Interview With James Fanizza, Actor/Director/Producer/ Writer Of SEBASTIAN
We were able to talk with James Fanizza; writer, director, producer and star of the film Sebastian, now available to rent and buy digitally and on DVD.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with James Fanizza about his debut film, Sebastian. He wore many hats for his film film, serving as the writer, director, and producer – and he also took time out of his busy schedule to star as one of the co-leads in a film about romance, acceptance, and loving openly. It tells the story of Alex (Fanizza) as he gets caught up in a week long love affair with Sebastian (Alex House), an Argentinian medical student only visiting for the week. What begins as a fling soon turns into something deeper and more meaningful than either had anticipated. Needless to say, Fanizza’s film is an astonishing feat in intimacy.
We discussed his inspiration behind the film, the casting of RuPaul’s Drag Race star Katya (Brian McCook), and some of his favorite films of 2017!
What was your inspiration behind the story?
James James Fanizza: The inspiration behind the story is a mix between a personal experience of mine, and then basically just also the song that is featured in it, that we talk about in the movie, “The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell – I kind of used as a springboard for my own ideas.
Alright, so that was going to be a follow-up question. A lot of the story is based off your own experiences? It’s sort of semi-autobiographical?
James Fanizza: I would say semi-autobiographical. I did have a romance in Argentina when I was younger – in my early 20’s.
James Fanizza: Yeah, and unfortunately it didn’t work out, so I created this movie as kind of like a “What if?” sort of statement. You know, what if things had gone differently. While at the same time, making it more cinematic and dramatic than it really was.
Sure, so that whole scene where your character is talking extensively about all the travels he’s done… is that true to your life?
James Fanizza: Yeah, that is basically true to my life. I have traveled a lot around the world.
I was taking notes while I was watching the movie, and this one I underlined, and then I wrote in caps, “JONI MITCHELL.” Because she’s my favorite artist, so I jumped when you said it. Are you a Joni Mitchell fan?
James Fanizza: I’m a huge fan, and I actually got a chance to see her perform maybe like five years ago. She did a two night only thing at Matthew Hall in Toronto. So I was lucky enough to grab a ticket for that, which was awesome.
I am unbelievably jealous.
James Fanizza: [Laughs]
And that takes me into another question. You have a bunch of pop culture references – you talk about Forrest Gump and Bridges of Madison County. Is that how your mind works – is it instantly associating things to pop culture?
James Fanizza: Yeah, I think that’s kind of how my mind works. I try to keep the dialogue as true to my own experiences and my own life as possible. You know, when I’m talking to people, you definitely relate to a movie you saw or a song, you know? So I wanted to keep that as real as possible.
Now, it (the film) takes place all in one week. Did you ever worry that the characters were moving too fast, or did you feel that they were just caught up in this romance?
James Fanizza: Yeah, I think that they… when you know, you know. And I think that having a week together really heightens your sense of that, and so you either rise to the occasion or you don’t. And I think that a lot of people, in their experience when they go on vacation – they kind of have a fling or whatever. So everything gets kind of tangled in, “Oh, well, I’m only here for a week, so I want to see this person every day.” Whereas, if it’s someone you just meet and there isn’t that time pressure constraint, you may be more apt to… “Oh well, we’ll see what happens.” Kind of take it slow. So I wanted to address that. It’s something that I’ve experienced, and I know a lot of people I’ve spoken to have experienced. And I also think it adds to the conflict, because it does move fast, and I think objectively for a person like Alex, it is moving very fast for him, and it’s something that he’s not used to or ever done before, so it does add a layer of complication to things.
Sure, and because the film is based off your own experiences, how did you go about writing Sebastian’s character? How did you envision his perspective?
James Fanizza: I think that Sebastian the character is the more romantic one, he’s quick to make a decision, and he doesn’t question himself – he’s more attuned to his own feelings and he goes with that. And then Alex is the opposite. He’s more in his head and has to think things out clearly, so I wanted them to be polar opposites. And I wanted to show that, even people that are polar opposites can actually – it can work and maybe it can work a little better. Two kind of hot-headed, people that are fiery-hearted people, it may not fizzle out quick. You can have one that complements the other – it could be a recipe for a life-long relationship.
One of the characters that I really loved was Sebastian’s aunt. How did you approach writing her character? Because it’s a minor role, but a significant one.
James Fanizza: Yeah, I think Sebastian needed an ally in his corner, who wasn’t Alex. So I wanted to be “Where will he stay?” And he’ll stay with his aunt, and then I made up this aunt character, that’s kind of fun, funky, and she’s spunky, but then she really pushes him and also believes in true love – someone who may also be an outcast in the family, just like he is. And so that’s how I created it. And Amanda Martinez, the actress, she was just phenomenal.
James Fanizza: She did a really great job, yeah.
What really struck me about this story is that, oftentimes we see films like this where there’s going to be that level of rejection from family members, and we get that. But the characters that we do see are the ones who are accepting. Was that intentional?
James Fanizza: Yeah, I think so. I think that it was intentional that there’s always someone in your family who is on your side. I come from a background where – I can understand how Sebastian would feel and understand having old school parents, and how difficult a position that makes. And then also having allies in the family, like a cool cousin or, in Sebastian’s case, a cool aunt, who’s also kind of ostracized herself and moved to Canada. So, yeah, I wanted to make a family connection like that.
Speaking of supporting characters, I do want to talk about Katya (Brian McCook). How did you get him on your project?
James Fanizza: That was a Hail Mary pass play. I just found out who his agent was. I called them, begged to do a five-minute pitch the project, and then I sent the agent the script. He read it, he liked it, and then he promised to forward it on to Katya – who eventually read it and he liked it. And then before I knew it, I was booking him a flight in for the shoot, which was amazing.
Are you a fan?
Fanizza: Yeah, a big fan. I’ve always liked him and it was just actually a coincidence. I booked him before the (RuPaul’s Drag Race) All Stars 2 cast was announced. I just liked him from his season, and I thought, “You know what? Let’s try that.” And then after I had cast everything, all of a sudden, the All Stars 2 cast list came out, and I thought, “Whoa, that was very opportunistic.” Felt like it was meant to be.
I hate to be this person, but I have to ask: Who are some of your other favorite queens?
James Fanizza: I really like Bob the Drag Queen. She was always a fan favorite of mine. Alyssa Edwards will always have the number one place in my heart, just because she is so funny and kooky. She’s my number one, I think – well, tied with Katya.
Alyssa is also my favorite!
James Fanizza: [Laughs]
What was it like working with Katya?
James Fanizza: Honestly, it was so great. I was a little nervous, because I had never met him before. So I wasn’t sure what to expect, if he would be a diva – but he was so gracious, he was so awesome, he would talk to anybody and everybody onset. If we were shooting on the street, and someone would stop and say, “Hey, you’re Katya!” he’d say, “Yes, I am!” And he’d talk to them for a few minutes, sign something if they had it. And then he’d come back to the project. Super professional. It was just an amazing experience to work with him.
I wouldn’t say Sebastian is the “main character” of this story. I would say your character is, so why would you settle on the title being Sebastian?
James Fanizza: I think because it’s kind of a love story. It’s kind of a love letter to him. And it’s Sebastian’s journey also. But it’s more so Alex’s journey to accepting himself and accepting love in his life and taking a chance. You know, taking a chance on himself as an artist and taking a chance on love to try and make it work, even if there is no possible way it can work. So it’s kind of like his ode to Sebastian, his love letter to him.
I’m not asking you to spoil the ending. The last scene is incredibly sad, and then it’s uplifting, and then it just ends. Was that intentional?
James Fanizza: Yeah, and I think – my intent was that the audience members project their own… you know, how they feel onto the end of the film. Like if you were more of a romantic type, you’d project, “Oh yeah, he totally caught him” and if you’re more of a pessimist type, you’d think, “No, he didn’t make it.” So I wanted the audience to bring their own ending to it.
Do you have your interpretation of it?
James Fanizza: Yeah, and I don’t want to give it away, but…
I wasn’t even going to ask! I want to let the ambiguity sit.
James Fanizza: [Laughs]
Your film was distributed through Wolfe Releasing. How did you get in contact with them to be your distributor?
James Fanizza: Like the rest of the movie, I just tried. I liked their work, I know they released the Bianca Del Rio movie earlier, and I know they like this kind of work. They have great sway with people… so I thought “Let’s try there.” So I just found their contact information, I kept in touch. Jim is the owner and asked how the process was going, so I kept him abreast about what was happening. You know, once I had a rough cut to send to him, and he said “I’d be happy to take a look at your final cut.” So I just tried it, and it eventually – you know, once I had a final cut, Wolfe got back to me and was like, “Yeah, we love it. Let’s move forward.”
What’s coming next for you? What’s coming down the pipeline?
James Fanizza: I’ve got a few projects that I’m working on – another feature I’m sort of starting to write. I can’t give too many details. I’m also an actor for hire, so I’ve been auditioning for things as well. Just getting my name out there. And the idea behind producing this film by myself is hopefully my next one will be paid for by a producer, as opposed to paid for entirely out of my own pocket.
Right, because you wore a lot of hats on this project. Was that nice? There was a lot of freedom there, I’m sure.
James Fanizza: Yeah, it was really nice, because I could basically – you know, it was my movie and I could do whatever I want with it. So there wasn’t a lot of conflicting opinions. The other end of that, it’s my movie, so the success or… not the success of it lies entirely on me.
James Fanizza: And it was a tough shooting schedule, just with all those hats. Plus, leading up to it, and… I would love, in the future, to wear not so many hats. But the directing and the acting part, I really loved. The producing was quite the challenge.
And especially for your first time, right?
James Fanizza: Yeah, exactly, you know… like a lot of pieces of the puzzle – finding crew, getting crew, locations. All that kind of stuff was for me to do. Yeah, but it was a great experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. You know, just this time with financial help.
Sure. I have one final, brief question. What were some of your favorite movies of 2017?
James Fanizza: I just watched Lady Bird, and I loved it. I honestly love Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) so much, so I’m so happy that she’s getting some recognition there. So that was a big one that I saw. I did see A Fantastic Woman, which is just unbelievable, I’m so happy they got an Academy Award nomination.
James Fanizza: It’s an incredible movie, the actress (Daniela Vega) just did an unbelievable job and it’s no small feat that they could get a movie with a trans actress not only funded and made. But then, you know, seen by the Academy and recognized. It’s just incredible.
Well, James, I love Sebastian. And I really look forward to what you have coming next. I look forward to seeing your name more.
Fanizza: Awesome, thank you. I’m very happy to talk to you.
Film Inquiry would like to thank James Fanizza for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. Sebastian is currently available to rent and buy digitally and on DVD.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.