Rob Avila asks the [young] veteran about his very first feature, LIFE KILLS ME, and whether there’s any truth to the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’…
Rob Avila met Sebastián Silva–the 34-year-old New York-based Chilean filmmaker, who received international acclaim in 2009 with his beautifully wrought, darkly funny drama, THE MAID (LA NANA)–at the beginning of a very big week. Silva debuted not one but two new films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival—CRYSTAL FAIRY and MAGIC MAGIC—both featuring popular Canadian actor Michael Cera. Even before that happened, Silva headed to the Museum of Modern Art for the New York premiere of yet another of his films–his very first, 2007’s LIFE KILLS ME (LA VIDA ME MATA), as part of the Global Film Initiative’s Global Lens 2013 series.
LIFE KILLS ME centers on a taciturn young man, Gaspar (Gabriel Díaz), emotionally immobile and feebly suicidal with grief since the death of his idolized older brother. Gaspar lives with his older sister, his senile mother, and his dying grandfather, but occupies his time working as a cinematographer on a short horror film written and directed by, as well as starring, a flamboyant and irrepressible no-talent named Susana (the scene-stealing Claudia Celedón, who with costar Catalina Saavedra would go on to work with Silva in THE MAID and his 2010 feature, OLD CATS).
It’s through Susana that Gaspar meets an oddball drifter named Alvaro (Diego Muñoz), who appears obsessed with death and somewhat headless of the normal bounds of decency. It doesn’t take long before Gaspar comes to believe Alvaro is the reincarnation of his brother, and the two form a bond that is for Gaspar both therapeutic and morbid, perhaps even potentially dangerous.
Tucked into a back room of an East Village café, over a warm bowl of oatmeal and a couple of cappuccinos, Silva spoke frankly and thoughtfully about his career thus far and, as memories of his first film came rushing back to him, described something of the treasured place his shrewd yet heartfelt first effort holds for him in the panorama of his life as a restless, questioning artist.
Rob Avila: One of the first things to strike me about LIFE KILLS ME is the way the film pivots so nicely from the very dark to very funny and back. There’s something a little Almodovarean in this whimsical yet dramatic mixture. What was the origin of the film?
Sebastián Silva: I guess the origin was just in the attempt to make a non-serious essay about death, the phenomenon of death, which is something that I’ve always been intrigued by or passionate about—if you can say you can be passionate about something like that. It’s so uncertain that it sort of replaced having a god to think about, or religious thoughts. The fact that everybody dies, and whatever that means. It felt like something to set my mind on. It would keep me entertained. I think I just wanted to make something about that, and also the death wish. I’ve always had a death wish, and I don’t judge it. I’m not suicidal; I don’t think I would ever kill myself. But there is a death wish, which I sort of cherish. It’s a desire to be closer to something that you don’t understand, or to be part of the whole, to break boundaries between yourself and the rest. It’s that kind of desire.
Rob Avila: A desire for liberation of some kind?
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, yeah. So that was the inspiration. And clumsily I put all that passion and intrigue into a little first movie that has so much, so many things—visually, first movies tend to commit that sin, of putting too much in, bringing it all in. But luckily, of the things that I brought in, every one of them was related to death some way or another. From seeing someone’s bone structure behind that weird Bugs Bunny x-ray machine or playing with a corpse or killing something that’s alive. I don’t know what other metaphors are there, I don’t remember…
Rob Avila: There’s also the movie within the movie, Susana’s short film, which is called “Life Kills Me.” It’s a horror film, which is a genre always playing with death at a certain remove, in a standardized, stylized way.
Sebastián Silva: Yes, and there’s also the funeral, all of the rituals relating to death, and the medical standpoint too; also the fears, the sicknesses—the terminal sickness that the old man is going through. It’s just so crowded with symbols and all of the ornaments of death.
Rob Avila: In all that too there’s a common need among the characters, it seems, for kinship, friendship, love, understanding—some connection. Gaspar’s grandfather has it in the mysterious woman at the window. For Gaspar, of course, it was his late brother, and now it is Alvaro.
Sebastián Silva: And for Alvaro, it’s anybody. He’s the very sad character in the movie for me. He’s the one that has all the theories and he seems the most experimental, a free spirit. But really he’s desperately trying to call for attention. It’s not enough for him to feel the things that he feels, or the search that he’s got himself involved in, he wants to drag us along with him. That shows you that he’s not really satisfied with himself. I don’t quite believe him, personally. He’s sort of full of shit, and just a very sad, lonely person.
Rob Avila: He’s very solitary. He could never be close to anybody, you feel. The foreshadowing image of Alvaro underwater in the pet store, where he’s shot through the aquarium, is particularly telling: he’s underwater, out of his element, a strange fish…
Sebastián Silva: Oh yeah. And then he drifts away in the ocean in the end.
Rob Avila: When Susana learns he’s from Valdivia, she blurts out how much she detests it. It kind of underscores again his separateness…
Sebastián Silva: I guess she’s the Almodóvar-ish feel. She [Claudia Celedón] really brings that. I think she also helped bring the movie that fable-ish feel that it has. You know, because the movie—First of all, it’s in black-and-white, it’s already pretty artificial. But the movie is such a movie. It’s a self-conscious movie. It’s a fiction story. Fictional characters, like Death is there. All the characters seem to feel not from the real world or something. I feel Susana’s over-the-top-ness helped the movie be that [fable-like], you know? She’s so far-out funny. Her acting is actually very ridiculous. But, yeah, I liked it. We sort of repeated the same formula with my most recent movie MAGIC MAGIC]. It’s very akin to LIFE KILLS ME, and is the only film that I’ve made that I feel relates to LIFE KILLS ME, in terms of using a lot of cinematic elements, from music—LIFE KILLS ME sort of had a score. And this one [MAGIC MAGIC] has a score too—and the photography’s not necessarily hand-held all the time, and it’s trying to create scenes that are more theatrical.
Also the story is very whimsical, full of fetishes, like the animal fetishes, like the bird in LIFE KILLS ME—there’s also a dead bird in the last movie that has a really important significance to the main character. Yeah, somehow they relate a lot. And it was fun to revisit that branch of storytelling. I’m not trying to portray anything “real.” I don’t have that condition. I don’t condition myself. With THE MAID I sort of had to. You can’t let it go that far. You have to keep it voyeuristic enough, and never take people out, [for example, by not using] a score. The same with OLD CATS. It felt like I had so many elements to play with in LIFE KILLS ME. I was so excited. It was my first movie. So I wanted to try everything at once. And now in my last movie I kind of did the same.
Rob Avila: Which new film are you referring to?
Sebastián Silva: It’s called MAGIC MAGIC. I have two latest movies, CRYSTAL FAIRY and MAGIC MAGIC. Both, nobody has seen them, and now they’re both going to be screened at Sundance. It just happened like that. Both came together at the same time.
Rob Avila: Did the script for Life Kills Me come together pretty easily?
Sebastián Silva: It went through a lot of changes, because I first wrote it myself, and it was darker. Details I remember from that draft are like Gaspar and his sister were not brother and sister, they were friends, and the old man [Gaspar’s grandfather] was a writer that she was working for—things were different. And then I invited Pedro Peirano to be my cowriter finally in that movie, and then we co-wrote other stuff. He’s a great screenwriter. When he came in we did change it a lot. We created the family idea. I don’t remember what other radical changes we made but, yeah, I guess it was a script that went through a lot of surgery.
But it always remained in the same spirit. I started writing it here in New York, and I remember before writing making a list of all the things that I wanted to talk about: like the Ouija board, connecting to spirits, or the desire to connect with the dead, and suicide, and sickness, and corpses, etc., etc. There was a list of death-related things. And I remember reading a lot of psychology relating to death, and psychotherapy, and mystics. I really got involved with the subject, and I would add things that I read that I thought were very interesting.
Rob Avila: I was interested in how your first film implicitly puts art and film in the mix, because there’s a film-within-the-film. And as crazy as Susana seems, her opinion about what her film really means—that it isn’t about death at all but about love—makes a kind of sense. It’s almost proven true by the rest of the film and by Susana’s finished short film, “Life Kills Me,” that runs only after the end credits roll. Did you always have the two endings in mind for the film?
Sebastian Silva: The two endings? Yeah, we end up with [actor] Gabriel [Díaz], with Gaspar, sitting on the beach. Then we watch the short film of Susana. [laughs] I don’t know if I’m going to be able to explain that right: The short film of Susana… It’s like Susana’s life. It seems so worthless, right? I mean, I don’t want to judge Susana but I will. Whatever. I wrote it. So I’m going to tear her apart. But, I mean, Susana is me too, man. I’m not sure if art really does anything for me anymore.
I think that I make films just to do something, and keep myself busy, mastering a craft. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fun, but it’s really the lesser of my priorities. I mean, my life’s become that. But if you ask me, I would just join any other circus I feel. And Susana’s short film, “Life Kills Me”: Why is she going through the struggle of making such a piece of shit? Who cares about her short film? Does she really care about her short film? And what do I care about my movies too? What do I care honestly about Sundance, and pleasing the crowd of filmmakers who are going to watch it and they’re going to forget about it in two days. It’s so empty. And the reason why we keep on doing it—it sort of breaks my heart somehow. That’s why I wanted to show that ending, because at the end of the day, that’s what we got, those are the elements that we were left here to play with: you know, a career and, I don’t know, you use a little passion here and there, and fall in love with someone if you get lucky, blah blah blah.
But those are the elements we have. How depressed can you really get? You eventually will have to play with them. [laughs] I feel lucky that I feel so cynical about it all, because at least it keeps me awake and I’m not like, “Yeah, man, fucking after Sundance I’m gonna make it! I’m gonna make a fucking awesome movie!” I’m really not into that. I feel so cynical about it. It’s so unimportant to me. Maybe that’s why I can do it.
And going back to your question about the double ending: It’s like the first ending is Gaspar, whatever he’s thinking. We don’t really know what he’s feeling about Alvaro’s suicide, whether he’s inspired or maybe Alvaro’s death left him feeling, “You know what? I think I’m going to stay.” Because he tried to commit suicide so clumsily twice. And he’s kind of cheating, betraying himself. He doesn’t want to die. When he’s really offered the chance to die—Alvaro invites him to go along with him and just swim away—he decides to live.
I don’t think he really knows what he wants; he’s just scared maybe. You know, he’s just reflecting about that, and that he stayed alive. Then [after the credits roll] you’re in the [movie] theater, and Susana is crying because her short film was screened, and there is this tender feeling about Susana there. And Gaspar gives her an honest smile and he congratulates Susana for her short film. Gaspar knows that it’s nothing. But we keep on moving, and I think that that little tiny gesture of [Gaspar] rubbing Susana’s shoulder and saying—I can’t even remember exactly what he says…
Rob Avila: He says, “Buena [Nice work].” And then he leans back and says to himself, “It’s good.” You realize he means the film, and the attempt, and everything else, life, just moving on, as you said, just doing something. So the line refers to Susana’s picture ostensibly but means so much more.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, yeah. Because it’s definitely not Susana’s picture, right? I mean it’s awful. But it’s good that she did it; it’s good that they’re there. It’s good overall, yeah. Life is good. Despite the mediocrity and the nonsense of it all, it’s good regardless.
Not everybody has seen that second ending, though. A lot of people walk out before it.
Rob Avila: I guess you can leave at the credits and that would be ok, it’s still a complete film. But the second ending enriches it. I love too that Susana cries, because you imagine it’s for so many reasons. In a way it’s a death too, the film is completed.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, it’s a new beginning. I can’t wait to watch it, man. I haven’t seen it forever. I’m going to be laughing so hard.