“I’m so not a film person,” says Chilean director Sebastián Silva, leaning into a couch at FilmHouse in the Fillmore, where for two weeks this month he’s the San Francisco Film Society’s artist in residence. “It’s almost a coincidence that I’m making movies. I still don’t know how to talk about cameras or lenses or all that.”
A grin emerges from beneath his tidy beard. Looking slim and spry in paint-spattered jeans and a rainbow-hued sweater resembling the background of an 8-bit video game, Silva, 34, explains that after studying film and animation in Chile and Canada, he seemed for a while to be having better luck making a creative career from music and art. Then he wrote a couple of scripts just for the hell of it and sent them to the Chilean production company founded by filmmaker Pablo Larraín (most recently the director of the Oscar-nominated No, from 2012), who responded favorably. “Maybe if they said no I would never have gotten into movies at all,” Silva says. “And otherwise, if there are influences, I’m unaware of them. I’m not contaminated.”
Silva does at least know that he likes early Polanski, whose “tragic grotesque” is sort of what he was going for in Magic Magic, the 2013 film he’ll be showing and discussing tonight. It concerns a young American tourist (Juno Temple) who travels through rural Chile with a cousin (Emily Browning) and the cousin’s friend (Michael Cera), and gradually loses her mind along the way. To shock or horrify audiences is relatively easy, Silva says; he prefers the challenge of disturbing them.
In Magic Magic‘s case, the challenge was manifold. When financing fell through early on, Silva kept Cera in country to shoot the comedy Crystal Fairy, a tonally very different film but similar in its canny aura of spontaneity, instead. “They’re evil-twin sort of movies,” he says. “There’s the feel-good movie, and the feel-shitty movie.” The latter got underway again when its financing rematerialized upon completion of the former. But: “Sony didn’t know how to market it, and it wasn’t realized theatrically. So that was a stab to my ego, but also a learning experience.” Now he’s glad for the chance to show Magic Magic off as part of his San Francisco residency, which also involves talking shop with Bay Area film students and fellow artists, and hosting a casual free lecture.
Silva broke through to North American audiences with 2009’s The Maid, a nuanced and deservedly award-winning exploration of growing friction between a Santiago housekeeper (Catalina Saavedras) and the family she works for. Now he’s represented by a Hollywood agency, which regularly sends him scripts, but he says he finds it hard to read other people’s material. “It just seems so random to spend two years on a script about a serial killer or whatever when it’s not something that’s coming from within me.” Loosely based on his own family’s true experience, The Maid, he says, was very therapeutic. “Crystal Fairy too. It’s about the birth of compassion. Very personal stuff.” Magic Magic isn’t necessarily drawn from Silva’s direct experience, but, he says, its lakehouse setting — prone to freakout-inducing urban mythology — is quite familiar from his childhood.
Some of Silva’s pride in Magic Magic stems, understandably, from Cera’s supporting performance, which helps establish the Polanskian vibe and might surprise viewers familiar only with his comical-dork persona. “That kid is amazing,” the director says. “I wasn’t even aware of him, but he wanted to meet me, and I’m so glad he did. His sense of humor and his eyebrows were perfect. He really feels like a lost brother to me.” Silva already has six siblings, and several of them have been in his films. “We really all get along. It’s not tough love, it’s tender love,” he says. “Creatively, those are the people that you want to have around you.”