For the last two weeks, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva has been in San Francisco as the Winter 2014 Artist in Residence with the San Francisco Film Society, talking about his craft with high school and college students, as well as other filmmakers. He also gave a Q&A at a special screening of his most recent film, Magic Magic, a psychological thriller about a young woman, Alicia (Juno Temple), who goes to visit her cousin in Chile, and finds herself surrounded by her cousin’s unwelcoming boyfriend (Sebastian’s real-life brother, Agustin Silva), his sister, and his closeted friend (Michael Cera). The Seventh Row sat down with Silva earlier this week to discuss making “Magic Magic”, his body of work, and what he’s got coming up on the horizon.
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for Magic Magic come from?
Sebastián Silva): It’s more disturbing than horrifying. I thought about movies that had disturbed me. There is a very exquisite disturbance that early Polanski movies produced in me, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I wanted to rescue that tone, the sense of really awful tragedy together with a grotesque sense of humour.
What is really terrifying to me is losing my mental abilities, that my mind would take over and would control me and not the other way around. A clinical case of paranoid schizophrenia is something I’m pretty scared of. Everyone tapped into paranoiac episodes when making the film. Like, what if you smoked a joint when it wasn’t the right time to smoke it? Or, you’re at a party where you don’t know anybody, and you feel very intimidated and insecure. Now imagine that growing exponentially and how scary that could be. For me, Magic Magic is really a fable. I’m not trying to make people believe it’s reality.
7R: How did you decide how the film would begin?
Sebastián Silva: I feel like movies can really start anywhere: you’re always starting in the middle of something. We needed Alicia (Juno Temple) to arrive in Santiago and to know that she is coming from the US to visit her cousin [Emily Browning]. We wanted to see her arriving with bags, to make it very visual, so people really understand, even though it’s a really short beginning, that she’s coming from somewhere else. To start with Michael [Cera] dancing like a creep in slow motion was an idea that came up on the spot, to just make it a little more interesting and not just have Alicia in the car with the bags arriving.
7R: But we don’t see Brink’s face, only his shoes and then the rest of his body. And the first thing we see of the other characters are their feet and legs.
Sebastián Silva: That was an idea that the DP, Christopher Doyle, and I built together. We wanted Alicia’s face to be the first face you see, to be as visual as possible, and as direct as possible, that this is our main character: this is who the movie is going to be about. They’re waiting for her. She shows up. We haven’t seen anybody’s face, and then we see Alicia’s.
7R: How did you think about whose perspective you were shooting from? It’s very eerie.
Sebastián Silva: The film switches back and forth between Alicia’s and Brink’s [Michael Cera] perspective. That was something we really thought about. It was really important that there would be this ambiguity about whether Alicia is losing her mind, or the people around her are being really sadistic to her. The point of view switches from the character of Brink to the character of Alicia, so you’re not really sure what is the story that is being told.
That helps create a place that is not really safe for an audience. They don’t know whether it’s a comedy, a drama, a psychological thriller, or a horror film. We were also playing with Alicia’s perception, that she would see stuff that wasn’t there. When she thinks that Barbara [Catalina Sandino Moreno] was staring at her, the audience could also think that Barbara was doing that — it makes sense that she would be doing that — but then she wasn’t actually. The point of view is sort of unclear, to me, in this movie, and it was purposely made that way so the audience would never feel really safe.
7R: How do you approach building characters with actors?
Sebastián Silva: It depends on the movie. Sometimes I have a very clear idea of what I want the characters to be. In Magic Magic, Brink is a very particularly constructed character, almost like a cartoon character. But for most of my other films, like Crystal Fairy and The Maid, I have picked actors that already somewhat resemble the characters they will be playing. So I let them sort of be themselves. And then I give them broad directions physically, like move a little faster.
I feel like Jamie [Michael Cera], in Crystal Fairy, moves a little faster than Michael Cera. I told him to use his voice and speak faster; everything, do it faster, as if you were more anxious. He moves very similarly to Michael, but somehow faster. But there wasn’t much to construct, I feel. My brothers were playing themselves. Gaby Hoffman was playing Crystal Fairy, but at the same time Gaby has a lot of Crystal Fairy-ish qualities.
7R: You decided to use a score in Magic Magic.
Sebastián Silva: Magic Magic and Life Kills Me are my only movies that have a score. So far, I’ve been really purist about what movies need a score and what movies don’t and why. If this is a very realistic movie, it shouldn’t have score. Old Cats and The Maid had no score, only incidental music coming from a source. That started changing with Crystal Fairy, which has a lot of incidental music, both coming from a source in the film and not.
7R: Why were you such a purist about it?
Sebastián Silva: Music really enters people’s bodies and affects their emotions differently than visual stuff and narrative. It’s an element you have to be really careful with because it’s so strong. You really need to know what you’re doing with it. It’s there to be used, and I think it takes a lot of balls to risk how you use it.
A movie with no music at all, if it has good performances, it’s safe. But if you decide to add music, you are risking over-doing stuff or underestimating your audience’s understanding of the emotions that you’re portraying. They might think that you’re helping them too much or that you’re leading them somewhere they were not going. But I think it’s a risk worth taking. It’s one more element to use to create emotions.
7R: What are you working on now?
Sebastián Silva: I’m finishing up a film called Nasty Baby right now. It’s improvised like Crystal Fairy, but the outline was a little longer: 25 pages instead of 12. But all the dialogue is improvised. We shot it in Brooklyn with two hand-held cameras, and I worked with the DP I worked with for The Maid, Old Cats, and my first movie. I’m also acting in it, and directing from within the scenes, which was a new experience and really gratifying.
7R: This is your first film made outside of Chile.
Sebastián Silva: I’d been living in the US for 10 years when I made Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy. I went to Chile to make them, but I was living in the States already. I made this HBO thing that I shot in New York called The Boring Life of Jacqueline, and it’s all in English — no subtitles, nothing to do with Chile. Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic are some kind of a blend: location-wise, they’re in Chile, but language-wise, they’re 80-90% in English.
I’m in Nasty Baby, and I have an accent, and so is my brother: we speak Spanish to each other in it. So there is a tiny sprinkle of my nationality in it, but i think this is probably the last one I’ll do that in. I don’t think Chile will be in any of my movies anymore. I just feel like it’s been enough.