Sebastian Silva, The Maid
Sebastián Silva could seemingly make a career out of a variety of creative pursuits, however at the moment it is on filmmaking that he is focusing all his attention. Silva was born in Santiago, the capital of Chile, in 1979, and grew up attending a Catholic school in the city. Though from a young age it was clear that he had a talent for art, after finishing high school he went to study film at the Escuela de Cine in Santiago. After a year, however, he quit to move to Montreal to learn animation. Since then, Silva has been constantly busy with a range of projects. He had a gallery show of his drawings while working as a shoe salesman, and later another show in New York City. He started the faux rap group CHC with Gabriel Diaz (also a cinematographer) and musician Pedro Subercaseaux, and the band has now released three albums. He was behind the groups Yaia and Los Mono, and has recorded a solo album. And he spent a period of time in Hollywood working as a gardener and obsessively seeking out Steven Spielberg to pitch him a movie idea. In 2007, Silva made his directorial debut with La Vida Me Mata, a black-and-white comedy with absurdist overtones which won the Best Film award from the Chilean Critics Circle.
While his first film was a success in his home country, the New York-based Silva has made his breakthrough movie with his sophomore effort, The Maid. Set in present day Santiago, the film is centered on the eponymous Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), an abrasive, overworked housekeeper who has been with the same family for over 20 years. When she collapses one day, the family decides to hire another live-in maid to help lighten her excessive workload, however Raquel responds negatively to the idea, seeing it as the first step to her becoming obsolete. One of the great strengths of Silva’s film is that is takes a different direction from what we initially suspect, as the potentially predictable set-up involving an increasingly unhinged domestic servant is given an intelligent and humanistic spin. Dark, funny and ultimately touching, The Maid shows Silva’s increasing assurance as both writer and director while Saavedra – who is in almost every scene – delivers a complex, nuanced performance that is easily one of the best of 2009.
Filmmaker spoke to Silva about his personal experience with live-in maids, shooting the film in his childhood home, and ending up at a self-help meeting in a Santa hat.
Filmmaker: When did you first think about making this film?
Silva: The film was shot in February in 2008, and about nine months before that I started thinking about the idea. In the beginning, we wanted to make a really cheap film. It’s already really cheap – it cost us between $250,000 and $300,000 – but I was thinking more of making a film for $20,000. (You always have those idealistic production scenarios, but they never come true.) The idea was to make a really tiny film at my parents’ house, which is where we finally shot it, but it just got bigger. It was 2007 that I started thinking about the film, and that year I released my first film. My sister’s boyfriend mentioned something about the maids that worked at my parents’ house and this Lucy-Raquel kind of story that took place between two of them. He said, “What do you think about that?” I said, “That sounds like a good film. I could totally write about live-in maids.” That’s something that I really knew about, and it’s a really striking phenomenon for everybody. I felt like, “I have so much to tell about this!” So I started writing the screenplay, aiming to end up with this story between Lucy and Raquel. Everything that happens before that is a mix of memories and experiences that I went through, together with some fiction that I added to the story with my co-writer, Pedro [Peirano] (who I also co-wrote my first film with).
Filmmaker: What were your own experiences of having a live-in maid?
Silva: The first memory I have of maids that worked in my house has a rebellious feeling to it. It was because they were a third authority – I already had a father and a mother, and they were another authority figure at home that you didn’t want to be bossed around by. It was like, “Who are you, lady? Whoa, whoa, whoa! Nobody tells me when to eat!” I started feeling awkward having someone at home 24/7 and feeling that her authority was less than my parents’. Also, they were more illiterate than everybody else in the house, and we were much younger than them and already knew stuff that they didn’t know, so you would feel a little superior, in a way. All those factors together either makes you act like a fucking asshole towards them, feel superior, ignore them, or feel a little sympathy. But it wasn’t just sympathy, it was guilt, and I didn’t like that, because I wasn’t responsible: “Man, she’s hired here, I didn’t do anything.” We didn’t really get along, so my experience wasn’t exactly negative, but it was confusing and the emotional relationship I had with her was unsolved until now. I think the film has helped me a lot to overcome this, and it’s been very therapeutic for myself and my family and also the maids that work st my house.
Filmmaker: Is the Raquel character directly based on the maid you grew up with?
Silva: Yes. She was working with my family until I made the film, then I showed her the film, and she quit after two weeks. Since then, she’s been away living with someone that she loves and she has a car and she has her own life. I do see her sometimes on Skype, and say “Hey, how are you?” She liked the film a lot and I think it was great for her too to see herself portrayed in such a fair way. Even though it’s sad in a sense, I think the story is of someone who redeems herself so it has a positive attitude and it’s based on, it’s not her. The character of Raquel is much stronger than the real maid is – it’s a cinematic character.
Filmmaker: Is she as an extreme a character as Raquel?
Silva: There are some things that I used that I don’t really regret but were a little extreme, like the hairdo. She had the same hairdo when I was growing up. I used a lot of personal things of hers, like I shot the movie at my parents’ house and Raquel’s room is her real room. I didn’t change the bed covers, I used the same TV set and the same picture frames, the same photo album. Everything is the same, I even took some photos that she had in her photo album and retouched the actress’ face in on top of her face. I went really deep, and she knew that and agreed with that. I showed that I wasn’t exploiting that, just trying to be as real as possible. At some points, I was like, “I don’t need to go that far into reality, I could fake that,” and then I would make something up and say, “Why would I make it up?! The real shit is so much better.” It just made sense, it was perfect. I took the risk of creating such an accurate portrait of my family intimacy, but I walked out victoriously.
Filmmaker: What was it like for you to make a film in your childhood home?
Silva: Technically, it was really comfortable because we had the chance with the DP to do some storyboarding beforehand, I had the keys to the location, and 85% of the film takes place in that house. I’d lived there for 10 years, so I knew every single corner, I knew all the dynamics of each room, so that made the writing and the shooting pretty organic.
Filmmaker: What about your emotional response to shooting there?
Silva: It just felt so like home that I don’t remember any weird feeling. At the beginning, I guess, having 40 strangers walking around with tripods and lights all over my parents’ house and actors sitting on my parents’ bed and an actress dressing up as my mother and wearing the same pajamas as my mother was weird, but I got used to it. Then, all of a sudden, on the third day, it was like, “Whoa, I’m at home. And I’m filming my family!” It was stressful, and there were points with the stress that I would go to a bathroom, lock myself in and pant in front of the mirror, like, “Fuck, what’s going on, what’s going on?” But I think that was because were shooting 12 scenes a day.
Filmmaker: How much were you influenced by things like Jean Genet’s The Maids?
Silva: Or Buñuel films. Well, I haven’t seen those films and I was told to watch them before I made this film, but I didn’t. It’s something that I would never do. Every time you make a film about something, people are like “Oh, you have to read The Odyssey, you have to watch this Buñuel film, you have to read this book about a maid written in Slovenia…” That’s exactly what I don’t want to do; I want to go to my writing desk and write without any influence from things. So what I did was I got more influenced by talking to the maids at my house and doing emotional research about them, how they feel at my parents’, how was the first week that they were working at a stranger’s house and serving then, how was it to wear a new uniform for the first time. I was more intrigued by that stuff rather than art pieces about maids. And clearly I’m not intrigued now, as I haven’t seen them. But at some point I will.
Filmmaker: The film is centered around the performance of Catalina Saavedra, who you wrote the role of Raquel for, but I believe she initially said she didn’t want to be in the movie.
Silva: She wasn’t really excited. She has played several roles as maids in Chile before this one, but I don’t watch any TV and I’m not in Chile that often so I was unaware of that when I offered it to her. But I found out later that she had done, like, seven different maids before this one. When I worked with her on my first film, she had a secondary, comedic role and I was totally in love with her performance and her exceptional talent, so I told her that together with my co-writer I was going to write specially something for her. Then I called her and said, “I have the perfect project for you,” and she said, “What is it called?” When I said, “It’s called La Nana,” she was like, “Fuck you, man, you can do better than that, Sebastian, please! I’ve done fucking eight maids – what are you talking about?” I said, “No, I promise this will be better. It’s a humane character, it has two sides…” And then she read the screenplay and she liked it, because it’s nothing like she’s played before. Every other maid she’s played was a caricature, either really spicy or bitchy, or a thief, or a fat maid who ate all day. She was a human being. She did a great, great job. She’s 80% of the film and I seriously wouldn’t allow her to refuse my invitation. I don’t think I would have done the film without her.
Filmmaker: You’re not just a filmmaker, you’re an artist and a musician as well, so how do all your creative pursuits fit together? Do the other activities also inform your filmmaking?
Silva: Filmmaking is the main thing, I guess, but I do keep my drawing and painting and illustrating pretty much alive. I have made several music albums and I sing on all of them and I do write lyrics and I’m good at coming up with poppy melodies. But I’m not a musician. You give me a guitar, and I’ll give you a sad spectacle. Music is a hobby and I’m planning on keeping it as a hobby, because it’s really relieving to create songs. Painting is the thing that I’ve done the most in my life, so I take that very seriously. I haven’t shown my work in many places and I’m not rushing to do it. I’m keeping it for myself until I can show it somewhere nice. I started making films five years ago, and it seems like I’ve got talent for it. I definitely feel very comfortable directing, and I think drawing and illustrating have given me a sense of composition and picturing scenes beforehand very accurately. I can really close my eyes and see the movie, and that’s thanks to my drawing abilities and my abilities to put ideas on paper.
Filmmaker: In your bio, it says that you tried to go down a more mainstream route in Hollywood before you decided to make indie movies.
Silva: [laughs] My experience in Hollywood really has nothing to do with the film industry. It was actually a crazy, schizophrenic quest that I had when I was 21 years old and I went there in search of Steven Spielberg with a crazy project to save humanity. It’s another film, and there’s actually a screenplay for that story. It’s called May I Talk to Steven Spielberg?. I was not trying to make a living as a filmmaker, I was working as a gardener and smoking marijuana every day. I working for this eccentric family in Bel Air and looking for Spielberg. That was my life in Hollywood, and I ended up in a self-help meeting wearing a Santa Claus hat, wearing a name tag and sharing my misery with fat people.
Filmmaker: When you were a teenager, whose pin-up poster did you have on your wall?
Silva: When I was a teenager, I had a poster of Goofy and Bambi. Seriously. And maybe Ren and Stimpy, and probably the Beatles. And then my drawings and stuffed animals. I was never a fan of any filmmaker. Ever. Now that I’ve been making films, I’ve been watching more films and there are definitely a lot of filmmakers that I really admire, but I never had a poster of theirs on my wall. If there’s a filmmaker I worship in my life, it’s Walt Disney. Seriously. He has contributed to my imagination the most, I think.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Silva: Robin Williams is in it. Of course. It’s called Death to Smoochy, or something. I think Danny DeVito is in it too. That film is quite embarrassing. And I didn’t see it on a plane, but the film where Robin Williams plays a robot [Bicentennial Man] is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was your cinematic epiphany?
Silva: There are three films: Harold and Maude, Stand by Me, Scenes from a Marriage. Those are the three films that made me go, “Oh, my God, I want to do something like this.”