Gaby Hoffman has returned to the big screen with her new film Crystal Fairy, a movie that saw her reunite with director Sebastian Silva and actor Michael Cera.
We caught up with the actress to chat about the film, working with improvisation for the first time, and what lies ahead.
- Crystal Fairy has just been released here in the UK, so can you tell me a little bit about it?
We made it in two weeks. It was mostly improvised; there was no dialogue just a twelve-page outline that Sebastian (Silva) had written. We spent about a week prior to shooting together down in Santiago, Chile, just preparing and talking and sharing ideas about what we wanted things to feel like or what we thought about the dynamics between the characters.
Really, there was little preparation otherwise; there was no rehearsal and we all just dove in. There were only fifteen or sixteen of us, in a couple of vans driving through Chile and winging it.
- While there wasn’t a script, there was this twelve-page outline. So what was it about the idea and this character that initially appealed to you?
It was really just filmmaker Sebastian Silva. I had been a huge fan of his prior to that; I had also worked with him about a year before, So, I trusted him implicitly as a filmmaker, as a friend and as a person.
When he called with this idea, I didn’t need to know what it was. I would fly anywhere for him and do anything that he asked me to do. The fact that it happened to be this particular story, was really a bonus.
- You have mentioned already that this movie is made up of improvisation, how much was that something that you were comfortable with? Is it something that you had done before?
That was my only reaction during that phone call ‘of course, of course, but I have no idea how to do that’. I had been in a film that was improvised but I didn’t participate much as I didn’t respond to the filmmaker; I actually hated him. That was also fifteen years ago.
I said to Sebastian ‘I don’t know how to do that, but I will try’. None of us had ever really done anything like that before, and so we were all figuring it out together.
Without having a guidebook on how to make a film improvisationally, we had everything else that you need; that was basically a lot of trust in one another and freedom to play and find it in the moment each and every time. It came pretty easily to all of us.
- The character of Crystal is based on someone that Sebastian did meet - so much did he discuss her with you?
He talked a lot about her with me. Those impressions that he had of her, were more about the feelings that she elicited in him and the dynamics between the two of them. Therefore, it was less about the characteristics of her personality and descriptions of who she was.
It was more of the environment that they shared together. I was really left to fill in a lot on my own. The idea was not just to do an impression of her or to recreate her in his image, but to be inspired by the story that he had shared with her.
- How long did it take you to figure out what kind of person Crystal was going to be? How much of yourself is in this character?
Oh gosh, I don’t really know how to answer that. Those that know me best will tell you how much of me is in the character. I don’t really know how I figured her out. I really don’t know what I am doing as an actress; I never have and I still don’t.
It is always still a strange dive into dark waters; deep waters, they are not necessarily dark in a scary way but they are always unknown to me. It was no different with her. Without or without dialogue, you are finding the person and you are becoming her - I don’t do a lot of preparation in terms of that.
I knew certain things… I had made certain decisions about how I wanted her to feel, how I wanted her to an audience and what I wanted her to elicit in them; but I didn’t know how I was going to do that. It was a vague sense of her energy that I had and I was carrying around with me, but I had no idea how to translate that. I worked really instinctually and hoped to be as present as I could be.
I really didn’t know if I was pulling if off, until I saw it with an audience at Sundance, and I could feel that they were responding to her ways that showed me that I had succeeded - at least to some extent in creating the person that I hoped to.
- Now that you have had this experience of working with improvisation, is it something that you would look to do again in future projects?
I certainly wouldn’t run away from it, but I am not sure that I would run to it either (laughs). Of course, I would take that call from Mike Leigh: who is my ultimate dream and goal as an actor. It would be really fascinating having done it off the cuff, to work with someone who had more of a process like the one Leigh does.
I am curious about it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I would really have to trust the filmmaker, not just in his vision as a filmmaker but as a person, because you are really putting yourself in their hands, and you have to really need to be able to fail over and over again in an environment that you feel safe in. I am open to it (laughs).
- You have mentioned Sebastián Silva already and he is in the director's chair for the film, how did you find working with him? And what kind of director is he?
He is very energetic and expressive; he really has a vision and knows what he wants. That being said, he is very open and collaborative and very open to everybody around him and their thoughts and feelings. He really is keen on figuring it out together.
It is ideal for an actor to have a director who knows what he wants, but is willing to toss it out the window if something else comes along that makes more sense or resonates more.
He is also a performer in his heart, and so he is part of the play-acting. It feels like he is there with you every step of the way, just due to his energy and the way that he expresses himself.
There was very little… it almost felt like there was no distinction between in front of and behind the camera. He shot a lot of the film, and he was right there with us as he was improvising himself.
The whole thing felt like an endless dream; there was no distinction between reality and fantasy. That was very much because of Sebastian and the way that he operates; he is really obsessed by his artistic endeavour, and that never leaves him.
- Michael Cera is on the cast list alongside you. How did you find the improvising experience with him? Would you discuss scenes with him, or were you very much just reacting off one another?
I think that there were a few scenes that we talked about prior to shooting them, but in a very loose way; we never discussed what we would say what we would say to one another. Every scene had its purpose, its, its start point and its end point, and we just had to get from A to B by filling in as we felt we wanted to or needed to.
With Michael, it was really easy because he is an incredibly gifted actor and comedian, and we had a really good and easy chemistry. Most of the time, I felt like I just had to react to him; that made my job really easy.
- The movie was shot in Chile - how was that experience? You said that you did shoot the film in just two weeks.
It was really wonderful. The week before we started filming, we were all down in Santiago. Michael and I were living at Sebastian’s parents house; Sebastian wasn’t living there himself. We were living there with the brothers - his three brothers were in the film - and we really did feel like we were part of the family.
We were welcomed into this community in Santiago, and it really was a lovely introduction to the country. However, it was also pre-production time for us to bond and relax into the place and into each other. In a way, that was my favourite time as I was able to work on the book that my character has.
We would all hang out at this office, and the boys would sit in the back and play guitar while Sebastian and I would draw fairies. Then we would all go on an expedition to pick out sunglasses for out characters. Therefore, it really was like this family vacation that we were all taking and in the midst of it we were fantasising about this movie that we were going to make.
By the time we got in the car and started shooting, it felt like we had already created the world of the film. Once we did start shooting, it was none-stop. The hours and days bled into one another and it almost became irrelevant when the camera was on or off.
We were always in costume - not in character - but it always felt that our characters were sitting right beside us because we would never know when we were going to step into them. It was a very unique experience and all consuming; we were all sleeping in the same room and living and eating on top of one another. However, I really love making a movie like that.
- How have you been finding the reaction to the film - it screened really well at the Sundance Film Festival last year?
It has been amazing. It has been the first time in my career that I have really felt strongly about the product; usually I make a movie and I either don’t see it or I don’t respond to it. This was something that I cared about going into it, and I really love the finish product.
Sharing it with other people has been great as I have never had that three sixty experience, where people were responding in a way that was really gratifying. It was like a whole other chapter of movie making that I didn’t even know that I cared about.
It was great to have that at Sundance and to feel the audience with you ever step of the way. Since it has started streaming on Netflix there has been another wave of that. Everywhere I go everyone seems to have seen it, and they really love it. It really seems to have done the job that we sent out to try and do.
- Finally, what is coming up for you?
There is a film called Obvious Child, which has just premiered at Sundance, which sees Jennifer Slate make her debut in a starring role; she is fantastic. I am in the new series of Girls - that has just stared over here on HBO.
I have a pilot that will be airing on Amazon - Amazon has started doing original content like Netflix - and that will be showing in a few weeks. It is called Transparent, and that is something that I am really excited about. Those are a few of the things that are going on at the moment.
Crystal Fairy is out now.