Sebastián Silva (The Maid) Talks the Importance of Leaving Your Comfort Zone and Embracing Embarrassment

The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning filmmaker lays out the perspective that has led him to push himself creatively throughout his career.

I got scared.

My second and third films, The Maid and Old Cats, were very similar in the way that they were thought out and made — the camerawork, the acting, the naturalistic feel, etc. They established a way of making movies I felt extremely comfortable with and that I could have used forever, repeating the formula with different stories and different actors.

So I got scared, because it was such a safe zone. I didn’t want that. So with my next film, Magic Magic, I intentionally stepped out of that comfort zone. When a challenge appears it is very seductive. I don’t want to feel comfortable or too self-confident while working because it takes away the edge and the sweat and the room for spontaneity and failure. Fear of failure is huge. It makes it worth it. It means that you’re exploring new territories and that you’re setting yourself up for disaster. And that’s where embracing embarrassment comes in. It’s part of trying things out, of exposing yourself in a way that you’re not used to. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone and it’s only scientists — and you’re a filmmaker who smokes a lot of marijuana. Whatever you say is going to be such an adventure! You could either seduce them with the knowledge you have, or you could scare them away, or make yourself look like a complete fool. It’s exciting and inviting and adventurous, and I like that.

I also like that adventurousness as a way of living. You have to be very present and not rely on past experiences. I’m a very forward person and I like to be really honest, and I’ve found myself confronted, not with rejection, but with people’s surprise and amusement just for being honest.

I like pushing buttons.

In my new film, Nasty Baby, for instance, I play the main character, an artist who dresses up as a baby and makes himself look completely disgusting and embarrasses everyone around him. The whole thing goes back to a time in my early or mid twenties when I was invited to do a performance piece for a dance week in Chile. I thought about pretending to be a newborn baby on stage and drooling and making cute little noises. I didn’t want to be cynical or sarcastic about it, but wanted to really try to imagine what it’s like to be a baby and be that, even though it would have been extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing, and people in the audience would have almost felt physical pain from the awkwardness. They would have been blushing and wanting to leave and saying, “What the fuck is this asshole doing?” A collective experience of transcending embarrassment. Thank God I never did it! But that’s something that stuck with me; I found it brave and refreshing. I just really like being outside of my safe zone for some reason. By doing that, I acquire more tools. I don’t know if it’s a masochistic tendency in me, or if it’s because I feel that a new part of me is born every time.

Playing Freddy, the lead character in Nasty Baby — and actually pretending to be a baby this time — made it a completely different kind of filmmaking experience. By acting in the film, I was fearful again, scared that things might not work out as I’d planned and that I might find myself caught in a harsh situation where I couldn’t get the performance right. Setting yourself up for failure and then overcoming it — that feels like such a victory. I feel that it worked; my acting in Nasty Baby is not completely pathetic, and people dig it. And I don’t mind it, which is the most important, because I’m the director of the movie. When I was editing, I was not self-conscious about Silva’s acting. He became somebody else whose performance I was cutting. There was no self-consciousness at all, which was great.

There is a screenplay that I’ve been trying to make for five years called Second Child. It’s a hard movie to make: an eight-year-old kid in upstate New York who’s homosexual and has feelings for his uncle. It’s controversial material, and it’s been a hard movie to finance. After trying to make the film for so long, I realized it needed something else. So I decided to make it in French, because I don’t speak French and it would take me six months of really intense learning to feel confident enough to go on set and try to make it work. So I did that, and then I found a producer and I’m feeling this itch again. I’m scared. I’m scared that my French might suck and the actors will be annoyed, and that then the acting will be bad. But it’s fun. I care more for the experience of making the movie than the actual result; there are so many movies people see once and then forget. I think the legacy of your work is not as important as the experience of making it.

The directors that I really like — such as Lars von Trier and John Cassavetes — are daring. Cassavetes would go on set with an outline and improvise with his actor friends and just grab the camera. He’d get really good DPs, but mess up their photography on purpose, do really long improvised scenes with non-actors and get drunk on set for real. Lars von Trier reinvents himself so often, and you can never tell what kind of film he’s going to make next. Even though I was not a huge fan of Nymphomaniac, I really appreciated the experiment and celebrated the fact that he made it. I admire his career so much — it’s so refreshing. With Tarantino, even though I really like his style, I’m not as excited about his next movie because I know what it’s going to taste like already. It’s the same with Wes Anderson. I like risk-takers. I like people that make shitty movies sometimes because they took a risk and they explored territory that didn’t feel safe, and the experiment just didn’t work. I really like the surprise factor. I like unexpected things.

My life is such a mess at certain points and my priorities change so drastically. I feel that I can’t take myself seriously because I’m so full of contradictions. I don’t ever really have a final word for anything, so any sort of statement that I make is always more of a question than an affirmation.

Sebastián Silva is a Chilean-born writer-director currently living in Brooklyn. In 2009, his second feature, The Maid, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where all of his subsequent films – Old Cats, Crystal Fairy, Magic Magic and his latest feature, Nasty Baby – have played also. In 2012, he wrote and directed the HBO digital series The Boring Life of Jacqueline.