Written by: Adam Vaughn | August 7th, 2020
On Tuesday, August 4th, I interviewed director Christian Sesma to discuss the premiere of his new film, Paydirt (which I also reviewed). The film tells the story of Damien Brooks, a parolee connected to the Mexican cartel, and his crew of master thieves as they race against the clock to recover a $30-million treasure stolen from the cartel’s leader. All the while, Damien is tracked by the now-retired sheriff who put him behind bars in the first place. I spoke with Mr. Sesma by phone to discuss the production process of Paydirt, how filming in Coachella, CA, had an impact on the process, and a little bit about how COVID-19 impacted a film produced in 2019 as the pandemic started to rise in the U.S.
Adam Vaughn: Congratulations on the film. I very much enjoyed it! What was your main inspiration? Specifically, I very much enjoyed the characters and I was surprised and intrigued to find that this all took place in Coachella, CA.
Christian Sesma: Yeah, well, I was born and raised here in the Coachella Valley/Palm Springs area. Those cities are like my “backlot” or “backyard,” if you will. So, it’s always fun to write and make a movie that’s here in your backyard, and that opportunity doesn’t come very often to shoot at home. So, when Jack Campbell, one of the executive producers from Octane, came to me and asked me if I wanted to shoot a movie here in my backyard (like he did years and years ago), I definitely jumped at that chance. And I wanted to do something different, I wanted to do a desert crime-heist kind of movie, and make my own kind of Guy Richie/Soderbergh/Ocean’s 11-style movie here at home. Obviously, we weren’t on those directors’ budgets yet, but that was the inception of it.
AV: Very cool! So, I want to dive into the characters with this next question, specifically Damien and his gang, plus the sheriff (Val Kilmer’s role). I found them very unique, very funny, and they worked together very well. How did the process go in working with the various actors and discovering the characters for Paydirt?
CS: The good thing is that, a lot of us, we have something of a film family that I’ve worked with quite a bit. My producing partner brought on Mike Hatton, who plays “Geoff” and Paul Sloan, who plays “Tony.” A lot of these guys are buddies, along with Nick Vallelonga, who produced Green Book. These are guys I’ve worked with in the past, and a lot of the actresses are friends. So, it was something where I could really bring on board some buddies and make this film happen. I think that is always a big plus, and directors have been doing it forever. Rodriguez, Tarantino, Scorsese, even Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler … those guys work with the same troop of actors a lot. There’s a lot of familiar faces all the time, and I think, for myself, it’s no different. When I have some buddies that I know are fantastic actors and I know their voices so well, it really helps when I’m writing specifically for them.
AV: Cool. And I got the sense that this kind of leads to possible off-script, improvisational moments?
CS: Oh yeah, absolutely! I’m big on that quite a bit. Less on the Val and Mercedes [Kilmer] stuff, and Luke Gross moments that were more straightforward, but when it comes to the comedy side of things, you have to let the actors do what they do best on the comedy front. And Mike is great, Paul is great, it’s just making sure you position them in the right way to have them play, and bring some stuff around the edges.
AV: So, you have about a dozen or so films under your belt, already?
CS: Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot. I always joke how I’m self-taught on the film side, no film school or anything like that. I picked this career up late in life, per se, compared to others. So, I always say that my film school is on display all the time, and that I learned along the way. My first four features were me sort of getting my feet wet, and there’s certain movies that are near and dear to my heart, and I think Paydirt is the last in this line of kind of on-brand, Sesma-styled movies where it’s fun, light, entertaining, and you have some action, you have some jokes, you have some heartfelt moments, you have some drama. You know, that kind of thing, and I definitely think that’s the on-brand thing with the writing and the process and the kind of thing I like to do.
AV: Is there anything specifically about Paydirt versus films of the past that stood out for you in terms of the production process? Any fun production stories or challenges you encountered that are unique to the film?
CS: I think every movie is its own adventure, where nobody knows what to expect. To be honest, the funniest thing is that Paydirt is one of the smaller-budget movies I’ve done, and it was something that I did out of opportunity. There was a movie that fell apart in Louisiana that we were working on last summer, and this opportunity presented itself, so I said, “Yeah, let’s go out and make this movie with friends and stay busy and stay working.” And I was able to write, direct, and produce this one, and have basically full control of it from the story to the execution, and here we are! So it’s kind of crazy that this small, little movie that everyone brushed aside is here, and getting this much attention. And I think it came out pretty fun!
AV: Yeah, I agree with that! And so, did I hear that correctly earlier? Was Paydirt one of your earlier concepts that got brushed aside for a while?
CS: No, no, no it wasn’t an early concept, we came up with it last year. I wrote it fairly quickly, and there was just a need to be shooting and I knew these actors’ voices very well, and I knew what these people could do. And I think I always had some heist movie in the back of mind ready to go.
AV: Awesome. And then I did hear this right, I think …. this was filmed within the last year?
CS: Yeah we shot this last December. We started then and then post-production was basically during the beginning of quarantine…
AV: That must have been a unique experience, just a very unique editing process where you don’t get to meet up with anybody.
CS: Yeah, we met like once on the soundstage when we did our final mixing, which we only had like one day to do it, and we did a lot of work before that, but yeah it was very challenging and very frustrating. But my editor, sound designer, and everybody were such a great team, and I think they were just grateful to be busy during those first two/three months of lockdown.
CS: They were all like “Well, thank God we had something to keep our minds busy right now.”
AV: Yeah, I know a lot of people for whom that isn’t the case, so that’s pretty awesome!
CS: Yeah, correct.
AV: So, my final question for you: were there any, and if so what, experiences and skills that you learned from Paydirt that you might carry with you into your next film?
CS: I think a lot of it was validation of sticking to the voice that I wanted to have, which is making fun, entertaining, action/adventure/comedy-style movies, genre movies, with a team that I find the most success with. I think it was that validating process of “Hey, you’re doing it well, the way you do it when you do it with the team in your locations and within the parameters that you are given.”
AV: Cool, very cool. And actually I do have one bonus question for you before we finish because you mentioned that Paydirt is the end of the “Sesma-style” of filmmaking. What would be the next big project for you, in terms of style?
CS: I wouldn’t say it’s the end, but it’s kind of validating that brand of style. For me the next phase would always be towards pushing mainstream, tentpole features with a giant Marvel Comics/Star Wars vibe, playing in that kind of sandbox. My taste is there, and mainstream adventure is there. It’s really about budget stuff, hopping into new levels of cinematic storytelling with bigger sandboxes. But I think that sense of narrative storytelling is there.
AV: Awesome, that sounds exciting! I would love to see you one day on one of those big franchises.
CS: Me, too!