“Rotting in the Sun” carries all the familiar themes of writer-director Sebastián Silva’s work — class tensions, sexual intrigue, disarming comedy with unsettling punchlines — but the movie’s genesis is even stranger.
A little over two years ago, the 43-year-old Chilean filmmaker was in a tough spot. Silva favors uncomfortable, tough-sell dark comedies like “Nasty Baby,” “Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus,” and “Tyrel,” but problems with the financier of his last movie, the supernatural Puerto Rican drama “Fistful of Dirt,” meant it never was released after its 2018 Telluride premiere.
As other projects stalled and the pandemic took hold, Silva left his home in Brooklyn to crash at a friend’s vacated architectural studio in Mexico City, where he planned to work on his career as a painter. “I just wanted to paint and chill,” he said in a recent Zoom interview. “But I can’t escape the movies. Wherever I go, I see things that are cinematic.”
Case in point: While hanging out in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, Silva was approached by giddy Instagram comedian and actor Jordan Firstman. He claimed they’d met before and added that, through some odd form of serendipity, he had just rewatched “Crystal Fairy” the night before. Silva had no recollection of the social-media star, so Firstman whipped out his phone to give him a sample.
“I found him hilarious and exhausting,” Silva said. “It was very much something I wanted to make fun of.”
A version of that encounter is the inciting incident of “Rotting in the Sun,” Silva’s fifth feature to premiere at Sundance and one that consolidates his most potent themes. The buzzy acquisition title (which added Robert Pattinson’s production company as a partner days before its premiere) is poised to shock audiences no matter how much they know about the filmmaker’s previous work.
A queer satire of creativity and the modern age of self-obsession, “Rotting in the Sun” stars Silva as a Ketamine-addicted, quasi-fictionalized version of himself. He’s in a suicidal state when he runs into Firstman — also playing himself — and attempts to get rid of him before making a halfhearted attempt at collaborating on a new TV series. From there, the movie takes a series of shocking turns, with unsimulated sex and a mysterious crime factoring into a labyrinthine plot that only grows more disturbing in its second half. It’s there that a middle-aged housekeeper (Catalina Saavedra) gets drawn into Silva’s conundrums after the situation takes a violent twist.
“I wanted to make a very misanthropic film,” Silva said. “The world is burning.”
Firstman had long admired Silva’s edgy humor and irredeemable anti-heroes (the comedian directed a likeminded short film, “The Disgustings,” that played at Sundance 2014). “I’m a fan of Sebastian’s films and the movie was appealing to me because I could unravel my persona,” Firstman said in a phone interview. “At the end of the day, I was making silly videos on the internet. I wanna tell all my followers, ‘I fucking hate you, you ruined my life,’ but I can’t do that because it’ll ruin my career. This movie helped me laugh at myself.”
With its wild tonal shifts, “Rotting in the Sun” manages to be both playful and nihilistic. The movie synthesizes Silva’s anarchic humor with the naturalism of his early success “The Maid,” which starred Saavedra as housekeeper dealing with the anxiety of working for wealthier benefactors. Silva was inspired to revisit that idea with “Rotting in the Sun” after encountering the maid at his makeshift studio in Mexico.
“The sort of employee-employer relationship was very drastic,” he said. “I felt disgusted to have these people working for me, but I also wanted to make fun of them, of us, of everybody.”
Silva’s personal death wish in the movie — he obsesses over the prospect of overdosing on sodium pentobarbital — also became a target. “To be completely honest, suicide is something I’ve always contemplated,” he said, adding that he had never attempted it, though he had struggled with a bout of mental health issues days prior to this interview. “It’s not rare that gay people contemplate suicide just because of this fear of coming out. But with me, it kind of stuck.”
He wanted to skewer his lingering obsession. “Contemplating suicide is a very bourgeois activity for bored people,” he said. “You have so few real problems that you just live in this constant existential turmoil.” In any case, he said he was in a better place now. “In a way, this movie did put a stop to the game of thinking that if things got too bad, I could just fucking kill myself,” he said.
While hashing out the screenplay, its title came to him when he took a break from the city to spend time visiting a friend who lived in the Mexican countryside. “I was like, ‘What do you do here all day? I’m like rotting in the sun,’” Silva said. “And he was like, ‘What else can you do?’ It just described so much about the world right now.”
Saavedra said she appreciated the film’s all-inclusive satire. “It’s a comically rude movie,” she said. “No one is spared.” Her character’s language barrier with Firstman leads to a recurring gag involving his phone’s translation app. “With Jordan, we had no greater challenge than to play the relationship of two strangers unable to communicate,” she said. “Google Translate doesn’t work to communicate. We laughed a lot.”
Despite the serendipity of meeting Firstman, he wasn’t Silva’s first call for the lead. Instead, he wanted to cast Michael Cera, who starred in the director’s “Magic Cactus” and “Magic Magic,” but the director wanted the character to appear in graphic sex scenes — and Cera wasn’t having it.
“Michael is the coyest person,” Silva said. “He would never. He wore a fucking ass prosthetic in ‘This is the End.”’ Instead, he pitched the idea to Firstman, building out the concept for his persona. “I told Jordan I would fully humiliate him and make fun of what he does, not even ironically,” Silva said. “Because he’s so direct and openly sexual with everybody all the time, I asked him if he would be willing to have explicit sex in the movie. And he was like, ‘OK.’”
Firstman said he relished the opportunity as a contrast to his safer projects, including a recurring gig on the Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel” as the school counselor Gabe. “I’m in a Marvel thing and sucking cock on camera in the same year,” Firstman said. “I wanna be able to do it all.”
Silva grinned about the more graphic scenes, which includes a prolonged sequence set at a nude beach. “There must be more than 40 dicks in this movie,” he said, “but the explicit sex is supposed to bring a layer of comedy more than shock or hostility.”
Silva’s mischievous instincts came to the fore as he lost interest in pursuing more commercial opportunities. In 2016, he was on the verge of making the $8 million Will Ferrell comedy “Captain Dad” in Colombia when the actor pulled out at the last minute. Another project that Silva described as a variation on “Breaking the Waves” in the Baltic Sea fell apart a few years later, and then came the distribution limbo for “Fistful of Dirt.”
“It was pretty demoralizing,” Silva said. “At the time, I was mortified.” He regained his confidence by directing a few episodes of his friend Julio Torres’ HBO show “Los Espookys” and spending time in the writers room for HBO miniseries “The Staircase” directed by another friend, Antonio Campos. “It felt great,” Silva said. “I was surprised I could collaborate like that and get away from my own vision when it wasn’t asked for.”
While he’s now toying with future projects, including a possible collaboration with Ari Aster and A24, Silva said he felt less pressure to jump into his next one. His painting career has taken off and he recently signed with the Mexico City gallery OMR, which pays the bills. “That gives me the freedom to explore filmmaking in a real way,” he said. “I don’t have to rush.”
He also doesn’t have to compromise. “I don’t think I would ever direct anything I wouldn’t have final cut on,” he said. “If Netflix wants me to make $80 million movie and I don’t have final cut, that’s a dealbreaker. I feel like a lot of big studio movies will never give me final cut. That’s my limit right there.”
“Rotting in the Sun” screens in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.