A Conversation with Sebastian Silva
Many are the filmmakers who’ve made return trips to the Sundance Film Festival. You think of Alex Gibney, the Cal Ripken Jr. of Park City who never seems to miss a year, and Richard Linklater, who’s debuted new films as Sundance for over 20 years. But few are the filmmakers who’ve had two movies in the same Festival, as Sebastián Silva does in 2013 with Crystal Fairy, an improvisational road trip drug reverie that is featured in the World Dramatic Competition, and Magic Magic, a psychological horror film that screens in the Park City at Midnight program. In 2009 Silva won a Grand Jury Prize at the Festival for The Maid, a film that would go on to receive a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards. Silva spoke to us about how the two films came together, the limits of his interest in genre, why it’s totally okay that he doesn’t know what he wants.
It’s so unique for a filmmaker to have two films completed at around the same time, and for both of those films to wind up in the Festival. What got the ball rolling for these two projects?
SS: Magic Magic started first. I first wrote it in Spanish, and it was going to be a tiny movie in the south of Chile—kind of like all the movies I’ve made. But then I translated it in English to see if I could get some financing or support, and sent it to Michael Cera, a friend with whom I’ve collaborated before, and he really loved. He asked me if he could play [the character of] Brink, and then I thought it would make so much more sense if I introduced the character as an American. And that’s how it became an English language project. But then there were a lot of people getting involved—Christine Vachon with Killer Films and then Mike White—and though we were ready to go the finances wouldn’t come. Michael Cera already had a date for production, and so he went down to live in my family house for three months in Chile to learn Spanish. Then financing was delayed again. I sort of saw that coming, and had an idea that we could do something else during that time when Michael was in Chile. I was like, okay, Crystal Fairy. Now. Crystal Fairy is something that happened to me when I was 20, and it’s a strictly linear road trip story. I called a producer friend of mine and we put it together in like two weeks, and then within a month we were shooting in the north of Chile. We flew Gaby Hoffman in, and all of my brothers are part of the movie. Everything about Crystal Fairy has been extremely effortless, a real refreshing filmmaking experience for me. And then [the funding for] Magic Magic was ready, and we shot it about three months after Crystal Fairy. These things shouldn’t happen at the same time like that, but they did, and it was great.
Did you feel after Crystal Fairy that this is actually how you’d like to make films going forward? Quickly and with less fuss?
Yeah, you know what, I’d have to say yes. But they’re so different. Magic Magic is a much more complex sculpture. while Crystal Fairy is like a fun drawing. Making a sculpture takes commitment, sweat and effort. There’s more people involved and more money, and so then there’s more pressure. For real, I’d much rather make more films like Crystal Fairy, because it’s all fun basically. But then, also, I grew so much more as a professional making Magic Magic. I learned a lot about using music as a narrative element, something I hadn’t really explored before. And I got to collaborate with Christopher Doyle, from whom I learned a lot about photography and a lot of life lessons too.
I know you started each project with a notion of genre: Magic Magic as a horror film and Crystal Fairy being a road trip. But they’re also far more complex than that—they become different things, and stray from genre rules. Did these films become something else during the writing process?
I think that has to do with my personality, with the way I view the world. Things just can’t be black or white with me. Magic Magic more self-consciously plays with genre, but I feel it’s important to bring humor into it too. Rosemary’s Baby is a very disturbing movie in a lot of ways, but one of the things that makes it deliciously disturbing is its humor. If it had taken itself too seriously, it wouldn’t have worked the way it did. But it’s an unconscious avoidance of clichés too. If you’re going to use a narrative or thematic cliché, you’ve got to be aware of it, and have to use it as an aesthetic element. I’m a person that’s very, very aware of that. I think things that are predictable are paralyzing for my mind. It’s why superhero films don’t work for me, because I know he’s going to win from the very start. So I’m always trying to not be predictable.
Both films are about foreigners coming into Chile and interacting with locals. And among your Chileans there’s an undercurrent of racial and class differences. How central are these social issues to your work?
I have never in my life thought about [social issues] when I’m writing. It’s not like some artificial or foreign element that I’m trying to include in my narrative—it’s the way it is. It’s the way it’s always been for me. I made The Maid because I had a maid until I was 18 years old. It was my world. In Chile, there are lower class people all around you. I don’t see how you could possibly avoid that. Social differences and class differences are always going to be there.
How did you become acquainted with Michael Cera?
He first watched The Maid in a small theater in the East Village in New York when he was escaping from the rain. He loved it so much he reached out to me, we met up in L.A., and immediately clicked in terms of humor. He just felt like someone I’d known forever, and I could tell that I could work with him. Also, and this is something that happens to most actors in America, he was getting stereotyped. He was playing the same thing over and over again. And that’s a very dangerous trap for an artist. Like if I could only do movies like The Maid. It would be so sad. Because then what’s there to explore? You have to have the chance to fuck up and learn. So with Michael I felt that we could work on different types of things together.
Do you like to foster a culture of collaboration with your actors and crewmembers?
Yes, absolutely. Ultimately I’m the director, because, you know, I’m the director [laughs]. But I ask so many opinions you have no idea. When I write a screenplay I show it to everyone and will ask if they found it boring, what’s cheesy, what characters have no depth—I really like people destroying my work alongside me. The more people that have opinions the better. I know that I’m filtering too, and am confident enough in knowing what I don’t want.
Why “what you don’t want” rather than what you want?
Knowing what you want seems really hard to me. I don’t know what I want. I don’t even know that I want to keep making movies at this point. But with my films, I have a guide, outlines, and I know from scratch a bit of how it’ll go, but then the process is finding things that you need to get rid of. Again, it’s like a sculpture that you start carving. Like a big rock inside of which is your project, and you’re getting rid of the rest.