Sebastian Hill-Esbrand's Family secrets
Sebastian Hill-Esbrand picked up a Gold Screen at this year's YDA for Family, his powerful charity film for the BC Centre on Substance Use. Here, he discusses his start in skateboard films, the difficulties in casting and the impact of imposter syndrome.
How and why did you get into directing?
I can’t say I loved films as a kid. My earliest memories are watching Shrek, Rush Hour, and The Little Mermaid everyday after school. I made skateboard videos under the YouTube alias CatsDontLikeLettuce as a teenager in Australia, and got hooked on the fulfilment I felt from watching a completed edit. Skateboarding was hard to make sustainable and I just wanted to keep making videos. I learnt the various roles of production in film school then kept pursuing video making
Skateboarding was hard to make sustainable and I just wanted to keep making videos.
How did you get involved with the BC Centre on Substance Use campaign?
Leah Nelson from Kiddo invited me to be on the project series pitch in 2020. Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t green lit, but a year later the client returned with a budget, character and some pre-interviews. They wanted an unconventional approach to a documentary on the subject matter and offered a lot of creative freedom.
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Above: Hill-Esbrand brilliant, YDA-winning short film, Family, for the BC Centre on Substance Use.
Is the narrator the real person behind this story, and how closely did you work with them to craft the film?
Yes, it is the real narrator. We bonded and chatted about life for three hours. They spoke about their experiences with so much indifference while myself, and everyone in the room, listened with a curious and empathetic ear. The narrator had tried to forget about these memories but was open and vulnerable with me. Mind you, they were also stoked that someone was going to turn their life story into a film. I’d like to say it was a cathartic experience for both of us.
The narrator had tried to forget about these memories but was open and vulnerable with me.
The performances are very powerful; can you tell us about the casting process, and why you chose the actors you did?
I met two of the cast members on student films in film school, one at the skatepark and the rest from Instagram. It felt like a very GenZ approach. We also wanted to portray young and older versions of our heroes. This was really hard to do with the talent available to us within our budget.
Above: One of the actors from Family.
How long did it take you to make the film and what was the most challenging aspect of its creation?
One of the most challenging parts was the casting process. We locked the cast via remote auditions in December then postponed the shoot for a month. I had to heal from Covid early January and, by the time we ran the first rehearsal, it was two days before the shoot. It was then I realised the young and older version of our protagonist looked completely different.
I left the rehearsal crippled with anxiety, wondering if I was going to put myself under the stress of recasting a day before the shoot.
I left the rehearsal crippled with anxiety, wondering if I was going to put myself under the stress of recasting a day before the shoot. Was it even possible to cast an older version in the timeframe? Who could it be? Was what I had really that noticeable? And, besides that, will I even have a chance to really audition them or will I just have to wing it? If so, shouldn’t I just keep with what I have already? Yeah I was freaking out, but I did it, and four months later, it worked out.
Above: YDA Gold-winning director Sebastian Hill-Esbrand.
What have you learnt during the process of making Family?
Just to trust myself, my instincts and the process. Working with a kick-ass editor who is passionate about your project helps a lot too. It’s easy to get tunnel visioned with your own ideas, but another perspective that you trust is invaluable to the process. We love you Spencer Browne. We also lost the footage on a corrupt hard drive after the shoot, so I definitely learnt to back up twice before the returning gear!
Like a lot of creatives, I'm quick to get caught up with self-criticism, self-doubt, imposter syndrome - the works. Winning a YDA helps alleviate the impact of my critical voice.
What does it mean to you to win a YDA?
Like a lot of creatives, I'm quick to get caught up with self-criticism, self-doubt, imposter syndrome - the works. Winning a YDA helps alleviate the impact of my critical voice; validating that the ideas in my head aren’t too shabby after all. Although it’s a great boost of confidence, I know this is just the beginning.
What are you working on next?
I just want to keep making short form work. I’d like to contribute by tackling bold storytelling projects that help improve the world around me. I’m also working on commercial representation in the US.