It almost seemed like a typo when the Sundance Film Festival announced not one but two films made by Sebastián Silva in Chile with American actor Michael Cera. Yet it was no mistake, as the pair have indeed collaborated twice, with "Crystal Fairy" an amiable road movie about an adventure to find a hallucinogenic cactus, and "Magic Magic," a dark and disturbing tale of a young woman whose mental breakdown is ignored by her traveling companions.
"'Crystal Fairy' is the feel-good movie and then 'Magic Magic' is the feel-bad movie" is how Silva recently described the distinction between the films.
In "Crystal Fairy," which opens in Los Angeles on July 12 and will also be available on video on demand, Cera plays an American in Chile named Jamie who wants to go to the desert to find a specific cactus known for its hallucinogenic properties. Wasted at a party, he invites a girl to join him and his friends on their trip the next day. To their surprise, the nomadic American hippie named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) indeed tags along. Though they are all at first annoyed by her talk of numerology and omens and awkwardly unanticipated nudity, Jamie and his three friends (played by Silva's brothers) come to feel a certain affection toward their wandering-spirit companion.
"I guess the trip with your friends to take drugs in the desert is part of American culture," said the 34-year-old Silva of the warm response "Crystal Fairy" has received from American festival audiences. The film won the directing prize in the world cinema dramatic competition at Sundance, where Silva's 2009 film "The Maid" won the grand jury prize in that same category. "The Maid" was also nominated in the foreign-film category at the Golden Globes and the Spirit Awards.
"Magic Magic" and "Crystal Fairy" are connected by more than just Cera. "Crystal Fairy" came to be only when a delay in the financing for "Magic Magic" meant that Cera was in Chile with Silva and no movie to shoot. So the filmmaker found something for them to do.
"I had 'Crystal Fairy' on my computer desktop for years. Not a screenplay or anything, just the idea," Silva said, recalling how the story is based on an experience of his own. "I went to the desert with my friend, and this hippie from San Francisco that went by Crystal Fairy tagged along; I invited her. The difference is we actually got along."
With only a 12-page outline, Silva enlisted Pablo Larráin and his brother Juan de Dios Larráin, who produced Silva's 2007 debut feature, "Life Kills Me," and recently made the Academy Award-nominated "No," to help pull the project together. Silva also called on Hoffmann, whom he had worked with on the HBO Web series "The Boring Life of Jacqueline."
Hoffmann recalled a call from Silva in which the filmmaker tried to explain the vague story. "'A crazy woman named Crystal Fairy? Great, I'm on it,'" she said. "I got down there and we talked a lot about her, and I felt like I knew that person. I've met that person many times in my life."
"Crystal Fairy" was shot over a couple of weeks in fall 2011. After a few months of editing that one, financing came through for "Magic Magic," which Silva began to shoot in spring 2012. He then set to finishing both films leading to their simultaneous Sundance debuts.
The production of "Crystal Fairy" was in its own way a genuine road trip. Shooting in sequence, they all moved as a caravan in two vehicles out to the desert, one being the car seen in the film and the other for equipment and the small crew.
Cera recalled how once when they pulled over to the side of the road for lunch at an empanada stand they ended up filming a scene there too.
"The whole thing was a shoot," he said, sitting in Los Angeles alongside Hoffmann. "It's really how it was."
That includes the film's final sequence in which the characters (and the actors themselves) drink a tea made from the storied hallucinogenic cactus. Though everyone else who drank it, including Cera, said they didn't feel anything, perhaps due to the stress of working, Hoffmann took an extra dose and definitely did. So her spaced-out, google-eyed look during the film's climax isn't entirely acting.
"It felt great to be high in the desert naked," Hoffmann said. "I highly recommend it."
During a post-screening Q&A at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, Hoffmann noted that while she and Cera have been referring to the film as improvised, Silva disagrees with using that label. For him, the film had a definite structure, and each scene was worked out in advance. Even the dialogue, though invented by the actors, was discussed in detail before shooting.
"It is improvised, but it's like half-and-half," Silva said later. "I guess it's more like making it up as we go. I don't know if that's exactly the same as improvisation."
All the same, in working with the actors from an outline rather than a full script, Silva said, "I personally as a director learned a new way to make movies."
Silva is planning to soon shoot a film in his own home in Brooklyn, where he has lived for the last few years, a drama called "Nasty Baby" set to star himself with musician and actor Tunde Adebimpe as a gay couple looking to have a baby with a surrogate. That will be done in the style of "Crystal Fairy," though shot from a slightly longer outline. He also has a more conventional script he hopes to shoot called "Second Child."
The loopy, adventuresome experiment of "Crystal Fairy" may also provide Silva with another kind of breakthrough — reconnecting him with someone he knew only briefly but who has stuck with him for years.
"I personally really loved Crystal Fairy, and I can't wait for her to hear about the movie and reach out. Honestly, where is she?" he said. "I never saw her again, and whenever I google 'Crystal Fairy' I get fairies made out of crystal. There's no way to find her."