Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby provokes reaction. It’s a murder story disguised as a low-fi Brooklyn comedy. It eases you into a world of artists in Brownstones, liberal family structures and artisanal cappuccinos and then sucker-punches your expectations with a late in the game twist. The polarizing response to Silva’s choice to derail the expected narrative was felt even before the film premiered. According to the director the film was rejected from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with the caveat that if he changed the ending they may reconsider. The film ended up premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will be seen in limited release Oct. 23rd, before an on-demand release a week later.
The film follows contemporary artist/filmmaker Freddy (Silva starring for the first time) and his best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) as they try to make good on Polly’s desire to have a kid. They’re an unusual duo befitting of their hip, Brooklyn environment. When it’s revealed that Freddy’s sperm count won’t allow for fertilization, they enlist his boyfriend, Mo (TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) to help. During all of this, Freddy is increasingly annoyed by a loose-cannon neighbor, dubbed The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), who’s constant interruptions and behavior builds to an explosive confrontation between the two men.
For a film seemingly designed to be treated under spoiler lock-and-key, the director is outspoken on his disregard for the preciousness in which people handle giving away information about the film’s surprises. With that in mind when we sat down with Silva to discuss the film, the film’s ending and twists are discussed at length.
You’ve worked in both more traditionally scripted films and with more outline based work like with Nasty Baby. Can you tell me about what made that format feel right with this film?
It’s usually projects that I think are not a project in the sense that you plan to make a movie, and it’s like “your next movie” and you tell your agents. The movies Crystal Fairy and Nasty Baby were very similar in the sense that they were movies I decided to make while waiting for other, bigger movies to be made. It was like, while I wait for other things to come together, I’ll shoot something fun and short. Of course you learn the lesson, and I learned the lesson again, that no matter how small a project is, your perfectionist self—or your at least not-mediocre self—will try to make it as good as possible. Look, we shot this movie almost 2 years ago, and we’re still doing things with the film.”
What’s your process of making an outline?
Basically the process is making sure I have an ending. If I have an idea for a film, I make sure I have an ending, otherwise I would never sit down and write anything. So I did have an ending for this sort of strange movie, Nasty Baby, that has two story lines that sort of make it one story. One is the gentrification storyline with the Bishop and parenthood, and then the storyline of them having the baby, and then how those two story lines collided.
I had those two story lines plus Freddy was going to be a mediocre artist who was planning on doing these “nasty baby” videos which was this little idea I had 15 years ago of performing in front of an audience as a baby, which would be so embarrassing and disgusting for you and the people around you. You would pass over the threshold of embarrassment and come out a stronger man, basically. A more prepared person, to face failure, and mocking, but that’s how it came about.
I had this group of people that killed an innocent man that is disturbing the peace of their gentrified neighborhood and I wanted to make that a murder in a way that the audience would root for the murderer, instead of the victim. It is very manipulative to have that happen, and I think it works in Nasty Baby that you have more empathy for the killers because you’ve managed to get the audience to know them so well since its so stretched out, because the blood comes at the second half of the third act. I used all the time I could possibly use for the audience to hang out with these people, and it really feels like they’re hanging out. They’re not heroes by any means, but you understand them, you understand their urge to reproduce. Its just such simple stuff that they’re going through that you can relate to them. One is already reaching 40s and her clock is ticking, the other is in his 30s and is disappointed that his sperm count is low. You identity and emphasize with the characters and then you make them do the most horrible things when you least expect it.
To me the chemistry between all the characters works so well in the film, both in the quieter moments when we really see their compassion and love and then during the darker moments when they’re bounded by something more tragic. Can you talk a bit about the casting, particularly with Tunde and Wiig and what it was like developing that dynamic? Was it in the casting process?
There was not really so much of a casting process. Alia (Shawkat) is a friend of mine and she is friends with Tunde and Kristen, and she proposed those two to me. We had weird people, like maybe Katie Holmes was going to play Polly, so there were weird options and everything was failing, and it took awhile and then Alia mentioned Kristen, and I had not heard of her, and then I looked her up on YouTube, and I’m like, “I’m in love with her! Who is she?”
You weren’t super familiar with her before?
I didn’t know her at all. I just never heard of her. And then I looked at her stuff on YouTube and then talked on the phone with her, and then I thought, “She’s the one!” And she was so sweet and amazing, we got along immediately. And the same for Tunde, I got a burger with him and Alia and was like, “Okay will you be my boyfriend?” I couldn’t tell if Tunde could act or not, he’s more of a musician, although he’s doing more acting now, so it was not really about their performing skills, it was more about the chemistry between us.
Were there any moments during the filming where the story surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by the dynamics we had as a group of actors—well two of them are actors [referencing himself as a non-actor]. Being with Kristen and Tunde just made it so much easier. That was very surprising, how comfortable I felt on set as a performer because I was terrified, especially during the scene of the murder. I’ve drank cappuccinos while walking on the street, I’ve gone rollerblading, I’ve done Photoshop, I’ve driven cars, I’ve sat at tables with people. So for all of that I was not really scared at all, but the scene of the murder was very terrifying. I was surprisingly comfortable in performing. That was a big surprise.
Did you always know you would star as well?
Yeah, I guess so. It’s tricky because its a small movie and we got somebody the caliber of Kristen Wiig, who is a really well known entertainer, an actress, and I had some good reviews from previous films. So it wasn’t so far out to think we could have gotten a known male actor. It was a selfish decision to play it myself because the movie could have gone further if it had been played by Ryan Gosling. I’m not saying he’s similar to me!
So yes, of course we thought about it, but there was something challenging for me to be in front of the screen, especially the storyline of the Bishop, sort of a gentrifier against a gentri-fee, or whatever they are called, I had been in a similar situation and have been really mad at people who had disturbed my peace in general, so it felt very organic to play it. The challenge was the biggest magnet for me to do it. The fact that I could totally fail was really enticing and fun.
Did the personal elements of film make it more challenging or somewhat easier?
I don’t feel like I’m ever acting, that’s really how I talk, and the way I move. Because who knows how you would react when you kill someone, so I got that sort of freedom or leverage because no one can tell you how you should react in that situation, or that they can’t say they don’t buy it. Maybe you get completely mute and rock your body in a corner, who knows? That’s the way I thought I would react, I would cry like a baby…and burn sage (laughs).
Was setting it in New York a practicality factor?
I live in Brooklyn, it just felt like why not? I’m the kind of person who, Crystal Fairy is something that I went through 15 years ago, I went on a trip with a hippie from San Francisco. The Maid is a story about a live-in maid that worked for my family and I shot it at the same house. It’s the way that I operate. It comes from a lazy place too; why go any further than my apartment?
This is set in New York and features fairly prominent American actors compared to some of your other films, which have a connection to Chile. Is that change something you enjoyed?
To be completely honest I didn’t know these actors. I like TV on the Radio and Kristen Wiig even though I had never heard of her, I think she’s very well known in the States but in Chile no one knows her. So for me it was not like, “Oooh now I’m playing with big people,” not at all, it really still feels like a small film, feels as the same size as Crystal Fairy. It just feels like its part of the same bag of little movies that I’ve been making. It doesn’t feel that different at all.
The fact that I’m in it makes it even less serious, but I’m in the fucking movie, its my apartment, that’s my cat. It doesn’t even feel like a movie sometimes, more like a fucked-up fantasy. More like an experiment, some sort of moral experiment, in a way that audiences are left morally confused. That was the whole thing, to make people feel like they were judging these characters and needed to come to a conclusion if these characters needed to be caught or not. Can you forgive them or not, and leaving it there.