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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gullickson

"Particles, Particles, Particles!" Christian Sesma Talks 'Lights Out' and Full Frames

We chat with the director about stuffing a frame with as much information as an audience can handle.

Christian Sesma Lights Out Interview

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with director Christian Sesma about Lights Out.


You work with what you've got. And often, with an independent movie, what you've got is not much. The money is limited; the time is even less so. So, you rely on your cast, crew, and imagination to put something extraordinary into the world. Director Christian Sesma has cranked out a lot of movies, and he's learned a trick or two about getting an explosive image on the screen.

His latest endeavor, Lights Out, is an example of textbook guerilla filmmaking. He's working with his usual suspects and a few new soldiers. It's a gnarly brawler inspired by the action greats he grew up devouring as a movie fanatic. The influences are apparent, but what Sesma does with them attracts a modern glee.

Frank Grillo is a vet wandering through existence until Mekhi Phifer's ex-con recruits him into an underground fighting ring. The bloody bouts are a brief distraction from life's little miseries until the greedier wolves above (primarily Dermot Mulroney and Jaime King) desire to feed their bellies with Grillo's skill. And then there's Scott Adkins. Many ass-kickings are abound.

Toward the film's release, we spoke with Christian Sesma about his action movie influences, when to lean into them, and when to pull away. We discuss why Die Hard still slays so many years later and how he learned early in his career that filling the frame with as much information as possible will frequently distract from an indie film's financial limitations.


Christian Sesma Assembles his Lights Out Crew

Brad: You are collaborating with a lot of the same people you've collaborated with before, both in front of and behind the camera. Can you talk about the advantages of that and maybe even if there might be some disadvantages, too?

Christian Sesma: I don't think there are any real disadvantages. You're with your family now. You have your cousins and sometimes you get in spats with your cousins and you're like, "Whatever, we're family, just keep going." But the advantages are massive. I come from the guerilla filmmaking school of stuff. I didn't have the opportunity to go to film school. I'm self-taught all the way, from the bottom to the top. And I think that I was able to really appreciate the collaboration of like-minded people. And when you find a team that you really work well with, you really find a way that you kind of minimize how many obstacles and how muc drama and the unknowns of movie making. I always say movie making, especially as a director, is managing chaos.

So, I think that's definitely a part of it. When you're able to work with a team that you are comfortable with, you know you're able to mitigate that and are able to have a better chance of capturing those kind of lightning-in-a-bottle moments more often than not, as opposed to coming in cold with a new team. Now, in recent years, I've really had the opportunity to expand in different areas and work with new teams, and I think it's been really, really great. It's been good all the way through, for sure.

Brad: How do you know when someone clicks? You're like, okay, that person needs to be part of my recurring team.

Christian Sesma: Well, being a massive movie nerd, I think we speak the same language. If I'm throwing out movie quotes and references and they hit it right back, we're like, "Okay, we're bros and/or we're gals, we're vibing, we're hard vibing." So, once there's a vibe and that chemistry, it's like, "Okay, we are of the same ilk." That helps a lot.

Brad: Of course. I want to talk about those films that help you connect to collaborators. I've read other interviews with you where you've discussed films like Die Hard and Aliens. You're a big 80s junkie like myself, and that's obviously apparent when you're watching Lights Out.

Christian Sesma: Look, I think that passion comes just as part of my upbringing. It's in the DNA of the time. I'm X amount of years old if you want to start doing math, but I grew up in the 80s, let's just say that. It was different if you were growing up in the 70s or 90s, whatever. So 70s, I think you were part of that Coppola/Scorsese early kind of era. I grew up with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and John McTiernan and James Cameron, all these guys coming out of this kind of rugged film. I always said "Island of Misfit Directors," where they did it on their own. They had their own little teams as well. Everybody was buddies, everybody was very collaborative.

In my blood, it's always been the mainstream storytelling. I think that's just what I've always grew up with, what I've always enjoyed, what I've always loved. I've always loved the escapism of films and the transport of films. Not just we're making social and political and different themes and ideas and statements, but I always think the power of escapism and voyeurism and that kind of mainstream vibe is just going and having a good time, was powerful for me. Every time I approach a movie, it's always that, and I'm always trying to make it feel -- even though we have the budget of one day for any of these movies -- I always try to make it feel that it feels like a bigger picture than the budget really was.

Brad: And you look at movies like Section 8 and Lights Out, I mean, they are very character-driven. I think that's where I see the influences of people like Spielberg and McTiernan versus... I love a good kill, crazy rampage action film. I grew up on Schwarzenegger, but there is something different from Commando than Die Hard.

Christian Sesma: Totally different, totally different.

Brad: It seems like you're chasing that.

Christian Sesma: I'm glad that you recognize that. I'm happy that you recognize that because it's something that I really try to push for as much as possible. Die Hard, McTiernan. It's like these movies, they're like genre movies, you know? You have a muscle guy fighting an alien, but it was 100% taken seriously. The filmmaking was serious. I'm sure you had some quippy one-liners this and that and the other, but everybody was in there going, we're making a serious movie. And even though the subject matter might've been kitschy or very 50s-serial aliens invade the world, it was taken very seriously.

That's why it stands the test of time. Maybe when it comes to the material, it feels very "tropey" sometimes. Of course, I feel every action movie is "tropey" now. I mean, everybody's done it a thousand times over. So it's my job to try to make it my own. I'm like, "How do I put my own voice on it? How do I put my own spin on it as much as possible? As much as we can in this limited timeframe, limited budget, limited everything." But I do really try to delve into the character. So at least we're watching a character-driven story as opposed to -- all we're really doing is waiting for the next action beat.

Christian Sesma, Lights Out, and Die Hard

Brad: So, I would actually like to take a sidetrack into Die Hard, I don't know how long it's been since you've watched that film -

Christian Sesma: I watch the classics, man, at least once a year.

Brad: Okay. Okay, excellent. I just watched Die Hard again. The action is great, but it's the moments away from the gunfire -

Christian Sesma: One of the best McClane things, he's taking glass out of his foot. That part always stands out, and it's a character-driven part. You understand you are relating to this character. Yeah, I've always felt that way, for sure.

Brad: And you look at even Powell, the guy on the other end of that phone during the glass-picking scene, when we meet him, and he's buying all those Twinkies for his pregnant wife. Now when I see a Twinkie, I think of Al Powell.

Christian Sesma: Right, right.

Brad: Lights Out has space for scenes like that. How do you approach those moments versus the violence?

Christian Sesma: When we talked, me and Frank [Grillo] and Mekhi [Phifer], everybody was really on board with trying to ground this, you know? When I got the script, I thought it was cool, it was fun, and I'd never done a fight movie before. I think that I took on the challenge because I really felt like, how can I make a contemporary LA Street version of Lionheart or whatever -

Brad: I was waiting for you to say that movie. Okay, great.

Christian Sesma: Of course. Yeah. I'm like, this is Lionheart now. I feel like if it's on the page, it's my job to kind of mine it out and go, "Okay, really, what this is about is connection." It's about a drifter with no family, no nothing and he finds a connection in the most unlikely of places through Mekhi's character. They're amazing together in this movie. They're really good. And I think that grounds this.

Brad: What were your conversations with Frank and Mekhi? What are you talking about on set in those moments?

Christian Sesma: Well, I mean, we talked about how to approach the fights, how to approach the characters. Look, Mekhi brought up Eight Mile quite a bit. We talked about Warrior quite a bit, we talked about Fight Club a lot, we talked about Snatch, obviously these big, big budget studio movies. But they did it right in their own way, and it was because it was a character-driven story. I didn't want to do a very slick John Wick-style choreography because it just didn't feel that way. It felt like this was just a brawler.

If you go on YouTube and you look up backyard brawls, there's a ton of these fights, man. Guys banging it out in their backyard in Ohio, San Fran, wherever, you know? Wherever USA, they got this kind of stuff going on for reals, like right now. Those guys aren't trained, they're not UFC slick. They're just brawlers that can fight, and there are levels to that.

Christian Sesma Jams Every Frame of Lights Out

Brad: Lights Out provides a variety of action as well. You open up with a pretty incredible war sequence shot impressively at a low budget. What's the trick to selling a sequence like that?

Christian Sesma: I think there's a lot of one-and-done-ness. I push the pace of the shooting schedule pretty fast. I mean, I'm not a sit-around. I'm not at the monitors either much. I have my handheld, my wireless handheld, and I'm right there with everything going on. Where you saw Scott [Adkins] coming in, I'm usually ten feet behind the camera. Or if the camera's here, I'm a few feet behind the camera following it. I can really feel what's going on.

I always say particles, particles, particles! Make sure there's smoke, make sure there's fire, make sure there's things drifting. I think those are the things that a lot of indie filmmakers or first-time filmmakers haven't gotten to the point yet where they understand how to layer a scene. You're really just painting a picture. It's like, "All right, cool. If you painted a picture and you didn't put certain shading on it, whatever, it looks boring." So same thing when it comes to movie making. You're like, "How do I keep painting this picture more complex?"

Brad: To me, what I look for is a full frame. That's the biggest tell on a low-budget movie. Beware a lot of empty space in that frame. You fill that frame.

Christian Sesma: Yeah, and that's the idea.

Brad: You've been doing this for a long time. Are you still learning things on Lights Out? Or do you have it down by now?

Christian Sesma: No. Look, I have my process down -- how I kind of go about directing. On Lights Out, I learned a lot about how to use different stunt actors and stunt performers to their maximum. You might think that there is a very clean storyline, but there really is not. Every single movie is an exponential learning process, either for the storytelling or behind the camera when it comes to the production of how to deal with producers, distributors, and all the stuff that you guys don't ever have a clue about what's going on. It takes a lot to get an image on the screen. There are massive amounts of things and obstacles and drama and this, that, and the other going on behind it just to get there. And you're always learning.


Lights Out is now playing in theaters, on digital, and on demand.


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