Q&A: Sebastián Silva and the Paranoid Atmosphere of “MAGIC MAGIC”
Sebastián Silva, aided by a truly remarkable performance from Juno Temple, turns MAGIC MAGIC (now available on DVD from Sony) into a movie where its paranoid atmosphere seeps out and permeates the audience watching it. It’s something undeniably strange, oddly funny in certain moments and head-to-toe unsettling at others. It can be both simultaneously, and most often exclusively the latter. A tale predicated on uncertainty, Alicia (Temple) has little physical sense of where she is and is subsequently losing a mental grasp, as well. FANGORIA spoke with Silva about creating this ever-nervous world, the nature of horror, urban myth and his fear of a misleading trailer.
FANGORIA: What were the beginnings of the film? You made it alongside CRYSTAL FAIRY, correct?
SEBASTIÁN SILVA: MAGIC MAGIC entered my head way before CRYSTAL FAIRY. It took a couple of years to finally find an outlet. It started somewhere around maybe three or four years ago in my parents’ lake house. I was there in the winter time with a couple of my siblings and I just love the place. I think it started because nature could be so horrifying when it’s looked at with paranoid eyes. Walking to a hill by yourself and seeing a couple of cows in complete silence, staring at you and it’s really cloudy. There was something really haunting and scary, too, about that. It just kind of didn’t make any sense. So, the horror was only coming from my own fears in my head and I guess that led me to start thinking about the mix between nature and madness, and how isolation in nature and paranoia could create a really good mix.
That’s how it started developing and then I heard this—I guess it’s kind of an urban myth about three girls who went for vacation in Rio de Janeiro. They were partying every night and one of them started behaving really weird, just being silent and doing strange stuff in the hostel they were staying in. One night she came back with weird scratches and she wouldn’t remember, she wouldn’t tell them. One day, she just started masturbating in front of the entire hostel. She started having a freak out and they thought she was possessed. It ended up that she just had a paranoid schizophrenic episode. The fact that she was triggering schizophrenia in a foreign country with the wrong people was very appealing to me. Having a mental illness is already very scary, let alone suffering that around people that are very incompetent and selfish.
FANG: You touch on something really interesting there. One of the scariest things in the world might be the idea of, “How do I know I’m not crazy?” or “How do I know people are seeing things the way I am?”
SILVA: Exactly. The fact that she’s left alone with strangers that are acting a little passive aggressive towards her, she just doesn’t ever feel safe. She keeps her little paranoia’s, or fears, secret. Maybe if her cousin was there in the beginning, she’d be like, “Oh my god, did you see that?” and things would be just a little different. But the fact that she has no one to talk to makes it so much worse. The madness just gets exponential.
FANG: The film is in a great tradition, like Polanski, of just being coated in paranoid atmosphere. Everything feels as if it’s closing in. Did you grow up admiring horror/suspense?
SILVA: I guess I watched enough horror, but I’ve never been a really big fan, especially of horror nowadays. I feel that nothing is really scary to me. I think that’s why I went back to the classics. For me, the only really scary movie out there is THE EXORCIST. No other movie leaves me scared. It’s the only movie that when it’s over I will go to bed and feel strange or vulnerable to something that I don’t know. It’s really the only movie, not even THE SHINING anymore. That’s really hard to achieve.
Polanski achieved something really amazing with ROSEMARY’S BABY specifically, and THE TENANT by combining really awful human tragedy together with a very dark, sadistic, sort of grotesque humor. That’s what I decided to go for with MAGIC MAGIC. All of my movies do have humor. It’s really a part of me. I cannot avoid it. And the tragedy that Alicia’s going through mixed with this aesthetic of humor felt like the right thing to do. I mean, I was not going for what THE EXORCIST does, but I was going for that disturbing, seductive, funny thing that Polanski movies have. Because you feel so strange about yourself while watching it, like “why am I enjoying this? I’m not supposed to be enjoying this.” Rosemary is being hunted, they want to take her baby away, yet we cannot help laughing with Ruth Gordon and really feel the pressure watching her eating cake at the table. I guess that’s why Brink’s (Michael Cera) character behaves that way and the whole atmosphere of the movie is a mix of campiness and a twisted, sensual, earth feeling together with Alicia’s tragedy.
FANG: Was there anything folkier that inspired you more than just the urban myth? Something from the atmosphere of Chile or South America?
SILVA: There are a couple of those, but not more than there are here [the U.S.]. There are a lot of mythological, weird creatures from the south and it’s basically like some schizophrenic rapist in a town and they call it… whatever. It became a mythological creature, but it was just some crazy rapist. Then, with the urban myth that just feels like really urban more than folky. Girls Spring Breaking in Rio de Janeiro and partying and drinking, and one of them just lost her shit and started acting odd.
I’ve always been into—I’ve done a lot of Ouija Board myself. One movie that I remember, an Alex de la Iglesia movie called DAY OF THE BEAST. I was not scared by the movie, but I over-read the movie, I think. I’d rewatch it so many times and I thought there were so many Satanic, weird messages within the movie. I did a lot of research, and I think I went as crazy as sending in a letter, like I thought it was a real Satanic movie more than a parody. I know it was produced and made as a parody, but it somehow felt really Satanic back then.
FANG: Well it touches on that lunacy you were talking about with ROSEMARY’S BABY and stuff that pops up in MAGIC MAGIC. A horrifying humor.
SILVA: It’s just weird to squeeze humor in there. I remember when I watched MAGIC MAGIC in Cannes and Sundance, the reaction of the audience in the beginning is a little tense, but still, they’re making you laugh. Then, there is a point where laughter completely stops in MAGIC MAGIC, which is great. I think in the last 30 minutes, there’s not even a giggle. I think that was part of what those movies did to you. You never feel safe watching them. I made sure that you wouldn’t feel safe with any of the characters in the movie, even Agustin. You feel that he could be the one that could save the day, or maybe even Melda and her husband Bernardo. But then, everybody’s just making all the wrong decisions. They finally really feel as helpless as she does.
FANG: What was creating Alicia with Juno Temple like? It’s really a great, contemporary performance of losing it.
SILVA: She’s really incredible. I guess the fact that she is very young made her really go to crazy places instead of acting them out. Maybe she’s so young that she still doesn’t have the craft of an actor that’s just acting, who can just switch on and off. Instead, Juno, every time she had a very intense scene where she was losing her mind, she would really go to dark places. After the scene, she would continue to cry for half an hour or something and we would console her. I would go to her and be like, “Juno, please remember this is a movie. Don’t lose your shit completely.” Though, I was very pleased. She’s just a very hard working, meticulous actor. She has a lot of questions, and she was very trusting of my direction. We became really close friends, which also helps.
FANG: There’s a bigger outpouring of genre from Chile lately. Do you have a theory why it’s been pinpointed?
SILVA: Like which movies?
FANG: Stuff like AFTERSHOCK, and HIDDEN IN THE WOODS.
SILVA: I’m so sorry, but I haven’t seen… and the other one, I’ve never heard of. There’s one director who makes vampire movies, which I’m not really a big fan of. I’m just honestly not a big fan of those kinds of movies. I don’t know if you notice any difference… Do you consider MAGIC MAGIC a horror fillm?
FANG: I do. Horror is a wide, wide place. I think MAGIC MAGIC is in that Polanski end.
SILVA: It’s not that I have a need to define the genre of a movie, but I feel that MAGIC MAGIC falls more into the psychological thriller. Regardless, Polanski’s really one of the few people I enjoy being disturbed by, because I feel he really cuts deep into your mind more than your body, if that makes any sense. I made sure there were no gory scenes. I’m just really not into scaring people that way.
In CRYSTAL FAIRY, I made a joke about that kind of horror. I left a camera on a statue of Santa Claus for 20 seconds nonstop, so I’m creating tension and there’s silence, there’s silence and then “boom,” the frame of a demon face with a really loud, sharp noise. Of course, people jump. That is really not horrifying. You can film a fucking sock on the floor and then scare someone with a shout and somehow consider it horror, as well.
So much horror is using that, and physical torture. That’s why when you ask if I feel part of a generation creating horror, not that I feel more special, but as a filmmaker and viewer, I just feel that MAGIC MAGIC doesn’t really fall into that category but more into a psychological thriller-slash-dark comedy. I told that to Sony, as well, because the trailer is really trying to sell you a movie where you think Michael Cera is some sociopathic killer with a rifle. There’s this crazy music and you think that really crazy shit is going down in the movie, and I’m scared people might be disappointed because it’s such a slow build. I hope people are not expecting to see crazy murders in this movie. I will be sad.
For more on the fantastic MAGIC MAGIC, see our review out of the Sundance Film Festival here.