Interviews · Movies

Sundance 2018: Sebastián Silva Talks the Complex Racial Drama of ‘Tyrel’

The Chilean provocateur discusses his film on white boy partying and small acts of racism.
By  · Published on January 27th, 2018

The Chilean provocateur discusses his film on white boy partying and small acts of racism.

Among the most divisive films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel. Half argue that it’s a film where nothing happens, yet the other half – myself included – will argue that it’s an unnerving satire in which everything happens. The film stars Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) as Tyler, a man who joins his best friend Johnny (Christopher Abbot) for one of Johnny’s friend’s birthday weekend in the Catskills. Upon the arrival of the other guests, Tyler realizes that he is the only black man among the group. As heavy drinking ensues, Tyler’s insecurities build, leaving him in a state of crisis.

Silva is known for his provocative films including Nasty Baby and Magic Magic. In these works, groups of people get along before finding themselves in unexpectedly dangerous situations. Tyrel is something different, something far more subtle. Think of it as Get Out, but if Daniel Kaluuya managed to get through that weird weekend with the Armitages and they all lived happily ever after. Following Tyrel’s world premiere, I sat down with Silva to discuss my favorite film of the festival, and why it has so many viewers torn.

*Warning – spoilers for Tyrel follow. Obviously.*

We spend much of the film anticipating something terrible to happen. You’ve set up a situation that feels like it will venture into true horror movie territory at any moment. Yet, you avoid this. Why?

I guess it’s because this movie deals with race issues in a way that I personally haven’t seen before. The movies that deal with race issues are usually very extreme. It’s such a no-brainer. Yeah, fucking white people are fucking awful, black people deserve complete forgiveness, you know? I don’t disagree with that, but there is also the world of this film, which is just about black people navigating social environments that are not necessarily threatening. People are not consciously threatening one another, or trying to make anyone feel shitty, but it happens nevertheless because of the heritage and that wound that is still open that nobody can escape; black nor white. I really wanted to make a story… because what Tyler is going through, if he hadn’t been black maybe there wouldn’t have been enough for a movie. That’s how seamless his troubles are. We’ve all been there. I’ve gone into a bathroom at a party and been like, ‘fuck this’. We’ve all been paranoid. But the fact that he’s black makes the movie a movie. That could only happen in America, I think, because in other parts of the world…well I guess it could work, but to a lesser degree. I think European audiences, or even Caribbean audiences, would never feel such a strong sense of a threat as Americans do with this film. To get back to your question, people are so used to films like that. It’s not overtly stated in the movie, but Tyler’s problem is that he’s only among white people, and that’s alienating him big time. When he finally finds a black dude, things don’t change.

It’s almost worse.

Right, because he says, “get the fuck out of my house, you’re drunk.” But it makes total sense. That guy shouldn’t shelter Tyler just because he’s black. Tyler’s coming into his home at eleven PM and he’s drunk and he’s mumbling, so it only makes sense. It’s those beats of the movie that are somehow purposefully bending everybody’s expectations or stereotypes of how things should be. It had to be a movie about a person and not about a black person. It had to be a movie about Tyler and not just a black dude. I’m scared to say things so overtly, to like give away statements like that. I’m scared because the movie doesn’t do it, so I don’t want to do it either. I think it’s important to keep it ambiguous. It’s that ambiguity in the film that makes it a horror movie and it’s what allows it to exist.

Why set the film on the weekend of Trump’s inauguration?

The inauguration had just happened while we were shooting it, so it just made sense to set it then. The inauguration had passed already, which is why we call it a period movie. This movie is going to be on that day. I want it to be on that terrifying historical moment of history.

Were you very collaborative with Jason Mitchell in the writing process, considering that you’re writing the voice of a black character?

Big time. Even in the process of casting Tyler and talking about how Tyler would react to micro aggressions or what would he wear or what music would he listen to. Even I had to fight against my own stereotypes and my own insecurities about building a character that happened to be black. I had a lot of preconceptions and I think I was very scared to offend people. You question things. You think, “Oh, if I make Tyler listen to hip-hop in his car, is that stereotypical? Am I going to be accused of stereotyping?” Even before I met Jason, I knew that it would be a total collaboration with whoever played the role. Jason is so real with himself. He’s welcoming but very sarcastic and kind of well informed. I felt like I was in the best hands for the collaboration. Even the use of the n-word in the movie, he only says it twice. That was highly discussed with Jason. When would he use this world and with whom? He uses it with Michael Cera. Tyler opens that door to this new guy and it’s pretty forward. You would say that Michael play’s the most politically incorrect guy of them all, because when he’s wearing the wetsuit he says, “I’m not the only black guy here.” He says stuff that is overtly direct, yet Tyler responds really well because nobody wants to have people walking on eggshells around them. That’s the most patronizing and the most disconnecting. We met in New Orleans and went through every line. When I write movies for Americans, it’s not my words that they’re going to be saying. Some of the jokes and the content I want to be said exactly how I wrote it. But for instance, with Caleb Landry Jones’ character, I could never have written somebody like that. That was Caleb’s input. He brought Pete to the table. With Jason I felt really safe. I left everything that was more cultural and social to Jason, and then I only had to worry about the emotional and psychological journey of this character. That’s what I’m good at. All the social and cultural aspects about race in America was a conversation among all of us. I feel that because there is something to say about how people talk about appropriation. I’m not black, I’m a Latino dude and I’ve only been in this country for fifteen years. Some people would doubt or would question that I’m telling the story of a black guy. That I haven’t gone through the black experience, and of course, I was scared about that. I don’t want to be misinterpreted. I had to be very careful. On set I felt very safe. I was dealing with alienation, which is my favorite subject, and it has been in all my movies. This is no different. I had the total approval and sympathy from Jason and I learned that it was the story of Tyler who happened to be black man. Without Jason the movie would have been totally different, so I always intended to have a really tight collaboration with whoever played that role.

Can you talk about casting Ann Dowd? She’s the third character we meet and the only woman in the film.

You wonder why she’s so friendly with Jason and does not pay attention to Chris’ character. It’s left there for so long. We don’t go back to her until the very very end. I think she plays a part about stereotype bending. You would think that she’s the quintessential older white lady who’s terrified of black people, but she’s the opposite of that. She doesn’t have a fetish, but she definitely has sort of embraced her sympathy for black people. She’s so welcoming and then her husband, who is black, is not. All that is somehow mind-bending for some people. There’s not really much to that character, other than that really. She’s a great plot device.

Tyrel is currently searching for distribution.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.