Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka are hardly the first artists to flock to Brooklyn in search of inspiration and spiritual nourishment, as they dutifully note in “The Price of Cheap Rent,” reeling off the long list of iconoclasts that have made their home in Bed-Stuy, but they make a strong case for potentially being the last when they so mercilessly send-up the plight of restless creatives that assure themselves that paying $1500/a month to live in a corner with a tiny studio apartment is paying dues towards a fulfilling career in the arts than an uncaring landlord ready to take advantage of the next group that comes in with stars in their eyes. The unnamed artist at the center of “The Price of Cheap Rent,” vividly played by Sutton, can give herself a pat on the back for finding a flat that only costs $1150 and she’s able to live alone with every wall ready for her paintings to be hung, giving herself enough of a feeling of having made it that she can credibly offer her wisdom online to everyone else. The trouble is her growing suspicion that the place is haunted by ghosts.
Having both a Yale education and a job at Applebee’s, the artist is undeterred by this unexpected feature of her home, having made so many other sacrifices to be there, but as Sutton and Tanaka take gentle aim at the way she’s able to compartmentalize all the genuinely terrifying aspects of her life pursuing the arts, they absolutely skewer the vicious cycle of exploitation that she’s found herself a part of, with her neighborhood preyed upon by greedy land developers eager to capitalize on what’s hip and her willingness to burnish that image by gleefully suggesting she’s staying afloat while unconsciously admitting with the video she makes that she expects to be more likely valued as an influencer rather than as an artist, putting herself out in the world in a way she couldn’t have possibly anticipated. The film has been a favorite on the festival circuit since it debuted last fall at the Toronto Film Festival and has recently found a home online at The New Yorker, but it is taking a much-deserved bow this week at BlackStar and Sutton and Tanaka, clearly two talents to keep an eye on in the future, were kind enough to talk about how their collaboration came to be, digging into the roots of their community to see how history keeps repeating itself and the creativity that emerged from making the short over the course of just one day.
How did the two of you first click as a directing duo?
Amina Sutton: We met our freshman year of college, and we’ve known each other for what feels like forever now. But Maya was in the film program [at Boston University] and I was actually in their art school and we didn’t work with each other, so [it was after] were both out of school for a long time and both of us started working production jobs, just in that mid-twenties frustration of like, “Oh, I want to make something. I want to do something.” And that’s how we bonded.
Maya Tanaka: We were talking about how we really wanted to do something, working out that frustration, but what was really cool was Amina had this idea for the script and she started writing it. Then suddenly one of our friends came into some money, and was able to give us a little bit of that money to fund it and we were able to actually make it. So it was a community supported project that we’d been ideating on for a while, and then actually got to make because of one of our friends.
Maya, is it true you shot it in your old apartment?
Maya Tanaka: I still live in that building! I should probably call my landlord at some point. I’ve just been hauling things there for five years, but yeah, the apartment is great. It was a great find. It’s not haunted. It’s beautiful, and I think it’s back on the market. I moved downstairs recently.
Were you actually aware of the history of the neighborhood before doing the research that’s at the start of the film?
Maya Tanaka: You don’t recognize the history that’s right in front of you when you’re living in a space, and I think I’d gone to Brooklyn Museum many years ago, and they recreated these homes that were in Brooklyn originally from Dutch settlers and English settlers. And I was like, “Oh, that explains why it’s called Bedford-Stuyvesant.” Or “Oh, this explains this train stop is Hoyt-Schermerhorn.” You’re like, “Oh, all this stuff is right here in front of me. Everything’s been named.” There’s been so many movements recently to recognize the damage [done by] the people that some of these streets in these neighborhoods are named after and recognize who they actually were. Were they slave owners? Were they [responsible for] all this stuff that I’ve been seeing recently? So I feel like it’s a conversation, as we talk about neighborhoods changing, and you start to get into that history more.
Not only is there a keen eye towards history, but also one towards the influencer culture this spoofs. The one establishing shot of the building from a Dutch angle that starts to become a little woozy is on point.
Maya Tanaka: That specific angle shot was actually our DP [Alexa Harris] — there’s a building on the corner of this street and the neighborhood that’s a new build and it’s really ugly. And we had wanted to show this new build approach against these beautiful old houses of the neighborhood. If you live there, I think you get it immediately, and I had definitely been working in a space where you [were watching] a lot of branded content videos and they follow a really specific format and formula, so we wanted to subvert that formula and just make you question every time you’d see a video like that from now on online, or a profile artist piece, and just be like, “Oh, crap. What if it’s just ghosts? What if it’s something I’m really not expecting?”
Amina Sutton: Yeah. I feel like I watched a bunch of Maya’s videos, just to [get the style]. Eventually, they start parodying themselves, it feels like.
What was it like coming up with this artist character Maya plays? Obviously you go deep on the production design with her paintings.
Amina Sutton: Originally, we had someone else in mind to act in the role, and we originally had her be more of an influencer, but our schedules just weren’t matching up with the actress, so at the last minute Maya was like, “Amina, you wrote it, you know it by heart. You do it.” And when that happened, the two of us came together and we treated the whole film like an actual documentary. Maya’s feeding me lines off-camera. We’re trying to get realistic responses. And once you’re in that brain space — and all the art that’s there is art that I drew, because we couldn’t find an artist to showcase — it really worked. I was becoming that woman. And a lot of the look of the artist was inspired by our DP, because she had been a goth as a teen and we had a production meeting where we were talking about her goth years. All of these people who were involved started to come together and build this one character, which was fun.
Was there anything that you might not have anticipated during shooting, but it made it into the film and you really like about it now?
Maya Tanaka: My favorite scene in the film is when Amina is drawing a clown because she’s just ad-libbing, and everyone on the set is in this tiny, tiny apartment and we’re all facing different walls trying not to laugh, because you can pickup sound. Our DP is just choking back laughter. The gaffers are trying to hide. It was really fun.
Amina Sutton: Yeah, and I just really enjoyed the practical effects that we were doing. It was such a crazy dance we were doing to just get this one table to fall over [suggesting the presence of a ghost] and because of the shot we were doing, it was just fun. We did it a million times, but it felt like every time we tried to do it, the camaraderie in the room to just get this one moment right was [such that] when we finally did it, it felt like we all wanted to jump up and cheer.
Was it a challenge to blend the styles between the iPhone footage and the more general shoot?
Maya Tanaka: That was part of the charm of it, because the character herself is so online, trying to catch some ghosts and trying to broadcast it to whoever would listen, [that] we were able to play with a lot of that stuff. We are really shooting with an iPhone when we’re in the Brooklyn Museum, and you’re seeing all those pretty Dutch paintings behind Amina and that was really easy for pickups. I loved doing it in terms of production, and then in terms of post-production, a little more complicated, but it still works.
What’s it like seeing people engage with it as it’s come out in the world?
Amina Sutton: It’s been a weird one, because we have only been doing pandemic festivals, so there’s an excitement of, “Yeah, we get into all these great festivals,” and we’re just sitting in our living rooms. Yes, this is a huge accomplishment, but I wouldn’t know. I really haven’t left my apartment. But now that things are opening up and with Blackstar, it was great, and I attended our first in-person screening last weekend. I feel like I’ve been for a year just waiting to see another person react to this film in person, and it was wild, so it’s so nice to finally be able to do that.