We are eight months into what’s been a year of uncertainty for millions of people in various industries around the world. Invariably, movies are far from the exception with theaters forced to close for an indefinite number of months around the world, some of which reopend, though only to close again.
It’s a sting felt by many a filmgoer, including independent filmmaker Christian Sesma whose own career now faces mitigating with certain rules and guidelines in order to maintain a safe working environment. Thus, the force was strong with the AWOL 72 and Vigilante Diaries director, as he was fortunate enough to finish one production earlier this year just before the state of California commenced a period of lockdown.
That film, Paydirt, is now just days away from its release as of this Friday, and comes with the added benefit of Sesma’s own career prosperity getting to not only work with a longstanding screen favorite, but also break in new talent.
Paydirt marks your fourth film together with Luke Goss. How would you describe your friendship with him?
My friendship with Luke is really a ‘band of brothers’ type-bond. After working together early on we just knew we clicked creatively. He’s a consumate professional and I love that he comes to work and ready to bring to the table with really great ideas and performance. He’s always elevating it and he’s just a cool chill guy. Like I said, we’re great friends and even greater collaborators.
Talk about the casting process. Did you write the film with Luke and Val Kilmer and Paul Sloan and the others in mind?
When Jack Campbell from Octane Entertainment asked if I wanted to do another movie in my hometown, like we did Nightcrew, I knew that I’d have to bring back the gang. I absolutely wrote it with Luke, Paul Sloan and my producing partner Mike Hatton, who is like my Steve Buscemi, in mind.
When I go to make these really cool, fun, slick genre flicks I always call the actors I love to work with. Very much like the Tarantinos, or Adam Sandlers or Seth Rogen bunch. Even Scorsese. As a writer, it’s just more authentic when you write with the voice and characters you know your acting pals can pull off well. And I think in Paydirt, the Mike Hatton/Paul Sloan combo is hilarious, which was meant to be a very fun Oceans 11-vibe, with Luke being the cool leader of the bunch.
As for Val…that was just an amazing surprise. Lots of right things got Mike and I in to meet him when he expressed interest in the script. And once we all met and vibed and chatted, we knew we would all have a great time making this movie. I’ve watched Val in some of my all time favorite films thousands of times, literally. So it was a surreal experience when he said yes and to be able to bring him on board, much less get a lil’ old school action Kilmer in it.
So casting Val and his daughter in her first feature role must have been one for the history books for you, especially in breaking in new talent, hasn’t it?
Well I truly believe in serendipitous moments. We had yet to cast the daughter role and at the first meeting with Val as we were all hanging out, his daughter Mercedes comes in and hands him something. She says ‘Hi!’ and leaves. We think nothing of it at first but then he tells Mike and I that she’s an actor and recently moved back from NYC. So Hatton and I literally look at each other at the same time. We’re like, wait…your real life daughter acts, is the right age and just recently moved back to LA? The rest is history. He was like do you want her to audition? I’m like no, Val…let’s do this. She’s perfect. Let’s rock. He was floored. She was surprised and I truly think you can’t beat just the subtle touching performances between them. Because it’s real.
Val does a pretty good job delivering on this project. Were there any concerns earlier on regarding his tracheotomy?
Absolutely there were concerns. We got a lot of worried e-mails and calls about pulling this off. We had heard that his health wasn’t good. That he wouldn’t be able to do the scenes we wanted much less fire a gun, etc… But I really felt that the Val we met could absolutely do this. And that wasn’t even about his trach and voice. I pushed on it. I let everyone know that if Val could mime these lines and give a performance, I could really dial it in to a believable spot in voice over.
And who do we credit for his VO dubbing?
We called in our friend Jesse Corti, who is a voice-over legend, knowing that with him on our side we could pull this off, and I’m proud of the final product. I think we got like 95% there. Some things we just couldn’t get perfect…and also, I realized that I had to let go of having to get a perfect Val Kilmer voice impersonation. I’ve heard Val deliver movie lines literally thousands of times over the course of 30 plus years. We all know what he sounds like. No one can do exacts, they can come close. But I think Jesse and I worked those voice over sessions to really try to capture nuances and subtleties to try to sell the fact. I think Val will be happy.
I think this is also your third time out with Mike Hatton who co-stars and produces, and you guys seem to make a great pair.
Mike has been acting in my movies since 2005. I cast him in my very first feature and he has become one of my best friends, now a trusted badass producing partner — a true filmmakers kind of producer and a huge pain in my ass…but in the best brotherly way! I knew that by bringing this production to my hometown, I could pull this off and Mike is the perfect guy to help execute this. When I brought him on board they all thought I was crazy and how are we going to do this kind of movie on this budget…but I have the Coachella Valley on lock and the city of Coachella has become like my personal backlot. So there’s nowhere else I know that is more production friendly and easy to work with. Steven Hernandez, the mayor, is a long time friend and community ally, so Mike and I knew Paydirt would find its home.
Between this, The Nightcrew and Vigilante Diaries, you seem to love creating a badass ensemble of characters who naturally bounce off of each other. What are some film favorites of your own that influence this kind of storytelling?
I think growing up in the 80’s and the real natural banter of characters in John Hughes movies mixed with McTiernan and Spielberg, etc. I don’t know, I just love balancing it all and not taking the genre for granted. In these kinds of movies, if we had a fun time and you laughed and thought it was cool, that’s a win. You have to like who you’re watching. And again, casting the guys I like, I believe, will translate on screen.
You were able to wrap up Paydirt, just before California landed into a lockdown. What was your outlook at that point going forward?
My outlook was “…thank Baby Yoda we got one in before this happened!”
How did you manage and nourish your own creative process during those weeks of lockdown and curfew?
I was in post. So during quarantine, my editor, Eric Potter and I, were doing everything mobile. Which was extremely challenging. Literally this movie was 99% finished mobile in post production. So it took extra time. From online editing sessions, to color correcting to sound design. And the most challenging part was the voice over! We did all Val’s voice over sessions over mobile Zoom type sessions. So I was fortunate I was massively busy during the first quarantine months.
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most, how badly do you miss going to the movies?
Fucking 11! That one hit hard. Going to the movies is my personal happy place. I was in theaters once a week. Always. So, it’s a tough time for that. Heartbreaking.
Now that you’re back and filming a new movie with Take Back, what can you tell us about the differences you’ve observed between working on a normal set, and a set that needs to be “Covid-safe” or “Covid-free”?
Covid protocols run the show. Period. Creating a covid-free bubble with constant testing and keeping cast and crew all in the same hotel creates our own production island, in essence. Safety and sanitation is paramount and having dedicated social distance and mask wearing is a diligent process. And it’s 110 degrees out here shooting, so wearing masks at all times wasn’t the easiest. But, do you want to make movies or not?
Considering the hurdles already faced with independent filmmaking, do you think it will get harder for folks in your field as a result as the pandemic continues to be a factor?
I truly believe the biggest hurdles in movie making is getting the financing. So that in and of itself is always a challenge. I think that the model that Mike and I have created for our productions is proving a working and executable way to shoot movies in this new time. I came from the restaurant business before becoming a movie maker. So I feel that regulated safety measures aren’t that foreign. There’s constant temperature checks and checklists and sanitizing and hand washing, the works.
Just briefly, what can you tell us about Take Back. You’re literally working with a Ghanaian king and queen on your movie set, and some of us haven’t forgotten that, so I’m just sayin’!
Micheal Jai White and Gillian White are the dream team. Yes, they’re literally regal AF, badass and true professionals. They bring so much to table and it really has been an enjoyable collaborative process. And to be able to bring a black female kick ass lead to the forefront? It’s just awesome. Kick ass black leads and a Mexican director? That’s a lot of flavor! And we’re bringing the heat with this, so we’re really excited.
What advice do you have for up-and-comers who’ve only just begun picking up a camera and started on their journey as filmmakers themselves, only to feel stifled by a global pandemic that can’t go away fast enough?
I’d say you can be stifled in Utopia if you don’t have the correct frame of mind. There will always be obstacles in any endeavor. Pandemic or no pandemic. A true artist has to create. There are no barriers, just hurdles you have to navigate. Pick up a camera, a phone, a tablet and start shooting your story. Like Morpheus says…the only obstacles are in our minds!