Rotting in the Sun Interview: Sebastian Silva and Jordan Firstman
“Nasty Baby” director and star Jordan Firstman explains the strange odium behind the new Sundance tease.
Rotting in the Sun carries all the familiar themes of writer-director Sebastián Silva’s work — class tensions, sexual intrigue, disarming comedy with unsettling punches — but the film’s genesis is even stranger.
A little over two years ago, the 43-year-old Chilean filmmaker was in a difficult situation. Silva likes uncomfortable, hard-to-sell dark comedies like “Nasty Baby,” “Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus” and “Tyrel,” but his last film, the supernatural Puerto Rican drama “Fistful of Dirt” with its financier. meant it was never released after the 2018 Telluride premiere.
As other projects stalled and the pandemic took hold, Silva left his Brooklyn home to crash in a friend’s vacant architecture studio in Mexico City, where he planned to work on his career as a painter. “I just wanted to paint and chill,” he said in a recent Zoom interview. “But I can’t run away from movies.” Everywhere I go, I see cinematic things.”
Example: While hanging out in Plaza Rio de Janeiro, he approached Silva giddy Instagram comedian and actor Jordan Firstman. He claimed that they had already met and added that he had just re-watched ‘Crystal Fairy’ the night before due to some strange form of serendipity. Silva didn’t remember the social media star, so Firstman pulled out his phone to give him a sample.
“I found it funny and exhausting,” Silva said. “It was very much something I wanted to make fun of.”
A version of that encounter is the inciting event of “Rotting in the Sun,” Silva’s fifth film to be screened at Sundance, which solidifies his strongest themes. The busy acquisition title (which partnered with Robert Pattinson’s production company just days before its premiere) is ready to shock audiences, no matter how much they know about the filmmaker’s previous work.
A quirky satire of the modern age of creativity and self-obsession, “Rotting in the Sun” features Silva as a quasi-fictional version of his Ketamine-addicted self. He becomes suicidal when he runs into Firstman – also playing himself – and tries to get rid of him before trying to collaborate on a new TV series. From there, the film takes shocking turns, the unsimulated sex and the murder mystery are shaped by a labyrinthine plot that only becomes more confusing in the second half. There, a middle-aged housekeeper (Catalina Saavedra) becomes involved in Silva’s mysteries after the situation takes a violent turn.
“I wanted to make a very misanthropic film,” Silva said. “Leg the world.”
Firstman has long admired Silva’s edgy humor and incorrigible antiheroes (the comedian directed a like-minded short called “The Disgustings,” which played at Sundance in 2014). “I’m a fan of Sebastian’s movies, and the movie appealed to me because I could decipher my personality,” Firstman said in a phone interview. “At the end of the day, I made silly videos online. I want to tell all my followers “I fucking hate you, you ruined my life” but I can’t because it’s ruining my career. This movie helped me laugh at myself.”
With its wild vocal changes, “Rotting in the Sun” is both playful and nihilistic. The film synthesizes Silva’s anarchic humor with the naturalism of his early success, “The Maid,” which starred Saavedra as a housekeeper struggling with the anxiety of working for wealthier benefactors. Silva was inspired to revisit this idea in “Rotting in the Sun” after meeting the maid in her makeshift studio in Mexico.
“The employee-employer relationship was very drastic,” he said. “I felt disgusted that these people were working for me, but I wanted to educate them, us, everyone.”
Silva’s personal death wish in the film — his obsession with the possibility of an overdose of sodium pentobarbital — also became a target. “To be completely honest, suicide is something I’ve always thought about,” he said, adding that he had never attempted it, although he had struggled with mental health issues days before the interview. “It’s not uncommon for gay people to consider suicide just because they’re afraid of coming out. But it somehow stuck with me.”
He wanted to skewer his lingering obsession. “Suicidal thoughts are a very civil activity for the bored,” he said. “You have so few real problems that you just live in this constant existential turmoil.” Anyway, he said he’s in a better place now. “In a way, this movie put an end to thinking that if things got too bad, I could just kill myself,” he said.
He got the title while hashing out the script when he took a break from the city to visit a friend who lived in rural Mexico. “I said, ‘What are you doing here all day? I’m like rotting in the sun,” Silva said. “And he said, ‘What else can you do?’ He wrote so much about the world right now.”
Saavedra said he appreciated the film’s all-encompassing satire. “It’s a comically gross movie,” he said. “No one is saved.” His character’s language barrier leads to a recurring gag with Firstman about the phone’s translation app. “Jordan and I had no greater challenge than playing the relationship of two strangers who can’t communicate,” he said. “Google Translate is not communicating. We laughed a lot.”
Even though the encounter with Firstman was horrible, he was not the first to call Silvana the driver. Instead, he wanted to cast Michael Cera, who had starred in the director’s films “Magic Cactus” and “Magic Magic,” but the director wanted the character to appear in graphic sex scenes — which Cera wasn’t having.
“Michael is the nicest person,” Silva said. “He would never. He wore it like a whore donkey prosthesis “Here’s the end.” Instead, he pitched the idea to Firstman, developing the concept of his persona. “I told Jordan that I would absolutely humiliate him and make fun of what he was doing, not even ironically,” Silva said. “Because he’s so direct and overtly sexual with everyone, I asked him if he’d be willing to have overt sex in the film. And he said, “Okay.”
Firstman said she enjoyed the opportunity as a contrast to her safer projects, including a recurring role on the Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel” as Gabe’s school counselor. “I’m in a Marvel thing and I’m smoking the camera in the same year,” Firstman said. “I want to do everything.”
Silva grinned at the more spectacular scenes, which include an extended sequence on a nude beach. “There are over 40 dicks in this movie,” he said, “but explicit sex is supposed to bring more comedy than shock or animosity.”
Silva’s mischievous instincts came to the fore when he lost interest in further commercial opportunities. In 2016, the $8 million Will Ferrell comedy “Captain Dad” was on the verge of filming in Colombia when the actor pulled out at the last minute. Another project, described by Silva as a Baltic variation on ‘Breaking the Waves’, fell apart a few years later, followed by distribution difficulties for ‘Fistful of Dirt’.
“It was pretty demoralizing,” Silva said. “At the time, I was distraught.” He regained his confidence directing a few episodes of his friend Julio Torres’ HBO show “Los Espookys” and spent time in the writers’ room on the HBO miniseries “The Staircase” directed by his other friend Antonio Campos. “It felt really good,” Silva said. “I was surprised to be able to collaborate like this and break away from my own vision when I wasn’t asked to.”
While he’s now toying with future projects, including possible collaborations with Ari Aster and A24, Silva said he felt less pressure to commit to what’s next. His painting career has taken off and he recently signed with the OMR gallery in Mexico City, which pays the bills. “It gives me the freedom to explore filmmaking in a real way,” he said. “I don’t have to hurry.”
He doesn’t have to compromise either. “I don’t think I’d ever direct something that I wasn’t involved in,” he said. “If Netflix wants me to make an $80 million movie and I don’t have a final cut, that’s a deal breaker. I feel like a lot of big studio movies will never make the final cut. This is my limit.”
“Rotting in the Sun” will be screened in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
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