‘Lights Out’ Interview with Director Christian Sesma

Who says you can’t direct bone-crunching fight scenes AND like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Not Christian Sesma! I hopped on Zoom with the director of the pulse-pounding new action movie Lights Out, starring Mekhi PhiferJaime KingFrank GrilloScott Adkins, and Dermot Mulroney.

Frank Grillo channels his signature intensity in Lights Out as Michael “Duffy” Duffield. It’s the kind of haunted, hard-edged role Grillo does best. He’s an ex-soldier, now drifter (think samurai walking off into the sunset), turned underground bare-knuckle brawler because of necessity and new friends Max (Mekhi Phifer) and Rachel (Erika Peeples). It’s raw, adrenaline-filled, and a ton of fun. And Jaime King is the villain; what more could you want?

Over Zoom, I got to deep-dive with Sesma about his experience shooting Lights Out back to back with the action-packed Section 8. We talked about what drew him to this character-driven fight film and how the indie spirit of Lights Out delivers a grittier, more intimate style of action compared to the hyper-stylized (and amazing!) sequences of something like the John Wick franchise.

Lights Out - Mekhi Phifer and Frank Grillo. Image courtesy of Quiver.
Lights Out Mekhi Phifer and Frank Grillo. Image courtesy of Quiver.

The Interview with Lights Out director Christian Sesma

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Ayla Ruby: Okay, perfect. Thank you so much. So hi, it’s nice to meet you.

Christian Sesma: Hi.

Ayla Ruby: So I just finished watching the movie. Can you talk about how you kind of got onto this project? So you’re the film’s director?

Christian Sesma: How I got onto… So I just finished wrapping Section 8 here with my buddy Chad Law, the writer and producer Brandon Burrows. Literally, we wrapped, like, right before Christmas 2022, or whatever it was. And literally it was an opening with Frank’s schedule, Mekhi’s schedule, and they’re like, “Dude, I think we’re going to go back-to-back. Do you want to do this movie?”

Christian Sesma: “Do you want to do it? We start, like, in a month.” It was something super… It never happens like that, to go back-to-back to like that with movies. So I read the script, and it was a total throwback ’80s Road House, light-heart kind of thing. And I was like, well, this is cool. I had never done a fight movie before, and I really wasn’t interested in just a straight fight movie before. But I thought the challenge would be here, how do I make a really cool, contemporary, character-driven fight movie?

Christian Sesma: So here we are. I was like, let’s do it. And obviously we put together, and Brandon Burrows, the producer, put together an amazing ensemble of talent, and I think we were all on the same page with how we wanted to approach this, and it was definitely in line with the vision that I had for it, of trying to make a really grounded fight movie. So yeah, we were able to do that.

On directing Lights Out back to back with Section 8

Ayla Ruby: Okay. I have a couple of questions, actually, based on what you just said. So you were going back-to-back, a month of pre-production. How does that work? Because this has a lot of fights. This has a lot of military action, gun action. How do you prepare for that in a month?

Christian Sesma: We just, we really kind of hit the ground running hard. But luckily what we did was we still had the same crew from Section 8. Everybody was really warm, and everybody was just going. So I think the moment we knew this was going to go, all the departments stepped up, and the fight choreographer started going. It really was like a fast and furious… I mean, it was crazy. It was so fast.

Christian Sesma: And we were like, next thing you know, we’re scouting. We’re doing this. The planning and execution of it was very… I didn’t sleep a lot on the shoot. Put it that way. It was a lot. It was fast, but I like it that way. So we were very fortunate that everybody was game, and really stepped up, and really prepped fast for this.

Lights Out - Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo and Mekhi Phifer. Image courtesy of Quiver.
Lights Out – Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo and Mekhi Phifer. Image courtesy of Quiver.

On how Sesma’s approach to directing has evolved from Shoot the Hero to Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: You’ve done a lot of action movies at this point. Can you talk about how your approach to directing it has evolved from, like, Shoot the Hero to this? Because there’s been a lot of stuff in between.

Christian Sesma: Funny enough… I go, “Funny enough…” Shoot the Hero was my very first real movie, and it was an action comedy. And it was funny, because at the time, Shoot the Hero was… It was me. It was kind of my style, and that’s kind of how I got branded as the action guy, because when I started the business, I was not that. It was more just genre, storyteller, thrillers. This, that and the other. I was just kind of doing what I liked, and Shoot the Hero was something that was very on brand, if you will.

Christian Sesma: And it was funny, because at the time, it was branded overly ambitious. Because who’s going to do action and comedy in the same movie? Nobody… It was, like, 2009, and they’re like, “How are they cracking jokes and this couple is having a fight about their relationship right behind it?” You what I mean? It was like they didn’t quite get it. I was like, guys, we talk about it.

Christian Sesma: Now everything is like that. I’m like, dude, I’ve been saying! So I think the approach, not going to lie, has been the same. The approach has been kind of what I always see as my style, and it’s very much a very loose approach to the material, and really heavy on the chemistry between the team, and the chemistry between the talent. Because I think once that is there, the material… We kind of mold to make it our own.

Christian Sesma: So I think the approach has kind of always been the same, when I think about it. I mean, the skill set has become sharper, and the knives, as you’re cooking, become sharper. We always say the difference between a chef and a cook is the ability to put things together more quickly and more precisely. It’s like having somebody come in that’s a cook. How long to make this dish? A chef can make it in half the time.

Christian Sesma: So I think a lot of those things where it’s like, your skill set’s very honed now. That helps. But I think my personal process has always been the same. I almost feel probably like I’ve tried to stick to that. Because I feel like that way I can stay true to myself so my voice doesn’t get lost in the craziness of it all. I think that’s been kind of my own thing.

On bringing on the cast for Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: This was a short turnaround. You mentioned that schedules kind of aligned for some of the cast. Was everyone on board before you signed on, or were you a part of bringing anyone on? Because Dermot Mulroney was on Section 8, right?

Christian Sesma: Yeah. Yeah. There was a few people from Section 8 that we came on board, and I had just wrapped something else that I thought Erica Peeples, who plays Mekhi’s sister, and that would be perfect for her. She’s great.

Christian Sesma: So there was a few things I was like, let’s go do this. But I think the new players to this that had not worked with, I was so excited that they brought on board was Frank, Mekhi and Jaime. And now obviously we’re all good pals, but having them as the anchor names, along with Dermot and Scott Adkins… They were just a really great addition. And obviously their talent is… They’re phenomenal. It was a quick turnaround, but I think it was really exciting. And like I said, everybody was on the same page with the kind of movie that we wanted to make.

Lights Out - Dermot Mulroney as Sage Parker.
Lights OutDermot Mulroney as Sage Parker.

On working with Frank Grillo, Mekhi Phifer, Jaime King, Scott Adkins, and Dermot Mulroney

Ayla Ruby: What was it like working with them all? Because they all have very different backgrounds and bodies of work, and it seems like they all bring something different and very special to the…

Christian Sesma: Yeah, I think everybody was so unique in their approach to that. I mean, Jaime brought this really weird, subtle, cool way to be a villain. And Dermot… People go, “He’s the villain.” I go, no, he’s the opportunist. He’s the opportunist of the bunch. And then Mekhi is this degenerate with a heart of gold kind of guy, and Frank is the stoic leading man guy.

Christian Sesma: So everybody had a very specific voice, and we made sure to pinpoint that and really try to hit that home. And the good thing is everybody really got along. Everybody was cool. Everybody was very friendly. I mean, Amaury Nolasco, as his character… So everybody had a really good character arc for themselves.

Amaury Nolasco as “Fosco”in the action/ thriller , LIGHTS OUT , a Quiver Distribution release. Photo cour tesy of Quiver Distribution
Amaury Nolasco as “Fosco” in the action/thriller, LIGHTS OUT, a Quiver Distribution release. Photo courtesy of
Quiver Distribution.

On Jaime King’s role in Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: I was really excited to see Jaime King, because I really liked Hart of Dixie

Christian Sesma: Yeah.

Ayla Ruby: … and this is a very different role-

Christian Sesma: Oh, no, for sure.

Ayla Ruby: … so I was excited about that. Can you talk about… So you start with a script, but actors bring different things to the script. Things happen as you’re shooting. Was there anything that wasn’t in the script that made it to the movie that kind of evolved with what they brought to it?

Christian Sesma: I think Jaime’s character, for sure. I mean, we can talk about Jaime, because you love that. But it’s like, no, no. Because we talked about how to not make this such a tropey character. In such a masculine-led movie with Frank and this and fights, it’s like how do we take that energy that she brings and make it dangerous? And she really brought this dangerous subtlety where it’s like, oh yeah. Everybody can be barking loud, but we all know who’s really pulling the strings here, and it was her character.

Christian Sesma: So she really was a very ruthless villain in this, but she came off very light. Which is scary, I think, sometimes. So I think that. I like the way she brought it, and I thought her decision to do that… When we talked about it, I said, yeah, let’s do that. That’s cool, because that’s going to juxtapose this craziness over here, or this that.

Christian Sesma: So I’m always trying to kind of ride a roller coaster of energies and juxtaposition of characters and this, that and the other.

Ayla Ruby: That first moment where you meet her and you think Sage is pulling the strings, but it’s her, and she shoots the guy was like, oh. This is something very different. This is really cool.

Christian Sesma: Yeah. I love the part where she sits down, you introduce her. She’s watching this thing go down. She’s like, let me just step in and handle this. And she just sits down and she’s just like, “Hi.” It’s just this very funny, I always go just kind of Joker-esque way of approaching. She’s not trying to be intimidating, and she doesn’t really care, but when it’s time to hold the big gun, she does, so.

Lights out - Jaime King as Detective Ellen Ridgeway. Image courtesy of Quiver.
Lights OutJaime King as Detective Ellen Ridgeway. Image courtesy of Quiver.

On approaching the brawler action in Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: You mentioned earlier that this was your first real fight movie. There’s this gun action, military action, but then there’s these scenes in the ring, for lack of a better term, where the folks are fighting. Can you talk about if there’s a different approach to that kind of action versus the more military-style action?

Christian Sesma: Yeah. Look, it’s definitely different styles of that. The military stuff… I always say it’s the gun-handling style of it. It’s more about tactically how you kind of go through and move through space, and we want to make sure that the military tacticality of it is correct so that we can move our cameras a certain way.

Christian Sesma: But when it came to the fight scenes, I definitely… Again, it wanted to be a character-driven, grounded thing. So I wanted this to be a more backyard brawler-style movie and not a very slick, choreographed John Wick-style movie. Which I love and I adore, but I felt like these guys… I’m like, if they were pros, they would be in the UFC or they’d be pro boxers or whatever.

Christian Sesma: Well, they’re not. They’re throwing backyard gambling matches, and that’s what this world is. So it’s this seedy… It’s almost like Fast and Furious 1, the very first one, where it was actually about car racing. It was about car racing. It was this just seedy underworld of underground car racing.

Christian Sesma: Same thing with this. Just there was nothing polished or professional about these fighters. It was just, one was just a better fighter than the other, but they were just brawlers. So we just talked about that. I felt like doing that helped make it not always about the style of fighting, more just a fight happens. You know?

On filming the movie in Los Angeles, the Coachella Valley, and beyond

Ayla Ruby: Gotcha. Can you talk, actually, about shooting this? Like, where did you film, and how long did it take? Was there anything really challenging? Besides the short turnaround to make this happen.

Christian Sesma: Yeah. Oh, god. I mean, look. I think every movie has its own challenges, and every independent movie is extremely challenging, because you’re just fighting schedules and all this other stuff, and money and stuff. I always go, independent movies are what studio movies spend in a day. Or less.

Christian Sesma: With this, we shot probably about 40, maybe 30% in Los Angeles, and then the rest we shot here in my backyard, which is the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs area. I don’t know where you’re out of, but I live in Palm Springs, and the Coachella Valley… I’m born and raised out here, so this has become how I started my career out here in the Coachella Valley, and it’s where I have my support system, so a lot like Section 8, we shot almost entirely here.

Ayla Ruby: Wow.

Christian Sesma: Yeah, so there’s a lot of things like that. The last X amount of movies… The city of Coachella, where they have the Coachella Fest, I’m really good friends with the mayor and those guys, so they’ve been extremely supportive of my career and what we do, so they kind of allowed me to make the city as my almost back lot.

Christian Sesma: So they’re like, hey. Where do you want to do this here? This, that and the other. And also, the local tribe here and their reservation land… We shot a lot on rez land too. Because it’s like, dude. You can go do explosions and all kinds of fight scenes there without certain oversight. They’re just much more loose and very supportive.

Christian Sesma: So we’ve had a lot of support here, and that’s why I think we’re able to up the scope on some of these movies, where normally probably it wouldn’t feel so expanded and have some real scope to it.

Ayla Ruby: Oh, interesting. So the downtown that we see, is that downtown Coachella or is that…

Christian Sesma: I’m trying to think of the cuts here. So there’s drone aerial footage of Los Angeles, right? And then we cut into a underground parking structure where they’re having fights. That’s in Coachella. That’s at the casino. So things like that. There’s ways to kind of intercut that we do, so if they’re going here and you see them go that, then we cut into a different area that we shot here.

Ayla Ruby: Oh, cool.

Christian Sesma: Yeah.

On Easter Eggs to ’80s movies in Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: Okay. So you mentioned ’80s movies earlier, and I’ve read before that you’re a big ’80s movie buff. Are there any Easter eggs or anything like homages in this film that you can talk about, or that you tried to fit in there?

Christian Sesma: I don’t know. Now I’m thinking about it, I don’t know. I mean, there was maybe a little bit of Rambo First Blood kind of thing with Duffy’s character, and that kind of drifter-y shot of him just walking off into the sunset kind of idea. I think there’s that.

Christian Sesma: Look, without getting massively cinema nerdy, for me… One of my all time favorite movies, also, is I’m a big Kurosawa fan, and so Yojimbo is one of my favorites-favorites of his, and that’s kind of like the last man standing, which is what they did later for Bruce Willis. But it’s kind of just a single loner samurai wanders into town, helps somebody out and then wanders out. That’s Yojimbo. That’s what that samurai movie’s about, which is what the Clint Eastwood, The Man With No Name, was all based on the westerns, and the spaghetti westerns.

Christian Sesma: This is, for me, was no different than doing my current version of that. If I’m going to get really deep dive-y into my cinema, that’s what this was. This was like my modern-day Yojimbo, and Duffy is that.

On if there’s room for a sequel to Lights Out

Ayla Ruby: You mentioned walking off into the sunset, these other films. Is there room, then, do you think, for a sequel? Because there’s a very happy-ish ending for Duff.

Christian Sesma: I don’t know. I don’t know. Somebody else has said that too. I go, I don’t even know what that story would be. He finds himself in another town? I don’t know. But then again, I mean, they took a movie about racing cars, and they’re in space. Do you know what I mean? They are racing cars in space now with Fast and Furious, so anything’s possible.

Ayla Ruby: Oh, I can’t wait for Lights Out 2 in space.

Christian Sesma: Lights Out 2, in space. Duffy fights guys on the moon.

Final thoughts on the movie

Ayla Ruby: Okay, so I know we’re getting pretty close on time. Is there anything that you want folks to know about this movie, or a message, or just something you want to leave people with?

Christian Sesma: No. I hope everybody has a good time seeing Lights Out, February 16th, and hope they have a good time with our cool fight flick about finding connections and family.

Ayla Ruby: Well, that’s wonderful, and thank you so much for talking.

Christian Sesma: Thank you.

Lights Out will be On Digital and On Demand, as well as in theaters, on February 16th.

Are you excited about Lights Out? What did you think of the interview? Leave a comment with us on X @MoviesWeTexted.


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