In his new film Rotting in the Sun, the Chilean filmmaker doesn’t let dicks get in the way of the mystery…
By Paul Gallant
Bad boy writer, director and sometime actor Sebastián Silva likes his movies to have some bite. From 2015’s Nasty Baby, which at first pretends to be a cheerful story of members of a queerish peer group creating an alternative family, only to switch gears to go very dark, to 2018’s Tyrel, which pokes at subtle racism and hyper-masculinity, the gay Chilean auteur is always poking at society’s hypocrisy and cruelty.
But when Silva goes really hard – like in Nasty Baby’s horror-inflected critique of hipster gentrification, or in his new film, Rotting in the Sun – he paints the target on his own back and takes the lead role. “When I’m at the centre of the narrative, when enough elements of my life become a colourful world where I’ve been discovering a story,” Silva tells IN Magazine, “then I’m very critical of myself and my world. I put myself as the main person to judge. It’s a defence mechanism, because there’s nothing worse than pointing fingers and then people are, ‘What about you, bitch?’ So I’m like, ‘Guys, I fucking suck and you suck too.’”
In the dark meta-comedy Rotting in the Sun, Silva plays a character based on himself, a multimedia artist called Sebastían who is currently living in the trendy Roma Norte neighbourhood of Mexico City and is focused on making paintings (in real life, Silva, 44, is also a commercially successful visual artist). Irritated and irritating, he’s doing lots of ketamine and playing with ideas of suicide when he decides to go to a beach town in southern Mexico, based on a real beach town that’s known for being a naked gay playground. There, amidst fucking on the rocks, Sebastián meets an unflappably obnoxious influencer named Jordan Firstman, played by real-life out-there influencer Jordan Firstman, who has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram. They make a vague plan to have Jordan crash at Sebastían’s Mexico City apartment while they develop a project together. As in most of Silva’s films, the story doesn’t go in the direction the audience expects, though we do get to watch lots of Jordan having sex, doing drugs and being unapologetically flamboyant in many inappropriate contexts.
Silva came up with the broad concept for the film before he had even heard of Firstman, who, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Silva playfully called “the perfect example of what’s wrong with the world.” They met in Mexico City’s Plaza Río de Janeiro, a square presided over by a statue of a naked David, while Silva was walking his dog. (Silva’s dog, Chima, also has a notable role in the film – think Divine in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos).
Just the night before they met, Firstman had watched Silva’s 2013 film Crystal Fairy with a hookup. As Silva recalls, “We had dinner and Jordan’s personality is very big and he’s very funny and a complete over-sharer. A very daring personality. Self-deprecating and self-aware. I was like, ‘What about a real influencer for this role? An insecure influencer who is a sex addict?’”
Which takes us to the quantity of male genitalia and number of sexual acts in Rotting in the Sun, an issue that’s come up repeatedly during the publicity for the film, which starts streaming on the art-house-inflected streaming service Mubi on September 15. Firstman has estimated that there are 30 to 40 dicks in various shots. Though it was Silva’s decision to feature nudity and depict unsimulated sex, he still seems to be wrestling with how audiences will take it.
“Of course, there will be nudity on a nude beach to begin with. Then there’s a texture of that beach that’s very gay and some gays will do things when they’re nude, and Jordan had been to that beach a couple of times because it was so slutty and fun,” says Silva. “So the sex is really part of Jordan’s character. It’s not necessarily a sexy movie. Usually, I do not like sex scenes in movies because I find them unnecessary. In this case, the sex is being used as a comedic tool. I’m not trying to eroticize anyone or turn my audience on in a sensual way. It’s just that, well, Jordan actually has this kind of sex and I don’t want to censor myself. I knew a lot of the headlines were going to be ‘Sebastián Silva’s Gay Movie With Cocks,’ ‘Why Is Sebastián Silva Obsessed With Cocks?’ because, for some reason, genitals are still something people are shocked or intrigued or seduced by.”
Many of the exhibitionist actors who appear in the film were friends of friends who were, it must be said, given “symbolic compensation” and signed waivers. “I think most of the people who are having sex in that beach scene are people who would have done it even if the cameras weren’t there,” say Silva. “What was cool was that most of the sex in the movie was friends having sex. It didn’t feel tense, even though it’s very explicit. I don’t know how it would be on a Hollywood set where everybody’s tense and giggling and nervous about the scene. This felt very organic.”
Fifteen years into his film career, Silva (who moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles about eight months ago) continues to pursue projects that are personal to him; it’s hard for him to imagine making a Marvel film, a rom-com or even high-brow Oscar bait. Yet he’s grown as a filmmaker and perhaps as a human; he thinks Rotting in the Sun is warmer, funnier and more loving than Nasty Baby. “Because it’s a comedy, you can assume I’m coming from a good place, laughing about the mess we are rather than ‘Let’s kill ourselves because of the mess we are,’” he says.
He’s also realistic about budgets – what he can get actors, studios and funders to say yes to. There’s a movie he really wants to make, called The Face of the King, which he describes as “a transhumanist sci-fi campy comedy where the main character is based on Michael Jackson.” That would be a multi-million-dollar movie that he says would “need big actors and exotic animals and stuff.
“A lot of people have looked at it and the response is great, but it’s a hard movie to make,” he says. “And I’m very impatient and very compulsive. So I just keep making the movies that I can, where I don’t need a million permissions and millions of dollars and opinions and greenlights.”
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.