When Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry attached their names to "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," it gave the film a huge boost and helped the movie reach a wider audience. Yet when "Precious" director Lee Daniels was asked to "present" Sean Baker's film "Prince of Broadway" in the same way, he was initially unsure what he could offer to the project.
"I didn't understand what it meant exactly," Daniels said, sitting down with Baker in a beachside Venice bungalow. "Like I had forgotten, 'Oh, yeah, Oprah did this for me.'"
In allowing his name to be used to promote the film and speaking on its behalf, Daniels' involvement was simple. "I'm certainly not Oprah Winfrey, but if I have an audience, small as it may be, I felt that everybody that would see my film would enjoy his film."
Daniels had seen the movie, a bittersweet and heartwarming comedic look at urban life, when he was a juror for the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards. ("Prince" was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than $500,000.) After the movie was picked up by Elephant Eye Films — the New York production, distribution and sales company that also handles foreign sales on titles that Daniels produces — the connection was solidified.
For Baker, 39, co-creator of the cult television comedy "Greg the Bunny," Daniels' involvement was a final push in the long process of getting the film released in theaters. The movie, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, had its world premiere more than two years ago at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for best narrative feature.
Shot with the shaky camerawork and skittish immediacy one might more readily associate with hard-bitten, social-problem dramas, "Prince of Broadway" centers on a street hustler named Lucky (Prince Adu). Lucky's life is upended when a former fling (Kat Sanchez) shows up with an 18-month-old boy (Aiden Noesi) and leaves the baby with him.
Baker cowrote the script with Darren Dean but had the actors, mostly nonprofessionals, put the dialogue into their own words, hoping for the spark of real life and real conversation. He wanted the movie, his third low-budget feature, to tell a serious story blended with moments of humor, as in the films of Mike Leigh or Spike Lee.
"I felt it was important not to make it too heavy-handed," Baker said. "In life, we all go through hard times, but we always find the laughter as our relief. We all need our comic relief in life."
The film originated when Baker decided he wanted to capture the energy of the midtown wholesale district on Broadway in New York. He and associate producer Victoria Tate, who plays the wife of Lucky's boss in the film, spent the better part of a year hanging around the neighborhood, talking to people and slowly gaining their trust. At first, Baker thought the story would focus on a store owner — something like Wayne Wang's "Smoke" — but he became increasingly enamored with the sidewalk hustlers who entice customers into the stores. Once they met Adu, a charismatic immigrant from Ghana, Baker knew they had their lead.
The film's additional spark comes from giving Adu's character his unlikely young charge. Baker recalls the idea as being both personal and practical.
"When I go into this area, I feel the way I used to feel when my father would take me into the city as a kid," Baker said. "We grew up in Jersey, and coming up out of the Lincoln Tunnel was like a 'Welcome to the Jungle' moment. And seeing the city through the eyes of a child, feeling very overwhelmed, I still feel that way in that area.
"And that's when it clicked — let's throw a child into the mix. I didn't want it to be '3 Men and a Baby,' but I wanted a hustler to get a kid. I had an image in my head of a hustler in the snow with a child and having to hustle with the kid."
The film was shot over 35 days in early 2007, and Baker said the production was not without its unusual moments. For a scene in which Sanchez (also the real-life mother of the film's baby) vomits on-screen, Baker had her drink the inducing agent ipecac. Just as he did for a similar scene in his previous film "Take Out," Baker drank it himself (and threw up) to prove to the actor that it was safe.
For another scene, a fight on the street, Baker had a permit to shoot in the area and had planted a few extras there. But he anticipated that a crowd of real-life onlookers would gather to gawk at the commotion, so he had production assistants ready to immediately get release forms signed by the spectators.
When "Prince of Broadway" played on the festival circuit, Baker had spent $35,000 to $40,000 on it. He subsequently put prize money he won at festivals such as LAFF, as well as money from the MTV comedy show he co-created, "Warren the Ape," back into polishing the film, bringing its cost up to nearly $90,000.
Among the hurdles now for "Prince of Broadway" is overcoming the perception that a film that had its festival premiere two years ago is not past its sell-by date.
"To me, that's just a nonissue," said Kim Jose, partner in Elephant Eye Films. "It's such a good movie, I don't care. That's so not what we're about. Distributors have different ideas of why and how a movie should be released, and for us it just comes down to this is an important, beautiful story."
"It's been a long road," said Baker. "Lee coming on board has helped us so much. But it's because nobody really lost hope or faith that it would finally get out there. I had promised the cast and crew we would release it no matter what, so I had to stick to that."