Christian Sesma seemingly never stops working. A self-taught filmmaker, Sesma has been directing since 2006 at an incredibly productive rate. In that time, he has completed (and found distribution) for more than twenty feature-length genre films.
His prolific nature and continued success in getting his work actually seen have led him to be a director that genre acting stalwarts want to work with. This is perfectly showcased by his latest project (and strongest directorial effort to date)— the hard-hitting action film SECTION 8. The cast features Ryan Kwanten (TRUE BLOOD), Dolph Lundgren (ROCKY IV), Dermot Mulroney (YOUNG GUNS), Scott Adkins (UNDISPUTED 3), and Mickey Rourke (THE WRESTLER) in a story about a military veteran (Kwanten) who, after losing his wife and child, is unwittingly pulled into a shadowy world of government-sponsored assassins.
I had a chance to speak with Christian Sesma about SECTION 8 ahead of its release today. We discussed his inspiring early success, creative process, and more.
You have been very open about being a self-taught filmmaker. What was that learning process like?
I got my degree in anthropology, believe it or not. I was writing a lot just for fun and one thing led to another and I was hospitalized with an appendix thing for like a month. It was pretty bad. And in that hospital bed, I read Robert Rodriguez’s book “Rebel Without A Crew.” And being just a giant movie nerd and movie buff, I was like, “Man, I’m thinking I’m going to take a crack and do a little short film or something like that. Based off of, just really being inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s stuff. I went to Best Buy, bought a little, $200 camera from there and made my first short film and that made it into a film festival right off the bat.
And the rest is history. I just taught myself how to screen write and do all the things along the way. So I’ve always said that my first five movies were my film school. Whereas other people had the luxury of making all their mistakes in a classroom setting. I made all my mistakes publicly and I wouldn’t trade anything for it. Just all my movies got [distributed] right off the bat. My first feature got bought right away. It was the third time I ever even picked up a camera. So I was like, well, “We’re out here, man. We’re totally exposed, but let’s just keep going.”
That sort of success right away is unusual. Why do you think it happened?
I would hope that at least the distributors saw that they were good on some level. You know what I mean? They were entertaining enough to put out and they felt like a real movie. And I think that’s definitely what happened. The one I called my master thesis was SHOOT THE HERO. That was the first one where I felt was like, “Okay, you’re making a real movie now with actually a little bit of a budget compared to no money.” And that one got released too. So it was just this trial by fire, if you will. It’s definitely the road less traveled— no doubt about it.
Besides Robert Rodriguez, what are some of your other inspirations and influences as a filmmaker?
I watch so many things. I watch a lot of new movies but I also rewatch a lot of classics. Being an 80s kid, James Cameron’s ALIENS is my favorite movie of all time. If I was going to name a director that I feel most akin to, it would probably be Jon Favreau, honestly. The genre mashups he does, his personality, and his ability to work in different playgrounds, just as a storyteller.
If you think about it, the guy launched the MCU, saved STAR WARS, and directed a Christmas classic [with ELF]. That’s a storyteller. People don’t really think of him like that but, for me, that’s definitely the model I aspire to.
SECTION 8 is your latest film. What was it about this project that appealed to you?
The screenwriter Chad Law, who’s a friend of mine, brought it over to me with the producer, Brandon Burrows. They pitched this really stacked cast. I was excited about that, but even more so I thought, “Man, what’s interesting about this one is that it wasn’t a ‘Jason Bourne’ style flick. I felt like it was much more like a DIE HARD thing where you have an “every man” guy getting thrown into this crazy scenario. Ryan Kwanten’s lead character is just a regular military vet. He’s not some super soldier. He’s not some trained assassin. He’s not a black ops guy. He is a regular vet working at a garage with his uncle trying to pay the bills. One tragic event throws him into this crazy world of espionage and action. I thought that was cool and if I could double down on that human side– that family side, then maybe this movie could stand out a little bit in this genre that we’ve seen so much of.
You mentioned the cast of the film as one of the main things that interested you. Throughout your career, you’ve worked with a lot of impressive actors and wrangled a lot of large casts, with actors who are both on the rise and well-established screen veterans. How would you describe your approach to directing them?
I think that I start pretty casual, to be honest with you. First of all, when you’re dealing with legends, icons, and really, really well-known actors– there’s not anything technically that I’m going to tell them that they haven’t heard from Scorsese or Coppola or any of these giant directors that so many of these guys have worked with. So, what I do is try just to be me. My approach to directing is very collaborative and I do have a specific vision, but I also want to make sure that I give these actors some space to explore, play, and bring something interesting to it. I’m pretty loose with the dialogue. I’m pretty loose with the screenplay. I’m pretty loose with these things and just use them as blueprints and really encourage “happy accidents” and exploration. When we’re trying to see what these characters would come up with and how to say it. For me, I’m all about trying to get it as natural as possible.
That approach seems to be working, as you have a lot of people who have done multiple projects with you. The latest of which is action star Scott Adkins. Tell me about your working relationship with Scott.
SECTION 8 was our first movie together and that was filmed at the end of last year. We just had a really good time. So, we did another one right after that, LIGHTS OUT. It’s in post-production now. When you find some really great collaborators– guys and gals that see what you’re trying to do. it’s a really fun, true collaborative process. You really try to latch onto that in this business, because it’s rare. I understand why so many of these giant directors that we all know, work with the same people over and over. They know what they can get from them. They know the collaborative process. There’s an ease, a familiarity, that I think translates on screen, that’s important and crucial to making great movies.
You two are collaborating on a film titled WAR PAINT at the moment. What can you share about that upcoming project? I’ve seen his costume and it looks like a different type of role for Scott.
Oh, it’s different. It’s different. I can’t wait for it. It’s something that I, as a fan and I think so many fans across the world of Scott, have always wanted to see. It’s kind of thrown out in a very interesting way. The plot synopsis– the logline, it’s all out there on the internet to be seen. Basically, if you want to see Scott playing a superhero, that is what you’re going to get. It’s very… I always say it’s “KISS KISS BANG BANG meets THE BATMAN.” That’s what this is going to be.
That’s a hell of an “elevator pitch.” I can’t wait to see it.
Me too, believe me. We did camera tests last week. We’re so excited about it!
As we wrap up, I wanted to know if you have a filmmaking philosophy and if you do would you be willing to share it?
I feel like we’ve coined a term, my DP and I, and we just say, “Filmmaking jazz.” Because in the indie filmmaking space, the ability to riff and shift and pivot and angle and improv and go and roll with it all is crucial. And if you can be really good at filmmaking jazz, you can make something worthwhile.
SECTION 8 is currently in select theaters and streaming on AMC+
Currently residing in Nashville, TN, he also co-hosts the film podcast "Video Culture" (available on all podcast platforms). He can be reached at "WheelsCritic@gmail.com" and on Twitter: @WheelsCritic