Following his two film punch at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, where he premiered the stoner comedy "Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus" and the dark thriller "Magic Magic," Chilean writer-director Sebastian Silva returned this year with "Nasty Baby," a film that plays like both of those works melded into one unruly whole. Days after its world premiere in Park City in January, where the film was greeted with more than a few walkouts thanks to its shocking dark twist, Silva brought the film to the Berlin International Film Festival. The trip was worth it: "Nasty Baby" won the event’s Teddy Award for best queer film.
In Silva’s largely autobiographical film, which he shot in his own Brooklyn apartment, Silva stars as a performance artist living with his boyfriend and attempting to impregnate his best friend (Kristen Wiig).
Indiewire sat down with Silva in Berlin shortly before the film bagged its award. [Warning: "Nasty Baby" spoilers lie ahead.]
This is kind of a generic question, but with this film I think it begs it: where did the premise for "Nasty Baby" come from?
It’s a good question because it really comes from so many different parts and there are so many aspects of the film. There is the art side of it, where Freddy is doing this art video, so that’s one. Then, there is The Bishop part of it, like this sort of semi-bum who’s squatting down the block from their house, so that’s another thing. And then there is the baby thing where this other friend is trying to have a baby, which is another aspect of it. It’s a spoiler, but I don’t care because it’s such a big part of the film: the tonal shift is huge.
When people ask, "What’s your film about?" I say it’s about these friends trying to make a baby and then they start getting into small quarrels with The Bishop, but it’s not only about that because if the movie was only about that and didn’t have the tonal shift, then the movie would not be the movie. The third act is a huge, manipulative part of the film that makes it worth making, for me at least.
I think it makes it worth watching [laughs].
Yeah, I think the payoff of that tonal shift is what makes the movie that it is. If they continued to be three friends trying to have the baby and all of a sudden she loses the baby and then they try again and then live happily ever after, there’s no movie.
Yeah and that’s been done before, too.
Yeah, there’s no movie. So, let’s start with the nasty baby thing: it was a performance that I kind of wanted to do 10 or 11 years ago.
Yourself, as an artist?
Yeah, but it was kind of a joke. It was kind of a joke in the movie, at least. I do believe that the nasty baby videos are better than a lot of performance or video art that I’ve seen in big museums [laughs].
It’s a joke to that, but I remember it was like a dance week sort of thing that they were doing down in South America. Then they invited me to do something for them, like a short five minute performance, then I came up with the idea of doing the nasty baby. My proposal was that I would be on a stage. Not naked, but wearing super casual clothes and then embody a baby for five minutes, embarrassing myself and the audience. Like sort of go through the stress of embarrassment as a group to transcend it. It was like a self-help sort of performance, so that’s where the nasty baby storyline comes from.
Then, The Bishop thing was based on a true sort of fact about a neighbor of mine.
No, it was actually in Santiago [Chile]. It was a very gentrified area in Santiago, where a lot of young artists were moving in. It wasn’t really ghetto before, but it was middle or lower-middle class and it slowly started becoming a super hip neighborhood. I remember being there and there was this one guy who lived in one of the apartments, who wasn’t homeless, but who clearly had mental issues. He was extremely aggressive with women and he was parking cars for no reason, but that’s something that Chileans do. There’s a mafia of car parkers. It’s something that you see a lot. He started doing that and he would be very aggressive and get kicked out of delis and stuff. I remember hating him so much and sort of fantasizing on my own about what it would be like to get rid of him. What would be the consequences, then going so far as thinking that my old lady neighbors would help me get rid of the body. Nobody in the neighborhood would really care. Nobody would call the police to tell them that I killed somebody because he was such a threat to the neighborhood. There was something that made me think that people would be excited or grateful that I got rid of such a person.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t go around thinking or fantasizing about killing homeless people.
Everyone has those "what if" moments.
Yeah, everybody thinks of killing people. What if? Exactly. That was a big "what if?" I remember the story and the politics behind that seemed to be enough to make a movie for me. Way more than the nasty baby thing for me, I didn’t even think that was a movie idea. This idea of getting rid of somebody who is unwanted in the neighborhood is a really good movie idea. I think even "Law & Order" had an episode where there is a neighborhood that gets rid of the homeless man and then the police are trying to investigate and residents sort of plot together not to tell the police anything. So, yeah, it’s not such an original idea and it’s been done before. But, it felt like a fun movie. This was like eight years ago and by then I felt like I would be the one to be in the movie. If I ever thought of that sort of storyline, it was always me playing the killer, or the guy who got rid of the homeless man.
I think the parenthood part of the movie is just something that kind of came after. It was more artificial and about plotting ideas for the film. It wasn’t really based on anything real. But, I do live in that neighborhood and I do live in that apartment and that is my cat.
Many were buzzing in Sundance because they felt "Nasty Baby" took the Sundance set-up for a feel-good drama and then totally subverted the model. You didn’t bring that notion of upending expectations as an inspiration for "Nasty Baby," so I’m curious what you make of that reading of your film?
Yeah, I mean I never really thought of a festival or anything because I never really think of festivals while writing or making a film. I was completely aware of what it would produce in an audience, yes, but I was only hoping that they wouldn’t think it was just like a rebel move.There was a reason behind it, but it was a little bit of an experiment. This is probably my most experimental film, in those terms. This is a pretty linear movie, I mean there’s no narrative experiment or anything, but that’s also how tragedy happens. I remember I was very surprised in Sundance at this question. A lot of people asked me why I decided to do that in the third act. Even at the Toronto Film Festival, I remember they did not accept the movie but they would have if I had changed it.
Toronto didn’t accept it?!
No, no, they didn’t accept it.
You did well by debuting at Sundance. Still, I’m shocked.
Yeah, Sundance is perfect, but Toronto basically emailed back and they said they would consider it if we changed the third act of the film.
That’s hilarious. Can you imagine going back to re-shoot for a festival?
Yeah, or just editing the whole thing and getting rid of the entire movie idea so they can accept it.
That’s insane. Well that must have given you some insight into what they want to play at a festival of that scale.
Exactly. Like what are they really expecting? Also, there’s something about tragedy that happens just like that. You can be having a cappuccino with your mother who you haven’t seen in four years in a coffee place and all of a sudden, there is a fucking bombing and your mom is decapitated. Tragedy happens just like that, you’re having a baby and you’re real excited, the baby is born dead. Tragedy. You’re crossing the street and your brother gets run over by a car. Tragedy.
Yeah, shit happens.
Yeah, tragedy doesn’t necessarily build up slowly. So that’s also something that people don’t want to deal with. The origin of tragedy is very sudden.
I think Sundance audiences were expecting something a little off-kilter, just based on the fact that it played in the NEXT section, despite the fact that you’re no newcomer.
To be honest, I don’t really care so much for the sections anymore, but I was surprised too. Just because NEXT sounds like the next generation and this is my sixth movie, so I’ve been there five times.
It would have been really nice to be in dramatic just because I’ve never been in dramatic, but then again that’s just my weird filmmaker ego talking.
That said, I would have loved to see this play in competition alongside a film like "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," that won the Grand Jury Prize. It’s a strong film but it feels very much like a typical Sundance crowd-pleaser: quirky, uplifting —
Oh, no. Quirky is bad. Quirky is so early 2000s, like I’m so sick of quirky. Why is quirky is so huge? I feel that in the states, quirky is huge. There’s something with quirky. I think it’s a very asexual sort of thing, quirkiness.
Why do you say that?
Because quirkiness is never sexually overt. There’s something about quirky that is "Amelie" quirky. She’s never even gone and fucked. It feels like quirky lacks sensuality. I feel that quirky is really white and asexual [laughs]. Why are people so drawn to that?
Quirky isn’t threatening; your film is. I saw a few walkouts during the third act reveal of "Nasty Baby."
Oh shit, yeah. I think I saw a walkout too. For the premiere, this lady just walked out. A lot of peoples’ hands came up a lot
You must have had a great time watching.
Yeah, it was really fun. It’s fun to see how people are watching the movie a little bit ahead of what’s going on, like you see that their expectations are preceding the actual narrative of the film. If you are really present watching a movie, you’re sort of just taking whatever you’re watching. People were mostly shocked because they were thinking ahead, I think. It’s unavoidable to predict a little bit what you’re watching and where things are going.
But I personally enjoy it so much when a movie doesn’t go a place I’m expecting. Things that are unexpected are my favorite ingredients in filmmaking or in anything, really. I mean, unless you’re dating somebody and that person unexpectedly has bipolar disorder.
Hopefully "Nasty Baby" gets a better release than "Magic Magic," which was totally dumped by Sony. Do you regret how that all went down?
Yes! What happened with "Magic Magic" was that Sony decided not to release it. We begged them and yeah, it would be nice if you put this in Indiewire —
Get angry [laughs].
They got mad because "Crystal Fairy" got into Sundance then "Magic Magic" got into Sundance. "Crystal Fairy" is really a feel-good movie and "Magic Magic" is really a feel-bad movie, which is one of my favorite kinds of movies. But I guess Sony decided that in their words, "Magic Magic" was too hard to market. I think it could have done well. It’s never going to be a huge hit in the box office, but it was a good movie. It was my first movie to go to Cannes and it got really awesome reviews in the states and in Europe. I don’t know, Sony just decided not to do anything with it and they made the most tasteless DVD cover made in the history of DVD covers. They did not accept any sort of suggestions. They made the worst trailer. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. You should put this in the interview because they used footage of things I had never shot.
Like stock footage?
Yeah, like of a plane. Stuff that I’ve never shot!
Oh my god, no.
Yeah and they put in crazy music. They made it look like Michael Cera was a serial killer. They used awful music and flashes — they really made a misleading trailer. I made a video response to that trailer on YouTube and my producers asked me to take it down to not get in trouble with Sony. I’ll probably put it up again. It was a response to the trailer explaining that this is not the movie I made and asking people not be mislead by the trailer because I don’t know why Sony made this. The trailer is so bad that Michael Cera decided never to watch it. Maybe when I’m rich enough I’ll buy it from them and do my own little release. It was a really sad move for Sony to decide to go straight to DVD because it’s the most theatrical movie I’ve ever shot. It was so visually precious and the atmosphere is more important than the story, so it was such a good theater movie. It was made to be watched in a theater, but you learn how to work with studios.