Nasty Baby, the latest movie from Brooklyn-based Chilean director Sebastián Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy), is one of the low-key weirdest things I’ve seen all year. In a Fassbinder-esque turn, Silva plays an artist character named Freddy who’s attempting to have a baby with his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) and their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig). Shot at Silva’s own Fort Greene apartment, Nasty Baby (named after an art piece Freddy is working on) feels like a little slice of modern privileged life until a turf war breaks out between Freddy and an older, mentally unstable black man on the block named the Bishop (Reg E. Cathey). Tension escalates and explodes in a final-act shocker that some will find to be a jarring tone shift.
Gentrification, sexuality, and race relations are all examined in Nasty Baby, but the movie doesn’t preach. “The morals of the movie are purposely open and ambiguous,” Silva, whom I know socially, told me last week in the office of Nasty Baby’s publicist. “I could never get my head around the morals of the film entirely. I don’t feel that I have a final conclusion to it.”
Like gentrification, race relations, and what it means to be a gay person in 2015, Nasty Baby is an evolving and elliptical conversation that is equally capable of hilarity and ugliness. A condensed and edited transcript of our chat is below.
Note: Silva discussed the film’s final twist at length, but I’ve obscured that with more general language in brackets to keep unspoiled those reading this interview who haven’t seen the film.
Gawker: This is a crazy movie.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, it gets kind of crazy.
I think the conceit is crazy. It’s crazy to play a version of yourself filmed in your apartment.
It’s not so new. The Maid was shot at my parents’ house. It’s something that I’ve done. I just use locations that are completely free and that I’ve been in. I know the area. We could have gotten another house, honestly, production-wise, but it just felt like using my house would serve the purpose so much better. I knew how to get around, the dynamics where people sit, it’s easier to write things out of locations you know well. My landlord was cool with it—we could use the stairs, we could use the stoop.
After shooting the movie, though, I wanted to move out. Any secret or sacred aspect of my place had completely vanished. After the shoot, I burned sage and moved furniture around. It’s still fucked up.
Why did you create this alternate reality for yourself? Is this a fantasy play?
Not so much. There’s a lot of things I took from my life and fictionalized for this film like living in Brooklyn. I’m not really thinking about having babies like [the characters] are, but I’m 36 and a lot of my friends are thinking about it or having them—straight and gay. Parenting is a really big part of my life right now. That was fun to portray.
The part of Bishop was based on a really old idea I had in Chile when I lived in a gentrified Chilean neighborhood. There was a neighbor that was a pain in the ass for everybody. He lived next door to me. He looked like a hybrid of a crazy schizophrenic and a homeless man, but then he lived in this nice apartment. He was our neighbor but he was like fucking up the whole thing. He was harassing women and parking cars, asking for money. That was a man I wanted to kill at some point. He was such an asshole to everybody. He was scary. He would start fights in the grocery store. I hated him so much. I was like, “What if he disappears?” There was also a Law & Order episode that I love about this homeless guy that was missing. They start investigating and it feels that every neighbor in that area decided to keep silent. They had gotten rid of this man and everyone agreed that was the best thing to do. At the end the investigators are like, “They got rid of an unwanted man, and they got away with it.” There is the fucked-upness of the fact that there are people out there that no one will truly miss. Or maybe somebody, but those people won’t have the power to start a serious investigation. There are these unwanted citizens, especially in those gentrified neighborhoods.
And then there’s the side storyline where Freddy is trying to make his artwork, which sort of relates to his fantasy of becoming a biological father. When he finds out early on that he won’t be, he loses passion for his project.
His performance art and your performance in this movie are parallels, too, right?
Yeah. It feels like this should be the most autobiographical film, but it isn’t. The Maid is truly about my family, it’s truly about a maid. That movie involves way more reality than this one.
In a lot of ways, Nasty Baby feels like a movie about race, but it’s almost like a house of cards you’ve built with examples to the point where I don’t think there’s a clear statement about race. Freddy’s boyfriend is black, and so are many of the people he socializes with in his neighborhood—but so is his nemesis. Maybe the lack of a clear statement is the movie’s clearest statement.
Yeah. [Last week] we had a screening at the Nitehawk [in Williamsburg]. Somebody asked about that. There’s a very strategic sort of thing by giving Freddy a black boyfriend, even though my ex-boyfriend was black and he was a woodworker. Those are more parts of my life used as narrative elements. But the fact that it’s Freddy and Polly and Mo [against] a black mentally disabled man, like, having a black man in the mix pushes it away from race in terms of a racial discourse. It’s not white people [against] a black man, it’s just fucked-up people [against] a black man.
You made sure your representation was balanced.
Yeah. There’s a Latino, an African American, and an American girl all [against] a black man. That saves it from being racist. I guess that’s the only thing I thought about race. At some point we couldn’t find the black boyfriend and it was like, “Well, what if he’s not black?” And then it was like, “Shit, that part becomes really strong.” If the boyfriend is not black and they’re all white [against] a black man, then Spike Lee is going to come and shoot me.
Couldn’t someone interpret this as amounting to, “I’m not racist; I have a black boyfriend”? That would be a copout.
More than Freddy is racist, or not—I don’t care so much about that, Freddy could be whatever—I feel it makes the movie less racist. There were some black people yesterday [at the screening] who agreed. They said, “If Mo was not part of that crime, it would be like what the fuck is going on in this movie?”
Freddy isn’t entirely likable, either. I often see people creating these characters for themselves that are supposed to be ideal versions of themselves. Freddy has rage issues, and he isn’t necessary in the right in his turf war with Bishop.
Polly, Mo, and Freddy are all imperfect people. They’re never heroes. But you get to see them so much. The final plot comes in the second half of the third act, which is pretty unorthodox. It’s like, “Why so late?” I took as much time as possible to make the audience identify with and feel for these people, even though, again, they’re not heroes. Polly’s really pushy, she just wants to have a baby, she doesn’t give a fuck about these guys. Mo is kind of a pushover that doesn’t know what to do. And then Freddy is really obsessive and selfish. They have their flaws, but they’re also sweet people. You understand them. When you make the audience identify for such a long time, as much as I could stretch it, and then you make them do such a fucking awful act, people have a harder time judging and condemning them. I was terrified, because it’s so fucked up what they do, especially [at a certain point] when it’s clearly not a mistake, not an accident anymore. It’s a vicious, selfish act, but Freddy apologies as he’s doing it. It’s such a manipulative film that people actually feel sorry for them and not for the victim, which is really fucked up. But also it’s so human to feel compassion for people that do fucked-up shit. The morals of the movie are purposely open and ambiguous. I could never get my head around the morals of the film entirely. I don’t feel that I have a final conclusion to it.
Did making a gay movie mean anything to you, conceptually? Also does it mean anything practically? Conventional wisdom says that gay-themed movies are much harder to find audiences for than straight ones.
I made a movie a long time ago with a friend of mine called Old Cats. There’s a lesbian couple in it, and they’re trying to get an apartment from one of their moms. [Sexuality] was secondary. In this movie, even though the main characters are gay, and they’re trying have a baby, the gayness of them all doesn’t carry the story. They happen to be gay and they want to have a family. When they become [criminals], their gayness vanishes. It’s no longer a thing.
The movie is so unapologetic about gay parenting. It’s not ever asking. It’s not a movie that’s open to a discussion about gay parenting. To me, gay movies are movies that center on the phenomenon of being a homosexual or liking dick or being rejected. When homosexuality is what’s driving the story in anyway: an erotic thing or a guilty thing or trauma. It’s always like homosexuality is the center of the story. In this movie, I feel it’s not so much the center of the story. It’s more anecdotal.
It was my idea to keep this movie away from gay circles. Like, “Let’s not do an interview with Out magazine. Let’s not make it into a gay film.” Not because I’m homophobic, but it’s like you said, gay movies, people don’t watch them, really. I don’t watch them, really. I don’t go on Netflix to see what the gay content is, because it’s usually stuff that is like Romeo and...someone, and they’re trying to love each other, but one of their fathers is homophobic. But we couldn’t get away from [the gay association]. [Nasty Baby] won the Bear in Berlin, and it won Outfest. But maybe it won those awards because it has gay content and is portraying gay people and it’s not making their homosexuality a thing. It’s being as casual as possible. That’s what I went for. Some people asked [at Nitehawk] why there wasn’t sex in the movie. I don’t do sex scenes, period. Straight or gay. I’ve never done them. Just because the movie has a gay couple doesn’t mean there’s going to be gay skin or gay eroticism.
I guess there’s a slight conflict of identity with Moe’s family, but you’re right, the movie is more practical minded.
The moment of identity, when Mo’s sister questions their arrangement, you see the father comes around and sabotages the whole conversation with a birthday cake. Whenever the movie starts creating a little bit of a discourse about it, the movie itself sabotages the conversation or the argument. I really like that, because to keep on arguing about whether gay people can have children or... I’m like: We’re gay. I don’t even want to embark on those conversations anymore. It’s like those people who are like, “Do you believe in God?” I don’t want to talk about it! I’m over that thing. I’m talking about how we’re going to raise them, not if we should have them.
Nasty Baby will be in theaters Friday, and available on demand on Friday, October 30.