By Laura Latzko, July 2017 Issue.
Local filmmaker James Fanizza doesn’t want to make stereotypical LGBTQ films. His goal, instead, is to shape the film industry by bringing queer context, including realistic storylines and relatable characters, to life for his audiences.
As an actor-turned-filmmaker, Fanizza has written, directed and starred in three short film projects – Sebastian, You Are Free and Jackie – before getting to work on his first feature-length film (also named Sebastian), which is an expansion of his first short.
Fanizza wrapped shooting on the set of Sebastian late last year and he spent the spring editing the project. Then, on May 26, the film made its world premiere at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto – the ultimate homecoming for Fanizza, who is originally from “Hollywood North,” but relocated to Arizona with his husband of two-and-a-half years in February of 2016. (Read Echo‘s interview with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” favorite Katya, who stars in Sebastian, HERE.)
According to Fanizza, his interest in acting developed while he was attending York University. It was there that he took his first acting classes, a collective experience that shaped him in such a profound way that he changed his major from law to theater.
“It just really spoke to me,” Fanizza said about his initial introduction to what would become his craft. “I also felt like I was naturally pretty good at it … I just really like the feeling of being onstage and stepping into character, and just being creative.”
Growing up, Fanizza admits that the closest experience he had to performing on a stage was playing sports. And the closest thing to film influence he received from his family was watching such classics as The Godfather: Part 2 with his dad and grandfather.
By his third year of college, however, Fanizza was auditioning for commercials and films. As a result, he’s appeared in several short films, local and national commercials and a TV series – most often as “nerdy guy next door” type of character.
“That’s kind of how people get frustrated and end up quitting,” he explained. “They are just waiting around for other people to give them work as opposed to finding the joy and freedom in [their] own work.”
Eventually, the young actor began to make his own films and create parts for himself therein.
“I decided to take my career in my hands and make my own movies,” he said.
Fanizza credits every on-set experience, including those for his own films, with refining his skills as an actor and his voice as a filmmaker – a journey that he’s only just begun.
By creating quality LGBTQ content that explores deeper issues, Fanizza hopes to make an impact on the film industry – and society as a whole.
“I will definitely always make LGBT[Q] films. That’s my mandate as a filmmaker, to add as much queer content to the world as possible,” he said. “I think the world needs more LGBT[Q] films … There’s still a lot of people who don’t accept queer people, and there’s still a lot of people struggling with coming out. I think the more content we can put out, particularly in the mainstream media, the more that will change.”
With ongoing issues of violence and prejudice toward LGBTQ people, Fanizza said it is important to promote tolerance and acceptance of one’s self. He tries to play his part in achieving this by presenting multifaceted characters with which members of the LGBTQ community can identify.
“Creating safe spaces for LGBT[Q] people is not only physical, it’s creating mental safe spaces as well, through mediums like film and television,” he said. “… how do we do create this mental safe space? How do we reach out to that boy scared to come out of the closet? How do we reach that trans woman who is afraid to use a public restroom? We do this by creating a film with [LGBTQ] characters in the spotlight that portrays them as normal, complex characters; by not shying away from issues that pertain to the queer experience; by creating characters that are not afraid to stand proud.”
The Cast of Characters
Fanizza’s experience auditioning for films also sparked his desire to develop more diverse and complex LGBTQ characters.
“I found there wasn’t a lot of queer content, and when I did audition for one of those roles, it was very stereotypical stuff, almost borderline offensive,” Fanizza recalled. “I was kind tired of seeing one-dimensional characters, particularly queer characters, in the media.”
Leah Doz, has appeared in a number of Fanizza’s film projects.
Doz, a mixed race actress, portrayed an art gallery owner and the main character’s good friend in Sebastian and an overprotective sister to Fanizza’s character in You Are Free.
“We don’t necessarily look alike, but he envisioned a family where it was possible that we had the same parents,” Doz said.
According to Doz, short film projects such as these have allowed her to take on more diverse and complex roles.
“The independent projects that I’ve done have given me the parts where I’ve gotten to explore the most of myself and exercise my craft on complicated roles,” Doz said.
As an actress, Doz said she often feels more invested in a project when a director makes his cast and crew a part of the creative process.
“We are working on tight budgets and tight schedules, but it does feel more down to earth because everybody knows that, to get the best thing on tape with the resources that we have, we all have to work together,” Doz said.
“I think the magic of making a film, especially on an indie budget, is being open to suggestions from other crew members, even other actors. It’s more of a loose environment on set. It’s not stick to your department and don’t talk to someone else. Everybody’s collaborating together.”
Within his films, Fanizza’s goal is to always work with actors and actresses who fit the role initially and also bring authenticity to it throughout the duration of the project.
Some examples of this, he cited, include transgender actress Judy Virago who plays a transgender woman in Jackie; Toronto drag queens who star as pageant contestants in You Are Free; and Argentinian actor Alex House who plays the title role in Sebastian.
In each of these examples, Fanizza explained the ways in which the individual cast brought real-life experience to their roles – a critical element that some filmmakers overlook or underestimate. In Sebastian, Fanizza added that House provided valuable insight into many aspects of the project, from common Argentinian voice inflections and hand gestures to editing the Spanish parts of the script.
“He just brought a certain authenticity that I wouldn’t have been able to write in,” Fanizza said.
The Feature Presentation
With his first feature-length film Sebastian, Fanizza has been able to expand the story of Alex, a Toronto man (played by Fanizza) who meets and has a brief relationship with Sebastian (played by House) who is visiting Toronto from Argentina.
The movie follows the pair’s affair – from the time they meet to the close of the weeklong vacation – and touches on the idea of “what if,” which many have experienced when having a brief affair during a trip abroad.
The positive response to his short film (by the same name), which has played at film festivals around the globe, is what pushed Fanizza to elaborate on the storyline.
“I was getting a lot of messages from people around the world who had seen it at a festival and were inspired by it or had a similar story,” Fanizza said.
Sebastian, as described by Fanizza, is more than just a lighthearted LGBTQ romantic comedy because it can appeal to different audiences.
“It’s the story of two people meeting and falling in love, and I think this happens to a lot of people when they travel,” Fanizza said. “It doesn’t stray away from its queerness, and it’s very representative of the LGBT[Q] community, but it is also a very universal story.”
Additionally, the movie looks at larger societal issues, including language and cultural barriers, through the lens of two characters who don’t have a lot in common and often miscommunicate, but are able to overcome these obstacles and find love.
“I think sometimes those differences don’t have to be a negative thing,” Fanizza said. “They can be a learning experience and actually bring people closer together.”
Fanizza admits that he originally set out to make a bilingual short film, but the project ultimately gave him a chance to reflect on the relationship he had with an Argentinian man while living in South America for a little less than eight months.
“When you break up with someone for long-distance reasons, there’s not a ton of closure. [Sebastian] was kind of a way to get that closure for myself,” he said, adding that his ultimate hope is for audiences walk away with an understanding that he is “someone who’s interested in telling real, genuine stories, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.”
For more information on Sebastian, visit sebastianthemovie.com or follow @sebastianthemovie on Instagram and Facebook.