Interview: Sebastián Silva on Finding His Way While Tripping With “Crystal Fairy”

Originally, only one of Sebastián Silva’s brothers was going to appear in “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus,” joining Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffmann on the road to imbibe psychotropic cactus juice on the Chilean coastline. As with most things related to the production, Silva’s a little hazy on how exactly Juan Andres and Jose Miguel Silva cut into brother Agustin’s screen time.

“I don’t remember what happened, but I cast a brother of mine and then there was another and I’m like why not use the three of them?” recalls Silva. “It just felt so organic to make that decision and for me, it’s life. To be with my brothers in the desert shooting a movie about compassion, it was unforgettable.”

It was also an unusual decision for Silva, a filmmaker whose previous films were so truthful and brutally funny because of how precisely constructed they were and was forced to improvise when production on “Magic Magic,” his intended first feature collaboration with Cera was delayed by three months with the “Superbad” star stranded in Chile. Yet four years after winning the Grand Jury Prize for “The Maid” at Sundance, Silva walked across the stage at the end of the festival once again to pick up a Best Directing Prize for “Crystal Fairy,” which he shot in 12 days without a script to work from, instead relying only on his memories of the time he met a hippie from San Francisco at a Wailers concert and invited her to come with him and a friend to boil down some San Pedro cactus, a variety of the succulent that has legendary hallucinogenic powers.

Although Silva lost touch with the tarot card-toting spiritualist known as Crystal Fairy with whom he shared that adventure, he knew of a kindred spirit in Hoffmann, who previously appeared in his HBO pilot “The Boring Life of Jacqueline” and was game to do any kind of tripping that was asked of her. Soon enough, she was packed into a beat-up Ford Explorer with Cera and the Silva brothers en route to the beaches of Copiapo, resulting in a film that may have lifted the weight of Silva’s intense production process without sacrificing any of its dramatic heft. Whereas “The Maid” was a clenched fist of a social satire that grew tighter and tighter as it went, “Crystal Fairy” is an open hand with Cera as its extended middle finger, an ugly American with no moral compass whose gradual warming up to a fellow traveler (Hoffmann) may be more reflective of Silva himself, a sweet-natured soul with a wicked sense of humor and no filter.

Recently in Los Angeles, the filmmaker talked about how the unexpected detour opened up a world of possibilities for his future work, his occasional disillusionment with the movie business and how the double duty on “Crystal Fairy” and “Magic Magic,” which will arrive on DVD on August 6th, renewed his passion.

CrystalFairyMichaelCeraWhat was it like to fly by the seat of your pants as you did on “Crystal Fairy”?

That was a great revelation to be able to make a movie without a formal screenplay and to be following scenes so specifically. It felt really liberating and I’m really in love with “Crystal Fairy.” It could be the favorite of the movies that I’ve made and it’s not that I’m going to become this kind of filmmaker now, but at least I found another kind of movie that I can make that’s more spontaneous. They’re very challenging and the challenges come from all different directions — even the spiritual challenge of overcoming the fear of failure. You need to be so attentive and present on set because you don’t have a guide. For this movie, [the outline] was like 12 pages and the crew was tiny and very unprepared.

Everything came together just because we were so into it. To be that alive on set, it makes such a big difference. Sometimes when you have a movie where every single scene is so deeply detailed [in writing], everything you need to do is broken down in parts and every single department knows what they have to be doing in every single scene, it feels like you’re in an automatic mode, just following a guide. Here, you really need to be so inventive. Right after “Crystal Fairy,” I made this other movie “Magic Magic” that was the complete opposite. It was the biggest movie I’ve made in terms of budget and it was very thought out. It’s very tonal. I was working with a really, really well-known DP, but what I learned on “Crystal Fairy,” I brought it to “Magic Magic.” I found myself really loose on set, [saying things like], “Forget about that line. Just say something, whatever you want,” stuff that I probably not would’ve done before if I had not gone through the experience of “Crystal Fairy” and seeing that it actually works.

Was it fun watching foreigners like Michael and Gaby interact with your home country? I know Michael was there for a little bit before shooting started…

For a long bit. He was waiting for “Magic Magic” to get to production for three months, so he stayed with my family in my family house, hanging out with my brothers and just like living as a family. He was pretty ready to go back to L.A. when “Magic Magic” couldn’t find financing and thank God, “Crystal Fairy” came about. He and Gaby went for it and it was great to see them interacting in such a loose, familiar environment. It felt like they were all so very grateful to be in such a place, especially where they’re coming from. It’s not that they haven’t done indie stuff before, but this was, believe me, like the indie-est. [laughs] They were staying in a little hut on the beach with no hot water, food was shit, and very little payment. Everybody was doing it for the love of it and that is really rare nowadays, like that people would just do something because they want to do it. I’m going to sound like Crystal Fairy, but it was really a magical thing to be doing.

SebastianSilvaCrystalFairyI got that sense once I saw the film, but I read an interview you did at Sundance just after the film’s premiere where you said you weren’t sure if you wanted to continue making movies. Is it still an interesting form for you?

Look, it is. Just yesterday, I was feeling bitter on a plane and I wrote that after the fashion world, the movie world is probably the most vain and empty of them of them all. And I say that just because I feel that movies have been linked with glamour and celebrities and I feel it’s so wrong because it’s a beautiful art. It’s the art that looks most like life. You turn on a movie and there are people moving, speaking. There’s music, there’s feelings. It feels like a dream and when you dream, you dream movielike. So the fact that we are dressing movies in such an artificial way and just making remakes of stupid movies and every single actor or actress has a value in the market and everybody wants to see the same face over and over again… it’s hard not to get depressed when I see fucking James Franco’s face on every single magazine and every single movie cover. It’s not even just actors, but the celebrity world which is really sickening to me.

That part of it is the part that makes me think maybe I could be doing something a little more real [such as] teaching, talking to kids about the craft of moviemaking and just getting more into the psychology of characters rather than going through IMDb lists of famous actresses that are pretty and young. But then again, that’s part of the rules. You’ll probably see me contradicting myself by casting someone famous in the next movie — it’s not that I’m against it — but to be honest, it’s depressing. It is depressing how addicted we are to celebrities in general. It feels like the world is tiny. [laughs]

Even though it’s off the topic of this film…

I love off-topic.

MichaelCeraCrystalFairyChris Doyle, the great cinematographer [who worked with Silva on “Magic Magic”], has never seemed like one to put up with that stuff either. Was that an important collaboration for you?

Yeah, it was a really great collaboration. I learned again a lot about photography and a lot about life with Chris Doyle. He’s a very difficult man to work with, but then it’s worth it. One little quote that he said…maybe it’s not even his, but he said it, was, “Listen, in the art world or in movies, usually we do what we can and not what we want.” That was such a release [for me] to hear that. I’m really not the kind of director that’s going for what he wants all the time. I adapt as much as I can and that’s why “Crystal Fairy” is such a treat to me because I’m really doing what I can. I don’t have a plan. I don’t really know what I want. I know more what I don’t want, then I discover the things that I want while I see them. That was a big lesson from him. He [also] taught me to be very spontaneous on set and to really refine my eye in terms of composition and color.

He’s really a rebel, so he could be really hard sometimes to work with — he always wants to contradict things, which I feel very similar to him in that respect. Maybe that’s why we also clashed because we are so similar. But it was a great, great collaboration and he gave the movie something that I was not expecting, which is a more picturesque look. The movie feels like more of a fable and I’m going to be grateful forever that Chris brought that to “Magic Magic” because I think I had in mind to shoot it a little more naturalistic as if it was something that was actually happening. That would’ve been a big mistake because [with] “Magic Magic,” we’re not trying to trick the audience [into believing] that’s something that’s actually happening. “The Maid” or “Old Cats” are very voyeuristic looking movies that it makes you feel that you’re a fly on the wall. “Magic Magic” is really more of an ensemble, artificial piece that’s like a fairy tale. Chris really helped to enhance that.

You actually used music in “Crystal Fairy,” which is also different from your previous films.

I know, so it’s weird. It’s even weird for me. The first movie I made was entirely scored because again, it was a fable, [shot in] black and white and the characters were really cartoonish. But “The Maid” and “Old Cats” were really very natural with no music at all. In “Crystal Fairy,” there was an idea at the beginning just to have music coming from the party or the radio in the car and [still,] there’s no score to the movie up until they finally depart to the beach from when they stop and Gaby needs to pee. That’s when Edward Sharpe comes into the movie as a sort of spiritual overall feeling and the music is no longer coming from [an ambient source], but from above. That was such a freestyle decision and only a movie like “Crystal Fairy” would allow me to just have half of the movie incidental music and then to switch all of a sudden. I think it works just because of how loose the movie is that you don’t question it. You’re like, “Oh yeah, they want to put a song there just because it feels better” and that’s how it is. [laughs] We kept it like that. We used a lot of Edward Sharpe songs for the second half of the movie. That feeling became a big part of it.

“Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” opens in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and in New York at the IFC Center on July 12th. It will also be available on VOD.

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