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Interview: Sebastián Silva on Nasty Baby, Kristen Wiig, and More

The seemingly unguarded Silva discusses what makes Wiig’s sense of humor so special and why it’s hard to kill a hipster.

Interview: Sebastián Silva on Nasty Baby, Kristen Wiig, and More
Photo: The Orchard

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.

I think that’s partly because of how you structure the movie, and it’s also because the two other main actors are Tunde Adebimpe and Kristen Wiig. All three of you can be very astute about the ridiculous or dark side of human nature, but you also have a lightness of spirit and kindness about you, so even when it’s at its harshest, your work never feels mean.

I’ve learned so much kindness from these two people, especially Kristen. She’s so damn funny, honestly one of the funniest persons I have ever met, and yet she never makes fun of people. Her humor never comes from taking advantage of somebody’s disabilities or flaws. She’s always coming from such a positively absurd place. Genuinely good people, the two of them. I’m more of the asshole. I could be charming, but I have those anger-management problems, and Freddy is a little bit more on edge. But you’re right. I feel that the casting helps so much for the audience not to judge [the characters]. Because it’s hard not to like them.

You don’t usually act in your movies—or anyone else’s, for that matter. What made you decide to star in this one?

Yeah, this is my sixth feature film, and it did feel very challenging to play a lead in a movie. It felt like a new fear to overcome. I like when I am a little scared [by a new challenge]. And if I was not going to be the lead actor, I don’t think I was going to be scared at all, because I’ve shot small movies like this before.

You collaborated with Pedro Peirano on all your films through Old Cats. Did your way of working change after you started writing and directing on your own?

He’s the one that I always go to for approval and validation. Every time I write something, it’s still like, “Can you read, please?” But I don’t think Pedro would ever direct something out of an outline. It would never be his style.

So you got a little looser in your way of working when you started working alone?

Yeah. With Crystal Fairy and Nasty Baby.

And Magic Magic?

Magic Magic was a planned movie with a full screenplay, but it took forever to get it done, and in the process of waiting I decided to make Crystal Fairy. This movie came about in the process of waiting to make Captain Dad, which is a bigger movie that I’ve been trying to make. And I’m, like, “This is taking too long and I really want to put my hands on something, so why not make something small?” First I drafted a solid, sort of fleshed-out storyline that was about 12 or 15 pages, and I showed it to producers and they were like, “We like it. Just get a good actress, a good cast, and we’ll see if we can finance it.” And then I made it into a more fleshed-out 20-page outline, a screenplay with no dialogue. That’s what an outline for an unscripted movie becomes, to me. There’s no dialogue, but you know exactly what’s going on.

So you would just rehearse with the actors to get the dialogue?

We would rehearse it right on the spot, and I always record the rehearsals.

On film?

Yeah, I film everything.

So are there things in the movie from your rehearsals?

Yeah, sure. I don’t even know what. You go for the first take, and usually it’s longer because everybody wants to talk more. You don’t know how long you should talk or where you should stand, so you do a first take, which is a mess. Second take, it’s a little better because you correct things. And on the third take, you’ve basically got it. Everyone is comfortable with what they’re doing and saying. I usually do seven, eight, nine takes, and by the ninth take we have a scripted movie. That’s what improv means to me: You basically write something with the actors, on the spot. I really advise people to do that. Even if you have a scripted movie, because it’s so good to see how it would go if it wasn’t scripted. Because you’re in the location, you’re with the people, the dynamics are so alive that maybe the shitty dialogue you wrote a year ago just sitting in your living room by yourself now feels really stale. And forced into a real context of that spontaneity can make it sublime and just so real.

Alia Shawkat, who plays Freddy’s assistant, was also a producer on this movie.

Yeah! So fancy! [laughs]

I think that’s a first for her, isn’t it? What did she do for you as a producer?

Yeah, she never did it before. We teased her about being a big producer, but she truly did so much to help me make the movie. She was the one who introduced me to Kristen and Tunde, so that’s enough right there; she made the movie happen. Because without Kristen I don’t think we could have gotten funded so quickly, and then there’s the energy that Tunde brings, and the fans of Tunde who will know about the movie. They both have fans in the best way possible. And Alia actually wants to produce now more, which makes total sense. She knows so many people and she’s so charming. She also has really good taste. I think she’ll be a great producer.

Is your cat named after Toni Morrison’s Sula?

No. Wow. No. I think that one is spelled with an S. This is Zula with a Z. It’s an Abyssinian cat. I bought this cat and I made the producers pay for it, because I said, “I think Freddy needs a really fancy cat.” So I got the cat, and then I named her after the first Abyssinian that ever had a name.

Are more of your movies going to be set in the United States?

Yeah. I live here now. I’ve been here for so long. On Old Cats, which was right after The Maid, I went to Chile and shot it there, but I was already living in the United States. I like going back and forth, but I feel that Chile now has become an element in my movies that’s a little bit repetitive. My first films were Chilean, so it just makes sense that they were there and they were spoken in Spanish. Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy happened in Chile too, but they’re sort of American movies with American actors: English-spoken films. I just don’t want Chile as an element ever again in my movies. I’m sick of it. I love Chile, but it just feels a little random—a little too whimsical. It’s like, all of a sudden I started making movies about New Zealand. I do know really well the subtleties of Chileans and stuff, but I think I’m really good at observing humans overall, so I’d rather bring that here where I live. And English-spoken things have way more reach, and I’m really looking to reach a bigger audience. Not because I want their money or anything, but I’m doing these things to have a dialogue with people, you know? So the more people watch my stuff, the more satisfied I feel as a communicator.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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