Bad Trip: A Conversation with Sebastián Silva on Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic
Sebastián Silva is that rare filmmaker who manages to be both independent and prolific. With five features and a Digital HBO series under his belt, plus three new projects in the works, the 34-year-old writer/director shows little sign of slowing down. At Sundance this year, Silva premiered not one but two new films, the improvisational road trip comedy Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus and 2012, and the dark psychological thriller Magic Magic.
Both films, made in quick succession, were shot in the director’s native Chile, center on the erratic adventures of displaced Americans, and feature effectively off-kilter performances by Michael Cera. While Magic Magic was the larger production and stars Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) and features stunning digital cinematography by Chris Doyle, it was the looser and more laid back Crystal Fairy that garnered the Silva the Directing Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) in Park City this year.
Silva (one of Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces”) previously won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for The Maid in 2009. A South American variation on The Servant (1963), this tightly focused portrait of a 40-year-old maid, who begins to unravel after twenty years of service for an upper class family in Santiago, begins as a domestic horror film and ends as warm comedy-drama. It proved Silva’s skill at rendering twisted power dynamics and demonstrated his knack for keeping audiences on edge.
This attention to character psychology and a refusal to adhere to genre conventions — as well as a certain taste for the absurd — are hallmarks of Silva’s work. They are what give his two latest films dramatic tension, and also make them highly entertaining. Crystal Fairy, which plays Friday (6/21) at BAMcinemaFest and will be released next month by IFC Films, may be Silva’s ticket to a wider audience, thanks in large part to Cera’s name and a scene-stealing performance by Gaby Hoffman as the titular character, a delusional New Age vagabond given to spontaneous stripping.
Cera plays Jamie, an entitled American whose main concern is getting to the next high. We meet him at a house party in Santiago, where, between lines of coke, he is momentarily transfixed by a dancing Crystal Fairy, and compelled on a whim to invite her along on a road trip he’s planned with his Chilean amigos to partake of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. He later regrets the invitation, but it’s too late. Forced to bring her along, the trip becomes a test of wills between Crystal’s damaged maternal shaman and Jamie’s self-centered and increasingly isolated quest for the perfect high.
Silva sat down with Filmmaker last week at a café near his Fort Greene home to talk about the real Crystal Fairy, laughing when you’re not supposed to, and why he wants to make a kids movie next.
Filmmaker: What are the last few films you’ve seen?
Silva: The last one I saw was The Bling Ring. I was really bored. I really like the premise and I had really high expectations. It felt extremely repetitive. I really like The Virgin Suicides. She cared about her characters. After that, [her films] have felt like a fashion shoots for magazines, with music. It’s pretty and elegant, but pretty and elegant is to decorate a living room, not to make a movie.
I also revisited Home Alone and really enjoyed it. That movie made me so happy when I was a kid, man. I remember laughing hysterically in the theater with my cousins in Chile. I think if I ever go commercial, that’s the direction I’d like to go — more than stupid romantic comedies or tacky thrillers. I think it would be a kids movie. Home Alone is the biggest reference if I go commercial.
Filmmaker: You made Crystal Fairy while waiting for financing for Magic Magic and the story is based on your own experience with San Pedro.
Silva: I think I was 21 and me and my buddy wanted to go to the desert to take San Pedro. I’d taken it once before and it hadn’t worked. We decided to go to this national park, Pan de Azúcar (in the Atacama desert region), to take [the drug]. We had it all planned out, but then I went to this Whalers concert, and I was really high, dancing with friends, and then I ran into Crystal Fairy, this woman from San Francisco. She had a shaved head, [piercings] everywhere, and weird tattoos. We became instant buddies at the concert and we wound up talking about this trip [to the desert] and then invited her. My friend was like, “Are you sure you want her to come?” And then I was like, “Yeah, maybe not.” Then we decided not to go with her and we took off in a bus by ourselves, but when we got there, she was there! She got mugged by gypies, too — not like Gaby does in the film, getting assaulted by a gang — she just had her earrings stolen. So, we sort of had to adopt her and bring her along on the trip to take the San Pedro, but I actually got along with Crystal Fairy. I was a fairy myself and we were really into esoteric stuff together. She was definitely a character and we were very amused by her. After the night where we took the San Pedro and all confessed our deepest fears or traumas [laughs], she decided to take off, like she does in the movie. We actually said goodbye and it was sweet, but I never saw her again.
Filmmaker: Has she not contacted you, now that there’s a film named after her?
Silva: No! I tried to find her on the Internet. I was in San Francisco and couldn’t find her.
Filmmaker: You first worked with Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman on The Boring Life of Jacqueline, the HBO series you wrote. How did you meet them?
Silva: Michael reached out to me because he’d seen The Maid. He was escaping from the rain and didn’t want to be outside, so that’s why he went to see the film. It was the only movie playing and the timing was right. He loved it and his manager contacted me. I happened to be in L.A. for the Golden Globes and we met at The Standard and were good friends immediately. We clicked so fast — humor-wise, and common sense and the movies we like. I invited him to collaborate on the HBO project. He said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So I wrote a tiny part for him, and that was our first collaboration. With Gaby, we were casting, and she was there and her energy was clearly stronger than anybody else in the room. It was actually scary. The character needed to speak French and Gaby lied and said she could speak French. But she was sweet, and we got along.
Filmmaker: You and Michael seem to share a similar comic sensibility.
Silva: There is a [shared] comic sensibility, but not only that. I mean, he makes me laugh a lot. He’s one of the few people who can make me laugh just sitting there. Just by interrupting other people, he makes me laugh. Also, I saw this [other] side to him. I’d seen very few of his movies when we met. I’m not really a big fan of those movies, but I could see that he’s a genius. He’s a very precocious kid — very smart, very cultured, very savvy, very sensitive. I felt that he hadn’t done anything different in a long time. He was getting typecast.
Filmmaker: With Crystal Fairy, you were not working from a script, correct?
Silva: I had a very short treatment, about 12 pages. It was all actions. I worked out the dialogue together with [the actors]. It was risky but it was really fun and the fact that [it was based on my own] experience made me feel very safe. There was a lot of improvisation with the dialogue, and how it was delivered, but before every single scene [I gave the actors specific actions]. I would say, “Gaby, just pick up chamomile from the ground and show it to Michael, and Michael, you’re going to say, ‘Grab it, take it!’” We knew the characters so well it was very easy to give them directions for each scene. It was so much easier than I thought, doing an improv film. It became a new way of making movies for me, and I’m ready to do it again now.
Filmmaker: How did the experience of making Crystal Fairy influence how you approached Magic Magic?
Silva: Crystal Fairy made me much more confident with my decisions on set with Magic Magic. I really found myself making decisions as we shot. Yes, the screenplay was great guide to have, but locations determined so much. I found myself being extremely open to hidden elements in locations and hidden narrative tweaks. If I hadn’t made Crystal Fairy, I would have stuck much more to the screenplay in Magic Magic. We would improve [parts of the screenplay] and just let the camera run. Scenes that I felt were not necessary, we would decide not to do.
Filmmaker: Your two previous films, The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2011), take place entirely in domestic spaces. They’re claustrophobic movies. Crystal Fairy is set predominantly in the desert. Can you talk about how this affected your shooting style?
Silva: With Crystal Fairy, I never really had shots in my head beforehand. It’s really a movie where the photography is determined by the actors. It had to adapt. I guess it was secondary. It was basically capturing the experience, and it looks great. We shot on the RED EPIC. The cinematographer was a first-timer, and he was really sweet, which counts a lot for me. He’s a very amazing person and very adaptable. He worked as a focus-puller for billions of years and he was highly recommended. It was a movie that needed a really humble d.p., you know? A really precious d.p. would have gone crazy, because I would snatch the camera out of their hands a lot of times because we were rushing so much and I knew exactly what I wanted. I would do a 45-minute take and ask the actors to repeat actions four times and never say “Cut,” you know?
Filmmaker: You don’t really do rehearsals.
Silva: No, I don’t. Rehearsals are really weird for me. I spend as much time as I can with the actors [before shooting], getting to know them as people. They get to know each other so well that they feel they can play around and be extremely spontaneous around each other.
Filmmaker: Your films are often about power dynamics. Crystal Fairy is really a face-off between Michael’s Jamie and Gaby’s Crystal. The drug aspect of the narrative is almost secondary.
Silva: I love that you say that because a lot of people — like Indiewire, for instance, the headline was “drug movie.” It’s such a mistake to think that it’s a drug movie. It’s not Fear and Loathing. It is secondary. The fact that the drug experience is never subjective, it’s never from the character’s [POV]. It’s basically something you witness from the outside. The movie never gets psychedelic. I personally can feel the high much more when I witness it like that, than when it’s [made visual].
Filmmaker: This gets to an issue with all of your films, which is that your films don’t really conform to genre. For American markets, Crystal Fairy is a “drug comedy,” and Magic Magic is a “thriller.” But they all mix comedy, drama, and elements of horror.
Silva: I don’t understand this obsession with genres for movies. [Filmmaking] is such an industry and such a market, that people just want to know where the tomatoes and where the watermelons are. Nobody wants an Asian pear any more! [Laughs] No, but you know what I’m saying. Sony helped us finance Magic Magic and the screenplay has always been what the movie is — a weird, hard-to-define movie where the audience is in the dark for most of it. You don’t know what’s going on with Alicia (Juno Temple) and with Brink (Michael Cera). That’s what makes it so disturbing. [The film] was directly inspired by Polanski. With Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, you don’t know if you should be laughing or not. They’re so funny at times and yet the main characters are going through such tragic [experiences]. They’re really suffering, and you find yourself laughing at Ruth Gordon. You feel confused. Magic Magic is campy at times. All of that was [in the screenplay] and we talked about it with the Sony people and they went for it, we made it, and then when it came out they were surprised. They tried to change it into a horror film. Finally, they decided to go straight to VOD and not have a theatrical release because it’s too hard to market.
Filmmaker: That’s a shame because it really deserves to be seen on the big screen. Chris Doyle’s cinematography is really beautiful. Killer Films was a financing partner on Magic Magic.
Silva: Yes, Killer is great. They were involved, and so was Rip Cord, which is Mike White’s production company.
Filmmaker: He was also involved in your HBO series. I feel that you two have a similar sensibility, in terms of telling stories with unexpected tonal shifts.
Silva: I’m surprised that people don’t like that more. Am I the only one? I don’t want to go to a movie where they’re promising that I’m going to be laughing all the time. I feel pressured. The biggest tumor in the American film industry is predictability. They are addicted to it. They can’t stop making remakes. It’s sickening. I live for surprises. I want to be surprised; otherwise I’m bored. I want to be surprised by people, by the weather, by everything.
Filmmaker: What’s the film scene like in Chile?
Silva: It’s not such a big industry. [Filmmakers] are coming from a very honest place, and they just hope that festivals like their films. They want to please audiences and to make a decent product. Some of them. There are others that are crowd-pleasers who are making romantic comedies, and [these filmmakers] don’t really care about making something a little more meaningful, you know?
Filmmaker: You’ve also worked with Pablo Larraín, who directed No.
Silva: He produced Crystal Fairy and he’s producing my new Brooklyn movie. We’re good friends, man. I met [brothers Pablo and Juan Larraín] a very, very long time ago. They were so trusting with me and they produced my first movie [Life Kills Me]. I had never even made a short film or anything. It was totally new to me and they just decided to produce my screenplay. I am ever grateful for that.
Filmmaker: I imagine that Pablo’s films are well received in Chile, too, but do people go out to see them in the cinema there?
Silva: I guess no. His last movie did well — it was nominated for an Academy Award. I guess it was big in Chile, too, because of the press. But his other movies are really tiny. Very few people [went] to see Tony Manero and Post Mortem.
Filmmaker: After The Maid, you were asked about the film’s political meaning, and your response was that you weren’t trying to make a political statement.
Silva: I’m always more interested in the psychological arc of my characters. I’m never thinking of the political impact of my movies [when I’m making them]. That would be such a weird thing. It’s not a weird thing to think about, but to create from there would be strange for me. I guess I’m more of a storyteller than I am political. Politics are so intrinsic to life. Whatever you do, you can find politics there.
Filmmaker: Class difference seems to be a recurrent them in your films, either explicitly or implicitly. In Crystal Fairy, we see these well-off kids driving around in a Suburban from the city trying to buy a cactus off the poor villagers.
Silva: Yes, but it comes with the geography. I guess in Chile the class difference is more obvious somehow. I am aware of the political content of my movies, but it’s really secondary. It’s something I appreciate after I’ve done the movie. For instance, they asked me in L.A. about the decision of making Jamie and Crystal American, and both of them being so lost and selfish, and was it a commentary on Americans? And it really wasn’t. Jamie is my alter ego. I was never thinking of his American heritage. But then, it’s there. It only makes sense that people would think that it’s intentional or that I’m making a social commentary on that. And maybe I am, but I’m not really aware while I’m making it.
Filmmaker: One of your new films will be about a young gay kid. In this case, the political content is conscious.
Silva: Second Child is the story of [a kid] who visits the closet but doesn’t stay. It’s also a very fun adventure movie with a baby fox that the kid kidnaps and takes to the forest. It’s a bit like Stand by Me. It will be filmed upstate in October. We already have a great cast attached. I’ve been trying to make this movie for four or five years now. It’s not going to be a dense political sad movie about early homosexuality. It’s going to be a fun coming-of-age story with a lot of other elements. It just happens that the main character is gay. And he’s eight.
The movie comes from a very, very personal place. I went through those things that the kid is going through in the movie. Not all of them — it’s very fictionalized. I don’t know about controversial, but I can’t wait to be talking about it. Homosexuality is what I feel more qualified to talk about in terms of politics. It’s so fucked up how homosexuality is not yet accepted entirely. It’s just so jarring. I don’t care so much any more about convincing straight people that gay people are normal. I care more about the kids being born and gay from the very beginning. The question of why a kid needs to go into the closet is my new question. Why do people need to go in there in the first place? It’s taken for granted that gays need to come out. Sexual education is a fucking mess. In America, people are more scared of genitals than they are of nuclear weapons!
Filmmaker: You’re writing pretty much entirely in English these days.
Silva: I do write in English, but for instance this last movie I just wrote called Captain Dad, which is a bigger movie and happens on a boat in the Caribbean, I wrote entirely in Spanish. It’s based on a family trip that I had last Christmas and it’s and the way we speak is so specific to our family, so I had to write in Spanish.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the film you’re making this summer.
Silva: It is going to be the same thing exact thing as Crystal Fairy — no screenplay. It’s called Nasty Baby and it’s about a gay couple trying to impregnate their friend, a straight woman. There’s also a side story about a squatter that moves into a brownstone nearby. It takes place in Fort Greene, and it’s really based on my life here in Brooklyn. I’m going to be starring in it with Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. He will be my boyfriend.
Filmmaker: You seem to be working more rapidly with the new films.
Silva: I feel that there are movies like Crystal Fairy or Nasty Baby that can really be pulled out in three months. There are people who take six years writing screenplay. I’m like, “Let it go.” If the story doesn’t come just doesn’t come naturally and freely and spontaneously, you’re trying too hard. I’m really not trying to change the world with my movies. I’m just trying to have a good time and to collaborate with fun, smart people. I’m not trying to make masterpieces.