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Sebastián Silva, writer and director of Sundance award winner The Maid.

Sebastián Silva

Interview with the writer/director of The Maid

Oct 23, 2009 Web Exclusive
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New York-based Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva is a busy man. Not only does he have three film projects in the works, but he also is an accomplished painter, illustrator and musician. It was beneficial that he found time to make his award-winning feature The Maid when he did, because it immediately had a positive effect on the woman who inspired the story.

The film is about a live-in maid named Raquel, played by Catalina Saavedra, who, after 23 years working for the same family, is being worn down by the strain of her work and its long-term emotional effects. Pilar (Claudia Celedón), the matriarch of the family, tries to hire additional help, but Raquel, protective of her status in the household, fends off each new maid with increasingly hostile behavior.

The character Raquel is based on the maid who lived with Silva's family while he was growing up in Santiago. She moved out of the house last year, shortly after the director showed his film to her. The Maid was awarded the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and Saavedra earned a World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting. This week, the film earned a Gotham Independent Film Award nomination for Best Feature, while Saavedra was nominated for Breakthrough Actor.

The Maid currently is screening at the Angelika Film Center in New York and select theaters in Southern California, including various Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles. I spoke with Silva in Los Angeles last week.

I read that the character Raquel is based on a maid who lived with your family while you were growing up. Who moved out first, you or the maid?

I did.

How old were you?

19.

In one of your quotes about the film, you mention that you had a rebellious attitude toward your maid that developed into a kind of fascination. How old were you when the rebelliousness completely subsided and succumbed to the fascination?

I don't know about fascination. It was more like a sense of compassion and guilt mixed together. I don't know if compassion can ever be mixed with guilt because compassion is supposed to be a really pure feeling, and guilt is kind of like a dirty one for me. I think it's a very Catholic feeling. But yeah, I went from rebellious to realizing that she was a person that was not having a great time or a great life. She was working 24/7 for a family that loved her, but the love was preconditioned because of the social aspect of I--she was an employee. You can afford to love an employee, and it will always be conditioned, and there will always be constraint. So, it grew from rebellious to compassion and pity and guilt, and I guess that's where the origins of the film are. Why did I make this film in the first place? I think it's because I needed to solve that emotional blurriness that was there in my heart. There was something unsolved with this human being that worked at my house, and I needed to get it straight. I'm not saying that I solved that completely with the film, because filmmaking for me is not therapy. It's just a form of expression and art. But it definitely helped, and it helped her. And it helped my family.

The rebellion and the compassion coexisted while she was living with your family?

They definitely coexisted, because I wanted her out of the house. But it wasn't just because of me and my comfort. It was because of her, and I could feel that she really needed to have a life for herself. That wasn't a life. I'm not one to judge what is really a life, but for me, that was not, at the time. I guess I was younger. Now, I wouldn't be so judgmental about that. But, at the time, I was an idealistic kid with very strong points of view and not very flexible, so I would ask my mother to fire her. It was for my sake, and for her sake mostly. But what do I know? Her timing was her timing. She's no longer working at my family's house. The process cannot be rushed. Everybody has their own process, so I guess that was hers.

How long ago did she leave?

She left after watching this film.

The film had a direct impact?

Not necessarily a direct impact, but I think it pushed her to that decision. She was already, as you could see in the film, changing her attitude toward life, thanks to Lucy and other things--time, experience. But I guess the film helped her to see what was outside of the house. There was a whole world outside of the house that she could reach. And she was already in love with someone, so that helped more than the film, of course. But there you have the answer, last year.

So the Lucy character also is based on someone in real life.

Yeah.

You've said that the Camila character, the daughter, is more like you than the son Lucas. If that's the case, from where did the idea of a sexual undertone between Raquel and Lucas develop?

Yeah, for me, I don't see that. There are some people who have seen that, between Lucas and Raquel, that there is a sexual undertone. But, for me, there is nothing there in terms of sexual attraction and sexual possibilities. For me, it's just like, "Oh, this kid and his habits." She's not turned on by Lucas' dried semen in the sheets. She finds that funny, because he's a kid with these adolescent habits. And Lucas definitely is not thinking about Raquel while masturbating. And I don't see him flirting with her at all. He's just being a funny, lively kid with her and playful. He's a magician; he plays tricks. He's just like a playful boy. But I don't see the sexual undertone in that relationship.   

I imagined that one of the challenges in writing this screenplay was conceiving a resolution to Raquel's behavior and finding a tone that's appropriate for that resolution. But now knowing that the Lucy character also is based on someone from real life, I suppose you had some guidance with that.

Yeah, if the episode between Raquel and Lucy had not taken place for real, I don't think I would have done the film. It's beyond my biography; I don't give a shit about what I went through. I just like the human story behind Lucy and Raquel and what happened there, that someone was taken out of her misery out of compassion. I find that really beautiful. And if I would have seen that somewhere else, or read that in a beautiful way, I would have made a film about that with another context. But that happened with someone that I knew fairly well, who is this maid that worked at my house, and I found that worth making a film. Having a maid and the maid phenomenon, it's extravagant for some people--it's definitely a social, weird thing--but for me it's not worth making a film. I would make a documentary, maybe. I don't know. But not a film about just that. I think the most important thing is the love story that's within the film, how a woman, Raquel, is resistant to love and being loved, and how can we possibly get to crack her shell and get it out of there. Beyond the anecdote that it's my family or it's my maid and all the sensationalist information about the film, I think the core and most important thing is the way that the characters in this film try to crack Raquel's shell.

Catalina Saavedra as Raquel in The Maid.

Catalina takes a couple of nasty spills in the film. How did you prepare for those scenes?

Yeah. I just asked her. I remember, the one on the stairs, I'm like, "OK, you have to faint right here and get there." And she's like, "How the hell am I going to do that? How am I going to fall and make it look real?" I thought, "That's a good question." So, I stood on the steps and said, "I'll do it." So I did it, and I fainted there. If you're a slightly agile person, you can fall down the stairs without hurting yourself. It was the first time I tried it in my life, and it worked out, and I stood up and said, "Look at me. You can do it. You're an actress." And everybody was like, [claps] "Hey, good Sebastián. Catalina, your turn." So, she did it, and the first time I didn't like it, so she had to do it a second time, and then she really harmed herself; she got a bruise on her arm, and it was a good [take]. It's the one that is in the film. And I'm like, "Thank you very much." And she goes, "You motherfucker." And then, the one in the bedroom, she had to just fall with the tray, just drop the tray. And that was more scary, because she had these cups made out of ceramic, so they broke in a billion pieces and she cut herself in that scene. That, we did three times until she cut herself, and it was like, "OK, enough." But yeah, that's how we did it.

There's an interesting series of shots when Lucy arrives. When we're inside Raquel's bedroom, we get her perspective. But the shots before and afterward also are behind doors with muffled sound.

Yeah, that's interesting that you noticed that. Very few people notice. The one in the beginning, I just wanted to hide her. Because it's the third maid that came to the house, the structure is quite repetitive; you don't want to bore your audience, so I thought it was good to create a little mystery. Even though it was really uncalled for, it's like, "Why are they hiding Lucy? Why don't they show her already?" I just thought it was good to hide her a little before we see her. I have to say that the one where she's learning to put the curtain down, I don't have a good explanation for that one other than just to hide Lucy, which I'm not really satisfied with. If you gave me a chance, I would make that scene again from inside maybe. I don't really know why I did that. But the one in the kitchen, before, when Lucy arrives and we're filming from really far away, and there's even a door before us, and then there's Camila, and then Lucy enters, and we stay there the whole time, that's because Raquel is in bed, and I think it was very important to be closer to Raquel. The arrival of Lucy is really important for Raquel, for nobody else but her. She is the one that doesn't want another maid, especially when she's in bed, so weak that she's not going to be able to fight them back. So this new maid might establish herself this time. So, for me, it was really important to sort of feel the breathing or the presence of Raquel by just being farther, because that's where Raquel is, she's farther down the hallway. And then the next scene is her inside her room, and we hear Lucy and Pilar.

It seems that you're working on quite a number of projects.

Yeah, I know, right?

What can you tell me about them?

The one that I hope, I expect, to film first is called Second Child. It's a feature fiction film that takes place in America, in the States. We don't know where yet, but we need woods and rivers and beaches. It's a very outdoor film. It's about an 8-year-old homosexual boy that falls in love with his godfather on this vacation that he's having with his family, and there's also a little girl who has a crush on him, and all the family's putting pressure on him to like this girl, but he's really in love with his uncle. And then he falls in love with a caretaker, who's a widowed man with two kids. It's just about the complications and the difficulties of being a homosexual kid, like an 8-year-old kid. That's the one I'm looking forward to getting done the first. Then, there's another project with Poland. I won a big cash prize in Poland with The Maid. The money is to make a film in Poland or related to Poland. So I want to make a film in Polish on the Baltic Sea. It's a science fiction film. It's called Fistful of Dirt so far. I'm really excited about that project because it's going to be more experimental. It's about mermaids. And there is that story about Spielberg. It's a screenplay I wrote five years ago about this quest that I had here in L.A. looking for Spielberg with an animation project to save the world, like some very ridiculous project. But it wasn't good at all. The story of me looking for Spielberg in L.A. is quite funny, full of pathetic, funny, uncomfortable moments. It's a very Hollywoodish story that I really like. It's a fun comedy.

www.themaidmovie.com



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