Talking to Michael Cera and Sebastian Silva About ‘Crystal Fairy,’ Chile, and Directing

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Michael Cera’s been up to a lot lately. Between popping up on Burning Love as a mild-mannered guy with a significant nut allergy, reprising his role as a grown-up if woodblock-loving George Michael on the fourth season of Arrested Development (for which he also wrote), and appearing as a coked-out party monster version of himself in This is The End, he’s been redefining the image of what a Michael Cera role is. That diversification should be helped by what might be his most unlikable but layered performance to date in Crystal Fairy, a psychedelic roadtrip drama from Chilean artist and filmmaker Sebastian Silva.

Cera plays Jamie, a self-absorbed American staying with three brothers in Santiago, Chile. The group is about to trip up to the beaches of northern Chile where Jamie is intent on taking mescaline, but their plans are complicated when they pick up a free spirit called Crystal Fairy, played by Gaby Hoffman. Jamie and Crystal Fairy’s wildly different worldviews lead to the uncomfortable and compelling conflict at the center of the movie.

I heard that you were in Chile initially to work with Sebastian on Magic Magic. How did you get involved with Crystal Fairy?

Cera: Well, basically, I left because I’d been in Chile for three months waiting for Magic Magic to start. It kept getting pushed back because we couldn’t get the financing for it, and then I left eventually because it started to seem like it was not the time. It wasn’t going to happen. I left and came back here, and then Sebastian called me a month or two after that and said, ‘I’ve got this other movie’ that I think you had mentioned to me briefly.

Silva: Yeah.

Cera: He was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll just go make this other movie Crystal Fairy,’ and he told me the whole story. He said ‘I got the money, we can go do it right now, and it’ll take like two weeks. No dialogue written–we’ll just find it as we go.’ It was just a great invitation. And like a week later I was there. He told me his brothers would be in it, which I thought was a great idea. I’d just lived with them for three months and knew them really well and thought they were all amazing. And Gaby Hoffman was also a really exciting idea to me, that she was going to come and do it because I’m a big fan of hers. It was just easy.

How were those three months in Chile?

Cera: Amazing. I loved it. I spent a lot of that time being sick. I feel like I had a cold, a cough.

Silva: It’s the air, man. You were there in the winter time, right?

Cera: Yeah.

Silva: Yeah, winter time in town is miserable. The smog is there.

Cera: Because it’s in a valley–Santiago–between mountain ranges, all the smog just sits.

Silva: It’s so bad.

Cera: And I did a trip with Sebastian’s brothers where we were traveling all around the north and we were sleeping on beaches, and that was really serious cold. When we were just sitting on the beach hanging out and cooking stuff, and just the wind … that was really I think the worst thing I could have done for my situation. But other than that it was beautiful. I can’t wait to go back actually.

Sebastian, where did the idea for Crystal Fairy come from?

Silva: It was something that was on my desktop for years and years because I went through an experience that was like exactly the same. I was kind of Jamie, I guess. So it was something I had in the back of my head, and at some point I wanted to share that experience, maybe as a movie or a comic or a book–I didn’t even know what it was going to be. Then, it only made sense that it was going to be a movie. I started writing an outline for it and showed it to my friend and producer Juan [de Dios Larraín] from Fabula, the same producer who made the movie No and Tony Manero and Post-Mortem. They produced my first movie Life Kills Me as well.

They loved the idea of the movie, they trusted me, we had Michael and Gaby, and they provided us with the money to do it. And we took off to the desert.

With no dialogue written, how much of the film was improvised?

Silva: The entire arc of the characters was structured and written in detail–Jamie and Crystal’s interaction mostly, because the boys don’t really have an arc. They kind of always serve a background of confidence for the rest of the characters and the audience, as well. They make you feel confident and safe.

But then Jamie and Crystal…it was a dynamic that started also developing as we were shooting it. It got more and more detailed and deep. But we always knew how Jamie needed to end up emotionally and how Crystal needed to end up emotionally. So when you have a beginning and an end for a character, it’s just a matter of staying really aware of how we’re going to get to that point.

Michael, had you improvised on that scale before?

Cera: Once, where a friend of mine did a film called The End of Love where he had a house party and invited me and a lot of other friends of mine. There was no script, and we were all being at a party together and inventing stuff, but I never did a full movie like that. But it’s not that difficult when every single beat of the story is there in the script, and all you have to do is talk to the other person and get the ideas across. And we would do take after take and just kind of hone in every time and find it.

Silva: That helps. We did a lot of takes, like twelve. We would shoot like, whatever.

Cera: We would cut the fat.

Silva: The hostel scene — we shot it for like three or four hours, several several takes.

Cera: And then you could experiment. If a thought comes up that you would just say in a take–if it stands out–then Sebastian would say, ‘Why don’t you make something of that?’ Things would come up like that.

Did the size of the production and your verite shooting style make that process easier?

Silva: Yeah. It would never have worked if you had a huge crew behind you…it would just slow down the process. I think it was the perfect amount of people and the perfect amount of money and time to make the movie we wanted to make. I don’t think more days or more money would make this movie any better. It would have probably harmed the movie actually.

Michael, what attracted you to working with Sebastian?

Cera: I’d seen Sebastian’s other movies. That was how I originally reached out. I saw The Maid, and then I contacted Sebastian. We met each other and got along. That was it basically. I knew I liked what he was doing and the kind of stories he was telling and his sensibility, and we got along really well as people. And we actually had the chance to work together in a very like, noncommittal way with The Boring Life of Jacqueline, his internet show. I showed up in New York and got dinner then worked together for an afternoon, and after that it was pretty obvious we could work together and have fun and collaborate really well.

Michael, you’ve recently directed short films for JASH. What did you learn as a director from working from Sebastian?

Cera: To be really brutally honest with yourself. Sebastian is really good at never insulting people’s intelligence. He’ll really talk to people very honestly. He gives people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll understand where he’s coming from and what he’s expressing, and they’ll get on the same page with him. I think that’s what you have to do if you’re directing. You have to be speaking the same language as people and just be clear and have them understand what you’re saying. And to have fun. He’s really good at having fun when he works, too, and enjoying the process, enjoying the moment. I think you need to do that to inspire the people around you. If you’re miserable, I don’t know how you could get people to want to work for you.

Silva: That makes sense, the looseness of it. The having fun of it is such an important factor of it. How can something good come out from so much stress? I’ve thought, for instance, that Kubrick would be extremely controlling on set, and I heard that he wasn’t. He was super open to ideas from everybody, and I think the good stuff comes from a good atmosphere.

Cera: It takes confidence, though. I think a lot of the time when a director is really sheltering his movie and protecting it or something from the people working on it, it comes from insecurity or just not total confidence in his ability to, in a moment, make the right decision and listen to his impulses and trust his instincts. I think a lot of people figure out what they want to do before going in so that when they’re on the set they don’t have to suffer the embarrassment of making a mistake or making a wrong decision, but the most inspired people I’ve worked with are always just right in the moment finding things and just being aware of what’s happening and going with the flow.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.