Interview: Nasty Baby Director Sebastián Silva

nasty-babyad_125756455After a while watching mainstream, independent, and art-house films, one of the most pleasant things is being genuinely surprised by a film when it turns out to be more than you expected in ways you didn’t see coming.

Without spoiling that sense of discovery for others, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva’s latest film Nasty Baby offers just such an experience. I only mention it because on the surface and for its first third or so, Nasty Baby feels like a fairly predictable and conventional bit of cinematic navel-gazing about the lives of Brooklyn hipster artists.

Silva himself plays semi-autobiographical lead Freddy, a performance artist living in Brooklyn (his latest project–involving him dressing and acting like an infant–is spot-on self-indulgent and misguided) while TV on the Radio’s lead singer Tunde Adebimpe (Rachel Getting Married) plays Freddy’s partner Mo.

In their quest to start a family, Freddy and Mo have enlisted Freddy’s best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) as a surrogate mother, and the first part of the film follows the trio’s efforts, doubts, and emotional mishaps along the way to parenthood. Nasty Baby also stars Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards) as a neighborhood resident whose life becomes entangled with Freddy, Mo, and Polly’s.

But the final third of Nasty Baby introduces shifts in plot and tone that powerfully change the film’s overall focus and introduce strong, compelling new themes without feeling arbitrary or artificial.

I sat down to talk about all this with Silva last month in a hotel restaurant during the Chicago International Film Festival.

Nasty Baby is currently playing in select theaters and is available on demand.


Crystal_Fairy_&_The_Magical_Cactus2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and now Nasty Baby are unique in that unlike your other features, their performances were created primarily through guided improvisation.

Silva: I’ve only made six features, but those two were made with outlines. I remember when I heard that Gus Van Sant shot Elephant and Gerry only with outlines, I thought, “Oh my god, that’s my dream—when I ever going to be able to do that, and who would ever trust me with an outline?”

It happened with Crystal Fairy in a way I did not plan. We were going to shoot Magic Magic, so we had a delay, and Michael Cera was in Chile, so I thought, “Why don’t we shoot something else?” I had that story because it had happened to me a long time ago. So I talked to my producer friends in Chile and said, “Listen, Michael is town and I have this story, and Michael can play me…” But I just didn’t have time to write a screenplay. I didn’t plan to do an outline-only film, but I just didn’t have enough time.

I’d assume it helps a lot to have made several conventionally scripted films, so those skills are internalized, before trying an unscripted film. Can you trust yourself more?

Silva: I’m dangerously self-confident sometimes. I don’t care about failure; I have that working for me. If the movie sucks, I don’t really care so much. But definitely having made The Maid and Old Cats, and Life Kills Me as full-scripted movies, I developed a good sense for acting.

And I was working with very smart people. Improv is sort of a myth. I’ve never made a mumblecore movie, which is a different kind of creature—I don’t think Nasty Baby and Crystal Fairy are mumblecore. I feel their stories are very fleshed out in terms of a storyline. In every scene the characters have to give very specific information. It’s not at all just, “Let’s see what happens.” We know what we need to do and what information needs to be said. What I don’t care about are the specific words used.

nasty-baby_0There are very specific locations where they are talking about certain things, like talking about making a baby while standing in a plant nursery. Everything is very planned out like that. The way we do it, honestly, we start with a 25-page outline for Nasty Baby with all the actions without scene headings or dialogue.

But we know what has to be said alongside what actions. We talk about it with the cast and crew before we shoot, then we do the first take, which is usually pretty messy. Without written dialogue, you don’t know how long the scene will run.

The second take is better because you can correct some things here and there, and then the third one is usually great. Then you start repeating the third take content over and over like a regular movie. They don’t need to repeat the exact same words, but by that third take you’ve found the general timing.

So basically, it’s very similar to a regular movie with a full-length screenplay—the only difference is that you write the dialogue with the characters on the set. I’m a foreigner, so I’m not going to try to put English words in the mouths of native English-speaking Americans. I’ve seen foreign directors come here and direct big Hollywood movies and the dialogue is fucking stupid. You know it was directed by a foreign person who has no idea what the characters are saying.

Kristen is such a good improv actor—she’s so smart and funny and charming. Only she could make up the things she says in the movie, so I give her the freedom to do that.

thumbnail_23142Trusting your actors to keep up with the improv has to be a huge factor. If you have a weak player, I’d think it could bring down the whole team?

Silva: It has happened. I won’t tell you who or when—it wasn’t a constant thing, but there are days that actors are just not inspired. So on those days I don’t ask them to do what they cannot do. If an actor can only give me one type of thing on one day, then I will keep it minimal. Some people some days are just more quiet. You’re in a bad mood, not as talky. It’s natural human inconsistency, but you don’t force your actor to do something he cannot deliver that specific day.

So I think this way of shooting movies has also opened my eyes to never pushing actors to do things you can see they’re struggling with and not delivering. Then it would be forced. They’re human beings, so they can do fucking whatever it makes sense for them to do at that moment. It won’t be contradictory. And it if is contradictory, even better, because people are bags of contradictions.

That idea of humans and their lives as naturally self-contradictory gets at that balance in a film like this between pure naturalism and realism and still making a creative, artistic statement.

Silva: For me, it really depends on the movie. For Magic Magic, pure realism doesn’t even exist—it’s a fable about losing your mental capacities. Same with my first movie Life Kills Me which was a very irresponsible essay about death.

la-et-mn-But then there are these other movies where I’m trying to make my audience believe that this is something that happened in real life. For these movies, the more real elements I have, the better I feel about it. I try to curb my creativity as much as possible—I don’t want to be “creative,” I don’t want to dress the sets. We shoot in real locations.

For example, I shot at my real neighbor’s house, and Mark Margolis is playing my real neighbor Richard. He looks like Richard, he’s wearing Richard’s clothes, and living in Richard’s apartment, and we didn’t change one picture in that apartment. Why would I? That’s the character I’m trying to portray, so why add something “cool” to make it quirky and cute? If that’s the reality I’m trying to portray, why get creative on top of it? If I want to portray real things, if I can get the real things, so much better.

There are some documentaries that sort of fictionalize reality. In Nasty Baby and Crystal Fairy, I do the reverse process—I try to bring as much reality as possible to a fictional story. It is fiction—there is a written screenplay treatment with a moral tale. They’re very flushed out moral stories, but I’m trying to make them look as real as possible, so I use my neighbor’s apartment, I use my cat, I use my apartment, I use myself, I use everything that can be real.

maxresdefaultg[Waiter brings several plates of breakfast food, including eggs, fruit, sausages, and waffles.]

Silva: Oh my god, what is all this? Did you order this?

Um, no, I don’t usually order huge breakfasts during 20 minute interviews.

Silva: Well you must help yourself and eat some of this.

[Despite how good it all looks, I politely decline, having been given the “wrap it up” signal from the publicist.]

By the third act, the film has come together nicely to examine how friendships, relationships, family, and community overlap and inform one another.

Silva: The parental aspect came later in the production of this movie. There are different subjects in the film that combine in a very random way. For me, the movie started out about a gay couple in a gentrified neighborhood that ended up doing this extreme thing at the end of the film. The parenting thing came into it after because I’m 36 and all my friends are fucking compulsively reproducing. In this specific neighborhood in Brooklyn it’s crazy—there are strollers everywhere.

So I wanted to put it out there and question why do people have children and how far people are willing to go for their children. How having a child changes your perception of and relationship with your neighborhood, your community. That changing dynamic plays into Freddy’s motivation and actions in that final part of the film.

nasty-baby-sundanceHow much are all those themes thought through before you start, or do you let them evolve during shooting and editing?

Silva: I always know—I never embark on a project where I don’t know the ending. I do care a lot about the moral outcome of my stories. Nasty Baby is a very special case because it’s the only movie I’ve made where I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know what I’m leaving my audience with. I don’t know what to feel about these characters and their actions and behaviors.

But I know what I’m doing—I know what I’m bringing with this sudden turn in the second half of the third act. I want the audience to have as much time as possible to empathize with these characters, so when they do the things they do at the end, it’s very hard for the audience to judge or not forgive the characters. By that point, it’s hard for the audience to just say, “Oh, you fucking privileged hipsters…” That’s a very conscious decision to make the audience feel that way toward the characters.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf