"Crystal Fairy" (or "Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012" as it was called when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year), is one of those strange films that can't really be planned, it had to just sort of happen. The story goes that Michael Cera had gone down to Chile to stay with his director friend Sebastián Silva ("The Maid") as they prepared to shoot a film called "Magic Magic," but when they ran into a financial snag during pre-production, Silva decided to make the most of their sudden downtime. A filmmaker who's made a career of drawing candidly from personal experience, Silva had always wanted to make a movie about the time he made friends with a free-spirited hippie named Crystal Fairy, and reluctantly invited the older woman along for a drug-fueled road trip with his buddies. With an unplanned break in his schedule, Michael Cera at his disposal, and his three brothers available to serve as supporting characters, Silva jumped at the chance to make the most of things, eventually emerging from one troubled production with two very exciting movies.
A quick and quirky road movie about a noxious American traveler (Cera as Silva's proxy Jaimie) who's obsessed with getting his hands on the cactus needed to cook some top-notch mescaline, "Crystal Fairy" never betrays the hasty style in which it was all thrown together. The improvised script (based on a short treatment) flows beautifully thanks to committed performances from Cera and Gaby Hoffman (who flew down to Chile to be the titular Fairy), and the movie, made on a lark, resolves as a quietly touching portrait of self-delusions, drug-related and otherwise.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Michael Cera and Sebastián Silva to chat about, well, everything from tufts of pubic hair to Andrew Dice Clay and everything in between (is there really all that much in between, though?). Read our Sundance review of the film here.
MICHAEL CERA: Hey, how are you?
DAVID EHRLICH: I’m okay. It’s been a long day.
Cera: Coming from the “Grown Ups 2” junket?
(laughs) Oh, no, life isn’t that cruel to me. I’m actually off to “Blue Jasmine” after this.
Cera: Oh, is it out?
It opens on the 26th.
Cera: (to Sebastian) Have you seen the trailer? It looks so great. Andrew Dice Clay looks amazing!
He always does.
Cera: (to Sebastian) You know who he is, right? The Diceman?
SEBASTIAN SILVA: No...
The Diceman never made it down to Chile?
Cera: He’s amazing. He created this character, this persona, and he just ran with it. It was huge! He sold out Madison Square Garden.
So for me, the big takeaway from “Crystal Fairy” was about the inertia of being an asshole. With your character, I was surprised by how much everyone was willing to tolerate him. It was like he was looking for someone to just stop and tell him, "You're completely insufferable." Can you speak to that at all?
Cera: I think that's a pretty good point. Yeah, it seems like self-sabotaging kind of behavior, classic acting out and pushing people away. And then yes, maybe because he's surrounded by just patient and kind people is why he sort of… it turns against himself when he's having a panic attack. I think in that moment, he's maybe not aware of what he's panicking about, just all of these feelings he's been having about isolation. And yeah I think he eventually has this moment of insight and of liberation because of the kindness of the people that he's with.
You get so little backstory about these characters. How does Jaimie wind up with these guys, the Silva brothers? What are the circumstances under which they take him into their lives?
Silva: I mean that's a question – whenever I'm asked about my backstories like that – I always say that I don’t know because I just watched the same movies as you did, and I'm not the kind of director that really works on backstories. I tend not to write big biographies of my characters, just because I feel that if you witness something crazy here – like a woman comes running here bleeding and then runs out of that door, like, I just want to know what's going on with her now. I don't care who's her father or where does she work, I just want to see the focus. You know, I'm more interested in her present story, and I feel like that's the idea with Jamie. We don’t know, but it makes sense, like whatever, it's some gringo that has some Chilean friends, and he's roommates with one of them, and they're going on a trip, and he invited his brother. Like, there's really not a backstory to me, I never decided to think about it. So I really do not have an answer for that.
I think that as a storyteller, thinking that way is maybe what allows you to tell so many stories and be so prolific because you don’t get bogged down…
Silva: Yeah, it's something that I feel is highly recommended, you know? Like in a screenwriting book, they say to write like forty pages of your characters. But that's then why screenwriters take a f**king year and a half to write a screenplay, because they're caught up with the bullsh**t, and they're not really seeing the present of the story, you know? I feel that movies are like that. When you're directing an actor and you're like, "Hey so you're gonna start crying now." And they're like, "Why am I crying?" And you're like, "What do you mean, like, look at the screenplay," and like, "Where is their sorrow coming from?" I'm like, "I don’t know, dude. Just give me tears. Like, I'm gonna turn the camera. Just give me the face that you do when you cry." I mean, I respect method acting, but it's so instant. Film is just made out of like twelve seconds, seven seconds, five seconds, one second. One minute at the most, you know? So it's like, whenever it gets too exquisite about like, "Where am I coming from?" You're like, "Just give me the face. I need the face, and be believable. That’s it." And it wears me out, like, "Where did you come from?" "I don't know..."
How was that for you – a refreshing change of pace? Was everything about this movie liberating?
Cera: Yeah, I wouldn't say that it's really a change of pace, because I haven't really had the experience of going so deep into backstory. Yeah, but everything about the movie was very liberating. It was total collaboration and exploration and, you know, we were traveling around, we were really living the experience of the movie basically.
How much of this story – or the need to make this movie – was cathartic for you in maybe feeling like you owed the Crystal Fairy an apology for how you treated her in some way?
Silva: The way that Jamie treats Crystal Fairy is really the most fictional part of the story, for real. Like, I would tell you if it wasn’t, but we got along. I'd say he'd be myself, and that’s why I invited someone that went by the name of Crystal Fairy to come with me on a trip with my best friend. I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn't a fairy myself and we really got along. It was very amusing; we were reading the tarot cards with each other. She was kind of like out there, you know? But it was fun. It was really fun to us, and then she ended up opening up, she got us in the movie, and that was a very amazing experience for us to see that there was really an actual human being behind this caricature of someone, you know? And we learned so much from her, I think, by her opening up like that.
And it was not as cathartic as "The Maid" maybe could’ve been. That movie's really about my family and the relationship that I had with a maid that worked at my house for 25 years and I could never really get along with her, and exploring the reasons why I really couldn’t get along with that, or like come to terms with the fact that having a live-in maid in my house was never comfortable. So that was more cathartic and therapeutic for me and my family. I feel that "Crystal Fairy" was a really sweet anecdote in my life that had to do with learning how to be compassionate, and it's just so simple and sweet and super straightforward, and I really like the elements. I like the name "Crystal Fairy", just like the desert, the San Pedro. It has all of these fun, exotic ingredients. Just the mix is so appealing to me, so flavorful.
I read an interview where you said that the movie is “the birth of compassion in somebody's life,” and with that in mind, it occurred to me that “Crystal Fairy” is kind of like a drug comedy as might be made by the Dardenne brothers.
Silva: Yeah, a little bit. I think I succeeded in terms of sharing that feeling too. I think it also comes in Jamie's character. I think he audience learned not to judge him anymore and see where he's coming from, and learn that he's just like growing up. He's just a kid growing up, you know? So I think yeah, these two characters are very unlikeable, I feel, and that's why I feel like it's so hard to root for any of them. I mean like, everybody mentioned how much of a jerk Jamie is, but dude, I think Crystal Fairy is insufferable in this movie, like really. Honestly, I mean, when she takes your cigarette and puts it out in the sun without asking, and then she's making everybody eat breakfast, you organize this trip you're being the shaman of the group, and she's like feeding everybody before taking it, and then she's putting her annoying little crystals in your cup without asking, it's like—
It's all about balance.
Your character only cares about himself. And Crystal Fairy ostensibly cares about the entire world…
Silva: But she doesn't. She's really abrasive. She's telling them not to eat this food, she's telling them to put these rocks in her plates, she's rubbing her bushy vagina in everybody's face with like no respect. I mean like, I understand being comfortable with your body, but dude, that's not normal. You don’t do that with strangers.
You play on a really American response to that, I think. Your face is making the 'America face' when there's nudity, everyone else is like—
Silva: But it's not an American face. That's something we've sort of arguing – well not arguing, but like—
Cera: I think the Silva brothers handle that moment much more elegantly, but they're just as weirded out.
Silva: Yeah, like one of them says like, "Yeah, Crystal, I'm fine with your nudity," but he's clearly like—
Cera: "What the f**k?"
Silva: Yeah, "What the f**k." I'm a Chilean dude, and if I'm in a room of that size and someone's is like putting rocks in my ear with a bush like that, like at 10 inches from my face, I'd be freaking out. I'd be rolling my eyes nonstop.
I was thinking about how you guys shot the scenes where people are tripping, very objectively, where you don’t have affected visuals or anything like that. It made me think of Jafar Panahi's, "This is Not a Film" – he says in the movie that if you could TELL a film, why would you MAKE a film? And I feel like it's the same way with drugs on film. Like if you could SHOW what it's like to be on drugs, why would there be the need for drugs? What does showing Jamie in "Crystal Fairy" tripping from a more objective view do for you?
Silva: I think it makes you feel the drug better. You can never really represent that state, because it's not like DMT that is really, really visual. That's like something that you actually could re-create with CGI and be more accurate. But to represent just a slightly sort of, like, movement in your perception of things and just being more sensitive to color or just like feeling like your sensitivity increases just a little bit, you know? So what was there to do, other than just have them talking about jeans and the usual things that you talk about when you're high? Like, you get so amazed by like a little dead crab, and you would look at fish, and you would look at nature.
That's really what happens when I've taken mescaline. I've never taken like huge dosages of it, so it's just like a really contained, subtle, soft high, and that’s what I wanted to show, and like, I guess the panic attack is the most subjective part of the movie because then I kind of broke the rules and played with sound, you know? But other than that, it was just not calling for it. It was not really important. The drug was a Macguffin; it was not really the main thing.
It was a very believable trip – were you nervous about overselling it?
Cera: No, not really, because I think I was never nervous about performance stuff, because I really trusted Sebastian. I mean, when you're working with someone who you have total faith in, you don't worry about that so much. I've worked on other things where I've been really like, "Oh God, I can't do this because they'll use that, and that'll be really embarrassing." It's one of the luxuries of working with a filmmaker that you really believe in.
"Crystal Fairy" opens today in theaters and on VOD.