Writer-director Sebastián Silva makes smart, funny movies about the messy business of human relationships, putting his characters into complicated situations that often feel both deadly serious and slightly absurd. His films explore the rifts caused by money (or the lack thereof) and social class, from the upper-middle-class urban Chilean family and their quietly rebellious servant in The Maid, to the happily scruffy, arty/intellectual aging parents and their resentful, more materialistic daughter in Old Cats, to the obnoxious American tourists in search of an exotic high and the rural Chileans who tolerate them graciously in Crystal Fairy.
Shot in Silva’s apartment in Fort Greene, and featuring his own furnishings and cat, his latest, Nasty Baby, concerns a happy couple, Freddy (Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe), trying to have a baby with their close friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig). For much of the film, their main problem seems to be Polly’s inability to conceive. Then a running battle Freddy wages with The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), a mentally unstable neighbor, escalates into a shocking third-act showdown, and a charming comedy of manners—albeit an unusually perceptive and realistic one—warps into a deeply unsettling morality tale.
On the eve of Nasty Baby’s release, I spoke to a warm, seemingly unguarded Silva about how he manipulates his audience, what makes Wiig’s sense of humor so special, and why it’s hard to kill a hipster.
There’s a lot in this film that feels like creative-class Brooklyn: the parties, the mainstreaming of gay culture, that ridiculous video Freddy is making and the pretentious gallery owner who plans to exhibit it, the clash between The Bishop and his neighbors. When you were thinking about making it, how much of what interested you was writing about life in gentrified Brooklyn?
To be honest, the confrontation between the sort of hipster-y neighbors and this borderline schizophrenic, homeless-slash-squatter figure, The Bishop, was taken from a man who was my neighbor in a gentrified area in Santiago that I lived in. He was always carrying a stick around and being aggressive, to women particularly, and if you didn’t give him money he would bitch at you. He was just a pain in the ass to everybody, so I would fantasize about killing him. I was like, “This motherfucker! If I would kill him, nobody would even care.” That’s me walking to the subway, in my stressed-out mind. It’s not like I’m a serial killer or an awful person, but it’s just my imagination running wild.
Did you ever have an nasty encounter with him, the way Freddy does with The Bishop in the movie?
I don’t think we ever talked. Or maybe he once yelled at me and I was, like, “Shut the fuck up,” something short like that. I lived in a building where I think I was the only young man. It was a building inhabited by old ladies. And I was, like, they would totally help me if I hit this man with a brick. I was thinking, “Okay, so I hit him with a brick and he falls. Then I would have to bring him inside my house, but then, if my neighbors see me, they’d be, like, ’Yeah!’ And they’d maybe even help me clean up.” [laughs] It would be so easy. Way easier than killing another hipster who annoys me because of the way he wears clothes or because he’s smoking electronic cigarettes, right? Like, I’d be in trouble. But to kill a schizophrenic crazy person everybody hates, an unwanted man that has no real connections, would be so easy.
This is a very manipulative movie, in the way that I make the audience identify with these characters and like them, even though they’re not heroes. Some of them are annoying. Polly is really bourgie, and Mo is kind of a pushover. They’re not heroes, but they’re people that we can relate to, and they’re trying to do something that we’ve all thought about, which is creating a family, so your heart sort of softens for them. It’s a nice thing they want to do, you know? I make my audience engage with these characters as long as I can. I make them commit this crime in the second half of the third act, which is very unorthodox, narratively speaking. Past minute 80, you’re expecting the movie to end with some good news, but all of a sudden it sort of starts again, with the accident. So by the time they commit this crime, the audience has a really hard time judging them and they cannot condemn them so easily. You’ve also made the audience hate The Bishop, but The Bishop is just a victim of himself. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just an asshole.
And actually, what he does isn’t that terrible.
Exactly. Maybe it could escalate, because we show that it does escalate from just harassing Polly to grabbing her. But he never went that far, but then again, we never allowed it. He got killed before anything could happen.
I’ve seen Bishops in Brooklyn, many times, just men in a place that doesn’t belong to them anymore, but they were there before any of these white or [gesturing to himself] Latino gentrifiers got there. And they’re stragglers now. There are so many homeless people that just have no place to go. They’re seen as a threat just because they’re not wearing fancy clothes or drinking cappuccino, but they’re just struggling to survive there, you know? This movie came out at a time in America when we’ve seen all of these killings by the police. There are unprivileged people that get killed in front of cameras, and there’s no justice. There’s truly no justice. There are kids, black kids, that are being killed by white policemen. They’re on camera, and [the police] still get away with it. There are people that can be murdered in this country, and nobody does anything about it.
So yeah, what I’m saying is that they’re not killing a killer, a sadist, a torturing pedophile. I’m not saying that anybody deserves to die. But I’m saying that he’s not somebody that you should hate so much that you are, like, happy that they kill him. But people [in the audience] actually feel more empathy with the perpetrators of the crime than with the victim, which is a moral twist. Morality is about what people deserve within a context, and the context of this is purposely built in the most ambiguous way. Freddy just heard that he’s going to be a father, so it starts as an accident, but then he’s doing it for the good of his family. And all of a sudden you find yourself rooting for the perpetrators of the crime.