In the 1960s, it was cinematographer Raoul Coutard who revolutionized the cinema; in 2015, Sean Price Williams is also pushing the limits of the known into new and interesting places. As Williams’ Wikipedia entry notes, “the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody described Williams (in a memorial appraisal of documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, for whom Williams served extensively as cameraman), as ‘the cinematographer for many of the best and most significant independent films of the past decade, fiction and documentary — including Frownland, Yeast, Fake It So Real, The Color Wheel, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Listen Up Philip, the Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What, and Alex Ross Perry’s new feature Queen of Earth.’
In a 2013 article for Film.com, critic Calum Marsh deemed Williams ‘micro-budget filmmaking’s most exciting cinematographer.’ Marsh would go on to write in a 2014 article in Toronto’s National Post that ‘Williams, in particular, has proven indispensable to the [2010s American independent film] movement, and over the past several years has distinguished dozens of the films with his all but peerless talent for photography, from experimental nonfiction work like Maiko Endo’s Kuichisan to more conventional comedies like Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Williams has also worked several times with the director Abel Ferrara, whom he greatly admires.” And refreshingly, he prefers to shoot film, and not digital, and loves it.
Filmmaker: We’re roughly the same age and my love of movies really developed at the video store. Did you have a similar experience?
Williams: Oh yeah. Where I grew up there wasn’t much, but I got a VideoHound and just started calling and writing to all the distributors in the back to get catalogues because I wanted to see all these foreign films and I didn’t know how else to see them. And I would get these catalogues and everything was like $90. (laughs) I was just so anxious to see these movies. Then I discovered this video store in Delaware and it was one of those amazing moments in my life that I can’t believe is real. I walked into this place and there was an entire shelf of Fassbinder tapes. It was this totally curated art film store in Delaware. It enabled me to basically get an education in movies, which is what I devoted my entire high school experience to. I didn’t go to parties. Didn’t do any sports really. I just watched movies.
Filmmaker: I remember as a teenager, before the days of IMDB, if I saw a movie by a director I liked, I would search either the Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert review books to find other films by that person.
Williams: Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia was the big resource for me. They had it in my library and I had it checked out pretty much four straight years.
Filmmaker: How’d you end up heading to New York?
Williams: I went to college in Baltimore and then I dropped out because all of the film equipment there started breaking and they started changing over to video, which I wasn’t interested in. I had an opportunity to move in with a girl in New York, so I did. I just sort of made the leap. I started working for this internet company doing video content. I had no intentions of being a cinematographer or anything.
Filmmaker: And you met Alex Ross Perry while working at Kim’s Video in New York?
Williams: I started working at Kim’s in 2000 and then in 2005 Alex started coming in and begging for a job. No one else would talk to him, but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.’ And then every day he’d come in and I’d be like, ‘Look, I’ll try.’ Every day. Finally I got him a job on the second floor — I was on the third floor. Then I got fired really soon after I got him the job — not because of him though. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Was there a specific director you bonded over?
Williams: There was a big moment where we all went and saw Out 1, the 13-hour Jacques Rivette film, at the Museum of the Moving Image. It showed over two days during the weekend and that’s when we were all like, “You know what, Alex is pretty cool.” We became buddies then. I think it was around that time, too, that he did his thesis film and I thought it was terrible and I told him so. I said, “You’ve got good taste in movies, but this is really bad.” And he said, “Well, the next one we’ll make together.” And then we made Impolex maybe a year after that.”