If there was ever a perfect way to portray the universal experiences of attachment and letting go, a Third Culture filmmaker would know how to do it. By inviting his audience to step into brief moments around moving day, filmmaker Sebastien Tobler depicts a family in transition in his recently completed film, “Joyrider.”
Set in spaces of being settled, “Joyrider” explores the vulnerabilities in goodbyes and transitions through the eyes of a child. Delivered in the cushion of security and comfort embodied in the characters of the parents, Sebastien Tobler’s “Joyrider” makes it safe to revisit childhood goodbyes, powerful for adult Third Culture Kids (TCKs) reconciling with a lifetime of rootlessness.
Most notable about “Joyrider,” it is the film Tobler himself identifies as being pivotal in his career as a filmmaker and one in which the main characters are played entirely by his own family, filmed at his own home, with his own car.
Myra Dumapias: Sebastien, how did you come up with the concept of “Joyrider?”
Sebastien Tobler: In the middle of 2020, my collaborator Garrett O’Brien, who filmed “Joyrider,” and I were talking about the need to make a film and the freedom to do whatever we wanted. Around that time, I had finished my feature script “Kamikaze Blue” which follows expat teens in late-90s Bangkok. It’s a story inspired by my high school experience in Thailand that deals with all the TCK feels: intense relationships, a disoriented sense of home, impermanence and nostalgia all bundled up into one crazy night.
Truth is, there was no way I was going to film “Kamikaze Blue” right away and Garrett was right, I needed to make a film. What I ended up doing was focusing on the core themes of transition, impermanence and nostalgia because they are themes that I live with every day. I see it and sense it in everything, so I turned the camera to what was right in front of me: my family.
Growing up, moving to a new country was a seasonal event. I always knew it was coming. I wanted to capture the sensation of moving but also of being young and oblivious to the changes around you. As a child you don’t have the vocabulary or are conscious of the impact moving has – at least I didn’t. I was aware that something was happening and perhaps it was a stressful thing for my parents. I wanted to create a film where anyone who has moved around all their lives can see this child happily lost in his world while simultaneously seeing and knowing what he will have to deal with emotionally when he grows up: the inevitability of loss.
MD: Was the entire film acting for your son?
ST: I would say that it was more playing than acting for Ronin. He really enjoyed the process and would ask me if we were making a movie today. Kids just have a natural curiosity and honest reaction to things. All I needed to do was create the conditions for him to react to or tell him this is what we are going to play out.
Ronin likes to mimic, so I would ask him to say a line and he would repeat it or say it in his own way. Most of the time I would just ask him questions. There’s a scene where my character asks his character if he can see his reflection in the chrome grill of the car. I didn’t intend to keep my dialogue but the interaction felt natural for a father and son because it was honest, so I left it in the film.
MD: How did you capture the shots?
ST: Most of it was handheld. The camera we used was a BlackMagic 4k Pocket Cinema Camera, inexpensive for what it is capable of. For glass, we used Zeiss prime lenses. All of it was lit with natural light only. This entire film was made by Garrett, Tara, and I – literally the three adults on screen were also the crew.
The production schedule was super loose. We ended up filming from August 2020 – January 2021. One day here, one day there. This was intentional because we only wanted to get Ronin in front of the camera for 1-2 hours max. It also took us a while because, obviously the pandemic, but also, we just wanted to have fun. The moment it started to get stressful is when we wrapped for the day. I wish all productions were like that to be honest. In fact, it is this ethos that has led me on the path to the feature film I’m working on right now.
MD: There was one powerful scene with your son that embodied the pain of having to let go before one is ready. The build-up to this scene was brilliant. Was that scene planned or intentional or rehearsed?
ST: Thank you! That scene was planned. I wrote a script that I re-wrote on the fly as I edited. We just set up the conditions for this scene allowing Ronin to get emotional. First off, anyone who has a toddler knows what happens when they get hungry and close to nap time so let’s just say that we scheduled this scene close to lunch after a very active morning.
MD: Why did you choose a child’s perspective in camera angle, theme, character and topic?
ST: Although there are some POV shots, this film is seen from the perspective of a child watching another child. The reason I chose to do so is because I wanted the audience to be completely immersed in the present moment with the little boy.
Growing up a diplomat’s son, I learned to assimilate and attach to new friends very quickly. There’s a moment, usually just before my dad would break the news of the new posting, where I would almost feel a sense of stability. Then suddenly my world changes.
That’s what I was hoping to convey by keeping the audience’s perspective on the little boy.
MD: How was it like to create a film that involved the entire family?
ST: It is intense because you’re not only tapping into something very personal but you’re letting the world in as well. The nice thing was that I think we all needed the outlet, and the routine of filming allowed for a sense of normalcy amid uncertainly. I’m referring to the pandemic, by the way, not to high-mobility third-culture life.
Everyone was great though, we just had so much fun. Ronin keeps asking when we are going to make the next one.
MD: Are the themes in the film something that is significant for the family?
ST: Yes, I would say that the themes are very much a part of our lives. Tara and I are both TCKs – in fact we met each other in high school when we lived in Bangkok. We barely knew each other back then; it wasn’t until serendipitously meeting in university on the other side of the world that we started dating . . . but that’s another story.
Admittedly, it wasn’t until very recently that I started to understand the impact of my formative years on my present adult life. Perhaps having a child forced me to look back a little deeper. I have a lot of these stories in my mind, they were just waiting for me to learn the vocabulary to express them. I would say, like many of my fellow TCKs, that I have Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock to thank for the language to express these very specific emotions and experiences.
Admittedly, it wasn’t until very recently that I started to understand the impact of my formative years on my present adult life.
MD: What role did the book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” play in your creative process as a filmmaker?
ST: I was sketching out and outlining for the past five years, and then one day I said, “OK I need to get this out.” I started asking myself, “What does it mean on an academic level? What does it mean on a developmental level?”
When I started getting into the developmental side of things, that’s when it started to click: “OK, that’s what I’m trying to say,” and once I understood that, then I could express the emotions better. But I couldn’t afford making a feature film during a pandemic so I ended up condensing one of the core pieces I could apply today. That became “Joyrider.”
Because it was so enjoyable to make “Joyrider,” It inspired me to write “This Time.” Within a few months, I had written (“This Time”) and it’s gotten great feedback from a lot of folks. . . . It’s on a top-rated list at the moment and it got onto the Story Lab, so I’ve been offered a place to develop the story.
I finally understand what they say when they say, “You should write what you know.” I think the refinement of that is, “Write what you’ve experienced, not just what you know.” Know is like knowledge. You can get that from a book, but with experience, there’s an emotional, visceral aspect to it that is more important . . . Tell the story that you’ve experience, because that’s what’s really going to come through.
MD: It is your niche.
ST: Right. It’s comfortable for me. It feels right. This is home. I actually get to build it. I get to recreate all these things that I can define as home for me. That is what filmmaking is for me. It is a part of home. Writing, filmmaking, photography are natural for TCKs. You’re playing with memories. You’re playing with experience.
MD: What core themes are near and dear to you as a filmmaker?
ST: Anything that deals with experiencing life in the present, being in the moment, anything that you can sense time passing. My biggest influence in Richard Linklater because he really knows how to use time in film. “Kamikaze Blue” is my homage to “Dazed and Confused.” There’s something I just love about a normal day where there’s no big event. It’s just a normal day with the right people that can have the most profound impact on your life. I love themes like that. I love the idea of space and how it’s alive.
One of the things I was hoping to accomplish with the shots at the end of “Joyrider” was to get the sense of time passing by having a lack of presence. Where you remind people, “That’s where this happened,” or “That’s where we did this” — like instant nostalgia. There’s a Japanese expression, “mono no aware”: being aware of things passing right now, being very sensitive to the impermanence of things.
Other themes are nostalgia, impermanence, immediate connections or intimacy, global views, time passing, community belonging or lack thereof, cultures, transitions. A lot of it ties together.
MD: How else did understanding more about your childhood impact your work?
ST: I didn’t realize the impact my upbringing had on me until later. “Constant moving is traumatic” is just the first part of a three-part paragraph. The second portion is, “It can impact you in the following ways . . .” and the third portion is, “These are the ways you can help yourself through all that.”
I only had the language for the first part, but I never really addressed what it was it was impacting and what could I do about it. (Filmmaking) is cathartic. There’s nothing to fix. There’s only management. You can’t turn off the trauma. It’s like turning off a part of you. I accept that. I just chose to express it in my work.
I choose to understand the cues and understand what I need to when there is change happening and what to embrace and what not to embrace. The older you get, you learn when to push, when to pull, when to stay still. That applies to being a TCK. When someone says there’s going to be change, you get to decide what to do about it. I really do embrace being a TCK now more than ever, in terms of how I can support the community, how I teach my son about it.
MD: “Joyrider” ends with a joyful note that seemed to be about being in the moment. Is this part of the message you want to deliver?
ST: Yeah, that’s exactly it, be present. Throughout the film the little boy has his head down as he plays with only what is directly in front of him but at the end he looks up and sees a whole world, an entire life and a long wide-open road.
My characters in “This Time,” the feature film I am directing this summer, struggle with this. It asks what happens when you can’t let go of the past, what happens if you ignore it and ultimately what do you do when you must face it again. If “Joyrider” is all about learning to deal with impermanence, then “This Time” is about learning to find an inner stillness in adulthood while reconciling with a past filled with adventure.
‘Joyrider’ was a very important project. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.
“Joyrider” screened at the Academy Award and BAFTA qualifying LA Shorts Festival in July as well as at the Newport Beach Film Festival in October.
Sebastien Tobler was born in Zurich, Switzerland to a Filipina mother and Swiss father, who served as a diplomat for the Swiss Foreign Service. Growing up, Tobler lived in Manila, Philippines; Arau, Switzerland; Warsaw, Poland; Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok, Thailand; London, England; and Washington, DC, USA. You can follow him on Twitter @sebastientobler and Instagram @sebastien_tobler to be updated on the progress of “This Time” as well as how to support “Joyrider” and check out his other films at www.sebastientobler.com.