Go Ahead, Surprise Me: Sebastian Silva on the Unclassifiable Nasty Baby

With a penchant for clever, funny stories that deviate from genre conventions, Chilean moviemaker Sebastian Silva has bewildered and enthralled festival programmers and audiences alike since his acclaimed debut, The Maid.

It seems that Silva prefers for surprise and unorthodox narrative elements to be the only constant in his films, which include 2013’s Michael Cera-starring two-hander, Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic. At times outrageously comedic and at others, eerily unnerving, his plots defy tracking on a macro level. Each twist can drive his characters to violent madness mere seconds after showering them with love.

In his latest feature, Nasty Baby, starring Silva himself, Kristen Wiig and Tunde Adebimpe, a gay couple (Silva and Wiig) and their best friend (Adebimpe) attempt to have a child that they can raise together. Though this premise sounds harmless, there is darkness lurking in it, ready to strike.

MovieMaker had the chance to chat with Silva during Sundance 2015, where the film premiered. We discussed the advantages of directing while acting, working with a screenplay that allows for boundless improvisation, and why he, as an audience member, loves to be proven wrong.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Nasty Baby was very personal for you, but at the same time you’ve said you wanted to remove yourself from it to some degree. Can you elaborate?

Sebastian Silva (SS): Yeah, it is very personal, but I’m very conscious that I’m using the personal stuff as narrative ingredients. I’m not exorcising any demons here. It’s not a self-help sort of experiment or anything like that. It just served the purpose of the film to use personal stuff. I felt that it was not necessary to go and fetch elements that were too foreign to me; I just used whatever I had at hand because it served how casual and intimate the whole movie is.

So many things from different places inspired the movie. For example, the “nasty baby” performance at the beginning of the film is based on a performance that I’ve been talking about and laughing about for a long time, and which at some point I almost performed in South America. I never did it, but the “nasty baby” performance became kind of a joke among my friends, so that’s one thing.

Then there is desire of being a father and what does that mean. I’m 35 now, so a lot of close friends are reproducing. I live in a neighborhood where people are reproducing obsessively, so that’s also part of my reality: stepping into parenthood. That was another element to the story. Then there is gentrification and being a “gentrifier,” which also became a huge narrative element. A lot of things combined to make this story happen.

MM: Tell me about being both the director and the lead actor simultaneously for the first time in one of your films.

SS: Surprisingly enough, being on set as an actor was a great tool for directing as well. If you are the lead, you can make things happen as you are acting. If another actor is taking a little too long to say something or do something, or if the scene feels like it’s dragging a little, you can always speed up the action by saying something or moving on set unexpectedly. There is an extra power to directing on set while acting.

I wasn’t expecting that it was going to be so draining. It wasn’t that difficult, because I’m playing myself and I’m not doing an accent that I need to follow, I’m just being myself. But it was very draining to be directing and acting. I had really no time to look at footage at all, so we just went for it. I trusted Kristen, I trusted Tunde, and I also trusted my DP, Sergio Armstrong, whom I’ve worked with for four movies. He is very critical with acting, so he was also telling me whenever I fucked up. I told him, “Whenever it doesn’t seem genuine, let me know.”

MM: How difficult was it, getting the look you wanted without being behind the camera and looking at footage?

SS: I’ve worked with Sergio so much now that I just trust him. I think he’s got a really good sense of composition. We knew that everything was going to be handheld; we did plan the shots together. He lives in Chile but he got to New York a couple of weeks before shooting. We knew the locations very well and we also did a little bit of storyboarding, so I was involved in the process of finding the aesthetics of the film and the kind of shots we were going to do.

When you are doing something so realistic, you just want your DP to have a good sense of composition. There are some cameramen that really know how to frame as they move and Sergio is one of them, so I was not very concerned. This is not a movie that is centered on photography at all.

Kristen Wiig and Tunde Adebimpe in Sebastian Silva's film

Tunde Adebimpe and Kristen Wiig in Nasty Baby

MM: How much room for improvisation was there? The performances feel incredibly organic.

SS: One hundred percent room for improvisation. I mean, it’s not like they can go and talk about an amusement park when they have to be talking about making a baby. We knew what we needed to be talking about in a scene, but we just didn’t know the words we were going to use. I guess Tunde had to talk like Tunde, Kristen had to talk like Kristen, and I had to talk like I do. Nobody had any direction to be anybody else other than themselves, which I guess makes it pretty easy for improv if you just have to be yourself. Of course you do get a little bit into a character, but I was really not asking anybody to be any different from what they really are. It worked great. Our dynamic was so friendly that it made it really easy to portray that intimacy.

MM: You are a very prolific filmmaker. How do you remain so prolific and inspired? It seems like you are always working on something new.

SS: Maybe it has become kind of an addiction to find stories for movies all the time. You are in a plane and you see a couple fighting and that could be a scene; everything that you witness has the potential to be a scene in a movie. Inspiration comes just from everywhere. I’ve written so many ideas down and I usually try to keep a lot of things moving at the same time, and Nasty Baby was one of them. I don’t know, I guess I make small movies that are doable, producers trust me, festivals accept my movies, so I’m in a very comfortable place to keep on making movies. I feel very welcomed and encouraged by, not the industry, but by my colleagues, my fellow filmmakers.

MM: Does it become easier with each film in terms of financing and getting the actors you want?

SS: It varies. Sometimes it feels like it’s going to be easy but then the financing falls apart, and the way the industry works in America you always need a name. It’s as difficult as it should be. I’ve managed to make so many films that I cannot complain, but it’s not easy, it’s always a pain in the ass. You need to hustle a lot.

MM: The film’s conclusion is tonally jarring and is sure to leave many viewers baffled. Were you concerned about the reaction to this during the writing process?

SS: Absolutely. The movie really turns into a different kind of movie. The score comes in—there hasn’t been score before that moment—and now there is a full-on score to it. The genre changes entirely. It’s a very manipulative move, but I took the risk and I’m really proud and satisfied with how it turned out. I don’t think this movie would exist if it didn’t have that part. I mean, what would be the purpose of making a movie where—never mind. I feel that I could spoil the surprise.

MM: Understood, but without getting into details, why did you decide to take such a big risk?

SS: I knew it was going to be sort of a divisive thing among audiences, because the twist makes people pretty uncomfortable and it’s an upsetting turn, you know? But as an audience member myself, I really appreciate stuff like that. I really love things that are unexpected. I don’t, personally, enjoy it so much when I can tell where the movie is going and then I find myself to be right about my prediction. I like to be surprised and proven wrong.

MM: Tell me about shooting in a space you are familiar with and making films about stories you are familiar with, as well. 

SS: I’ve done it before. The Maid was shot at my parents’ house and that’s a location that I know way better than the place that I live in now. That’s the house that I grew up in. I’ve used my brothers, I’ve used stories that I’ve gone through myself. Crystal Fairy, for example, is also based on a true story. This has become somewhat of a constant element in my films.

Nasty Baby was easy in a way and then a pain in the ass in some other ways. I was still living at my apartment while we were shooting there, so at the end of the shooting day people would leave and I would stay with the fucking set a mess. I couldn’t touch anything because people were going to come the following morning and keep on shooting. Domestically, it was a bit of a pain in the ass, but also very easy because I slept on location.

MM: In terms of how hard it is to get a project off the ground, do you see a difference between working in Latin America and working in the U.S.?

SS: I don’t know, man. I think my movies they are all kind of the same size. I haven’t really worked with a studio, only for Magic Magic with Sony, which became a bitter experience. The rest of my films are very similar in terms of development and production. I’ve worked with the same producers in a lot of them. I guess geographically things change, but in terms of the process of making the movie it’s all very similar. There is not really a difference.

MM: How did you find the right actors for Nasty Baby?

SS: My friend Alia Shawkat, who plays Wendy in the movie, introduced me to Tunde and I immediately invited him to do it. I didn’t think about it twice. The same with Kristen. I didn’t know who she was before Alia mentioned her to me. I didn’t know her. Then we talked on the phone and we started laughing right away. We clicked so easily and then I met her in New York. She agreed to do it and from then on everything was very easy.

MM: Now that Nasty Baby has seen the light, what are you up to?

SS: I’m dabbling into different things now. I’m going to try to write some TV. I just made a short film and I’m thinking about documentaries. As I told you, I have several projects going at the same time, so there are a couple of other feature films that I’m trying to get off the ground. I’m also trying to cast some of other movies. We’ll see what happens. I’m ready to be surprised. MM

Nasty Baby opens in theaters October 23, 2015, courtesy of The Orchard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.