‘Rotting in the Sun’: An Uproarious Cringefest With a Mission to Normalize On-Screen Nudity

The Chilean filmmaker told Jezebel about working with "gnarly gringo" Jordan Firstman, making a movie full of dicks, and having a death wish.

‘Rotting in the Sun’: An Uproarious Cringefest With a Mission to Normalize On-Screen Nudity

“Dicks are blinding,” Sebastián Silva explained during a recent Zoom regarding his movie Rotting in the Sun. He should know—there are a lot of them in the film (over 30 by some counts). The dicks, which mostly appear during early scenes on a Zipolite-like Mexican gay beach, where the nudity is rampant and the sex among men is as casual as a “How are you?” among straight people, have taken up a lot of the early discourse about the movie, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and lands in theaters Friday (it then starts streaming September 15 on MUBI). All the dick talk has been somewhat frustrating for the Chilean filmmaker, who says he’s “not a big fan” of sex in movies—a shocking admission given that his movie contains real sex, albeit in brief shots. The sex, he says, is included for humor and as a way of manifesting his dream for movies to contain sex and nudity without distracting viewers.

Rotting in the Sun is, per Silva’s assessment, “a crime mystery about how much I hate everybody.” He plays a misanthropic, suicidal version of himself who is both energized and repulsed by a chance meeting with Jordan Firstman, the comic actor who blew up on Instagram during lockdown. Firstman also plays a version of himself, an influencer who is self-obsessed, absentmindedly cutting, and desperate to be liked. After meeting him in real life, Silva decided that Firstman would be a perfect representation of a “gnarly gringo that represents what’s wrong with humanity,” and he pitched Firstman the film, according to his recollection, like this: “I want to show people how empty your content and your life is.” Firstman, Silva said, loved the idea, and his performance is absolutely fearless (and also frequently nude).

But that’s barely scratching the surface of what Rotting in the Sun is about. A major twist occurs less than halfway in when the Sebastián character goes missing (I won’t say how or why). Jordan arrives at the director’s studio/living space in Mexico City to collaborate and then attempts to get to the bottom of where his missing host is. A housekeeper named Vero and played by Catalina Saavedra (the star of Silva’s 2009 breakout The Maid) provides little help—intentionally. Silva notes that the Chilean Saavedra’s Mexican accent in the movie is remarkably good and will be lost on non-Spanish-speaking viewers. He sees the movie as Vero’s, but she doesn’t escape his withering assessment. “She can be a fucking mess and still be a victim,” he says of his protagonist. “She’s terrible. She’s a terrible person.”

Rotting in the Sun is about “the suffering of the privileged,” gentrification, social disparity, and the state of “content” in pop culture (Firstman is objectively killing it with his “empty” brand, compared to, say, an independent filmmaker whose reach is destined to be much shorter, no matter how cerebral and witty his output). It is an uproarious comedy and cringefest with a chip that it wears proudly on its shoulder. To Jezebel, Silva talked at length about his philosophy toward capturing misanthropy and sex on screen. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

JEZEBEL: What do you make of the response to this movie so far?

SEBASTIÁN SILVA: As soon as the movie came out, it immediately was like, “Sebastián Silva’s gay movie.” And it’s like, “Oh no, is this what it’s going to turn into, a gay movie?” When they call movies “Black movies” or “gay movies,” it’s always disappointing to me. A “Latino movie,” a “gay movie?” It’s a crime mystery about how much I hate everybody, you know? I feel that the dicks were blinding for a lot of people.

I assume you understood that might happen going into it, right? Just the way that people talk about nudity onscreen.

For sure. But also, I wish that in the future, like, movies could have dicks and real sex scenes and that [viewers] don’t get stuck there. I think it’s just because we’ve been avoiding genitals forever, so whenever they are exposed, they become such a surprise. Get over the genital trauma, you know?

When you make a movie, you take so long and then you watch it over and over that by the time that the movie came out, I had been so numbed by the sex in it. I was actually surprised when we showed at Sundance and then so many headlines were about the dicks. I was like, “Oh, right.”

In the realm of, let’s say gay-oriented cinema, though, your movie and maybe Taxi Zum Klo are among the few that actually portray the casualness of casual sex in such a way that the casualness itself is radical. I think you’re getting at a rare realness here.

The sex in this movie is really supporting comedy, like bringing on laughs. Before I ever participated in a sex party or in group sex, it somehow [seemed] like a sinister activity. There’s something so conventionally seedy about sex parties or a sex club or a sauna. And then when you are actually there, it’s just so silly. It’s kind of the most infantile activity, guys fucking each other. It really feels like playing beer pong, but with your dicks. I think that Rotting in the Sun conveys that in a way—sex is just so casually silly. It’s a very sex positive movie, but it’s not erotic at all. I think that’s why surprisingly it works so well for straight audiences. All of these dicks, they just find them hilarious. And it’s also good that the dicks are not like huge, beautiful porn dicks and just random circumcised, average, weird-looking dicks.

“It’s kind of the most infantile activity, guys fucking each other. It really feels like playing beer pong, but with your dicks.”

Is the reason that the cuts on the sex are so quick because you wanted to avoid eroticizing them?

I have never had a sex scene in a movie. I’ve made nine of them. I don’t think I ever had people making out for longer than it needs to be. There are many directors that do not put sex scenes in their movies. Unless it’s really important to the story or the bond of the characters that you’re portraying, it seems so unnecessary to have a soft-core little sex scene, where you see the side of the ass and maybe the nipple, and then they’re about to stand up and put the towel on. It’s like, “What are we doing? We’ve all seen dicks and pussies, why are we pretending?” I think that’s the answer, really. It’s just fast because when Jordan is sucking dick and he finds Seb’s phone, that’s what he’s doing. That’s his story. Same on the beach. Any longer than we had, it would feel gratuitous. If I want to just show people fucking, I’ll make a porn.

I’m actually uncomfortable with sex scenes in movies. I’m always like, “Okay, let’s fast forward all this shit. What is this?” Like in Braveheart, all of a sudden Mel Gibson is fucking the girl in the shack for like a minute and a half, and you’re like, “Why are we looking at this?”

I appreciated how your character showed that kind of discomfort in a highly sexually charged environment. If representation of public gay sex is low, representation of trepidation regarding public gay sex is virtually nonexistent.

I don’t mind showing my dick, and we actually did shoot a scene where my dick was exposed so it wasn’t like, “I’m showing everybody’s dick but mine.” And then [editor Sofía Subercaseaux] cut it out. It was a shower scene that was completely unnecessary and sort of just trying to justify every other dick.

I think my character clearly wants [sex] in a way. He’s making those paintings that are hypersexual, and then he’s checking out every other dick that he encounters as he gets to the shore. He wants it, but he’s so repressed. There’s something there. It’s part of his torment in a way, to belong to that community but feel excluded or shy. Or just depressed, really. If you’re depressed you don’t want to, like, run around with your dick out.


You play a character named Sebsatián who directs movies, including Crystal Fairy, a movie you did indeed direct. What percentage of the Sebastián on screen is you?

Not to get somber, but I’ve always had a death wish. It’s not that I want to kill myself, but when things get tough, it’s like, “Okay, I can end this. I do have control over how much I want to tolerate my misery.” And that goes for everybody. I’m a very impatient person. Even starting with being gay in the closet, which is like a really big thing for a lot of gays. In the sense of E.M. Cioran [whose The Trouble With Being Born] is quoted in the movie, and we are kind of making fun of him, but that book in particular did bring a lot of solace to my torments, just reading somebody that dares to go there without killing himself. Cioran died really old. There’s something about freedom of thought within yourself where you’re like, “Yeah, I can think whatever the fuck I want.”

I think that I do have that guy [in me] that is seeking an outlet, like the ketamine. The fact that he’s so into K holes and he explains to Señora Vero that it’s like being dead. He’s looking for rest. But I’m also like a responsible, professional filmmaker and nice, goofy uncle and a good friend. I would say that, I don’t know, maybe 10 percent of me is that annoying motherfucker who’s complaining about how nice his life is, basically. I think [the character Sebastián] represents the bourgeois, bored artist, who’s sort of trying to find conflict. Sebastián represents the suffering of the privileged in a way. It is kind of a mindfuck, because it’s not that you can fully dismiss the torment of somebody that has all the basic needs covered. But in a way you tend to, because it’s like, dude, there’s people that don’t have dental care, and you’re here complaining that your movies aren’t bigger. Yesterday I was watching [the movie] and I’m like, “What a fucking annoying character, man.”

Given what you know of Jordan Firstman, what percentage of the character in this movie has him?

“I called him and I asked him, ‘Dude, would you be willing to just really make fun of yourself? Almost in a not ironic way? I want to show people how empty your content and your life is.’ And he loved the idea.”

Oh, it’s a lot, and I know him very well now. Before we shot the movie, I didn’t know him that well. I met him in Plaza Rio de Janeiro in Mexico City. By then I was writing Rotting in the Sun. I wanted a gnarly gringo that represents what’s wrong with humanity, sort of like having a gringo represent my misanthropic overall feelings. In the beginning, I thought it would be somebody who’s in real estate and goes to Mexico to buy property. But then I met Jordan and I’m like, “Oh, he’s perfect.” He’s gay and is way more involved in the entertainment industry, and very cool people follow him. Also how openly sexual he is and how promiscuous he can be and how comfortable he is sharing details about his sex life.

I called him and I asked him, “Dude, would you be willing to just really make fun of yourself? Almost in a not ironic way? I want to show people how empty your content and your life is.” And he loved the idea. He laughed so hard. And then he also was so game to have sex in front of the camera. We really clicked. I think that he and the character are very similar, the real Jordan is just funnier. The first time I met him, I went into his Instagram. I had never heard of him. I found the content very funny, some of this stuff very unsuccessful. He’s a really funny motherfucker to hang out with. [In the movie] he seems a little dumber than he really is, because he’s a very paradoxical kind of personality. You’re like, “Wait, you’re so smart. Why are you doing this on your Instagram?”

It says something about his actual character that you could say to his face that you found a lot of his content empty and he still wants to be in the same room as you, right?

Exactly. That’s what’s so fascinating about him. He doesn’t seem so fazed by criticism. He’s a very sensitive guy, actually, and he can be very insecure at times. But I think one of his biggest qualities is how playful he is. He has an actor-y sort of vibe to him. One of the best traits of actors in general is that they’re so game to play.


Watching the movie, watching your character in the state that he’s in, I just kind of worried about you and where you are, just with your output and your career. Are you okay?

I’m okay. There are periods where I’m good. There are periods where I’m fucking miserable, and everything in between. People should not be worried about me. I think why Rotting in the Sun is a comedy is because I can be that bitter and critical, but I will always try to entertain you. Criticism with no humor for me is really a no-go anymore. I’m tired of being indoctrinated with grave statements about how fucked we are. Like, I think it’s a given. The battle is so won, you know? Of course all of this shit is so unjust. Now let’s think it through and say something interesting about it.

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