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Rotting in the Sun, 2023
Rotting in the Sun, 2023(Film still)

Rotting in the Sun: an existential comedy set at a gay nudist beach

Sebastián Silva discusses his meta new comedy, which will be screened at the next Dazed x MUBI Cinema Club, with an in-person appearance from the film’s lead, comedian and writer Jordan Firstman

Rotting in the Sun is full of twists and turns – and that’s just the penises. Initially an existential comedy set at a gay nudist beach, Sebastián Silva’s meta, sexually explicit ninth feature slyly morphs into a crime-thriller that encompasses class warfare, hook-up culture, and the Instagram celebrity Jordan Firstman satirising himself. “Nudity, casual sex, and group sex are just part of Jordan’s world,” says Silva over Zoom from LA. “That’s why they’re in the movie.”

Silva, 44, is both famous and not famous. The Chilean filmmaker is an indie darling who can get Michael Cera to lead or co-lead three of his films (Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus, Magic Magic, Tyrel), or Kristen Wiig in Nasty Baby. Yet Silva doesn’t exactly get stopped in the streets. In Rotting in the Sun, in which Silva stars as a Larry David version of himself, the director swaps Hollywood for Mexico after a career slump and is anonymous as he wanders a beach populated by naked, horny men. Amidst all the eye candy, though, all that Sebastián wants to flirt with is ending his life.

It’s during a possible final swim that Sebastián’s confusing fame comes to play. Wading into the ocean, the filmmaker inadvertently rescues a handsome stranger, Jordan Firstman, an internet personality who watched Crystal Fairy the previous night and is now starstruck. Moreover, Jordan, a TV writer, can assist on Sebastián’s upcoming pitch to HBO. (The real Firstman, who has nearly a million Instagram followers, wrote for Search Party and was a regular on Ms Marvel.) Instead of an immediate romcom, though, an odd couple forms, revealing two polar opposites. Death, to Sebastián, is what sex is to Jordan: each is preoccupied with a different physical urge.

“When Sebastián is at the nude beach and everyone is getting sexy, he’s drawing a cartoon of the poison that will kill him,” says the real Silva. “You can tell his fascination with death is a pose. When he gets caught by the current, he immediately asks for help.” So Sebastián wouldn’t obsess over death if he wasn’t an artist looking for inspiration? “I think he’s just fucking sick of it all, and he finds relief in imagining not existing. But in that ocean scene, you know he wouldn’t kill himself. He’s just being a bitch.”

The loose, darkly comedic tone of Rotting in the Sun rhymes with much of Silva’s previous work, particularly Crystal Fairy, another drug-fuelled trip to the shore. It’s not such a coincidence: Crystal Fairy was semi-autobiographical, as are certain sections of Rotting in the Sun. Silva’s 2018 feature Fistful of Dirt screened at one festival and was never released; other projects fell apart. The director, fed up, really did head to Mexico, and visited the gay nudist beach referenced in the film. “I’d been there a couple of times where you saw [the orgies], and way more, too.”

Thus it’s a tad confusing when, on Zoom, Silva describes the actions of the same-named, fictional version of himself that he plays, especially as some supporting characters, such as the landlord Mateo, are non-actors playing themselves. When asked if Sebastián uses his death wish as permission for promiscuity, Silva comments, “Yeah. It’s also Mateo who’s like, ‘Come on, you’re doing all these octupole penetration paintings, and you’re sitting here alone, doing ketamine. Go out and get your dick sucked. Live life.’ Then he does.”

On screen, the gay paradise was created by populating a beach called Zicaleta with naked actors. It’s not the real Mexican hotspot that’s become notorious for public orgies amongst homosexual men. “I didn’t want to give the real destination to crowds or the media, because people will go there and ruin the vibe,” Silva explains. “Mexican friends asked me not to display the real name, and use a different one. Like, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

It was, though, in Plaza Rio de Janeiro, where the film is set, that Silva bumped into Firstman in real life. Firstman, as his fictional counterpart does, revealed to the director that the previous night he’d watched Crystal Fairy with a Grindr date. “We went for dinner that night and I invited him to be in the movie,” Silva recalls. “Before that, I had no idea he existed. I don’t keep up with influencer culture.”

Like Nasty BabyRotting in the Sun drastically shifts mid-film. “In Nasty Baby, the twist comes in the middle of the third act. It’s very unorthodox. You don’t have time to process anything. But in Rotting in the Sun, you have time to process it.” The director adds, “I enjoy it but I’ve always talked shit about movies that have a twist that makes the movie become so fragile that, if a viewer knows the secret, the movie can be somehow jeopardised.”

Silva has other projects planned for the future, namely a TV show “about a family” that is in development with Ari Aster and A24 as producers. Others seem less certain to happen. “I’ve been trying for a while to make a sci-fi movie about transhumanism, where the main character is loosely inspired by Michael Jackson. The Michael Jackson aspect is still very problematic for people. I understand. But there are lots of weird Michael Jackson things going on, like a Broadway musical that families go to. I don’t see why a satire couldn’t be accepted.”

It might help, too, that Silva can always attract big names. For Rotting in the Sun, one of the producers is Icki Eneo Arlo, a company headed by Robert Pattinson. Was the title an inside joke: Rotting in the Sun sounds like Robert Pattinson? “Oh my God, not at all,” Silva says, “but you should definitely write that.” Maybe it’s why Pattinson checked out the film? “Yeah. He was like, ‘Are they saying my name?’”

Silva admits he was already working on Rotting in the Sun before meeting Firstman, and he originally envisioned Michael Cera in a very different version of the role. “Michael is my default guy to go to. But I knew he’d never be naked in a movie, let alone do any of those real sex scenes. He was going to be a gringo that meets me, and there’s a similar story, but he was never going to be an influencer.

“When I met Jordan, I became fascinated with the influencer aspect, because it’s so much a part of how superficial society can be. I was like: the guy is Instagram and fashion. He’s a colourful character who’s representative of what’s wrong with society.” The director adds, “Not that Jordan is wrong in any way.”

Rotting in the Sun is streaming exclusively on MUBI on September 15. Watch with 30 days free:

Tickets to the Dazed x MUBI Cinema Club’s preview of the film and a Q&A with Jordan Firstman are now available here, including a free drink and popcorn, and are available at half price for all Dazed Club members (learn more about how to sign up here).