Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Sebastián Silva is a gifted filmmaker, a musician with several terrific recordings to his name, a restless visual artist, and a genuine polymath. His most accomplished ensemble production, Old Cats, a Hitchcock-like thriller masquerading as a family drama, opens in New York this March. Best known as the director of 2009’s Sundance Film Festival favorite The Maid—it won both the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize as well as the Special Jury Prize for its lead actress, Catalina Saavedra (the film garnered so many other international awards, they are literally too numerous to mention here)—Silva has squeezed into his rail-thin frame of 32 years more than most folks do in a lifetime. A brand-new New Yorker, his energy mirrors Gotham’s legendary restless streak. Manic, purposeful, and driven, like certain artistic immigrants of lore—think of the young García Lorca or Patti Smith—he looks every bit the picture of a man aching to set the world on fire.
Born in the butt end of the globe’s southern latitudes—in Santiago, Chile, to be exact, where I also happen to hail from—Silva predictably rebelled against the conservative mores of a Catholic society which experienced travelers liken, strangely, to postwar England. A precocious master of the buttoned-up family drama with absurdist overtones, he uses his films to explore the tiny passive-aggressive hypocrisies that mine everyday human relationships—the claustrophobic cease-fires staked out between parents and children, the secrets guarded by husbands and wives, the collusions entered into by housemaids and their charges. When Silva’s filmic catharses occur, they arrive with Almodóvarian abandon. Stiff upper lips are set quavering with Latin turmoil.
As someone partially brought up in the sort of well-heeled, incestuous social environments Silva describes, films like Life Kills Me (La Vida Me Mata), The Maid (La Nana) and the soon-to-be-released Old Cats (Gatos Viejos) contain, for me, moments of personal recognition that erupt suddenly, like revelations packed into letter bombs. Before meeting Silva, I already felt the sort of connection with him one does with an old acquaintance or a friend’s best friend. As Susan Sontag once said about André Gide, watching Silva’s movies can mean experiencing something like labor pains—for the thoughts his films give birth to. So it was, then, that talking at length with the young director about his life and work proved less an interview than a bracing chat with a dazzling stranger; a conversation with a man you don’t really know, but find every reason to believe you’d very much like to.
Christian Viveros-Fauné You had a nana, a maid, when you were growing up. What was that like?
Sebastián Silva It was traumatizing enough to make a movie about. We’re seven siblings, so there was always a maid at my house, if not two. One would take care of the first floor, the other would take care of the second floor and the children, the garden, and so on. I was a rebel with my parents or any other authority figure. For me, the maid was a third parent rather than someone serving us.
CVF Kids here call it a “frenemy.”
SS That’s how it felt. Growing up with a maid was always uncomfortable. First I grew rebellious against the institution of having maids, then, when I was old enough to feel some compassion, I started feeling guilty, because there can’t really be compassion in that relationship. I felt guilty having someone working for us, not sharing the Christmas Eve with us in the living room but spending it by herself in the kitchen.
CVF You developed a social consciousness.
SS I guess so, it was clear that something was wrong. The awkwardness of the relationship is exposed in the beginning of The Maid. It’s her birthday and she can’t even comfortably eat her cake with the family, you know?
CVF The natural tendency is to want to read your film as a kind of neorealism, which I don’t think is necessarily what you are doing.
SS It’s realistic, and it was made now, so neorealism makes sense. But I didn’t make an intentional social or political judgment about the institution of having maids, which is something that Chilean critics didn’t appreciate. The reviews stated that the movie lacked a political outlook. But that was absolutely intentional. I made the movie to exorcise my own demons, not to overthrow the institution of domestic help or to judge people who have maids. These folks are my parents. To demonize the patrones or make the job of a maid look humiliating would be patronizing for the more than 100,000…
CVF I think there are 250,000 maids in Santiago alone. These relationships are learned from generation to generation. It’s an extended family you’re talking about here. But there can be a psychological hellhole resulting from the social imbalances.
SS It has a flavor of slavery. Maids have endless duties. The Maid was a breakthrough in my own family. They could see themselves portrayed very realistically. The movie takes place in my parents’ house, where I grew up. Raquel is inspired by a maid who lived and worked at our house for over 25 years. The movie maids slept in the real maids’ rooms. We used the same photo albums, the same TV set, decoration, everything. So it was quite a reality check for my family. My youngest brother, Lucas, played me in the movie. My sister did art direction. It was a family enterprise.
CVF A family affair.
SS The shooting was kind of incestuous. The relationships were very intimate. The real-life character who inspired Lucy, the second maid, worked at the house while we were filming. She wore an apron and served everybody. While she worked as a maid she coached Mariana Loyola, the actress. They became really good friends.
CVF I’ve seen the film a number of times now and for me the reason that the film works so well is because Raquel is such a wild card. She’s essentially an unstable being in an otherwise fairly ordinary environment. It’s an upper-middle-class Chilean family, of which there are hundreds of thousands in Santiago. She throws everyone’s dynamic off kilter, then everything piles up like a mountain made up of tiny little hypocrisies. Did you find yourself looking for an acceptable level of instability for her? As I was watching, I often wondered: Is this going to turn into a slasher film? Did you ever think, Okay, Raquel is going to get this crazy, and no crazier?
SS Since the character was based on a real person, I knew Raquel’s boundaries. Even in the first 40 minutes—when you think Raquel might kill everyone with an iron or something—it wasn’t intentional. I never thought of Raquel as a psychopath. This was the maid I lived with for most of my life.
CVF So when did you realize that the character had those attributes?
SS I remember shooting the scene with the plastic gloves. Her hair and that make-up—I thought, Fuck, dude, this really looks like Ringu or something. I was scared that we were taking it too far. But I never really had to dial it down. I knew it was never going to get gory.
CVF You also knew the end of the story.
SS My cowriter, Pedro Peirano, was more aware of the suspense.
CVF How long have you been working with him as a cowriter?
SS I wrote my first movie, Life Kills Me, by myself. But when I got a production deal with Fabula, a small Chilean producer, I was told that the script needed a rewrite. I showed Pedro the screenplay, he liked it, and I invited him to write it with me. After that we wrote The Maid together, and now we’ve just written and directed Old Cats. Pedro’s extremely savvy about film and he’s a great storyteller. Before meeting him I wrote two screenplays that never got produced. But Life Kills Me was just right and genuine. I have always been really obsessed with the phenomenon of death.
CVF You’re too young to be obsessed with death, you’re 32. And you wrote Life Kills Me five years ago.
SS I don’t think death has anything to do with being old. People die young. The way I use the idea of death is more like a replacement for God. Death is such a mystery…
CVF Meaning that if you don’t believe in God, then that’s the one mystery you keep going back to?
SS Even the question of believing or not believing makes my mind go blank. I was very Catholic once. I think I have destroyed any trace of Catholicism in myself but, in moments of desperation, I find myself in bed with my eyes closed…
SS “Hello, God?” (laughter) You know that dialogue they make you establish with God as a child? When they give you the host, you kneel down and you’re supposed to connect with God.
CVF Like the prayer scenes in The Maid.
SS My mom would pray with us every night. At age 11, I think, I started avoiding church and getting into quarrels with my parents. Then I began practicing very corny New-Age shit. All my religion sort of went into…
CVF Esoteric practices.
SS It led me nowhere; it didn’t give me any light or wisdom. Death consequently became a huge thing to think about. It totally replaced the idea of God, just because of its mystery.
CVF How did you wind up squaring your Catholicism with being gay?
SS I never made the conscious connection between Catholicism and homosexuality being enemies. But I did suffer. I went to a private school, a very tough school ruled by men only, and the law of the jungle. I remember having feminine impulses and just suppressing them. To survive, I guess. I hated the school, but I had a good group of friends.
CVF So when did you come out and what was that like?
SS I came out after high school. I moved to Canada for eight months when I was 20. That really helped me accept who I was and to understand that homosexuality was nothing but another sexual drive. When I returned to Chile I was really delirious. I had some crazy messianic crisis. In Canada I’d had a sort of awakening. Coming out of the closet was part of it, but I also read a lot of Suzuki and I went on some retreats. The continuous days of silence and the hours of daily meditation broke my whole mental structure. Mountains were no longer mountains, people were no longer people, and my own self was no longer my own self. Everything became extremely abstract. I had never been so clear. That helped me, but my Catholic background made me take it the wrong way—I felt I had to share it.
CVF You finally got religion.
SS That was the Catholic part. It made me go crazy. I was on the New York subway telling people what to do. (laughter) I really did that! It was like I was the Christ. (laughter) Luckily I always kept a sense of humor. While I felt the urge to share my message, I was laughing at myself for doing it.
Compared to the messianic issue, being gay was nothing. Luckily, after a year of being the messiah, I was done with it. Thankfully, it was never creepy or crazy enough for anyone to consider locking me up.
CVF And you were fun to be with.
SS Yeah. Actually, a lot of creative projects came out of that. Religion was one of the things that this messiah was going to destroy. I made this collection of magazines, called Awareness Improves Life—12 magazines with awareness tricks that I would give away for free. Then a group of friends and I started a band called The Congregation of the Contemplative Brothers. I was a very peppy, fun messiah.
CVF So, you’re in Chile, you’re in Canada, and later you were in LA—when do you have time to go to film school?
SS I went to film school in Chile when I was 18. I went for a year, so, honestly, I don’t count that as having gone to film school. I don’t regret it, but it was a very informal education—a bunch of kids in a kind of Bauhaus little house in Macul with an empty swimming pool and a few street dogs. The classrooms were shitty and everybody was smoking weed all day. I had a video camera and I just taped everything I came across: my family, going to McDonald’s, the street dogs—whatever. I made some short experimental films. I didn’t really care about grades because I had a feeling I wouldn’t be there the next year.
CVF You’re pretty much an autodidact then, which can be a very liberating thing.
SS I think so. Sometimes you wish you knew more stuff. When I was directing my first movie there were a lot of technical things I didn’t know, even terms. You hear yourself explaining your ideas to the director of photography in a poetic, weird, metaphorical way, and the guy is lost and then things don’t come across as you imagined them just because you didn’t have the language. Now I do. Live and learn. I’ve considered going to school, but it’s probably just a dream.
CVF I think it’s past you now. After you win Sundance you don’t get to go to school. So Life Kills Me: How do you get there?
SS I got extremely lucky, man. Thanks to the art exhibits and the music that I’d made in Chile, I had the names of a few people. When I brought the screenplay to these producers they already knew that I could accomplish stuff. The first person I showed that screenplay to decided to produce it. Filmmaking really became possible. It was not a struggle for me. The Maid was produced next, and Old Cats a year later by the same distributor. And then I got this thing with HBO that I’m just finishing.
CVF What’s the thing with HBO?
SS A comedy series with ten episodes. It’s called The Boring Life of Jacqueline. It’s a very accurate portrait of how people in my generation and younger live nowadays, especially with the social networks on the Internet, and how connected they feel but how disconnected they really are from everybody. I didn’t write it intentionally as social or political critique. I’m not political; that’s never my first intention. It was rather me feeling like Jacqueline. It’s like walking down Broadway with nothing to do and going inside a shoe store and trying on shoes that you weren’t even going to buy. You look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, You suck. (laughter) What the fuck are you doing with your life? It’s more about those moments when you’re being really pathetic. Just the sad miserable shit that nobody shares, but everybody goes through. It’s a misery-exploitation series.
CVF I like that. And this is your first project in English?
SS Yeah. I’ve written two screenplays in English that are not yet produced. We were supposed to make one of them last year in August, but sadly one of the investors dropped out four days before the shooting. It’s a good movie, a kind of family drama called Second Child and it’s about an eight-year-old homosexual kid who falls in love with his godfather on vacation in the countryside. The other one is a psychological thriller that I just wrote and it’s called Magic Magic.
CVF I noticed that some actors have appeared in all three of your movies so far, a la John Cassavetes, where you’re working with a community of people that you like.
SS Yeah, I’ve used the same actors: Claudia Celedón and Catalina Saavedra always play a couple or a team in my movies. Same in Old Cats: Bélgica Castro and Alejandro Sieveking were the main characters in Life Kills Me. I’m really picky with actors and the way they look. Bélgica is one of the best Chilean actresses ever. I mean, all of the other actors you can think of in Chile have been in soap operas way too much and that really kills it for me.
SS Because they get very gimmicky. You say, Drink this beer. And they’re like, (slurping and gulping sounds) Ahhh. (laughter) They stop acting natural. Because TV is so rushed, there’s no subtlety. It’s fake, straightforward acting.
CVF It’s called ham-fisted.
SS Exactly. You can tell the difference between actors who work in theater and film and actors who are on TV. The approach to the characters is just so different.
CVF In Old Cats you work with friends too. The film is based on their lives. It’s very much an ensemble production.
SS Yeah, the original idea was to make something with Bélgica and Alejandro because they’re a legendary theater couple in Chile. After Life Kills Me we became very close friends.
She is 91 years old, he’s 70-something, they live in this tiny apartment with a telescope in downtown Santiago. They always drink whiskey and they are really fun. They’re extremely savvy about film and theater and art. And they have these two overweight cats that they’ve had for 20 years. It’s such an eccentric little world that I wanted to somehow document it.
Pedro Peirano loved the idea—all four of us decided to write a fictional piece together. We first wrote a short film, also called Old Cats. Alejandro is leaving the apartment, and Bélgica starts searching for something around the house. She cannot find it, she grows desperate, and then she sits at the table and starts crying. He comes back and he’s like, “What’s going on?” and she goes, “I couldn’t find it,” and he asks, “What?” “I don’t know” is her response. And that’s the end. It’s about a woman having the first signs of Alzheimer’s. We liked the short film so much, that we decided to write a feature film from the material. But we needed a bit more conflict, so we brought a daughter into the piece.
CVF And that’s Claudia’s character. She is the daughter of this elderly couple and totally hooked on coke.
SS She’s an addict. In the period of maybe eight hours she consumes cocaine four times.
CVF And she is trying to wheedle the beautiful apartment out from under her mom.
SS Yeah. She wants to sell it, saying they’ll be better off moving somewhere safer, where the elevator isn’t always broken. And somehow she makes sense. Honestly, I root for the daughter a little bit, because the mother gets trapped in the elevator and she has nowhere to go. So the daughter is not that crazy, though her intentions are really…
CVF They are not exactly pure.
SS They are pretty shady. She wants her inheritance from the sale.
CVF Old Cats is a real chamber piece and it reminds me a lot of The Maid, because most of it happens within the confines of four walls. It’s essentially a character study, a study of how atrocious families can be. (laughter)
SS Yeah. How claustrophobic families can be. The whole movie was shot in Bélgica and Alejandro’s actual apartment. It’s very similar to The Maid in terms of how many real, even documentary aspects there are to the movie. They’re a real couple. In the movie they are being invaded by their daughter and her girlfriend, while in real life we were absolutely invading their home with the film crew. A lot of stuff in the screenplay was taken from their actual life, like the elevator being broken, and the old woman being trapped in her own house for days because she couldn’t get down the stairs. So the stairs became a very important element of the movie—as a thriller element.
CVF It’s a terrific film with terrific energy. How do you tease those kinds of performances out of actors?
SS In the Q&A at the New York Film Festival, I was asked how we got the actors to portray old people so accurately. (laughter) I mean, they are old people! It’s not a Mike Leigh sort of preparation for the movies. I never rehearse…
CVF You don’t workshop.
SS I want the experience of shooting the movie to be very spontaneous and fresh for everybody. Not something that gets old after several months of preparing and talking too much about it.
CVF How long did that film take to shoot?
SS Two weeks. It’s not ideal. But, yeah, 15 days and all shot in one location. With The Maid I learned to pull off a more cinematic language inside a small location like that. The setup is very theatrical—a kitchen, a living room, and a terrace. That’s it. Because of the many close-ups and details and the different camera angles, you never get tired of seeing the same rooms. The set is camouflaged by the way it is shot. I’ve become kind of an expert on tiny locations.
There’s something very special about this movie for me, being a visual person; something about its size. It doesn’t even feel like a feature film to me, although it is. Everything is so tiny—from the apartment the movie takes place in to the main character. Bélgica is a very petite person and the story and the conflicts they’re going through are so minimal and meaningless. Everything is small to me in that movie. And I like that. It’s like a little jewel to me. When I think of Old Cats, I think of dice—that size.
CVF You live in New York now. Why did you move here?
SS I fell in love with the city when I first came here on my way to Montreal when I was 19. Honestly, Santiago is not a city I like. Period. I think it is very repressed, very dirty, very Catholic, very traditional, and, um, very conservative and homophobic. I mean, there are other aspects to the city that I really like, for instance, its lack of nationalism. I don’t think anybody feels anything special for the country of Chile—I think it’s a very modern…
CVF It is almost European.
SS It’s kind of beyond. There is nothing particular about our society, other than being a little skeptical and suspicious and ironic and guarded. That’s why I left. New York is a very stimulating, fun, open city.
CVF What does filmmaking look like to you from here as opposed to from Santiago? Is it a bigger palette?
SS There is definitely a bigger palette and, language-wise, it’s huge. Most of the films that have been influential in my life are English-language movies. The fact that I’m now writing in English has opened the doors for me to think in any other possible language.
I have to say, though, that North American filmmaking is a little disappointing to me. I mean, the way that movies are made here. I’m just stepping into the industry a little bit, slowly and cautiously. HBO is a very prestigious place and has an open-minded feel. They’ve been really open to my ideas. But then I’ve had meetings with independent producers and their approach to storytelling is very conditioned by old Hollywood. They need to know what genre your film is. If they can’t classify your film, it either doesn’t get made or you have to give so many explanations that it feels like you are tricking them. You trick them so you can get the money and make the movie.
CVF And then you do whatever you want to do.
SS You go and make the movie you wrote, but it feels like a child’s game. It feels like you are not dealing with mature people. Film in the States has very little relationship with art. I guess it has been such a huge industry through all these decades that it’s not an art anymore.
Filmmaking in South America still feels like an art. Most of the movies that my colleagues or friends are making in Chile or Uruguay or Argentina are driven by personal stories, and they find producers. It takes a long time and they have very low budgets, but what they make is still art. They are very specific stories with no genre. Independent movies in the States have budgets from three to ten million dollars. With that money I could make 20 of my films!
CVF So they are not so independent after all.
SS They are really not. Independent films in the US are basically miniature blockbuster movies. That has been kind of disappointing for me, but on the other hand, even though it sounds very clichéd, there are so many opportunities. You just need to fight the battle and be smart enough to win it. I’m also on middle ground because I don’t see myself as an experimental filmmaker. I don’t want to change the way movies are made. I’m into storytelling and good acting. When I think about my audience I see myself as an entertainer, although that might sound a little cheap or corny.
CVF No. Storytellers are entertainers. Shakespeare was an entertainer.
SS I was just talking to my colleague Pedro Peirano about this new way of filmmaking, which is to tell nothing. No risk, you know? The less that happens, the better. Pedro was telling me how disappointing it is seeing so many filmmakers trying to please the European festival critics and audiences by being as minimal as possible when life is so rich!
CVF I think I’ve seen the kind of films you are talking about.
SS I mean, I like some of them, but many have this forced way of hiding emotions, as if showing emotions were corny. As if emotions were clichés or narrative gimmicks. For me emotion is all there is. It could be subtle or disguised, but it’s still an emotion.
CVF Generally, your films have at least one or two moments in which everything opens up and you have a flood. The entire argument that’s been articulated is suddenly out in the open and the characters speak to one another very directly.
SS In Old Cats—although the characters go through a sort of learning arc—they end up the same. I really like that about Old Cats. It’s a movie that embraces mediocrity and the fact that sometimes it’s simply too late to solve things with your family or to redeem yourself.
CVF There’s no catharsis.
SS There is no catharsis, no redemption for anybody. The film ends up worse than it started. The characters couldn’t solve their conflicts.
CVF It is a very realistic point of view.
SS Yeah, exactly. To show emotions doesn’t mean a happy ending. Maybe things are just going to get worse, you know? I mean, who dies with all their relationships solved? Nobody.
CVF Quietly in bed, having resolved every fucking thing. (laughter)
SS Now, with Magic Magic, this new and more atmospheric piece I wrote, I’m challenging myself again with another kind of film language. Because it can get too comfortable to just keep on making real stories with real acting. I don’t want to repeat the process. I don’t want filmmaking to become a tedious job for me. I don’t want to try to imagine another family story. It would be easy for me now. I kind of want to commit more mistakes, you know?
—Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based writer and curator. He is the inaugural critic-in-residence 2010-2011 at The Bronx Museum and a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University. He writes the Free-Lance column for Art Review and criticism for the Village Voice and The Paris Review Daily. He is the lead curator for Dublin Contemporary 2011.