Sebastian Silva On Real-Life Bishops and ‘Nasty Baby’s Shocking Ending
Nasty Baby lulls you into thinking it’s one type of movie before revealing its true intention. Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus) has no qualms with pulling the rug out from underneath his audience. In fact, he designed Nasty Baby that way specifically. “How much can I stretch the time for my characters to hang out,” began Silva, “so my audience will have the hardest time possible judging them when they commit a crime?”
Telling the story of gay couple Freddy (Silva, in his acting debut) and Mo (TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe), and their attempts to artificially inseminate their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) while contending with a disruptive neighbor named The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), Nasty Baby skirts around expectations up through its jarring final moments. In his sit down with Way Too Indie, Sebastian Silva discusses drawing influence from real-life urban landscapes, balancing behind-the-camera duties with acting, and the benefits of introducing new plot elements mid-way through the final act.
Spoilers begin mid-way through article and are identified by the “Spoilers Section” heading.
There are a lot of people in this story who could be considered outsiders, but they feel familiar. Anybody who has lived in a city knows of someone like The Bishop.
Yeah, everybody knows a Bishop for sure. If you’ve been in New York, or any city.
Are you drawing from your own experiences in Fort Greene?
There’s a lot of, I don’t know, beggars or people collecting things. People mumbling to themselves, being crazy in the streets, they are part of the urban landscape. They are there every day. I have experienced that more superficially here. I never got into a quarrel with any of those people. Maybe an exchange of words if they are assholes.
[The Bishop] comes more from one of these characters that I found in Chile. I was in Chile, probably shooting a film, and then I was staying in a neighborhood that is pretty hip. There was a neighbor that lived around there that was very much like The Bishop.
What was weird about him… even though everybody knows a Bishop this one in the movie he has keys to a house. Like, next door. He has access to one of these privileged home. These fancy brownstones in this neighbor. So he’s not a complete invader. He has his place. Nevertheless he’s terrorizing the neighborhood in its own way but it is a very ambiguous character. You don’t know what his business is… This is more based on a Chilean Bishop.
That’s the interesting contrast, Freddy doesn’t think The Bishop belongs but The Bishop doesn’t think Freddy belongs either. There’s a lot of people testing their limits with other people. Were you looking to push these characters outside of their comfort zones?
I feel that all writing is that. You have somebody in a comfortable position and then you give them a challenge. That’s pretty much where storytelling begins. I was not consciously thinking exactly that way just because it seems like a thing I take for granted. You need to push them out of their comfort zone.
The shooting style has lots of handheld, close-up shots, hanging out with these characters in very private moments. Did you want to capture an intimate feel to bring audiences into these characters?
Handheld is mostly what I’ve done in my movies, anyway. The way that I work with my DP Sergio Armstrong it’s always [like that]. On my first film, Life Kills Me, it was more sticks (i.e. tripods) and dollies but after that everything’s been handheld. The kind of stories I’m telling… when you’re telling a story that’s naturalistic, you want to portray some sense of reality to make people feel that they’re actually witnessing a piece of reality. I feel that only handheld makes sense.
Even our heads move. If you’re sitting on a chair, and witnessing something on a street, the way that you see things still feels more handheld than sticks because your head is moving up and down or things get in your way. You never see life as you see it on sticks. Your face is never fixed. In order to reproduce a sense of reality, I feel that handheld is the most effective method.
We also had time constraints as we always do in small, independent films. Going handheld also helps with the pace of shooting. You can move back and forth, do a close-up and a wide in the same shot without ever turning the camera off. It was a movie that was just begging for handheld. I don’t know how else I would have shot this film.
This is also the first time you’ve starred in one of your own films, how much of a challenge was it for you to balance those on-set responsibilities?
It was very challenging. I knew I was not going to have any issues playing Freddy when he’s doing normal shit – celebrating his boyfriend’s birthday, biking on the streets or rock climbing with a friend – I was never scared of playing that part of it. When Freddy has to [do more dramatic, spoiler-related actions] and then react to it, I was terrified of that scene and how I was going to pull that off. I did a little bit of a rehearsal and it was terrible.
I was like, “Fuck! I cannot share this with anyone because I really, truly suck at this.” But then that same fear pushed me to do it. The fear of failure that I could actually ruin this film with the stupid idea of starring in it. It was fun and I overcame the challenge. I don’t think I’m the best performer at all but I think that I look like Freddy. I look like that dude.
The most difficult thing for me that I hadn’t thought of, strangely, was the fact that I was going to be in front of the camera all of the time. I forgot, me as the director, I’m always behind it. We had such little time to shoot the film, I did not have time to look at footage. I was unaware of my performance, really. I would look at some things on the camera when I felt that things were weird or something, but most of the time I was trusting my co-actors like Kristen and Tunde, whoever was with me in the scene, and also my DP who has a really good eye for bad acting. I was among really smart people with good taste and bad acting alertness.
People who could keep you in check.
Pretty much. Also, I have to say, when you’re part of a scene, even more than being behind the camera, you can sense if things feel real. When you are in the situation, there are cameras filming you but you can forget about that for a second. You’re drinking water, you’re interacting with people. If the interactions somehow feel fake you know. You just know because you’re part of it. How could you not know that there’s something odd about it?
If there was something odd about it, I would try my best to overcome that oddness and make it natural. Make myself feel that I was really going through the situation we were portraying. It didn’t feel as hard, to be honest, as I thought it would be but it was definitely adrenaline inducing. At some points you had to delegate your trust to friends. It was a great exercise in letting go and trust.
What kicked off your interest in this story?
I think it was the storyline of the Bishop, a gay couple, and the confrontations between them. A figure like The Bishop – an unwanted man in a neighborhood that is really harmonious – and a gay couple with one of them getting really frustrated by the presence of this man then taking the law in his hands by accident. That was the initial idea for a film and it had so many elements, like the crime, the moral question of whether good people do bad things. In the end, if you make [The Bishop] disappear and make this gay couple get away with murder, would the audience hate them forever? Can you make the audience forgive them or have a hard time judging them?
That was kind of the original idea and then it transformed into this hybrid that also mixes in the compulsive desire to reproduce among mid-30s or early-40s people. Why do they want to have babies? How far would they go to have a baby? Those two things then mixed up and created this idea.
Then the Nasty Baby aspect of it, Freddy doing these disgusting performances, came out of a really old idea I had, like, 15 years ago. It was like what Freddy describes in the beginning of the film. I thought that that could be a fun performance, portraying a baby. Embodying a baby in front of an audience and making a total ass of myself, go through the embarrassment of it with other people. Those three things created this film.
You have this trio of characters coming together to form a sort of family just in time for them to face their biggest challenge, I was curious what was the thought process behind combining these two distinctly disparate elements in Nasty Baby?
It’s a very manipulative movie in the first place. I know what I’m doing. I’m adding a very horrifying act for our main characters to perpetrate in the second half of the third act, which is really late in storytelling. By that moment, when this happens, things should be closing out. They should be brainstorming names for the baby at that point. They shouldn’t be trying to clean up blood in a bathtub. It’s a very conscious experiment to make my audience identify or love or understand where these characters are coming from for as long as I possibly can. How much can I stretch the time for my characters to hang out so my audience will have the hardest time possible judging them when they commit a crime?
If they commit the crime in the first half of the movie, the audience is not so involved with them. They will find them completely white, gentrified assholes who are killing a black, mentally handicapped man in a bathtub. But then, by the moment that they do it, you even find out that she’s pregnant. So you’re rooting for them so much that you fail to see the fucked-up-ness and the social injustice of what they’re doing in that bathtub. Which I also have conflicts judging. I, personally, as a writer, even as a human being. I’m not completely sure if I want them to get caught for what they did.
I think that the politics in the movie are really obvious. There’s not much to discuss. We all know that shit is very unjust and sad, but for me it’s more about the moral doubts that I leave my audience with. Do good people do bad things or are they actually fucking evil? These people might not be prepared to have a baby. It could even be seen as a homophobic movie. The moral confusion that’s left by the end of the film is the success for me. The open questions to all of these moral riddles.
I feel like in a lot of films a death loses its meaning because we see filmic deaths so often, but to have this one come so late really hits you
Yeah, you have it so late and you don’t even give the audience time to really process it. All the processing comes at their houses after watching the movie or in their cars or when they’re having dinner. I appreciate that, I feel that it’s something that I’m exploring again in a movie that I want to make now. A little bigger film, where again there is a plot that comes in very late and you just don’t expect it.
Nasty Baby, after they kill The Bishop, everything is kind of an epilog. They get rid of the body and it becomes a sort of urban fable. We don’t care about logistics. It’s not important, like, “How did they get the body inside the car? How come nobody saw them?” We’re not caring about that verisimilitude. Is that the word?
[laughs] It’s not important to me, for me it’s more important that what’s eating the audience is, “Oh my god, these guys! We like you! How could you kill somebody? Please, god, let them get away with this. Let them have their baby in peace.” Or, “These motherfucking hipsters. I hope they get caught. I hope the police find them.”
You leave people with all of these questions, all of these expectations, projections, desires. These three people who you bond with, an audience projects all of their fears and sense of justice onto them. I find that to be the most fascinating part of this film, to be honest. If this film did not have that twist by the very end, yeah maybe it would be a sweet movie about three friends having a baby in Brooklyn, but it’s very uninteresting as a piece. I would not be into it.
Do you want all your films to leave that kind of impact?
I hope so. I think that maybe Magic Magic has it a little bit but I think even Magic Magic ends in a way that’s a relief. Death comes as a relief for Alicia especially who is suffering so much in this schizophrenic, paranoid episode she’s suffering from makes her so miserable. When she finally dies you’re relieved, at least myself. I don’t see death as the ultimate punishment, either. There are things way worse than death.
I think Magic Magic and Nasty Baby, and more so Nasty Baby, the morals of the story are not clear. You leave the audience with a lot to chew. I like that a lot. I feel that the movie closes nicely. It’s not a movie that all of a sudden cuts to black in the middle of nowhere. It cuts to black in a place that makes sense. I’m not pushing my audience off a cliff, I’m leading them to an end that is a little abrupt but at the same time, there’s nothing left to say.
It’s not quite ambiguous.
Yeah, it’s not ambiguous. You are left with moral ambiguity. That’s an achievement to me. I hope that’s what people take out of it.