Q&A with Sebastián Silva
Sebastián Silva is a US-based Chilean director known for his surreal satires about modern life. In 2010, he won the Grand Jury Prize for The Maid in Sundance’s World Cinema category, and three years later he received a Directing Award for Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus. In his newest film, Rotting in the Sun, Silva makes himself the focus of critique. Set in Mexico City, the film juggles sex, comedy and suspense in unexpected ways, producing a sharp and playful portrait of contemporary life under the strains of social media.
Rotting in the Sun is now playing in U.S. theaters and will stream globally on MUBI on September 15.
Q. Throughout the film, your character quotes Emil Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born. How did you come about this book and why did you want to feature it in Rotting in the Sun?
A. I don’t fully remember how I came across this book, it must have been recommended by a friend in my early twenties because it’s a book that I’ve had a connection with forever. I’ve always found some sort of solace in his writing because he views the idea of committing suicide as a way to relieve existential dread. A promise to end your life gives you relief from living in pain.
I always found this book spiritual because Cioran was kind of a frustrated mystic. I’m not saying I am that, but I’ve always had an interest in mysticism, from psychedelics to a death wish. I put the book in the movie because I was reading a lot of Cioran in Mexico by that time. There’s something so profoundly misanthropic about his writing that it exceeds any real hatred of humanity. Since Rotting in the Sun was conceived as a misanthropic piece that’s also plagued with humor, it made a perfect match.
Q. You include TikTok clips in Rotting in the Sun from your character’s tendency to doomscroll. What drew you to social media in making this film, as it’s something that appears throughout the film both in the clips and the character of Jordan Firstman?
A. I think that doomscrolling is something that most people do. It is an evasion. At the end of the day, everyone who is doomscrolling has a potential death wish in the sense that it’s such an obvious place to escape, to avoid yourself, and to avoid everything around you.
I think that my character is sort of representative of that evasion; it’s a similar thing with the k-holes. I think he is finding places to escape from himself. But the way Jordan uses social media is different and way more involved. He’s an influencer and he’s constantly creating content, so it’s a different version of this new sort of mental illness: addiction to social media and phone escapism. I feel that phone overuse, doomscrolling, and vain obsessions with fame and likeness were great elements to make this irresponsible essay of a movie that’s making so many points about hating ourselves.
Q. There is an ongoing debate about the place of sex in movies and your film’s uncensored representation of gay pleasure opposes any cultural motion toward modesty. What informs your approach toward the representation of sex in film?
A. To me, the sex was not something that was going to be in the movie originally. The sex became part of the movie when Jordan took that role because the role of the annoying gringo was going to be something else. I had another stereotype for the annoying gringo in mind, like it could have been one of those guys who buys real estate in countries that are cheaper. I decided that Jordan was perfect because of his overlap with Sebastian’s role in the gay scene and also because the social media and influencer angle had a lot of rotten elements to it.
Jordan himself is very, very sexual and very promiscuous, and he is very open about it. I remember when I met him, he shared so many details and asked so many inappropriate personal questions, but very nonchalantly and kind of refreshingly. It was that, together with the more sexual gay scene in Mexico—specifically that one beach and the more selective community in Mexico City that was also very sex positive and openly sexual—that made me interested in portraying that world uncensored, because that’s what makes it what it is.
Sex is an element that only follows Jordan in the film. There is no real nudity or sex with Sebastian, Señora Vero, or Mateo, it’s only following Jordan. To me all the penises, all the exposed genitals, and the funny casual gay sex, group sex, and cruising, is just something that’s trailing Jordan in the movie. When I decided that the film was going to be explicit, I knew that there were going to be consequences, and that the press and streamers were going to react very strongly to hard penises and gay sex.
It wasn’t surprising, but it was still baffling that people cared so much about the penises because it’s a movie that depicts so many elements of a rotting society. It deals with so many different subjects like suicide, death in general, social media, the alienation and obliviousness that comes with it, social disparity, abuse, gentrification in Mexico; I mean, there are so many subjects besides the sex and it seems like the explicit gay sex was something that everyone wanted to talk about. It sort of became the spirit of the movie; the most noticeable thing press-wise was the genitals and the dicks… like simply the dicks. A lot of people count them, talk about them, and call this the filthiest movie ever; it’s kind of baffling, but not surprising.
I knew it was going to reduce its audience and possibilities of distribution. Like, they can’t play it on a plane. But then, I don’t want to censor it, you know, I feel like there is so much hypocrisy surrounding genitals in general, especially in America. When you see the sex that they portray in mainstream movies, you know that everybody that made that movie, bought that movie, or streamed that movie watches porn. Why are we hiding genitals in the mainstream if everyone is watching porn regardless? It’s weird. I’m not trying to start a trend or anything, but I really wish we were less afraid of death and genitals.
Q. You manage to blend several genres together in the film and mix elements of social satires, thrillers and travel comedies. How did the film’s design come together?
A. I wasn’t thinking so much about genre as I was in creating a mood. My intention was to make a misanthropic film that started with self-hatred and self deprecation, but I wanted to do that in a funny way. It’s sort of like those comedians who stand up in front of millions of people and start talking about how disgusting they are, how bad they are, and how whatever they are. It’s a movie that starts with a lot of self deprecation and sets the tone for somebody who is very tired of being alive, of humanity, of the people who surround him, and the noises those people make.
Comedy was always what this movie was going to be because I didn’t want to complain about humanity and be grave and serious about it. I don’t want to be such a buzzkill. I think the only way to criticize oneself and others is through humor because otherwise it’s very counterproductive and annoying. You don’t want a movie that is telling you what’s bad about us without laughing, so it was always going to be a comedy. I don’t think about the crime mystery elements in terms of genre, but then of course they are. I was really lucky to co-write this movie with Pedro Peirano who is a real master when it comes to crime mystery, suspense, and thrillers. The movie gets very Hitchcockian, and I was lucky to write with somebody that knows that genre profoundly and is so good at doing it. I think it is just a dark comedy that turns into a dark-comedy-crime-mystery, but at the end of the day it just feels like a comedy with a murder.
Q. What is the last film you saw and loved?
A. The last film I really loved was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. I saw it twice in an IMAX theater in Los Angeles, I think it was the Chinese Theater. It’s a huge mainstream film but I have a soft spot for animation. I think they are doing things that not even live-action movies have with CGI; it’s very impressive, dynamic, and so fast, I really love that movie.
Q. What’s a project you’d like to make someday, however impossible it might seem now?
A. It’s not looking so impossible right now, I feel that there may be potential momentum brought on by Rotting in the Sun and its word-of-mouth that has people excited. I have a producer and friend that read a script that I wrote with Nick Jones, who is a great playwright and writer, called The Face of the King. It’s a transhumanist campy dramedy about a king who doesn’t want to be a king anymore. He goes through crazy troubles to disappear into anonymity and the movie is set in the future. It’s loosely based on Michael Jackson’s life story, specifically his identity alienation.
Q. If you were stuck on an island, what books would you bring with you?
A. I would bring a book by Meister Eckhart called The Divine Consolation. It is a really small book by a mystic. It has a really Buddhist conception of life, but he was a Christian so there is something relatable about it for me. Being raised Catholic in Western culture, I appreciate that Meister Eckhart was able to share the deepest Buddhist concepts through a language that Western people could understand easier. I’d definitely bring The Divine Consolation and maybe The Trouble With Being Born.
Q. Do you have a preferred mode of procrastinating?
A. I am kind of diagnosed with ADHD, so procrastinating has been part of my life forever. I don’t like procrastinating, it actually gives me anxiety, but I can’t help it. Phone use is the go-to procrastinating tool because you get a message while you’re in the middle of something, then you are suddenly looking at your screen, and then before you know it you are fucking watching Siberian huskies. Phones are a vortex of distraction. Then there’s my dog Chima. If I’m going to get a package at my front door and I see Chima lounging on my sofa, I go give him a kiss and I stay with Chima for 20 minutes cuddling and playing with him, and I forget what I was going to do. Chima is also a magnet of procrastination.
That’s it really, then there’s moving around, opening the fridge without wanting anything from the fridge, going into the bathroom for no reason and putting on lotion even though it’s like 3 PM and I am writing. I find myself moving around my house randomly doing things that are completely uncalled for.
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?
A. There is this one picture that is very silly that someone took of me in Mexico. I put one of those doggy bags used to pick up poop on my head and it looks like it’s my outfit. I also like the smile I have in that picture. I’m usually not happy with how my smile photographs but in this picture it’s a smile that I approve. My eyes are also covered with very cheap and corny sunglasses that match the poop bag on my head. It’s really bad resolution but it’s part of the charm.