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Enter the Cousin: Filmmaker James Fanizza on Sebastian

Fan 01

By Tom Ue.

Actor, writer, and filmmaker James Fanizza graduated from York University before making his television debut in a commercial for NBC/Universal. His first feature, an adaptation of his first short film “Sebastian,” was released in 2017 and screened in InsideOut. His films have have screened in festivals internationally. Sebastian follows the romance of Alex (played by Fanizza) and his partner’s cousin Sebastian (Alex House) as the latter visits Toronto over a week.

In what follow, Fanizza and I discuss the creative process behind Sebastian.

Sebastian is your first feature film. How has this experience differed from your earlier work in short films?

I went into the project going, “Okay it took two days to shoot a 10 minute short. So, 80 minutes will take 16 days, no problem.” While we did shoot in 16 days, it was a marathon. It was also a lot harder to get a consistent crew to be there for 16 days in a row (with our non-existent budget), so I was doing a lot more jobs on set than I normally would have done on a short film. But, there’s also a lot bigger payoff with feature films and you can reach an audience that normally wouldn’t be interested in watching short films.

What are some of the differences that you see between acting and directing?

Acting is very micro-focused while directing is very macro-focused. As an actor, your only job is to play the moment and focus on your scene partner. While as a director, you’re looking at the whole picture – the set, the actors, the lighting, the pacing.

Fan 02What inspired Sebastian?

Sebastian was loosely inspired by my own experiences of traveling to Argentina and meeting someone. It was an amazing experience having a connection with someone you’ve just met and to navigate cultural and language differences.

It’s doubly refreshing to see a film that is made and set in Toronto. What were some of the assets and challenges of filming in the city?

I always get kind of irritated when films or television series are obviously shot in Toronto but never give it the recognition it deserves. I wanted to shoot in all my favorite places and really showcase the city, almost as an extra character. An asset to shooting here is that it’s already an established film town, so access to equipment and crew is relatively easy. The downside is that, because it’s already such an established film city, locations can be tricky to secure. Either they’ve already had film crews in their location and they had a bad experience, or they had a commercial shoot there and made a lot of money from it, so they aren’t as willing to let an indie crew in for a small amount.

To what extent is Toronto important to the film’s story?

Toronto is important to the film’s story because it helps make the relationship feel tangible. You’ll watch the film and go, “Oh yeah, I’d totally meet a date in Trinity Bellwoods before going to a bar.” By having one character an expert of the city, so to speak, and the other a stranger to it, it gives the story an immediacy that would be missing if both characters were native to it.

Tell us about the casting. Did you see yourself as Alex from the very beginning?

I did, actually. Alex is sort of the opposite to how I am in real life. I’m a very open and a chance taking kind of guy and Alex is very closed and kind of jaded. I thought, since I’ve experienced what it’s like trying to make something work with that kind of a person, I would be the best person to show the nuances of someone who desperately wants a relationship to work out but is too scared to make it happen for himself.

Having written, directed, and starred as Alex, what are some of the differences between you and the character?

Fan 03I guess I kind of answered that one above. Alex is kind of an asshole, but deep down is just really scared and traumatized. He is closed off and pushes people away before they can leave him and I like to lay all my cards out on the table.

As much as the film is about Alex’s relationship with his partner Nelson and his romance with Sebastian, it is also about Alex coming to terms with his very traumatic past. What led you structure the film in this way?

I wanted to give the story some conflict that just wasn’t a “will they or won’t they” storyline. If they were both well-balanced people, Alex would have broken up with Nelson (Guifre Bantjes-Rafols) a long time ago and he’d go with Sebastian to Argentina and that would be that. I wanted to give them a hurdle they had to go over that was more internal. What exactly is stopping them from just making it a go of it?

The film unfolded over a week, but it seems as if Alex’s relationship with Sebastian is stronger than his with Nelson. How important do you see time in the film?

I think time is kind of inconsequential. When you know, you know. The connection and spark between Alex and Sebastian are so intense, that it doesn’t matter how long they’ve known each other for. I think a lot of people can relate to how present you feel when you’re on vacation or traveling and you meet someone. You sort of throw all that “oh we just met” bullshit out the window and jump in, feet first, not caring about where something will go.

Are you optimistic for Alex and Sebastian?

Yes, I am. I also really believe that if something doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t take away from how special it was, in the moment. It may only be a week but it doesn’t mean that week didn’t mean something. Even if you never see each other again, that week was beautiful and, maybe, that’s all it has to be. But yeah, I’m optimistic.

What’s next for you?

Working on getting a distribution deal for Sebastian and maybe a sequel set in Argentina.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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