard to do.

JH: You often favor close-ups focusing on the face, sometimes leaving tops of heads or chins off-camera. What about this composition interests you?

SPW: With [Ronald Bronstein’s] Frownland, we shot close-ups on faces because we didn’t have any art department. We didn’t have a beautiful room we wanted to showcase. You just end up going for the close-ups as a fallback almost.

But what’s better than the face? I guess that’s the bottom line. Josh always likes to talk about how the close-up is the one unique thing to cinema, to see a face that big on a screen. That’s pretty special. I never quite understood when people say, “It’s too claustrophobic.”

Thirst Street by Nat Silver screens at the Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) beginning September 20.

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