AFI Dallas Report: Interview with Midlothia Director Bill Sebastian

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

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(Apologies for the lack of direct quotes due to technical difficulties -- mine, not his.)

One of the things that impressed me about Midlothia was the performance by Bill Sebastian -- and that was before I realized he'd written and directed the film.

When we sat down for an interview on Saturday afternoon at the Target Filmmakers Lounge at Victory Park, near the festival headquarters, Sebastian explained that it wasn't his original intention to appear in the role. Things didn't work out with the actor who'd been cast, and in view of the tight schedule and Sebastian's intimate knowledge of the role, the producer persuaded him that he was the right choice. That intimate knowledge of the role was the result of hard work and dedication.

"We had three weeks of rehearsal," Sebastian said. "I gave the actors homework every night, which they probably hated me for. But I told them I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wasn't willing to do. One night I told them to come up with 100 adjectives about their character. I went home to do the same thing for each of the characters. After I got to 40, I hit the wall! It was really hard, but I did it because I'd made a promise to the actors. And that allowed everyone to be more instinctual."

For his own performance, Sebastian put a lot of trust in key members of his crew to let him know if any false notes were struck. And things were scheduled so that Sebastian didn't begin acting until the fourth day of the 14-day shoot, which allowed the production to get into a good rhythm.

The detailed rehearsals with the actors were mirrored by the detailed work on the main set, a double-wide mobile home. Though it looks like the filmmakers simply picked a run-down trailer to inhabit, Sebastian credits production designer Tom Walker for making it look that way, right down to the cobwebs and dust added in just the right measure. All that painstaking work allowed Sebastian and director of photography Cliff Richhart (a talented independent film director in his own right) to shoot 360 degrees of their location, adding to the authenticity.

The "light bulb" moment in Sebastian's life came when he saw Die Hard.

"That's when I knew I wanted to be in the movies...somehow," he remembers. As a young man, he had only a vague idea how movies were made. "I thought they just kind of picked people to be in them. I didn't see how you could get to be picked."

He learned quickly, though. Enrolling at Southern Methodist University in Dallas as an engineering student, his curiosity was piqued when he saw a poster advertising for submissions for a student film festival -- not realizing it was for films that had already been made. With the deadline just three weeks away, he got together with friends and, using a VHS camera, made a 40-minute feature about ninjas.

While acknowledging the limitations of his first cinematic foray, he still recalls how much fun it was to make a movie. Putting aside his previous goals of engineering and professional soccer -- which an injury cut short -- he began making short films at every available opportunity.

He landed an internship at a commercial production house, which offered limited opportunities for creative expression. Encouraged by a left-handed compliment by his boss, he began teaching himself how to edit film, which eventually led to work as a freelance commercial editor. That, too, had limitations, and he became hungry to take on a larger project of his own.

Sebastian had read and been impressed by Steven Walter's play, and talked with him about adapting it for the screen. What further sparked him, though, was an intensive acting workshop he took, in which he says the students were forced to be creative for 18 hours a day.

Fired up by that workshop, he returned home and burned out the script for Midlothia in just one week.

Sebastian counts among his inspirations films such as Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan -- "an unheralded masterpiece" -- and Todd Field's In the Bedroom, and recently was incredibly impressed by Alfonso Curaon's Children of Men.

Personally, Sebastian loves the combination of skills and talents involved in filmmaking, and notes that his enjoyment of solving problems that arise on the set and dealing with budget issues may be the residue of his earlier years as an engineering student.

An engineer who was irresistibly drawn to make movies, Sebastian can't wait to make more.

"I value the story, but I also enjoy the minute to minute creative decisions that have to be made on the set, that energy. You have to make the best possible film from what you have."

MIDLOTHIA
Official Web Site

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