Watch: 'Sebastian' - How a Filmmaker Turned a Personal Story into a Powerful Short
A father's letter to his son prompts an emotional tale of honesty and reflection.
You may be familiar with filmmaker Sam Fragoso's byline. Having contributed film criticism (and other journalistic endeavors) to publications such as Vanity Fair, NPR, and The Atlantic, Fragoso has had a true knack for formulating an opinion on why a movie does or doesn't work.
Currently the host of the Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso podcast, where the gentleman has had long-form conversations with a list of guests ranging from Alan Alda to Judy Greer, Rob Reiner, Lois Smith, Kamasi Washington, and the host's own father, Fragoso has expanded his knowledge and worldview by speaking with and learning from the greats. Sebastian, Fragoso's first short, dives deeper into his family history, and by doing so, may provide a remedy to the U.S. election-season blues.
As the film premieres online this morning, No Film School spoke with Fragoso about making his first short, his visual influences, and the personal references evoked by this story. Check it out below.
No Film School: I wanted to ask about your background in film criticism and journalism (you also host the popular Talk Easy podcast). What lead you down that path and how did that transition into film production?
Sam Fragoso: I started writing about movies at 16 because high school was, initially, a terribly isolating place. I think it is for a lot people. Fictional characters were just easier to be around than classmates. There’s a longer, winding answer about film criticism—and my time spent in that field—but I can’t imagine making movies without first obsessing over them like I did in school.
NFS: What made this story the most ideal in which to craft your first film?
Fragoso: There was a lot to draw from, being that Sebastian is very much about my grandfather. My father and I read through old letters that our family has kept. Then I kind of interrogated my Dad, asking him what remembered about the conversations with his father. My grandfather was laconic though—the kind of person who shared the same details about big, significant events, no matter what you asked him. (I don’t think this is unusual about Mexicans, at least the ones in my family.) For both my father and I, this movie was a way to spend time with him and his story.
NFS: How did you go about forming a crew to work with?
Fragoso: The crew was tiny and full of friends, many of whom were generous with their time. I had worked with Chad Saechao, our DP, on another short (in post now) called Leftovers. Our very kind producers, David and Linda Keaton, rallied behind my grandfather’s immigrant story, especially in 2018. I think we all did.
NFS: What inspired you to frame the narrative in the form of a letter?
Fragoso: In my closet is my grandfather’s typewriter, which we use in the film. It creates a vivid picture all by itself. I could imagine him writing home to his family, smoking a cigarette. There’s a little cigarette burn on the typewriter in fact. The framing came from real life but there were also two major influences: Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven and James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew”. I realize citing these two very different masterpieces is going to sound at least vaguely pretentious, but they were near and dear to my heart in the film’s conception.
NFS: The film is constantly moving, and I mean that literally. Your camera (especially the Steadicam) is always in motion. What kind of visual strategy did you and your DP come up with to emphasize the brief amount of running time you had to work with?
Fragoso: To establish where we are, I knew we wanted to open the film without too much motion. Then as the story moves forward we have the camera move with it. The goal was to give the story, and Sebastian’s larger journey, a sense of progression. We used the Steadicam some but we were mostly on the dana, oscillating back and forth.
NFS: Did this also affect the editing process? How conscious were you of crafting a short that could only run the length of a brief letter?
Fragoso: Our editor, Illisa Greenberg, was paramount in shaping the film. She had good ideas about trimming and transitions. There’s a longer version of the letter and film that exists. I think it’s 4ish minutes? And of course, there’s so much footage we left on the cutting room floor. Since we’re shooting without dialogue, we approached each shot as kind of still image. An "every frame’s a painting" approach.
NFS: The film looks beautiful and that's thanks to both the cinematography and the locations you chose. What influenced your choice of shooting locations and your use of magic hour?
Fragoso: The color palette, which was brought to life by our wonderful colorist Marika Litz, is very indebted to Badlands, Alambrista!, and Chloe Zhao’s The Rider. That’s where most of our reference images came from. Chad has such a good sense of light that we really honed in on the hours in the day that made sense. The sequences in the field were made possible because of The Felger family, mainly my friend Colin. They were generous enough to let us shoot on their almond farm.
NFS: What kind of a camera did you use and why?
Fragoso: We used a RED Dragon. Truthfully, it’s what we had available to us. Chad is comfortable using that model and bending it to what we need. All along we knew the image was also going to be significantly modified in post. Marika did an excellent job taking what Chad shot and turning it into something that resembles film.
NFS: What was the biggest takeaway you took away from the experience of completing your first short?
Fragoso: That I need to get back to work and make more. Also, you know, it takes a village.