After wowing audiences and critics with the understated but nonetheless absurd “The Maid (La nana)” on last year’s festival rounds, Sebastián Silva is back to the big screen with his new film, “Old Cats (Gatos viejos),” co-directed and co-written with “The Maid” co-writer Pedro Peirano. In town for the film’s NYFF World Premiere screenings on Friday and Saturday, Silva and Peirano answered questions from NYFF programmer Melissa Anderson and an enthusiastic audience of critics and reporters.
“Old Cats,” whose story resides in the cramped confines of the eighth floor apartment of Isadora (Bélgica Castro), a widowed and re-married matriarch, and her husband Enrique (Castro’s real-life husband Alejandro Sieveking), focuses on the all-too-real relationship between the old couple and Isadora’s daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón) and her girlfriend Hugo (Catalina Saavedra). Rosario and Hugo intend to sign over Isadora’s power of attorney so that they can invest in and sell organic healing soaps. All the while, Isadora and Enrique intend on hiding Isadora’s growing senility, and Rosario and Hugo are focused on their own ulterior motives. “Old Cats” continues the filmmakers’ trend of nailing a tonal mix of intimate dark humor and tragedy.
Silva and Peirano, no strangers to collaboration, noted their partnership’s impact on the film’s tone, which Anderson likened to a domestic thriller. Said Silva, “I’m a dyslexic filmmaker. I’m spontaneous, intuitive, daring…We make a good team.” Agreeing, Peirano, speaking through a translator, noted that Silva puts characters in sticky situations, and it’s Peirano’s responsibility to get them out of their troubles. Regarding the tone, Peirano gave respect to one of his favorite filmmakers (though admittedly not his favorite), Alfred Hitchcock, “We were more inspired by the life of Hitchcock than his films. Hitchcock was more afraid of stairs than foreign thrillers.”
Following a question asking about working with the three well-known South American actresses that star in the film, the filmmakers were thankful to be in their good company; “We’re all good friends,” they said. They both noted, though, that they were dealing with two generations of actresses. Castro, who is 92 years old, “never really improvised. We had to shoot this film in fifteen days, and we often couldn’t go at her pace.” On set, Castro would ask what her characters lines were in a given situation, to which Silva would reply “I don’t know. Whatever you think the character would say. Just react.”
Silva took an opportunity to critique the film’s classification by the NYFF as a gay/lesbian title. He doesn’t see this film as part of the greater field of LGBT cinema, because this film documents “the remnants of the discussions of homophobia in this family. They don’t make a big deal about it, because they’ve already talked about it.” In fact, responding to Anderson’s questions about telling close-up stories about families, Silva noted that this style allowed the characters “to be themselves with no boundaries at all. It’s so strong and raw that they almost become stereotypes, but within a family, you can represent a whole society.”
As Anderson pointed out, though, like “The Maid,” perhaps the strongest, most present character in “Old Cats” is the home. In “The Maid,” the filmmakers used Silva’s own home, currently still his father’s; for “Old Cats,” they used Castro and Sieveking’s small apartment. When the elevator in the building actually broke, they asked Castro what she would do. She told them she was stuck, and it was written into the script. It is the filmmakers’ goal, Silva said, “to find locations that are lived-in…They spent thirty years in that apartment. We got data for the story by talking to them. The way they wake up, the duvet cover, everything is theirs. An independent film crew invaded their house, torturing their cats.” The titular characters are both the old couple and the stars’ “morbidly obese” felines, which add even more claustrophobia and chaos to the familial relations. One hopes, though, that PETA doesn’t get wind of the filmmakers’ treatment of the cats in order to get them to be more lively. “We’d say it wasn’t harming them to their owners, but behind the scenes, we’d be like ‘I think we might be harming them.'” The cats finished the film unscathed; the thrill of watching “Old Cats,” though, is wondering how much the film’s characters, through their dramatic day in Isadora’s apartment, are affected by the ups-and-downs of family life when families grow old together.