Interview: Sebastian Silva
“There are two types of people,” Sebastian Silva said following the Sundance premiere of Nasty Baby. “People who care about spoilers and people who don’t. I don’t give a shit. This movie should work even if people know the ending.” Ostensibly a breezy dramedy about a progressive Brooklyn trio trying to get pregnant, it’s no spoiler at this point to reveal that the Chilean director’s latest film takes a hard left in its final act. It’s Silva’s most divisive work yet, picking up the freewheeling style of Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus (13) and shifting the class concerns of The Maid (09) into high gear.
Playing the lead role as an exaggerated variation on himself, the Brooklyn-based Silva plays Freddy, a performance artist whose current project provides the movie with its title. In the opening scene we watch Silva transform into an infant in front of a captivated museum curator: limbs loose, facial muscles slack, he rolls around on the floor making grotesque (if impressively accurate) goo-goo-ga-ga noises. It’s quickly revealed that babies are as much the focal point of Freddy’s personal life as they are of his art: he’s been trying to conceive with a surrogate mother—his best friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig). But when Freddy learns he’s infertile, the two turn instead to Freddy’s even-tempered partner, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe), for some viable sperm.
Nasty Baby portrays its alternative family-in-the-making with wonderfully naturalistic nonchalance. Staging the action largely within his own sun-flooded apartment in Fort Greene, Silva is clearly more concerned with depicting a certain lifestyle than he is with probing the psychologies of his characters. Replete with sage sticks, acoustic guitar lessons, and a fake fire roaring on the screen of Freddy’s MacBook Pro—these people are gentrification incarnate. The only disruption to their otherwise charmed lives is the increasingly disruptive squatter down the street who calls himself The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey).
An unpredictable, clearly unstable, and distinctly urban force of nature, The Bishop ranges from annoying (waking Freddy up at 6 every morning with his leaf blower) to dangerous (nearly assaulting Polly on the street one evening). Through his character the film pivots into some dark territory to raise hard questions of race and class—even if it’s only to leave them unanswered.
In conversation Silva is laid back and warmly engaged, and is quick to laugh at himself: when he says he doesn’t take himself too seriously, you actually believe him. FILM COMMENT sat down with the director in Park City this past January to talk about the audience’s reaction to his film—which screens on June 20 in BAMcinemaFest—and why every adult should try being a baby at least once.
Nasty Baby was extremely polarizing at Sundance, and audiences seem to focus on the question of its tonal shift toward the end. What did you think of the experience?
The question has made me think a lot about what people are used to in terms of narrative and the filmic experience. Why not [do it] is the easiest answer, but what are the other options? What is the right third act for the movie if it’s not the one I decided to make? The way that I perceive tragedy is that there is no tragedy… until there is tragedy. In some cases it is announced in a way that’s a little more gradual. But think of any murder, think of any bomb, think of any tragedy. People are living like my characters are living until a bomb explodes or until somebody gets cancer or until somebody gets shot or someone’s kidnapped. That’s how darkness comes in—exactly as it does in the movie—and it seems like people have a lot of trouble accepting that.
Well, it’s breaking from what they teach at NYU.
[Laughs] Exactly. It’s a little bit of an experiment, too. But I’m not doing it just because of sadistic impulses. The movie doesn’t just change its tone but its style. Stylistically it becomes a completely different movie. But that’s what life feels like. Sometimes life feels pretty generous and inspiring—when you’re in love and your work is rewarding. And then it can be so bitter and so dark and unexpected and unjust. The questioning about the shift really surprised me, and I wonder if it’s going to be the same in Europe. I think that it won’t be, but we’ll see.
Do you find audiences in the U.S. react quite differently to your films generally? What was it like sitting through this screening and watching people’s response?
I think here they tend to be less open to the unexpected or to confusion or to the uncomfortable. But I really loved how much the audience laughed—I felt great about my sense of humor! [Laughs] They were laughing at all the things I thought were funny and I felt that they were very engaged. By the third act—when we start the tonal shift, I really felt the tension. People around me were tensing up or covering their eyes, and I felt the betrayal—like I had betrayed the entire theater. It made me feel slightly guilty but also like a kid that did something mischievous. I was like: “Come on, guys, just go with it!” A lady in front of me stood up and left, which I completely understand. But if it was myself, I would be so excited to have this happen instead of being pissed or frustrated. But for me it was a celebration—it was great, just great.
The film’s tone, especially in the beginning, is very much set by you—the character you play seems fairly consistent with your real self, how he speaks, his sense of humor. You mentioned in the Q&A that this movie was very personal and that you’d never do something like this again.
I feel it would be a little psychopathic to do another movie where I play another guy like me with a different name. I don’t think I will ever share so much of my personal life again. So many of the things in the film are things that I went through in my real life. There was a neighbor [like the Bishop] in my real life and he was driving me so insane that I would fantasize about—not fantasize but reflect upon—the fact that, if he disappeared because some hipster neighbor got rid of him, maybe nothing would happen. And we’re seeing this now: I mean, not to point to Eric Garner again, but fucking six white cops got away with murder, basically. And in my movie, three hipsters do the same thing, and you don’t know what their fate is. That’s life, and it’s so unjust.
The film took about a month to shoot. What was it like having your apartment as a film set?
It was pretty bizarre, man. I mean, my cat is in the film.
That cat is amazing. She has no fear of water!
Sula is the shit. She likes showering with me. Practically, though, shooting there was not comfortable at all—all my things were there. But I could be very detached. It becomes your set, really. So even though you’re at your place, your place is not really your place anymore. The fact that you live there becomes secondary. But then you remember when everyone leaves and you go to brush your teeth and there’s blood in the bathtub, or the mannequin of a dead man in your bathroom.
The script for this film was just a loose outline, which was the same way you did Crystal Fairy. Is this your usual way of working? The Maid, for example, feels much more structured.
The Maid was a full script and fully storyboarded, and so was my first film [Life Kills Me, 07]. Crystal Fairy was the only [other] one that I did with an outline. Magic Magic  was super scripted and storyboarded and so was [the HBO series] The Boring Life of Jacqueline .
This one was a little more organized than Crystal Fairy. It was about 22 pages of pure action—it’s a lot of text, like a complete guide to how to make the movie. All the scenes are written and sometimes lines of dialogue that are key to a scene are written. So we didn’t really improvise any scene. For me it ends up being a scripted movie on the third take because you tweak the scene—you come in from here, you say this, you say that, you get mad at the end and then you leave. And then you let it happen and it’s a little longer than you want, or one character is standing in the wrong position. You correct all that by the third take, and then you do like seven more takes just like that.
One thing I do is to try to not turn off the camera. I just let it run—it’s digital so you’re not wasting anything. With the cards it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass—but if you keep rolling, you keep the tension on set. When you say cut, people start checking their phones and going to the bathroom and getting coffee or getting a makeup retouch. If you don’t cut, you get 200 percent more footage than you would slating every take. It’s more figuring things out on the spot than it is improvisation.
You worked with the same DP on this film that shot The Maid, Sergio Armstrong, and it sounds like he had a bit of a directorial role.
He shot Life Kills Me, The Maid, and Old Cats . I wanted him because I was going to be acting and I really trust him. He has a really good eye specifically for bad acting—an eye for good acting is really an eye for bad acting. And yeah, he had a bit of a directorial role for sure. All my DP’s have been very involved. Most of the DP’s I know seem very grounded and I trust them in general. They’ve seen so much from being on so many shoots and they probably talk so much shit about every actor with their crew, so I like having a DP as an acting coach, especially Sergio. I’ve shot movies with him where after a take, I’m like, yeah that was cool, and then he comes up to me and he tells me it was not right. And I follow his advice, for sure.
Not to brag, but it only happened once that he told me I was [acting] weird. It was the scene where I meet my boyfriend’s family and he said I was being overly shy. And I got it because the character has a lot of personality—I mean, he’s doing Nasty Baby videos and shit—it’d be weird that he would be so coy. So that was a good note that he gave me.
What was shooting the actual “Nasty Baby” scenes like? Were you cracking up uncontrollably?
[Laughs] No, I was not really cracking up that much. I think I was laughing more [at the others] in that scene when Alia [Shawkat, who plays Freddy’s friend and producer ] is filming Freddy and they’re all in this weird studio. We made this long-ass video—it was like a whole day of us shooting Nasty Baby videos, so everybody got to make one: Kristen [Wiig], Tunde [Adebimpe]…
Kristen’s is so good.
Kristen’s is amazing. It sounds just like an actual baby. But I mean, it’s Kristen: she’s like the best impersonator ever. Mine was just disgusting. Every time I see it I’m just like: “Fuck no. Why did I do that?” But I feel that it’s good for your ego to portray yourself so disgustingly.
Was this ever a real art project?
Yeah—though you cannot really call it a “project,” to be honest. It was just a funny, stupid idea, but there are so many funny stupid ideas in the art world that become installations. So this is kind of a joke about that. I was invited to do a performance at this dance week thing in Chile and I proposed Nasty Baby, but they said no and I never did it. It stayed a recurrent joke among friends, and I love how in the movie it becomes something that’s not even that weird after a while—you make the audience come to terms with somebody acting like a baby.
I really recommend that everyone do the exercise of becoming a baby for five minutes. It’s fucking challenging. It’s really hard—it’s embarrassing and it’s liberating [laughs]. It’s liberating for real! I have a friend that got addicted to it. I explained the project and we did it when we were drunk and then he couldn’t stop doing it. He really got into being a baby. You really have to break your own boundaries of embarrassment.
It comes across on screen that this shoot must have been a great deal of fun… even when the film takes a dark turn.
Yeah. There are directors that maybe get way more self-involved in the things that they’re doing, but for me it never really ceases to be a game that I’m playing with my friends. Even shooting the murder scene, which is so charged with race and class and everything: it’s no joke what happens. But even though it’s charged with all of that, it’s just us, pretending to kill a guy in a bathtub and then… having Cheetos. [Laughs] There’s nothing serious going on [on set], ever. I don’t take myself that seriously, thank God. But it was the first time that I really hung out with Tunde and Kristen, so making the movie was the way that we became friends.
It sounds like Shawkat, who produced, was responsible for bringing Wiig and Adebimpe on board, but I’m curious about your casting of Reg E. Cathey as The Bishop and Mark Margolis as your nosy neighbor.
Mark and Reg E. were brought on by Jessica Daniels, a friend of mine who’s a really good casting director. Richard [Margolis] is the major of that street. He’s based on my real neighbor who has a dog, and he lives in that same apartment. He’s always around and you see him all the time: he’s picking up everyone’s garbage, or cleaning up the street. If he sees somebody put a poster on a tree, he’ll take it down immediately. He knows everything that’s going on so it only makes sense that he would be so vigilant about The Bishop who’s slowly terrorizing the neighborhood.
In your Q&A you talked about wanting to have a protagonist whose job is essentially complete nonsense. Is this how you feel about making movies?
Oh, I absolutely do. I mean, it matters in some regard; it matters to me. But it’s hard not to think about the other side of moviemaking—the industry, the reviews, the ego, the awards. It’s all big nonsense: what sells, what doesn’t. It’s very frustrating and very empty. But I also find it fun. I love developing my craft and I love storytelling.
There are a lot of movies that have impacted me—don’t get me wrong, I love movies. But to your question, do I think our job is nonsense? Yes, I really do. I don’t think what we’re doing in general is affecting anything. I think it’d be more useful for humanity if I were doing something else. But I don’t blame myself and I’m not playing the victim. I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it and hopefully I inspire as many people as possible. I have many projects lined up and I’m excited to make them.
This is your most American movie—it’s very New York–specific, even if The Bishop was based on someone from Chile.
Yeah, absolutely. This story could only happen in New York. There are so many Bishops walking around in Brooklyn. I just gave him some specific traits, like parking cars—that’s a very Chilean thing. There’s a mafia of guys who park cars and ask you for money. His leaf-blowing is based on a guy across from me that uses a leaf blower at fucking six in the morning and it drives me crazy. I thought it was a good element for the Bishop to start with.
I like that it’s a male fertility problem, which you don’t see onscreen terribly often, and that you don’t paint Kristen’s character as some sad, desperate woman that’s just gone through a break-up. There’s no reason for her wanting to have a baby other than wanting to have a baby. Did you discuss any further motivation with the actors?
I live in a neighborhood populated with newborn babies and some of the strollers are being pushed by gay couples or biracial couples—you see everything. I’m 35 and many of my friends are having babies, and as a gay man, things get complicated. You can’t just go in a room and have a baby with your partner. You need to go ask other people, get a surrogate mother, or apply for adoption and possibly get rejected. I never really wanted to be a dad, but when you think about it, it’s some kind of spiritual rite—leaving yourself behind to take care of someone else. Being with yourself until you die is a choice, but there’s also a good chance that you’ll get sick of it. There’s a spiritual need to expand yourself into other beings. That’s one thing that inspired me to explore this conflict of parenthood.
But there’s also something to be said for portraying this family issue so nonchalantly. Their decision to have a baby is never really questioned and whenever it is questioned, it’s immediately sabotaged. When Mo’s family is questioning them, the father is the one that stands up and interrupts it with something nice [a birthday cake]. The film just takes it all for granted how easy it should be. The scene where they actually make the baby is so tender—it’s a beautiful scene. There’s so much friendship, the desire to create, good intentions. It’s all so adorable. And then you make those people do something that takes all credibility from their moral standards. And you’re like, wait, you are going to have a baby? You create an explosive judgment—especially from homophobic people. It could be such a coup for them, this movie. But the movie is getting rid of judgment by presenting the scenario in such an uncomplicated way: look how beautiful, it’s so simple, so uncomplicated. Straight black parents are cool with it, everybody’s cool with it!
So you didn’t have psychological backstories….
No, but I have friends that are trying to have babies and I know how long it takes to do a baby like that. I like the fact that they make a baby like that—I find it very modern. You can actually make a baby with three people in the room where nobody has sex. It’s like an experiment you do in a clinical lab. You want to make a family but it’s like you’re making…
And it’s never discussed as to where it’s going to live or who’s going to raise it.
Some people in interviews and reviews describe it like the couple are the ones asking Polly to be their surrogate, which she’s clearly not. Because she’s the one that’s like: “We’re running out of time here, I want to fucking do it.” She’s the one that wants the baby the most—she and Freddy. We don’t know how they’re going to live and who is going to raise the baby—and who cares? Don’t get too nosy, you know? Just go and ask around. Lesbian and gay couples have babies, kids are raised by divorced parents. There are just so many ways to live your life.