Interview: Michael Cera and Sebastian Silva of Crystal Fairy
While stoned at a party in Chile, Jamie (Michael Cera), a boorish American asshole, invites a cosmo-tripping hippy named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) on a quest with his friends to obtain San Pedro—a “magical” cactus—and imbibe the mescaline-rich plant. Much to his surprise, Crystal Fairy actually shows up for the journey the next day. Feeling threatened by her weirdness (or something), Jamie slings nasty barbs and general douchiness in an attempt to drive her away, but their fellow road-trippers have taken quite a liking to her.
Cera and director Sebastian Silva chatted with us before the film’s screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May. We spoke about the film’s inception, the risk of improvisation, the real Crystal Fairy, whether Jamie is an asshole or not, their favorite road trip movies, and more.
How did the project get started? You were trying to get Magic Magic made, right?
Michael Cera: Right. We were basically sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for somebody to step in and finance Magic Magic. It seemed like that ship had sailed. We had given up. Then Sebastian said, “Why don’t we do this instead?” Just to make something, we’ll go make this movie and no one will stop us.
Sebastian Silva: I had Michael and Gaby there, so that was enough incentive for a Chilean producer to make a tiny movie that could finance itself just by international sales. It was a simple financial, economical figure and a good business idea.
Michael Cera: It was financially sound.
Sebastian Silva: Yeah, from every perspective. My friend’s producers were into it immediately and it was a very easy project to get going. Super easy. It took us, like, two weeks.
Because the film came together so quickly, how structured was the script?
Michael Cera: It was very structured. It was completely conceptualized and figured out.
Sebastian Silva: It’s based on a true story. I went through the same experience fourteen years ago with my best friend. We were going to go take San Pedro in the Chilean desert and I invited this hippy girl that I met at a concert. She was from San Francisco actually, and she went by the name of Crystal Fairy. We’re looking for her.
Michael Cera: We’re really hoping to find her. It just occurred to us today that maybe she’ll show up tonight*.
That would be amazing!
Michael Cera: It would be amazing!
Sebastian Silva: It would be fucking crazy. But anyways, that’s the structure—it actually happened. I would say about 80 percent of the things you see [in the film] are based on true facts. The fact that Jamie and Crystal are fighting so much—Jamie’s embarrassed of her and she’s so annoying—that’s kind of fictionalized. We actually got along with Crystal Fairy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be looking for her and I probably wouldn’t name the movie after her! We had a very thorough outline, about 12 pages. It’s basically a screenplay without dialog. We knew some of the jokes. Gaby had some of her stuff written. I thought [some of her lines] were improvised, but I found out later that she memorized a lot of her speeches.
Let’s talk a bit about your character, Michael. Do you know anybody like that? You look…
Michael Cera: Awful! (laughs) I don’t know anyone that outwardly toxic off the top of my head, but I do know people who are that way with drugs. They like spouting their knowledge of the onset of LSD…people who have collected experiences in order to be an authority on something. That element was sort of inspired by real people. His terrible energy was inspired by the way the story was constructed. The whole thrust of the conflict in the movie is that he invites this woman [on a trip] and then unfairly turns on her when she takes him up on the invitation and makes her feel very unwanted and unwelcome. He actually tries to campaign against her, campaign to get her excommunicated from the group (laughs). It’s so unfair and so ugly. That’s the root of the character, that he’s so out of touch with himself that he can’t even take responsibility for his actions.
Sebastian Silva: I need to defend Jamie because I personally feel like it’s crazy…(trails off). If you’re all coked up at a party, all high and drunk, and you invite someone on a trip, you don’t expect them to call you! If you don’t pick up your phone, they don’t go! She’s kind of crazy [for going out there.]
Michael Cera: They’re both crazy.
Sebastian Silva: Jamie had a point. She’s embarrassing. The first thing they [see from her] is that she’s fighting a whole group of gypsies, she’s crying, she has no money. It’s a drag. It’s such a drag. The kid’s aren’t excited that you invited her. Champa (one of the guys on the trip) is like, “Are you serious? She’s going to come?” Jamie’s got a point. She’s pretty annoying.
Michael Cera: It’s really objective in that way. They’re both annoying (laughs).
Not having written dialog requires a measure of trust between the actor and director, right?
Michael Cera: I don’t think anyone had any feelings of doubt about whether we could do it or not. Gaby was expressing that she was a little nervous.
Sebastian Silva: She said she was really bad at improv, but she was an improve genius! I personally was more scared of my brothers (who act in the film) who had never acted. One of them had acted before…
Sebastian Silva: Yeah, Agustín had acted before. Juan plays the second most important character after Jamie and Gaby. I was really scared for him. The first night he was nervous. You could see his veins really bulging. Luckily, the characters had done cocaine, so his tension was justified by the overuse of cocaine. The next morning he already felt more comfortable with the cameras and the crew and started pulling off an amazing performance. He was really good at improvising as well.
Michael Cera: They’re such present people. They could just sit there and have a conversation and not overdo it. They had really good instincts about what human beings are like. They’re all really intuitive. They played off of each other incredibly, too. It was really good for them to be doing those things with each other.
Sebastian Silva: In terms of the improv and the risk of it, for me, it was the inexperience of my brothers. But, that was solved the very first day of shooting. I was in one of the first talking scenes…
Michael Cera: You really set the tone with that. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where we go into a bedroom and we’re doing cocaine and getting stoned. Sebastian is in there. He’s the guy who’s done San Pedro before. It was a good way to kick-start the entire experience.
I like that, when we arrive at the inevitable “trippin’ on San Pedro” scene, you don’t overdo it. The screen doesn’t get hazy, there aren’t crazy colors everywhere. You do some interesting things with the sound.
Sebastian Silva: It’s actually more of a panic attack than the effect of the drug. Any drug can give you a panic attack, right? Even marijuana can give you a panic attack. In that scene, we’re not really portraying the effects of mescaline. We’re portraying the effects of the sudden paranoia attack that Jamie gets from being so crazy. I never even thought that we would get all psychedelic and visual about it. It’s not that kind of movie.
Why isn’t it the right movie for that?
Sebastian Silva: The movie isn’t about the effects of mescaline. If you know about mescaline, [you know] it affects people differently. To make something visually would frame the experience in a weird way and not allow the audience to project their own experiences with recreational drugs onto the story. It felt like the wrong thing to do.
Michael Cera: It’s done often, too. I don’t think Sebastian ever falls into the trap of doing movie tropes. (To Sebastian) If you smell that, you try to do something different.
Sebastian Silva: Yeah, absolutely.
The film is kind of this odyssey, a journey across Chile for San Pedro. What’s your favorite road trip movie?
Sebastian Silva: Thelma and Louise! That’s a road trip film, right? I like that movie a lot. It made me want to be a woman and shoot men.
Michael Cera: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It makes you want to drive.
Sebastian Silva: That’s a fun one.
Michael Cera: Oh! Wild at Heart! It’s great.
Crystal Fairy opens in San Francisco Friday, July 19th and is available now on demand.
* As far as we know, Crystal Fairy did not show up to the screening.