Section 8’s Christian Sesma on being influenced by the ’80s

Christian Sesma is an ’80s kid, which explains why he’s eager to mention AliensDie Hard, and Indiana Jones as influential movies in his career. Sesma wants to create mainstream entertainment, and his latest directed film, Section 8, falls in line with those interests. In Section 8, Ryan Kwanten plays Jake Atherton, an ex-special forces soldier struggling to adjust to life at home. When his wife and son are murdered, Jake is hellbent on revenge, and his violent actions put him in prison.

While incarcerated, Jake is recruited by Sam Ramsey (Dermot Mulroney), the leader of a mysterious agency called Section 8, which eliminates powerful people around the world. When he learns the true nature of Section 8, Jake must decide if the life of an assassin is one he wants to live. Dolph Lundgren co-stars along with Scott Adkins and Mickey Rourke.

In conversation with Digital Trends, Sesma discusses his love for the ’80s, praises Kwanten’s talent, and reveals how he shot an integral fight sequence in Section 8.

ryan kwanten and his family embrace in a scene from section 8.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: A lot of your films apply a mainstream style of filmmaking. Why does this style appeal to you as a filmmaker?

I’m an ’80s kid. I grew up with Spielberg, John McTiernan, Lucas, Cameron, all those kinds of guys. You’re talking to a guy who, as a kid, watched AliensDie Hard, Indiana Jones, and all that stuff. That kind of escapist popcorn film is really ingrained in who I am as a storyteller, and I really think there’s a lot of fun to be had there. That’s the kind of film I enjoy, and I think every filmmaker is influenced by what they were influenced by as a kid, really. Whatever enchants you as a child, I think, will come out in who you are as a filmmaker.

Looking at your filmography, you’ve written and directed most of your projects, but you didn’t write Section 8. What do you look for in a script when it’s not yours?

Christian Sesma: The blueprint of it has to make sense for me. As kind of granular as it sounds, see what I can get excited for from my own movie nerdiness. [Laughs] I’m just a movie nerd at heart so something has to go, “Oh, dude. I can make that. That’s going to be like a mini-Mission Impossible or something.” I have to kind of wrap my head around it that way, and then I take the script and flesh it out from there.

Chad Law is a fantastic writer. We’re good friends in real life. He brought me this project along with Brandon Burrows, the movie’s producer. They were like, “We really think we can make something cool here. We’re putting together a pretty cool package.” It was something that I felt I could do something with on the scope, but also really just at a human level with Ryan Kwanten and his family and all that stuff.

scott adkins points a gun in a scene from section 8.

I recently spoke to Ryan about another film, Glorious. Now, he’s the star of this action thriller. My biggest takeaway from talking to him was his commitment level to a project. That as soon as he buys in, he’s in, and he gives it his all. What stood out to you about Ryan during this process?

Exactly what you just said. Ryan is a dream lead to work with. He’s a phenomenal talent and human being. He gives it his all. I come from guerilla filmmaking. I’m self-taught so Ryan was super game to just get loose with a lot of things that other actors or people wouldn’t be so up for. I was able to shoot a lot of this in my backyard in the Coachella Valley and the Palm Springs area. A lot of this was like, “Hey. Let’s go grab these shots.”

A lot of this stuff was also improvised. There are a lot of unscripted elements that Ryan and I were really excited to explore so that was really fun. Because he’s all in, and because we kind of connected and we understood each other’s ideas for this movie, it really made it a true pleasure working with him, which is something that, for a director, makes all the difference in the world. When your lead is all in, that helps you tremendously.

With your directing style, how do you approach unscripted moments? Do you like to shoot what’s in the script first, and then give the actors a few takes to play around with ideas?

Yeah. I mean there’s that. We definitely use the script as our guideline and blueprint. Sometimes, there’s some room to play around the edges. Sometimes, there’s stuff that I feel we could add to the script, like flashbacks of the family, and his relationship with his wife and son. When you’re going through that, you start getting ideas of what could help make this better.

Section 8 has a lot of fight sequences. Take me through the process of directing a fight scene. Are you working in tandem with the stunt coordinators to choreograph every move?

Yeah. Let’s say the end sequence fight with Scott Adkins. That’s all previs out with the stunt coordinator and their team. They go through the choreography, and we’re able to work on it a couple of weeks before. Then Scott gets to set. We start working out the kinks, and then you start shooting it based on what’s called previs, which is basically like a visual storyboard. Then, you just start doing almost like a paint-by-numbers because we’ve already worked out the angles for the shots. Now, you’re doing it for real with the real cameras and lighting and crew and wardrobe. So it really is very pre-planned stuff.

What type of action sequence do you prefer? Are you a long car chase sequence guy, or a big gunfight? Maybe just good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat?

Hmm. Good question. I probably prefer spaceships or robots. [Laughs] Good ol’ space battles. A good ol’ lightsaber battle. I don’t think you can beat a swordfight or lightsaber battle.

In action movies, a common critique usually involves the story, character development, and dialogue. Maybe the film didn’t have enough dialogue or character development and focused too much on the action sequences or vice versa. Maybe the dialogue was great, but it lacked action. How do you find a healthy balance between the action and the quieter moments?

Again, I think that goes with experience. Early on, maybe I’d be so excited to shoot an action sequence that I would miss the dramatic beats or vice versa. I think now when I’m approaching an action movie, I’ll know that the action movie has plenty of action beats in it so I’ll double down on the dramatic beats. So I know in editorial, we’ll have enough to balance them both.

dolph lundgren firmly stares in a scene from section 8.

Did you have a favorite scene to shoot for this film?

To be honest, I really couldn’t wait to get the family stuff done. That was probably the most exciting stuff. I know if that didn’t work and if I didn’t grab you, then you’re just kind of checked out for just another gunfight. I felt like from the moment he gets home to his final cathartic moment in the nightclub where he catches up with the guy who killed his kid, that’s just one big sequence.

That’s a sequence that I really, really like personally because it’s emotional, suspenseful, [and] dramatic. There are some action beats there. I felt like if that wasn’t done the way I wanted it to be done, I don’t know if anybody would be along fully for the right after that. People might have checked out.

Section 8 is now in theaters and streaming on AMC+.

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