Prince Adu will warm your heart as Lucky, the star of Sean Baker’s gritty—and funny!—tale of love, survival, and knockoffs in the wholesale district.
Director Sean Baker’s second feature, Prince of Broadway, is one of those movies that hits you without warning, and bowls you over with its sensitivity, authenticity and heart. A month ago, I went to a screening knowing absolutely nothing about the film—or what I should expect—other than that it was a small New York story that had found a fan in director/producer Lee Daniels; much like Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry had done last year with his film Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire, Daniels had attached his name to this film as “presenter.”
In the film, New York is not the polished, burnished city found in Nora Ephron-ish love letters to the Upper West Side. Instead, the wholesale district at its center is a gritty, snowy place with nooks and crannies inhabited by hard-working immigrants and the daring-est of tourists, known for its name brand knockoffs sold surreptitiously in alleyways and backrooms. When we meet Lucky (played by real-life salesman Prince Adu), he’s hustling his customers as a mover and a shaker in a store owned by a Lebanese businessman named Levon (Karren Karagulian). Lucky’s world is about to be rocked when an old girlfriend (Kat Sanchez) shows up with a toddler (Aiden Noesi) she says is Lucky’s son. Pressured by her new boyfriend, she leaves the boy with Lucky, telling him it’s his turn to be the caregiver for a while. This is all news to the carefree Lucky, who’s just finding his groove with Karina (Keyali Mayaga), a smart cookie with a good head on her shoulders.
The story takes off from there, illuminating the struggles of day-to-day existence that are present for so many have-nots in our society. Which prompted the question: how did a white guy from New Jersey find a way to tell this story? We sat down with director Sean Baker—whose day jobs have included IFC’s Greg the Bunny and MTV’s Warren the Ape—to find some answers.
Tribeca: What made you want to tell this story? It reads like a labor of love.
Sean Baker: My previous film Take Out, which I co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, really set in motion this thing where I wanted to explore more urban social realist stories, especially since I am so influenced by those sort of films.
This film actually stems from location—the wholesale district, going back almost 10 years, is one area where I said, “This is such an amazingly vibrant, colorful area, that I’d love to shoot a film here. Nobody’s done it yet.” About a year before production, Victoria Tate and I set out to do research in that area, and we really developed it from there. We had no idea what we were going to do yet.
We thought going in that it might be like [Wayne Wang’s film] Smoke, where it was going to be about the one shop in particular, and the store owner dealing with everything. It wasn’t until we started doing research and we met Prince, and we understood more of the West African experience there that we decided to make it about two men… It all organically stemmed from the choice to shoot in that location.
Tribeca: So you really didn’t have any background experience with wholesale shops?
Sean Baker: Well a little bit, but I knew it primarily from Chinatown. With my other thing—Warren the Ape, Greg the Bunny—we actually had a rented loft that we shot all our episodes in, that was right above one of these illegal rooms. And so we got to everyday see Midwestern tourists being led into these rooms with looks of fear on their faces—"Am I going to be mugged? No! It’s Louis Vuitton and Prada!" Being a New Yorker, it’s hard to avoid. [laughs]
Tribeca: So Take Out is also about an immigrant’s experience in New York. Does being a New Yorker make you interested in these kinds of stories?
Sean Baker: This is such a diverse city, a city of immigrants—we’re all immigrants; I grew up in Jersey, and I’ve been in Manhattan for 20 years. I was very surprised that more stories weren’t being told about cultures and groups of people that have amazing stories to be told, but just weren’t represented on screen. I think that’s why Shih-Ching and I made Take Out, because we felt that was a story that should be told.
And then with Prince, it was just an organic thing. It was the desire to tell alternative stories.
Tribeca: How did you find Prince? How closely does his life relate to the film?
Sean Baker: It relates a little bit. Obviously, he knows that background, but the actual story of the child is in no way based on real events. When Tori and I were doing our research in that area, everyone kept saying, “Find Prince Adu. He’ll talk to you.” Or… “He’ll want to talk to you!” Everyone thought we were either annoying film students or cops. We had to convince them that we were actually going to be making a feature film, and that we really wanted to bring truth to it.
We kept saying that the reason we were doing all this research, and were in their faces all the time, was because we didn’t want to make a film that wasn’t truthful. Eventually, we gained the trust of both the West African and the Lebanese shop owners in the area. But we never found someone who was charismatic and enthusiastic—we thought we were going to have to cast a professional actor. Everyone kept saying, “Find Prince Adu. He wants to be an actor.”
One day, while actually shooting—I think I have this on mini-DV somewhere, and if we ever get a DVD, I’ll put it on there—we came across Prince, and he said, within 30 seconds, “If you make me the lead of your film, I will help you do research, help you find actors, and help you find locations. I will help your movie in every way. Just make me the lead.” We were like, “Okay, it was nice meeting you…” and as we walked away, Tori and I just looked at each other and went, “I think we just found the lead of our film.” So we knew right there and then.
He was very persistent. I had gone off and worked on the IFC Greg the Bunny project, and he would call me at least once a week: “Are you going to make this film or not?” I finally promised him. I said: “Listen, I am now working on Greg the Bunny so I have money to make the film. But I promise you, I will make this.” And after that, I was like, “Oh, no, I just promised.” [laughs]
Tribeca: How is he taking to stardom?
Sean Baker: He loved the festival circuit. He was in Los Angeles when we won, he was in Woodstock when we won, and he was in another short film that’s in post-production right now. I really hope for the best for all these guys, and he has the most to gain. He really shines in the film, and he’s such a dedicated, amazing actor. I hope this is his launching point.
Tribeca: What about the rest of the cast? Aiden was a natural, and his mom is his mom, right?
Sean Baker: Karren was in my other film, in a brief role, and I always knew I would give him a lead role someday. He works in sales, but he has the acting bug now. It’s interesting to see how different audiences have taken to these actors. For example, in America, it seems that Prince got a lot of attention on the festival circuit, but in Europe, Karren got a lot of attention. They liked his subtlety and his approach to the character. So he’s now in the acting world, I think.
Tribeca: What about the customers? Were they nonactors?
Sean Baker: Most of the customers were cast through Craig’s List, or Backstage ads. A few of them were real customers—they saw what we were doing, they showed interest, and we were like, “You can always be in our movie if you like.”
Tribeca: What kind of script was there? What did you give the actors to start from?
Sean Baker: It started as a “scriptment,” which was almost like a 50-pager. But that actually had the plot and the scenes blocked out. Then we would give the actors the individual scenes, with the dialogue fleshed out, but we told them they could throw the dialogue out the window if they wanted. We said, there are probably 3 lines that you have to do—either for exposition or dramatic effect, you need to hit these lines—but as long as you get from Point A to Point B, and get the general idea, let’s roll with it. For the most part, they would take what we had written and put it into their own words, making it more realistic and sounding like their characters. Prince especially—we’d be writing what we thought was a West African hustler, and he’d say, “Guys, you are two white dudes from Jersey. I would never say that. I’ll make it work for you.”
Tribeca: How/when did Lee Daniels get involved? What has that meant for the project?
Sean Baker: It’s really helped in so many ways. In a way, it’s what Oprah did for him with Precious. It’s really coming on and supporting us—I think people out there will see, and think, “Oh, this must have a similar sensibility, or come from the same influences.” And that’s exactly what it is. [Editor’s note: Prince of Broadway is a lot lighter!]
Lee had seen our film while on the nominating committee for the Spirit Awards. He called about Take Out, actually, and was very interested in our process. I knew that he had seen and liked both films, and when Elephant Eye was getting ready for the release, the idea came up that maybe Lee would be interested in “presenting” it. And he said yes right away. He is coming to NY to do a few events, and the premiere…
Tribeca: When do you open?
Sean Baker: On the 3rd at the Angelika in New York, and on the 24th in LA, and then in Chicago. Please support us as much as possible on opening weekend—it’s important!
Tribeca: What’s up next for you?
Sean Baker: I am working on a film that takes place in Taiwan; I’m co-directing again with Shih-Ching from Take Out. This is a family drama that takes place in Taipei County, in the night markets. Again, it all stems from location. We fell in love with the night markets there, and we felt this was something that hadn’t been done yet. Of course, in the last year, Wim Wenders produced a film that took place in the night markets, but still, our approach is going to be quite different, and clandestine. It’s going to be a fun project.
After that, I will probably return and do another NY movie, probably taking place in one of the outer boroughs. And in the meantime, I have Warren the Ape on MTV, which is totally helping this stuff move along. It’s a world that helps me as a director—Warren the Ape and Greg the Bunny have given me more practice, especially with working with actors on an improv level. Working in improvisational comedy is truly the hardest thing you can possibly do as an actor. And to watch these actors do this, and guiding them in a way, is such an incredible process. It’s helped with Prince, and will probably help in the future…