INTERVIEW: The Adventures of Tod Williams, Writer/Director of "Sebastian Cole"
by Aaron Krach
For a man about to watch his first film hit the big screen, writer/director Tod Williams is worried. He doesn't think his film "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" has a hook. There isn't "anything you haven't seen before, just people you haven't seen before." Which is exactly what is so refreshing about "Sebastian Cole." It is also what Paramount Classics saw when they chose William's film as their first acquisition after it's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
Set in an undistinguished, upstate New York town, Sebastian Cole is a 17-year-old, underachiever growing up with his transgender stepfather, now on his way to becoming his stepmother. While that situation is ripe for several films, Williams doesn't use it as such. Instead, the film is about a series of adventures in Sebastian's life -- his first girlfriend, his self-obsessed parents, his lame friends and troubled school life -- all told with a subtlety often lacking in American independent films. For a project that started out on Super-8 and ended on 35 mm, it's been a long, yet remarkably smooth journey from script to screen for Williams. The fortunate filmmaker recently spoke to indieWIRE about financing, re-editing, marketing hooks, and cooking with garlic.
indieWIRE: How did you get this film off the ground?
Tod Williams: I really wanted to do it outside the business. That's why I wrote something personal, why I wrote something with places I knew. This film was intended to be shot on Super-8. It was intended to be shot with friends as crew on free locations. I was going to make it for $30,000, an amount I could raise. But then it kind of grew. As soon as I said I was going to do it, all of a sudden I started getting people who wanted to help. Producers came on who could bring other things. Once you start getting momentum, you can actually raise a bit more money. I had been playing a lot with Super 8 negative, which is re-canned 35mm negative. It's very beautiful. Someone cuts 35mm into 8mm strips. It's a higher quality than normally exists. They put the sprockets in and make it in a loadable cartridge to put in your Super-8 camera. It's a very cool medium.
iW: When did you realize it was actually going to turn into a "real movie?"
Williams: I didn't think it turned real until the day we sold it. We had never even screened it before. We screened it at Toronto and we sold it that night. We were kind of unfinished. We ran out of money. We screened it and it went over huge and Paramount bought it. We were their first acquisition.
iW: Did you have a lot of buzz going in or did the screening just go really well?
Williams: The screening went well. Somehow we had a little bit of buzz, 'cause Ted Hope gave us editing space as an investment. It's a little thing, but suddenly we were on people's radar screens. People had asked to see the film before and I hadn't let them.
iW: So you filmed in the small town of Rhinebeck, New York where they aren't used to film crews of any size. You even ended up getting the local Hospital to provide the catering. How was the food?
Williams: I didn't actually eat that much of it. One thing I hate about catered food, is that, and this is a pet peeve of mine, I'm not a big garlic fan. And I'm not a big powdered garlic fan. People who can't cook use too much garlic. That's my theory. So the hospital food kind of suited me. I was working. I didn't want to think about a meal after I'd eaten it.
iW: What other tricks did you use to keep the budget down?
Williams: I don't know if it's a trick, but the movie is set in 1983. Up in that area, all the Salvation Armies have all those clothes. So we made a deal with the Salvation Army. Our entire wardrobe is from Salvation Armies up and down the Hudson Valley. All the locations were free. We shot at my old high school and college. For me it was a great luxury, going back to a place I knew so well. For example, I wrote that beanbag scene, and the beanbags were still there. I would have thought the bean bag philosophy of sex education had gone down the tubes, but it hadn't. We all lived in the Super 8 Motel, $15 a night. It was great.
iW: I've heard that you we're able to fine-tune, some might say re-edit the film since it was picked up.
Williams: I did. I happily re-edited it, cause I got to go shoot some establishing shots. I got to do stuff I just didn't have time to do the first time around. We paid for all the changes. After I paid back the investors, then I could go back and raise more money. So we paid for all the changes ourselves. It was nice. I got to spend more time in the editing room. I feel like the film got a lot better. It's a luxury that every film should have, but very few independent films do.
iW: If you got to do it all over again, what's the one thing you would do differently?
Williams: I'd like to think I would make a movie that's a little higher concept. I feel sorry for people like you trying to write about it. There's nothing you can write. It's just about people. I wish I could write a movie that had an angle, like "Blair Witch" or "Run, Lola, Run." You can say so much about the backstory of those films. "Sebastian Cole" doesn't have anything you haven't seen before, just people you haven't seen before.
iW: Well don't you think a transgender character is a hook? I think a lot of people don't have any contact with transgender people, so for them Hank/Henrietta is a big deal.
Williams: The times I've played the film in more conservative settings, I've been shocked how responsive people are. They really find this fascinating. But I still don't think it's a hook.