(I met up with filmmaker Sebastian Sommer to speak about his latest short film Live Forever. The movie stars rapper Cakes Da Killa and actress Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh Brolin) in the lead roles. It tells the story of a famous rapper who comes face to face with some troubling stalkers. Here is our conversation. – Stephen Winter)
Hammer to Nail: What comes first for you when starting a new film? The overall idea? The closing image? Or the actors you want to work with?
Sebastian Sommer: I would say that for my latest project Live Forever, the story definitely came first. I got a spark of an idea and then visuals started popping up into my head. Certain scenes became very present in my mind and started obsessively playing on loop throughout my day. Then I started thinking about who I would like to work with, who would fit the role, who’s work do I admire. With a lot of projects I find myself knowing the beginning scene of the movie and the last scene, so the bulk of my writing is about finding the perfect middle. How do we get our lead character from point A to point B? What exactly is the journey here? I also try to make each project as personal as I can, whether it’s the story or the overall theme, it always comes from some place within my heart. Live Forever came out of my need to make a movie where I combined the art world with the queer rap scene that is booming in New York City.
My goal was to take an icon with years of history and put it next to a future icon. I can’t help it. I love a good visual contrast! I initially described the look of the film as a neon colored painting hanging in an abandoned alleyway. I envisioned a bright and colored center with a dark and rusty background. So if you notice in the film, the lead actor Cakes Da Killa walks around in a multicolored industrial paradise. The paintings in the film were done by an artist named Peter Reginato, who’s work has been included in the Whitney Biennial.
He started his career making intricate sculptures through welding and now he spends the majority of his time painting giant and surreal works of art on canvas. I felt like his paintings and studio in SoHo would be the perfect environment for the film to take place in. I have known Peter for years now, and I always loved what he was doing. So with Live Forever the story and the location came first, and then the talent came on board. But it definitely varies upon the project. When I was making short films with Hari Nef (Transparent) for example, we were good friends and I was big fan of what she was doing, so I came up with projects specifically with Hari in mind. With my short films Family Tree and She Told Me She Was Dead the talent definitely came first. Personally, I don’t think there is a correct way to make a film, just better ways than others. And there are plenty of directors I admire who’s work ethic and techniques are completely opposite of my own. But the one thing that connects us all is the innate feeling to tell a story!
HtN: How did you get involved with Cakes Da Killa? Of all the so-called “gay rappers” he seems like the most adorable and fun.
SS: I think Cakes Da Killa is one of the greatest rappers out right now. So underrated! Have you been keeping up with him? He just went on tour with Peaches. Diplo just tweeted saying his album is killer. He released his latest single to much acclaim with Adult Swim. He went on Hot 97 and free styled better than most rappers who go on that show. He is killing it! I can speak endlessly about why Cakes Da Killa is my favorite. He is pure raw talent and he works insanely hard at his craft. I feel honored to have made a short film with Cakes. I had been a fan of his music for a while and he had been a fan of my short films…so it was a matter of time before we connected. I remember going to his apartment in Brooklyn when we first met to talk about the film. Cakes had expressed an interest in acting, and so we spoke in depth about the kind of characters he was interested in playing.
I really enjoy casting musicians, the way Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch have done. I hope to find my own Tom Waits one day. Maybe Cakes Da Killa is my Tom Waits. I honestly believe that musicians can make incredible actors, after all, they’re already very comfortable performing. It is a completely different kind of magic though, directing a musician is obviously very different from directing an actor. But a similar essence is there! I had previously worked with the rapper Kitty Pryde on a short film called Ego Death in 2014. And I’m currently speaking with Azealia Banks about doing a project together, so I guess you could say that I have an affinity for casting hip hop performers. I believe that the talent of a movie can be everything. If you don’t have the right players then there is no hope of winning the game. I have been incredibly lucky to have made films with some of the people that I have worked with, but it hasn’t been a picnic by any means! It’s a journey. The perfect actors for your film aren’t right around the corner. It can take time to find the right piece to the puzzle, but when you do and you are standing on set watching your story come to life, the feeling is unlike anything else.
HtN: Do you do a lot of takes? Some directors seem to think multiple takes are important, that things don’t really get going until take 5 or 6 or 7. Some directors go the opposite. What’s your method?
SS: It really depends on the project, but I’m a huge fan of improvisation so I’ll usually do a couple of takes per scene. We’ll film the scripted scene and then go off the rails and I’ll let the actors explore. It’s important to me that I create an environment where the talent feels comfortable expressing themselves as naturally as possible. I offer a lot of freedom on set. I’m not set in my ways, if someone has a good idea while we are shooting it may end up in the finished product. I worked on Onur Tukel’s feature Applesauce and seeing the way he worked opened my eyes. The cast was given the freedom to have fun and play around with the scenes, I really admired that quality in Onur.
I had seen many filmmakers act precious about the shot list, wanting things to go exactly as they were written on the page. That feels very limiting to me. Especially since the majority of movies nowadays are shot digitally. Unless you are running behind schedule, why wouldn’t you do another take? I have a lot of experience as an editor, and if there is one thing editors love, it’s coverage. The more coverage you have, the more options you have to edit the film. I was an assistant editor on the feature film Yosemite (starring James Franco) and that film had so much coverage! The scenes were captured from almost every angle you could think of and that translated well in post production. The worst feeling is when you are cutting together a movie and you get stuck on a certain scene, realizing that you don’t have any additional footage to cut from. You start sacrificing and cutting in areas that might make your film worse. Reshoots can be a pain, you need more money, you need to bring the actors back. I’ve noticed that independent films rarely take reshoots into account. So if there is one thing I learned, get your coverage! Even if you are happy with the shot, do one more for good luck.
HtN: In your work you like to blend elements of real life with fiction? Where does that instinct come from?
SS: When I was younger and finding myself as a filmmaker, experimenting with the kind of movies I wanted to make, I was really influenced and drawn to a particular group of lo-fi filmmakers. They were the ones who gave me the boost of motivation and made me feel like I could accomplish the daunting task of making a movie. I would watch films by the greats, I would watch Paul Thomas Anderson films and Spike Lee films, but to make a film on that level felt like a pipe dream. It was when I was first introduced to Joe Swanberg did I feel like, okay, I can really take a shot at this! He helped guide me in my filmmaking. I loved Andrew Bujalski, the Safdie brothers, Ry Russo Young, I was really into these filmmakers who were making movies on smaller budgets, tackling real subjects in a surreal way, and managing to play at festivals and get distribution.
Growing up in NYC definitely put me at an advantage, I was face to face with certain filmmakers and opportunities that shaped my way of directing. With the short films that I have made, I really enjoyed blending reality with fantasy and making weird films that are time capsules but also completely fictional. A lot of people didn’t get what I was doing at first but more and more people are starting to catch on. I have also enjoyed showcasing really talented up and comers, many of which have gone on to bigger projects. After making Family Tree with India Menuez, she ended up getting cast in Transparent and White Girl that same year. With the next project that I am currently writing and planning to direct, I am moving away from this kind of expression and am going to attempt to make something more narrative and linear. I yearn to make something a lot more cinematic and less on the experimental spectrum.
The “strange” elements will always be there in my films, one of the best things someone has said to me is “I feel like your work is weird without trying to be weird. Like your films are genuinely weird”. I don’t know if they meant it as a compliment but I took is as one. I’m not trying to be subtle anymore with the hope that my audience reads between the lines. I feel like I have something to say and I now know exactly how I’m going to say it. I’m no longer trying to capture a moment in time. Now I’m trying to tell a story.
HtN: How did the decision to release your film through BitTorrent come about?
SS: It would be foolish not to acknowledge an important and relevant aspect of film distribution. Torrenting has changed the entire landscape of the film community. I think it’s really cool that BitTorrent is using this to help artists and is creating a new way to share your work. I was in contact with Missy Laney, the Director of Creative Initiatives at BitTorrent. She was incredibly helpful, showing me on how to premiere the film and get it all organized with BitTorrent. I couldn’t have done it without her help. Cakes Da Killas debut album Hedonism has just been released and we were able to add a couple of his songs with the release. I loved the ability to curate with BitTorrent and was very thankful that they opened me up to their audience. I also spoke with Dan Schoenbrun, who had released his film Collective Unconscious through BitTorrent. Speaking to Dan about his experiences solidified my decision to release the film this way. As a young filmmaker who grew up in the age of the Internet, partnering with BitTorrent made so much sense for this project.
HtN: Would you ever consider doing a more erotic film?
SS: The most “erotic” thing I have done was a web-series for Nerve.com called Alt Lit about the sex lives of writers. I was poking fun of a literary movement that had started in Brooklyn and had writers like Tao Lin and Noah Cicero a part of it. I would describe it as like the Mumblecore of the literature world. Because the series was for Nerve, the agreement was that I had to keep it sexually engaging. There were only two other web-series that were done for Nerve before me, one by Joe Swanberg called Young American Bodies and one by Lena Dunham called Tight Shots. It was very early in my film career, I was still at NYU, so I was trying to make something that was in the same nature as those other web-series while still keeping it real to myself. I remember being really excited, working with Nerve felt like a right of passage.
Other filmmakers I admired had also worked with the publication and I was really stoked to be given a voice. I look back on that experience fondly, it was fun. The cast did a good job at playing these silly over the top characters who were obsessed with themselves. I learned how to get comfortable shooting on lower budgets. It was a good learning experience for sure. I would definitely make a more conventional erotic love story one day. Instead of writers block I feel like I have the opposite. Which can be just as bad! Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with all the different ideas I have for films that I don’t know where to start or what story to tell next. And that leaves me paralyzed for a little moment until I find my footing again. But I always find my footing again.
HtN: Would you say that you are a political filmmaker?
SS: I’m not a political filmmaker by default, that’s not really how I view myself, but looking back at my work I can see that its politically charged. I have made films that touch upon gender, sexuality, technology, race. I like to reflect and challenge the status quo. Someone like James O’Keefe, I would consider to be a political filmmaker. I met him recently and was surprised at how reserved he was in person. His films have a political agenda, and he is clearly trying to cause a shift within the political community. I make films about issues that are important to me but I am also trying to entertain my audience.
HtN: If you could spend a day with any great filmmaker, hang out, talk and show them your work – who would it be and why?
SS: I would love to spend a day with Kenneth Anger. You could say that he’s been a big influence on me so far as a filmmaker. It would be a dream to play a young Kenneth Anger in a movie about his life. He made a career off of making short films, and his short films were incredibly influential and iconic. He was a part of a counter culture, and was friends with an eclectic group of artists and performers and philosophers. Controversy followed him everywhere! He was taken to court multiple times because of his art. He paved the way for many artists and filmmakers and had a fascinating life traveling the world. I would love to ask him what it was like to hang out with Alfred Kinsey. Or how it felt to make one of the first openly gay art films that was both recognized and condemned by the public. Or why he felt the need to tattoo the word “Lucifer” across his chest. I feel like Kenneth Anger is a man of legend and as someone who has followed in his footsteps, I would love to experience his presence and hear his stories. I feel like the work he was making in the 60s and 70s was way ahead of its time. To be honest, I would be a bit nervous to meet Kenneth Anger though. What if I met him and rubbed him the wrong way and he put a hex on me? I don’t think I could risk the possibility of being cursed by Kenneth Anger. I’m already getting anxiety just thinking about it.