Fantasia 2013 Interview: Hallucinating and Elucidating MAGIC MAGIC with Director Sebastián Silva
Magic Magic is a tight psychological bit of hysteria on just how far a breach of social contract can go, that sees an awkward Michael Cera terrorizing wilting wallflower Juno Temple at an island cottage in Latin America. After being wowed by Chilean horror picture at this years Fantasia festival (that is just now wrapping up its lengthy run) I had a chance to talk to the director, Sebastián Silva, about the film by phone. Verbose and enthusiastic, we talked about the nature of constructing this kind of cinema, which is rare these days.
Magic Magic is out on DVD and VOD today, and comes with the highest of recommendations.There are, perhaps, some very minor *SPOILERS* in the discussion below, but this conversation should server more to enhance a viewing of the film and the aim was never to spoil any of the good parts.
Kurt Halfyard: I wanted to start with the title of the film. I see the film making on display here, especially the editing, as an act of stage magic particularly due to there being a number of hypnotism elements in the film visuals and plot of the story that serve to bring out the psychology of the lead character. Can you comment on how that ideas behind the filmmaking here to bring out a certain emotional response in the audience.
Sebastián Silva: I felt for me, it was always an ironic title. At the end of the day, what is this movie about? It is about a girl with a clinical case of paranoid schizophrenia. There are no demons or anything magical per se. Even though there are rituals in the film, and drugs, the paranormal elements are severely downplayed.
The hypnotic elements, there are several reasons why they are there. I wanted to make the movie very seductive. Everything is framed and shot to make people uncomfortable. There is no one scene in the film where the characters are having fun from beginning to end. We often play with the audience in letting them think that these characters are going to have a good time, but each scene has to end uncomfortably to counterbalance that mood in the movie.
The visual effects, and music, and the way we were going to shoot the film had to be hypnotic, seductive, haunting so that people would stay in their seats and not feel completely bullied by the film causing them to leave the theatre. The spirals, or the flowers, or scenes of slow motion or birds flying, all of those elements were there to counterbalance the constant disturbing feeling that makes a viewer feel unsafe. It was to give the movie a bit of sensuality and also to make people believe there was magic. To confuse the audience as the characters are confused as to what is going on. Is Alicia possessed? Is Brink an absolute creep? We didn't want everyone to understand everything immediately.
Is that not the sound basis of any stage magician's trick. To be seductive. To make the audience believe just enough, to carry them through the entire act on the edge of belief?I completely agree. I really love that relationship. You've just opened my eyes to Magic Magic. The director as the trickster. To trick the audience, and then still reveal the final truth at the end. I like that.
There is a novel by Theodore Raszak, FLICKER, that postulates you can accomplish many changes in society and believe by film editing. Then I look at the Christopher Nolan film, THE PRESTIGE, which is about the nature of revealing, or not revealing the trick. I feel that coming out of the film at the full house screening at the Fantasia Festival, there was a certain part of the audience that was enamored by the allure of constructing a horror film in that fashion, and another part of the audience that was turned off by the overt manipulation. I believe that MAGIC MAGIC is a film that has a perfect small audience, including myself, who will love it, but I'm wondering if you have an opinion on how the film seems to split audiences.
I was really seduced by a couple of films by Roman Polanski, specifically The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby.
Repulsion not so much. I really love that movie, and I can see why you'd think that, with Alicia losing her mind, but the tone of Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant has more to do with the tone I was aiming for in Magic Magic. I do not recall the humour of Repulsion as much, but then, with the other two, it is impossible to miss the humour. Which again, is part of the trickster manipulation, if you want to call it that, keeping the audience amused and sort of smiling throughout the movie, while one of the most tragic things that can happen to a person, losing their mind.
Where you are not safe, and where people are not there to help you. Everything is against you even your own nature, your own self! To show that, at the same time, with small portions of humour, with the other characters and other situations, it is simply a dark thing to do. The mix is something that I've not seen in movies in a very long time. To use these two elements together in such an elegant way as Polanski did.
Personally, that is very much a sweet spot. I read somewhere a quote that there are few things more hypnotic than a woman losing her mind on screen. It has to do with empathy, in this case towards Alicia.
But then we cannot help but laugh with Brink's passive-aggressive bullying. When I watched it with an audiences in Cannes and Sundance, people do laugh in the first half of the film a lot. Particularly from Brink's actions. But then there is a moment when the laughter completely stops. I was concerned that people would keep on laughing and not really enter into the graveness of Alicia's tragedy, but I was very happy with the achievement that people do stop laughing. I know the exact scene where they do. People are deeply disturbed and their smiles are gone once Brink has been 'pacificated' by Alicia. I think that is when the laughter ends.
Laughter is a difficult thing, because it could come out of amusement, but also as a tension release. The movie does become tightly wound that people do not even laugh to release the tension.
If there is nothing funny, the there is no way to release it. In the first 40 minutes, the outlet is offered, but the trick is to take that outlet away, to stop 'entertaining' them and sort of betray them. That is what makes the movie a disturbing film. That was the goal. I was never out to charm the audience. Not only to disturb people but to make them vulnerable about their own minds. To come to the realization that we are responsible for our own worst nightmares. We are holding our minds together as best we can. We have all had this kind of discomfort, a little bit of paranoia. We have all been scared to meet new people.
And the language barriers exacerbate this...
Exactly, they increase it. Personally I've been to parties, even where I speak the language, and I have found myself feeling a little odd and that nobody wants to talk to me, or that I am saying the wrong things, and then I am in the bathroom pretending to take a shit, hiding from the party.
When you are in these type of party situation and you hear a bit of high pitched laughter around you, you start to question, "are they laughing about me?" You get hyper self aware, which I believe this movie communicates extremely well. Everything makes Alicia shrink into her own self-consciousness.
The picture of the Parrot that Brink hides under her pillow, with the smiley face, that could be seen by someone as a nice gesture, perhaps an emotionally clumsy one, but he is not necessarily a threat, but Alicia decides to be threatened by it. And then Brink feels he totally fucked up and that causes more anxiety.
And he then sneakily denies it to the others which is a nice character touch. How every one of these characters are their own islands, on this literal geographic and isolated island. It offers up a fair share of dramatic ironies, considering we, to an extent have more information than any of the characters do, even if we are still very much in the dark about things.
If I can get back to empathy though, I consider that cinema is itself an empathy machine, to place yourself subjectively into a characters challenges, fears, etc. But the magic trick in the movie is where, after empathizing with Alicia and how these kind of jerk-ish hosts make her, through their actions, acutely uncomfortable, then the viewer is forced to consider and place their empathy in the other characters after those other characters realize their own mistakes and how everything has spiraled out of control.
There are main characters, but I do believe that the film also stars Brink. To what you are saying, I believe that the transference goes more towards Brink. You do feel a bit sorry for Sarah, as she is crying when she sees how far her friend is gone at the edge of the rock. But Sarah also continues to question why Alicia is doing this to HER. Still a selfish sort of character. Whereas Brink, he have victimized him in our own minds, just as at times we victimize Alicia and her unwillingness to come out of her shell. Or equally how we vilify Alicia for what she does to Brink, that 'pacification.'
Yes, I know the already infamous scene!
Many people miss that Brink is a closeted homosexual, and that particular scene is the worst possible thing that she could ever do to him.
You stole my thunder, I think that Brink's literal and figurative queerness is a significant thing that comes out on a second viewing of the film. It even starts to dominate the film, much like the metaphor of Sarah's guilt and pain from her abortion.
Brink feels helpless and alone in his closeted sexual orientation. He feels the need to do something about his own situation, being alone and helpless. And when you talk about the transfer of empathy, I think Brink gets the most transferred in part by Alicia's actions, even as we quickly forgive Alicia because she was unawares of what she was doing. If Brink did to Alicia what Alicia does to Brink, then Brink would be the craziest fucking villain, ever.
But because of where we are, situation-wise, you feel genuinely sorry for both of them.
After that you come to realize that he is only a victim of himself. And all the aggression coming from him is from his own weaknesses. Hurt people, hurt people. I guess creating a little bit of sympathy for Brink is very important right there.
There is so much body language of Brink trying to flirt with Augustine and Augustine completely unaware of Brink's clumsy advances. In a way, if there is a villain in this movie it is in fact Augustine, as he the one who keeps his sister in the dark, he is totally insensitive to Sarah and her abortion. On screen he comes across as perhaps the nicest guy, but by some character sleight-of-hand, he is actually the worst.
There are so many little moments. Look at Brink's face when Augustine walks into the kitchen for breakfast with a hard-on showing. He is very nervous. When they ask Brink if he ever had a girlfriend, there is this very awkward pause and an even more awkward story he tells. Who proclaims, "I Like Pussy?!?" But I agree with you, that Augustine gets a bit of a pass because we do not trust Brink early on, he is somewhat nice to his girlfriend, and his sister, and even Alicia, but the way he acts towards Sarah and Barbara later in the film, is not so nice.
The cast is pretty international here, Michael Cera is Canadian, Juno Temple is British, Emily Browning is Aussie, Augustine is Chilean and Catalina -- is Colombian. There is a culture clash inside the movie as well. Was this intentional, or just a curiously happy accident?
I had previously collaborated with Michael in a HBO project called The Boring Life of Jacqueline, which is a comedy series. We wanted to work together again. When he read the script for this film, he immediately said, "I want to be Brink!" so we then went an specifically wrote the character for him. The homosexual aspect actually came about during this, that was a no-brainer! I always thought of my brother for that character, I even named the character after him because I never thought of anyone else for that character. For the rest of the girls. Someone approached Catalina -- to be the Chilean girl, and at the beginning, I was opposed to a Colombian girl playing a Chilean girl.
I was originally not comfortable with her speaking Spanish, because I would see the difference. Maybe American or European people might not spot the subtle differences in the language, but it is my movie and I would have to live with it all of my life. But then I met her, and she was great, and a great actress, so I came up with the direction for her character to enjoy speaking English. And let her say American terms, such as using, "totally!" all the time.
It worked out, she looked like Augustine to play his sister, but more importantly, there is a toughness to Catalina that is very natural, and this just worked for Barbara. For Juno and Emily, they came together, they are good friends, to meet me at a restaurant in East L.A., the first two girls I saw for the roles, and they were perfect.I kept on meeting other people just to make sure, but then we went back to those two.
Juno Temple is one of those actors who seems to thrive by taking risks with the roles she accepts, certainly by any Hollywood standard, she has a lot of range, but seems to gravitate towards edgy, smart scripts.
She is great. It's too bad that the film is not getting a theatrical release, because I believe her acting here is award-worthy. It is risky to play a woman who is losing her mind. She did such a great job that she does deserve recognition for this role, I hope she gets it!
I call it the "Juno Temple curse," in that all of her films go straight to VOD/DVD in the United States. A symptom of her choosing to be in material that doesn't have an easy sell or a comfort zone to an ultra-wide audience. That is a strength, not a weakness though in terms of the quality of the films.
This movie was never meant to be a blockbuster, but I think it can certainly find a theatrical audience.
I think this will be a passed around cult movie, one that keeps the spirit of Italian, or European horror from the 70s and 80s onward.
A pleasant surprise during those lovely end credits was seeing that Christopher Doyle shot the film. This wasn't such a surprise considering how beautiful things look. He has a bit of a reputation for being cantankerous, even iconoclastic...
It's not easy to work with him for several reasons, but the amount of insight, and poetry that comes from watching him work. He lives freely, and it is freeing to be around him. It was surprise collaboration, I thought I knew what I wanted my movie to look like, and when he came aboard, we re-storyboarded for two weeks non-stop, a different kind of planning that I am used to, but he brought this pictorial element to the film that only helped to trick the audience into a kind of fairy tale, which is not a fairy tale, if you know what I mean.
Magic Magic looks fantastic, and like a fantasy with so many shots. The way that he frames things, it is precious, like an illustration. And then others that are hand-held and naturalistic. He was spontaneous and cranky, and it all makes the movie a better movie.
The first 15 minutes of the film is this perfect stage-setting, a visual tour of the Island, before the film jumps to Santiago. Kind of the reverse of something like Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE, where in that film, after watching Julie Delpy and Ethan walk around Vienna for over an hour, you see all the locations they visited in a more barren, empty state. Here you get a foreboding, foreshadowing tour of the island BEFORE the characters get there. Could you talk a bit about the strategy behind this?
Originally, the movie was going to start with Brink singing that song, and dancing. But then, it felt like we needed to immerse the audience in something a little more metaphysical, something more hypnotic, before we started. So the opening sequence, with its birds in slow motion, dark waters, and full moon, is more seductive. I feel it is the right way to start the film by setting up the mood. There is a glimpse of what the movie will become as it goes along.You are the first person to mention the opening sequence to me, so I guess it is subtle, to allow people to enter the sort of psychological place the film will take you.
The reason I ask, is because this sequence really resonates more on a second viewing. You feel every scene matches a shot later in the movie. It reminded me of David Fincher's FIGHT CLUB, a movie that plays quite differently on second viewing when you know certain things. Looking at it in different way, things begin to emerge. A different perspective.
I think it is a really fun movie to re-watch. There are so many tiny elements, almost fetishes, in the film, particularly with animals. There are so many links and parallels with the animals and Alicia...
Say, a sick puppy?
Exactly! It's a movie that makes more sense with each watch.
I wanted to talk about another movie going on upon second viewing. A spiritual connection between Sarah's abortion and what is going on with Alicia. It's not a perfect parallel, but it evokes so many similarities. It loads the movie up with an extra context, strange tangential resonances in the space of the storytelling here.
Oh man, you are well on your way to writing some sort of essay on the film. I hope you do! I want to read it! I thought that the fact that it didn't go theatrical was a bummer, I even thought that maybe something went wrong with it, but hearing folks who really get the movie is satisfying and validating!
There is a difference between a horror movie and a horrific movie. There are much more 'real' stakes in the latter. You may not watch MAGIC MAGIC for entertainment, for the slasher factor, or gore, or other ways that audiences process horror, but this is richer, there is an acute discomfort, and the filmmaking feels designed to do that. There are so few of these films these days. Fabrice Du Weltz, Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and a few others. Thanks so much for all of your time talking to me today, such a wonderful chance to converse about a movie that I really do want everyone to see.
Thanks, we can certainly talk more if the chance presents itself.
At this point, the phone cut off due to a funny connection between Toronto and New York City, and seeing as the interview had already gone on longer than the time allotted to me -- my thanks to the very forgiving publicist! -- suffice it to say, I consider Magic Magic to be one of the best horror films of the year, and really one of the year's best films.
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