A Prayer Before Dawn
A Prayer Before Dawn will put you through the wringer and eventually make you glad you went.
Even those who know Sebastián Silva’s films will likely be startled by what happens in the third act of his latest, “Nasty Baby.” As his stories do in their abiding fashion, the dramedy starring Silva, Tunde Adebimpe, Kristen Wiig and Reg E. Cathey makes the audience wade the narrative flow of the random doings of people whose likability is questionable at the very least. In the case of “Nasty Baby,” we follow Freddy and Mo, a gay couple played by Silva and Adebimpe, respectively, as they go back and forth about having a baby with their friend Polly (Wiig). Meanwhile, an unhinged neighbor named the Bishop played by Cathey instigates the trio in distressing ways, leading to a shocking denouement. Silva is no mere twist-based director, but he has a very curious impulse for abrupt, disarming left-turns in his uncomfortable riffs on empathy—the journey of “Nasty Baby” providing another example of how Silva is one of the most gripping filmmakers in the current indie scene.
The Chilean filmmaker broke into the worldwide indie scene with the acclaimed dark comedy “The Maid,” which won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance in 2009, along with a special prize for acting. He returned to the festival in 2013 with two films starring Michael Cera, “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” (co-starring Gaby Hoffman as the bizarre, whimsical title character that annoys Cera and his buddies), and “Magic Magic,” about a young woman’s (Juno Temple) unsettling experience on an island with people she doesn’t really know.
RogerEbert.com sat down with Silva to talk openly about his endings (so spoilers do follow), how “Nasty Baby” was inspired by a true story, his perspective on how small his projects are in the modern film scene, and much more.
Your artistic character Freddy has a bizarre fascination with babies, going to the point of acting like a baby for videos in his art show. So, what’s your stance—do you think babies are weird, adorable, or what?
Babies, when they’re born, they’re always, I mean it's definitely not weird because we’re so used to them, but they kind of all look the same. I’m not really excited about a newborn baby unless it’s a really sort of exceptional case, because there are some babies that are born and you’re like, “Oh my god, that baby is beautiful.” But I’m not a crazy baby person, I like when they’re more like from two to seven. They’re more fun, they try to talk and they are fun. But babies are boring. I’m scared of their necks, that they’re always going to break. I don’t know how to hold them.
Do you see Freddy as a type of reflection on baby-crazy people?
He’s kind of a mediocre artist so he’s making these videos to exhume his guilt. “Why keep making new babies?” That’s his idea. But what I think makes him really obsessed compared to other people is that he’s making these videos. But I feel that anybody would be. And that’s why also that’s part of the film. I am 36 years old, there’s a lot of people around me, people at this age are starting to reproduce, and it’s really a part of their lives. The year before and then when they have them, forget it. It’s over. It’s all about babies.
Given your very thin acting filmography before this role, why was it important for you to play that character?
To be honest, there’s nothing that’s important.
With your movies, there’s no idea of “I must do it this way,” or anything like that?
No, not so much. But the storyline of the Bishop is something I went through. Everybody has had a Bishop at some point in their life, somebody who is sort of disrupting their peace. I had this person once, and I’m a writer, whatever, and I’m full of hate. So I basically, I fantasized [about] killing this man. Not truly plotting a murder, but being like, “Oh, this motherfucker, I would hit him with a brick, and then I’ll bring him to my apartment, and then if my neighbors see me, they’ll probably help me because he’s such an asshole to everybody in the neighborhood.” So basically, whenever I thought of that, it was always me perpetrating the crime, and I was always the one. For me when I started writing it—which this was the original idea, the parenting part came after, where privileged kids are people who would get away with a murder—it was always me, on my mind. And this movie, which I decided to make while waiting for a bigger movie that still hasn’t been made, by the way—it happens with big movies—it was like, “Why not?” I’d made five movies and I’d never been in front of the camera, and it sounded really challenging.
How did it seem challenging to you?
I feel that, it sounds really pretentious to say, but I do honestly feel that being scared of something and feeling insecure is really good for creating stuff. Not feeling fully confident about what you’re doing is really good because it keeps you on edge, and you’re scared of failure, and I think that adrenaline makes it worth it. For me, it’s more about the process of making things than the product itself. I don’t care. There are so many movies out there, that it’s just you’re one tiny little fucking movie in a sea of movies that nobody gives a fuck. So you might as well enjoy the process of making it. Being in it was really fun, and I came to understand a lot of things about acting, and sharing a set with Tunde and Kristen was really fun. And I’m not planning on doing it again at all, but it was really great for what it was.
Fear and discomfort is certainly a through line in your movies as well, especially in something like “Magic Magic,” or even the way we feel about the character Crystal Fairy in her film. What draws you creatively to this idea of uncomfortable experiences?
What I like about being uncomfortable is that it keeps you moving. When you are comfortable, you don’t move so much. You’re just comfortable, so why move, or why look in other directions or try new things if you’re comfortable? It’s really passive to be comfortable. But when you are uncomfortable, you try to solve things in your mind, and then you try to solve things in a practical way. It makes you move. And I like action and I like moving things. [Laughs] I mean, that makes no sense, but. I feel that it’s not only whimsical that I like uncomfortable things, but I usually solve things in different ways. Not fully, I don’t really lean towards full redemption ever for characters, or storytelling. But people learn things slowly, and I like that. And I feel that what I’ve done with my movies a lot is I’ve created a lot of characters who are not necessarily so likable from the beginning.
But not in “Nasty Baby,” because on the contrary, in “Nasty Baby” they’re not heroes, but they are characters that you can easily identify with. The fact that they are sort of embarking on this mission of making a family, you can feel for them so much, especially people that have a family, or are planning on doing that. And then you make the audience identify with them, and like them, and understand them, and then you make them commit this gruesome crime. And then it’s very hard not to forgive them, because they like them already, and they feel friendly with them, and feel like accomplices somehow to their plan and their circumstances. And so for them it’s really hard to judge them and not forgive them for what they’re doing. In a very manipulative way, they become the victims in the movie. You’re like, “Oh no, poor them!” But it’s like, “Dude, they’re killing somebody that’s a crazy person to get away with their family plan.” It’s some kind of an accident, but it’s not. It’s very manipulative.
Though they’re wildly different films, “Nasty Baby” and “Magic Magic” do have a similar crushing morality to them. Is that a coincidence, or do you consciously see death as a type of finish line when putting together your stories?
I would call it a coincidence because it’s truly not something that I plan, but it’s probably just process. Processes that I am going through myself, and then when I start writing a story, then these sort of sudden answers or terms are there at the very end, not even in the third act, but the end of the third act. Which is very strange narratively speaking, and something I don’t think I could ever plan. And I just wrote a movie that we are trying to make now that I realized, “Fuck, it’s very similar.” Something very unexpected happens in the second half of the third act, and it’s something that’s been happening, and I’m really excited because I feel that I get bored very easily with movies in general, I truly do. I feel like there’s something about movies that end, way before they end, most of them. The epilogue is never really taken as an epilogue. It’s always twenty minutes of endings and more endings.
Come to think of it, “Crystal Fairy” has a shocking moment in the third act as well.
In “Crystal Fairy,” at the very end of the film [the title character] confesses that she was raped, and that really makes everything sort of come together in a perfect way, for me at least. You understand where she is coming from, and the fact that Crystal Fairy thought she could bring the bunny back to life, was all part of this masquerade that she was putting on to not deal with the pain that she had underneath. And then Michael Cera’s character, Jamie, is crying for somebody else’s pain, which is very mature, especially for him. That he’s portrayed as such a selfish dick, when he cries for her pain, you sympathize with him, and he has compassion. It feels like the first time that he’s been feeling compassionate about somebody. So yeah, I think I’m really into these last punches.
With “Nasty Baby” and “Magic Magic,” they seem like they would play really well in a theater, with people who don’t know what’s coming. Do you still believe in, or aim for, the theatrical experience when making movies? Or are you thinking that people will just watch this movie on something like VOD?
I do go to the movies still; but it definitely feels like something that is dying out. You just feel it. Everybody has different things to say, and then there are big movies that have huge box office numbers, and everybody sees them and they make billions. But personally, everybody kind of has big TVs now; big TVs are not that expensive. It is a different experience. But I don’t complain about anything that is related to movie-making, or distribution, or movie-watching. I feel that it’s such a leisure that I feel that any filmmaker who is complaining about the world—I don’t want to insult those people—but I think it’s weird. There are people who are actually doing something for humanity, that are real. People suffering from hunger, and people are bringing rice to those people. There’s child prostitution ... we’re making just movies.
Have you made any movies with a theatrical experience specifically in mind?
The only movie I’ve really made where I’ve thought “This would be such a fun movie in a theater” was “Magic Magic,” which did not go. It went direct to VOD because Sony fucked it up. But that’s the only movie like that, because we shot it with such a classic DP [Christopher Doyle], and the movie is really an atmospheric piece that is very haunting and designed to make you feel eerie and uncomfortable, for like, the entire length of the film, basically. So that was kind of designed more for the theatrical experience, but there you go.
We’ve been talking openly about the endings to your last three movies. Some people are caught up in the idea of spoilers, and what should or shouldn't be revealed. What do you think about that?
Personally, I do not mind when some people tell me about movies. Because I’m very forgetful too, and I would just forget that they said that. And I would find myself so caught up in the movie that I would forget, or if I remember, I don’t care. For me, it’s not a big problem, but I do know that it is a big problem for a lot of people and I respect that, and I do agree that “Nasty Baby,” if you don’t know that turn is coming, it’s more fun. It just catches you by surprise, and your stomach cringes. It is a very different experience.
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