The Sweet East opens with a kind of gaze. Our protagonist, Lillian (Talia Ryder), is reclining on a bed, looking disaffected as her boyfriend makes a lame joke about blowing up a condom. Lillian is distracted, thinking about cinema in fact. “I keep on thinking about the end of that movie… they were all from different planets but spoke the same language.” 

This description might sum up what follows. The directorial debut of Sean Price Williams (favoured cinematographer of the Safdie Brothers and Alex Ross Perry) with a script penned by film critic Nick Pinkerton (Sight & Sound, Village Voice), The Sweet East tracks Lillian as she journeys through various American subcultures, often rigorously contemporary. “Filmmakers don’t know what to do with the present,” says Pinkerton when I meet him and Price Williams at Close-up Cinema on Sclater Street (Price Williams’ favourite cinema in London). “Cinematic grammar belongs to the late 19th and 20th century, and in many ways, hasn’t adapted to the way we live now,” he adds.  

After a QAnon-style shooter arrives at a pizza restaurant she’s in, Lillian makes an exit via the bathroom, performing a brief musical number into the mirror. ‘I’m a cat, I’m a cat, who has lost its black,’ she sings. She escapes with Caleb (Earl Cave), a trust fund kid who lives in a left-wing commune. This leads her to Lawrence, a handsome but hebephilic academic with far-right proclivities (Lillian sleeps in his Swastika-patterned quilt). Film producers Molly and Matthew (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris) cast her in a film alongside Ian (thinly veiled as Jacob Elordi) before Mohammed (Rash Shah) saves her from an attack, locking her up in a wood cabin in a military-themed disco compound he lives in with some other Islamic friends.

Talia has many lives, always emerging unscathed. Price Williams and Pinkerton recall an anecdote where an audience member in a Q+A compared Lillian’s character to a cat, “naturally aristocratic,” quickly slinking along to the better option. Lillian also seems aware she is in a film, breaking the fourth wall to look at us with a conspiring wtf expression that pierces, for an instant, the ethereal, free flowing wonder of Price Williams’ signature cinematography. 

A RABBIT’S FOOT speaks to Sean Price Williams and Nick Pinkerton about alienation, road trips, and a very profitable second sequel. 

Kitty Grady: Your film is set in this hinterland between New York, New Jersey, Delaware—the sweet east—as I guess you’re calling it. I’ve read that you both have a connection to this area. 

Nick Pinterton: I spent the last 20 years of my life in the Northeast. My mother lived in the greater Washington, D.C. area from 1992 onwards. I have cousins in Philadelphia, the Boston Washington corridor…

Sean Price Williams: It’s where I’m from, set in places I’ve lived. But Nick likes to say that it’s kind of an absurd road movie. And there was this guy [at a Q+A] in Dijon who said, you know a road movie is when you go across America from the west. He was expecting landscapes and things, this movie is just up an interstate. 

NP: Like truly—from Washington, D.C. to Vermont. 

George Washington and Betsy Ross impersonators sing at the Smithsonian © THE SWEET EAST LLC

KG: I feel like it’s an area that holds less of a place in the imaginary than the American West.

NP: We decided all the action had to take place in the 13 original colonies that signed the Declaration of Independence. That was a little rule we wrote for ourselves. I also recall reading that Claude Chabrol, who shot films all over France and was a great gourmand, when deciding his next project, he would just look at a Michelin guide and see where there was a restaurant he wanted to go to and build a project around that. And in some small way, I think, I knew we’d have a nice time going to Washington, D.C. together, and Nick and I. 

SPW: Early on, after [Nick] had written the first drafts of the script, we did like a road trip, just he and I kind of went through the places. That was our research. I remember I saved the receipts because I was like, this is a business trip. This was like 2017 or 2018 or something like that. I have the envelope still with our receipts as if I’m going to account that bill to the film. 

NP: Yeah, we did this road trip specifically because we were, I guess, trying to huff up some atmosphere in various locations in the script. And a lot of that actually did work its way in. So, like, for example, the scene where Talia is wandering on the mall in Washington, D.C., and she goes by this line of ice cream trucks that are all playing [Scott Joplin’s] The Entertainer at all these different speeds. That’s like a very specific sonic environment that we wouldn’t have known had we not gone down there in advance. Peter Beck and Betsy Brown dressed as George Washington and Betsy Ross singing Simple Gifts

SPW: And I was videotaping a lot of this trip and thinking that was probably going to be actually the closest thing we ever had to a movie, and I lost almost all that. It was just was on a card that I deleted. 

Talia Ryder (Lillian) and Jacob Elordi (Ian) © THE SWEET EAST LLC
Jeremy O. Harris (Matthew), Ayo Edebiri (Molly), Peter Buntaine (S.P.W) © THE SWEET EAST LLC

KG: You’ve made this film that can feel very contemporary in terms of its references. Did you intentionally want to make a film that could be so closely dated to our present moment?

SPW: I mean, PizzaGate is the only explicit thing. We don’t say Trump. We never say anything like that. And we don’t want it to be stuck in that period. I mean, we told ourselves that it takes place in 2018, but that’s also because we prepared the whole thing. The styling and the fashions in it are not necessarily contemporary. The costume designer and I went eighties and nineties with the styling. Nick is up on today’s news online and youth culture and he knows how people talk. So he did put that in there.  

NP: The contemporaneity—this has been kind of widely commented on. At least in the United States, a lot of our best and smartest filmmakers don’t really know what to do with the present any longer. And, you know, a lot of the best talents that we have seem to dedicate themselves to period pieces at this point, and that’s understandable. Or, just total fantasy. Because the cinematic grammar belongs to the late 19th and 20th century, in many ways, hasn’t adapted to the way we live now. 

I don’t flatter myself to think that our movie has done that, but I think it’s at least worth a shot to try to be in the world that one lives in. As to the kind of throwback aspects to the movie, like a lot of the contemporary world isn’t contemporary. A lot of people live slightly out of the moment. Earl Cave’s character is very 1990s crust punk and that probably speaks a little bit to our vintage. But also like, I guarantee you can go into London town right now and you can find a guy who looks exactly like that. 

KG: A guy who lives in a commune and has been to private schools all over the world, I was like… I’ve definitely met him before. 

NP: The different schools were a way to justify Earl’s strange accent. Christopher Lambert was an inspiration there. I think also with Jeremy and Ayo’s characters, they’re these sort of 1970s museum pieces. I think that is not inaccurate to how people exist in the world, that a lot of people sort of cultivate a particular period. Simon’s character also, this is like a kind of mid Victorian fellow who has the means to keep himself perpetually in the 1850s.

SPW: I think all the Islamic guys [would have] found each other because they were in different parts of America and were just lonely. And they like to dance. I think right now, people find subcultures online just to be part of something. Alienation is heavy in America. Which is part of why, also, we have sympathy for these characters, I think. We don’t make them all just one-dimensional bad guys, because we know there’s an alienated human in there. 

Simon Rex (Lawrence) © THE SWEET EAST LLC
Rish Shah (Mohammed), Mazin Akar (Ahmed) © THE SWEET EAST LLC

KG: Everyone that Lillian comes into contact with, she becomes, this kind of ideal to them. They project onto her something that they want or desire. Would you say it’s more of a film about the people she meets than a film about her own subjectivity and growth? 

SPW: I feel like I’m connected with her when I watch the movie. We’re always, almost always with her in the movie. There’s only a couple of moments where we are not, but we are watching her and she knows we’re watching. She looks at the camera a few times. That’s kind of like a little thing like, are you still with me? But she doesn’t let us in. But that’s part of why we are staying engaged with her. But I think it is a movie about her. 

NP: I hope the movie kind of respects her privacy a little bit. Whereas the various people she encounters along the way are really over eager to impose their worldview upon her, she’s receptive up to a point, flexible up to a point, but also kind of holds something inside and really never gives it away. I suppose that could be, for some viewers, alienating or make the character come across as kind of a hollow cipher. I hope the movie doesn’t do to her what the characters are trying to do to her, which is put her in a position that she’s uncomfortable with taking or make some kind of declaration she doesn’t want to make. 

SPW: Hopefully when it’s time to go, she can go. 

Earl Cave (Caleb) © THE SWEET EAST LLC

KG: It’s quite a powerful ending too, that she returns home but then quickly escapes again. 

SPW: We wanted to leave the door open to a very profitable second sequel. 

KG: I also loved the musical sequence towards the beginning where Lillian is singing. That’s a moment of insight, where we are really drawn or pulled into her world. We hear the refrain of the song later on, but there aren’t any other musical sequences. Can you tell me about the decision to include that scene?

SPW: I really wanted her to sing a song that kind of just gets stuck in your head when you watch the movie. There’s a movie called I Start Counting. It’s an English film from 1969 with Jenny Agutter. And she sings the theme. She doesn’t sing it on screen, but it’s her voice. When you continue to hear the actor’s voice through the movie, you kind of hear that voice and then you get that song in your head.

I wake up with a song in my head and I never know what it’s going to be. And it’s one of the joys of my life, is just having music constantly in my head. And I think this character does that. She doesn’t have her phone or anything like that. We built two bathrooms and we had her singing, going around, popping zits, sitting on the toilet and washing her hands. It wasn’t interesting. And then finally, we just did one just into the mirror, and everything clicked there for her. It clicked because [Talia] said that that’s when she kind of realised that Lillian is thinking of herself as being in a movie. This is okay. I’m starting my movie right now. And that’s when she looks into the camera. That kind of gave us this new sort of thrust and point of view, filming that part of the film.  

NP: The musical number was very much Sean’s addition. It’s not a thing that’s in the script at all. And in as much as you ever get a total self revelation from Talia’s character, it’s right there. She expresses her secrets at that moment. And I suppose that in more traditional dramaturgy should reveal that at the end, but here you kind of get everything up front. There’s a sense of disappointment, a sense of frailty. It’s very front unloaded. And it’s a really nice song. 

Talia Ryder (Lillian) © THE SWEET EAST LLC

SPW: It was just this demo that [Paul Graham] played for me. Not related, actually, at all to the film called just ‘I’m a cat’. He fleshed it out after I said, let’s take that song and put more stuff in it. Loaded up with some Edgar Allan Poe references and things like that. 

NP: I was at a Q&A in Nashville and somebody asked a question that was so smart, which was like asking about Lillian as a cat. As a cat owner and a cat lover myself, these are animals you can’t tell to do anything. You can just give them a better option that they may go for. And they are very natural aristocrats who walk in any situation thinking: what can you do for me right now? But they’re also very loving, doting, sweet animals. But ultimately, you’re there for them, not the other way around. And that really is the Talia character to a T. That sort of feline aristocratic attitude in entering situations. But also the sweetness of a cat and that she appreciates what’s being done for her. 

KG: That’s a great example of how weird but enlightening Q&A questions can be. How did you find the shift from cinematography to directing? 

SPW: It was pretty insane. The idea that a person would entrust me with millions of dollars… But I kind of want to prove that with a small amount of money, you can make something much bigger and grander and everyone’s getting paid and everybody’s having a good time. And a large portion of the budget was spent on beer for the crew. And we were travelling every six or seven states. We were just doing everything that we’re usually told we can’t do. We had an expensive dream sequence that anyone reading the script would say, probably you should cut that scene. And we did end up cutting the scene, but we shot it and we spent a lot of money on it. 

I wanted to make something you were going to want to see again right away. The first time I saw Beau Travail, which is one of my favourite movies, I said I have no idea what that was but I’m going to see it again tomorrow. And I saw it 12 times in the opening week in New York. There’s also this question which is “who are you writing for?” Jim Hoberman, a great friend and role model, said, I’m just writing for myself as a twelve year-old. When we made Good Time [with the Safdie Brothers] we were just trying to make a movie that we would have flipped out for as like 15 year-old boys. 

NP: There’s an opportunity for this thing to cross over into the world of people who maybe haven’t fucked with something like this before. In Q&A’s it’s nice when some of the questions are coming from people who I’ve not seen in an aggressive or weird or discomforting movie and are kind of reckoning with it and it’s like, oh, we’re your first bad object movie. So if even a dozen young people get kind of fucked up by this movie and become weird middle-aged art fans, then we’ve succeeded.