By Crystal Harrell

Filmmaker Christian Sesma is bringing Hollywood back to the Coachella Valley with his latest feature, Lights Out, a gritty action-based character drama featuring locations filmed here in the Valley. The film follows a homeless veteran, Michael “Duffy” Duffield (played by Frank Grillo), as he meets a talkative Ex-Con, Max Bomer (Mekhi Phifer) who notices Duffy’s skills after he gets into a bar fight and offers him a well-paying “job” competing in underground fight clubs. The pair form an unlikely partnership after their first fight and decide to travel to LA so Duffy can atone for his past and Max can pay back a crime boss, Sage Parker (Dermot Mulroney). Duffy enters Sage’s fight club and eventually wins, but it also gets him tied up in the crime world and offered jobs he can’t refuse, including one with Sage’s partner and Police officer, Ellen Ridgway (Jaime King). The deeper Duffy goes in this world, the more deadly it gets. Sesma talked with Coachella Valley Weekly about the filming process of Lights Out.

CV Weekly: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Christian. Can you tell us about how your newest film Lights Out came to be?

Christian: We had just wrapped a movie called Section Eight that we shot also probably like 80% in the Coachella Valley. That was with Ryan Kwanten and Dermot Mulroney, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke. We wrapped for the holidays right before Christmas, and there was an opportunity with scheduling with Frank and Mekhi and the same producer and the same writer from Section Eight. We’re like, ‘we have a cool little fight movie that has the opportunity to go right away back-to-back if you’re into it.’ So I read the script and I thought it was a really cool kind of throwback to Roadhouse and those kind of action 80s flicks. I said the challenge here would be to make it a grounded, contemporary kind of character-driven action piece within this standard 80s action fair. We went straight into pre-production after New Year’s. When I read the script, there were locations I knew I could get with relationships in the Coachella Valley. So Diaz Brothers Gym in Indio is featured, and the film was supported by the Tribe and Fantasy Springs Casino. I know we could use some of the underground parking spots. So we really wove these locations into the story and it really helped the scope and kind of grounded it. Even though it’s set in LA, we shot a lot of it in the Coachella Valley and mostly in all of the East Valley.


CV Weekly: You definitely do incorporate the Coachella Valley in some of your films. But when you get a script, is the process of choosing locations just reading the script and kind of thinking about what would fit best?

Christian: I think it all depends on if we’re shooting locally like if we’re shooting here in Southern California. I shot four other movies and none of them have even been in the state.

I shot in Thailand, I shot in Miami… So it’s been all over really. But these productions just so happen to be able to shoot locally, so when there’s an opportunity for me to be able to shoot in my backyard and bring productions back here in the Valley and keep that going, I will always push for that for sure.

CV Weekly: You have been so busy with your films, shooting one right after another. What keeps you motivated with your creative process?

Christian: Besides paying the mortgage, this is my career. This isn’t like a hobby, this is what I have to do constantly. I’ve been a professional filmmaker for a decade now and I’m constantly driven. There’s no breaks. We’re always trying to just stack as many films as we can in the repertoire, just keeping working. I understand how grateful and lucky I am to be able to make a living and have a career as a director and writer and producer. You find your passion and you enjoy it. Every day I wake up grateful and excited to try to get new movies off the ground all the time.

CV Weekly: Do you have a particular favorite memory or moment from the production process of shooting Lights Out?

Christian: Having the ability to shoot inside a casino is something that very few independent filmmakers have. So the fact that Fantasy Springs has been so supportive of the filmmaking process and of myself as a filmmaker—to be able to shoot inside the casinos, on the ground of the casinos, really making Fantasy Springs kind of base camp for shooting outside is one of my favorite memories because not only do basically all of our cast stay there, it is our base camp.

CV Weekly: And the film is being screened here in the Valley as well, right?

Christian: Yes, we’re doing a private local premiere Friday, February 16th at the Mary Pickford Theatre, which is like my second home. In tandem with an LA screening, I always make sure I hold a local screening as kind of my way to say thank you to the communities and to the people that were really involved and very supportive, so they can come and see their work at the end.

CV Weekly: You’ve had previous screenings at the Mary Pickford as well. Why is that particular theater special to you?

Christian: That’s my home theater. I’ve been here living in Cathedral City for the last decade, so that’s the theater I’m at every weekend. I’m good friends with the manager and the owner. I always say the Mary Pickford is like the people’s theater. It’s the theater that the community goes and watches great mainstream movies.

CV Weekly: When audiences see Lights Out, what do you hope that they get out of it?

Christian: I hope they enjoy a very 80s-feeling throwback action film, but as a contemporary character piece— of a loner drifter and Frank Grillo’s character who’s able to find family again.

CV Weekly: And were there any influences that you had harking back to that era of 80s action films?

Christian: I think that movies like Die Hard had that kind of thing where it’s an every man’s tale where you’re not dealing with superheroes. You’re not dealing with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, but just a grounded character-driven piece with some really great actors. We have an amazing ensemble for this independent film, and we’re glad they were able to come together and give a grounded performance for a cool fight flick.

CV Weekly: You mentioned Lights Out is a very character-driven piece. What was the casting process like for that?

Christian: Brandon Burrows, the producer that I had worked on Section Eight, was able to really cast a great ensemble with Frank and Mekhi and Jaime, and we had already worked with Scott Adkins and Dermot Mulroney and Justin Furstenfeld from the band Blue October. We were able to bring them over from Section Eight. There was definitely a lot of people that we worked with in the previous movie and then we did it all over again with a new main cast.

CV Weekly: Do you have any future projects lined up that you’d like to share?

Christian: I have three movies coming out this year. The next one is a movie I shot in Thailand called Into the Deep, and it’s Richard Dreyfuss’ return to the shark genre, which is a really cool action thriller that we shot last year. There’s another film in the fall which is a thriller called 72 Hours. And then we’re set for production for a slate of movies this year, from action to thrillers to rom-coms. So it’s going to be a busy year.

CV Weekly: Thank you so much, Christian, for taking the time to talk. Is there anything else that you’d like to mention?

Christian: Just a big thank you to the community for constantly supporting me as a filmmaker.

I try to shoot out here when I can, so it’s always great to be supportive out here and to bring that kind of level of talent, which is always fun. I’m at the place in my career right now that I could do that, and vice versa, I can get that support from the community and then they come out in droves, and they always have ever since the beginning. A big shout out to the Coachella Valley for sure because that’s my heart.

Lights Out will be released to theaters and released on digital and demand on February 16.