Sebastian Sommer is Obsessed with Fame, Films, and Hari Nef

Sebastian Sommer sits down in front of me on a bench. He’s tall, with floppy brown hair and black-rimmed glasses that sit atop his nose. From looking at him you wouldn’t think that he’s the creative force behind the films that are making heroes out of the Internet and its stars – people like Hari Nef and India Salvör Menuez, whom along with Rachel Trachtenburg, Claire Christerson, and Alexandra Marzella, star in his latest film Family Tree. Much like his other work, Family Tree deals with the idea of fame in the 21st century – the allure, the sensation, and the near inevitable fall from grace that comes with it. It’s the perfect theme for the NYU film graduate to explore, what with the explosion of Youtube and Instagram stars that dictate the new fame in his native NYC. Milk Made’s Ana Velasco sat down with Sommer to discuss relationships, the impact of Jim Jarmusch, and what his take is on the newfound fame of his muses.

A lot of your work, including this new film, deals with the idea of fame. Why is it something that is so important for you to explore?

Partially because I feel like it’s something that a lot of people that I’ve worked with like Hari Nef have as a goal, and now with Instagram you can be famous in your own kind of niche. I always found that I like fame but I also want to make fun of it at the same time, to embrace the idea but to also sort of show the flaws and show what’s wrong with it and why it’s not necessarily a good thing to be famous.

Is fame a goal for you?

No, I don’t really care if I’m famous, I just want people to see my movies. It’s kind of hard to not try to be famous but there are tons of directors like Jim Jarmusch who can still walk down the street and no one will recognize them, but a ton of people have seen their movies, so that’s something that I care about for sure.

You mention that the actresses in this are becoming really famous. What is your take on their success and how does that fit into your idea or their idea of fame that is explored in this film?

I think it’s great that they’re becoming successful, especially since I feel that it’s super warranted and they’re super talented. I feel like they’re kinda, at least with India, she’s less about being famous and more about expressing herself. So I feel like with her it’s sorta happening, but with Hari it’s more calculated in a way, but it’s just been really interesting to also know them for a while and to see the progression. Working with Hari a year or two ago and then working with Hari on this film – the amount of people who saw this film or the amount of people who care about this film now because of where Hari’s at is completely different.

I think something that’s really interesting and different in this film is the narration. Is that unscripted? That’s each person’s take on fame?

Yeah it is. It was me meeting with them and sorta interviewing them about what their thoughts on fame were and then selecting the moments that I felt like reflected what I was trying to get across in the film. It’s kinda funny because all the actresses are becoming famous and are all reaching this level while the film is sort of critiquing fame at the same time. It’s like using these performers in a way that reflects the film in an ironic way, like a post-meta-ironic-whatever. (chuckles) I guess that’s it.

You mention Jim Jarmusch and I can see the kinda dryness and calculated randomness in it. Who else inspires you? I also see some sort of Warholian kinda thing in this.

Yeah Jim Jarmusch, Andy Warhol, at least for this film. I’ve been watching a lot of movies by this filmmaker called Takeshi Kitano who’s really cool. He made this movie called ‘Dolls’ which was really beautiful and kinda focusing on the simple, little real life random moments of these characters – that’s what I really love. Even like Harmony Korine, Lars Von Trier, the way they get these real life moments from actors in character that are genuine, I guess that’s what it is. Capturing moments that you watch and you feel like ‘wow, I’m watching something real’ as opposed to something that’s totally fake.

What does the title of the film mean?

That’s partly because all the actresses have all worked together, for example like India, Claire, Ali, Hari, Rachel, almost like a family so I knew by casting them and having them all together and having this ensemble, it would make the piece stronger and they felt super comfortable around each other so it wasn’t weird and it wasn’t awkward or felt forced. It was just like ‘we’re friends in real life and our characters are friends,’ so it’s super believable.

Are there any other topics that interest you to explore in your work? Like anything socio-political that particularly interests you?

I’m doing 3 short films this summer and they all deal with relationships and new ways to look at them and what they are and I guess the sort of dynamic between a couple and what goes into that. For example one of the short films I’m doing is about an online hookup that goes really wrong, another one is about a guy who lies to his girlfriend and tells her that he’s going to Tokyo but then she goes to his house and finds that he’s still there and hasn’t left, and then the other short film is about this girl who you find out has been living at this guy’s house while he’s away and then he comes back. They’re almost like vignettes but 3 short films about weird relationships based on things I’ve experienced or things that people I know have experienced but also just dynamics that I want to explore.

I feel like these projects you’ve made and are making couldn’t be made somewhere that isn’t New York —

Being from New York I feel like that kinda translates into my work, just having a sense of pride in New York City. People like to talk a lot of crap about NY real estate, culture, and whatever, but being from here, I’ll love it ’til I die. I’m also directing a music video for Cakes Da Killa when he gets back for Afropunk. It’ll be my first music video. I’m excited. It’ll be cool.

You’re a writer and a filmmaker — what do you think is the most important aspect of a film?

That’s really tough. I would say maybe the performers. I feel like as a filmmaker I see myself more as a storyteller in that way, or I’m more interested in telling a unique story that people haven’t seen before…or at least I try. I feel like it’s always about who’s in it and how they came across, and that’s something that even people now will go see a movie just because of who’s in it. So the performers are super important. They’re the vessels to your message.

If you could travel to the past or the future what would you choose?

I would love to travel to New York 100 years from now. That would be cool. I’d love to see all the cyborgs walking around.

Who would be your dream collaborator, considering all the cool people you’ve already worked with?

I would like to work with either Kendall Jenner or Willow Smith or Jaden Smith. Like the Hollywood youth, the up and coming young kids in Hollywood.

Does that have something to do with your obsession with fame?

(Laughs) Exactly. But I would like to work with them and twist it so it’s like post-meta-ironic or whatever.

If you could have made any film which one would it be?

That’s a tough one. But if I could make any film I guess it would be Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. That movie has everything I love and it’s awesome. Ensemble cast, super cinematic, badass, and the subject matter is super different but open about everything. I like that a lot. Fame and porn or whatever.

Photos courtesy of Sebastian Sommer

Check out more of Sebastian’s work here

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