"Yes. I am."
Such was my introduction to indie flavour-of-the-second Joshua Marston, writer-director of Maria Full of Grace: a full head of curly hair, and an ego the size of a brick shithouse. He turned away from me in the balconied hallway of Denver's historic Brown Palace Hotel after confirming his identity--ignoring my hand outstretched--to chat with someone else he'd alienated, then realized that he had to talk to me as part of his publicity duties for his first shot at feature filmmaking. It's a tough business: you fly in, you spend the night, you fly out, and in between you talk to about two dozen faceless, mostly nameless ink-stained wretches who generally ask you the same questions. It's one thing to do it in New York and L.A., it's another altogether to muster the strength to do it in a backwater like Denver. Thing of it is that people don't always stay where they are at the moment--and that Denver isn't all that dusty a horse-town as it used to be.
It's fairly easy to take shots at "talent" for not being in a great mood--for being so fatigued that they forget themselves. But there's something alarming about a young guy who's just directed his first film turning phrases like "the kind of filmmaker that." As in, "I'm not the kind of filmmaker that" or "I'm the kind of filmmaker that." Writing one book doesn't make you a novelist, nor does helming one well-received film mean you're a director--particularly when the bulk of most commentary about said film has zeroed in on its star. Mr. Marston warmed up by the end of our interview as it became apparent that either I wasn't like every other journalist or I was enough like every other journalist that he could fall back on his stock answers and thus resume a level of detached comfort.
The break-out star of Maria Full of Grace, Catalina Sandino Moreno, looking disarmingly like a younger, more petite Salma Hayek, didn't have much to contribute over the course of our three-way conversation. She grabbed Marston's knee at one point; I'm not sure if that signified horror at the direction the interview was going, affection for a lover, or an example of a more openly affectionate Columbian upbringing, but there you have it. Most of the rest of the time was spent playing with a lamp on the end table and tracing the design on her tennis shoes. For a few minutes as I sat fiddling with my recorder and arranging my notes, Marston and Moreno happily chatted together in a steady stream of Spanish. I only took four years of Spanish and another four of Latin and from what I could gather, they were comparing notes on their previous interview and discussing dinner. A less worldly gringo might wonder if the two were engaged in something more directly unkind--I just vaguely wondered what they were going to say about me after I was gone.
So first impressions were not good, and the desire to say something about the nature of the "what have you done for me lately?" world of first-time sensations and their sophomore nightmares was almost overwhelming. In other words, both Marston and Moreno are two weeks or so from being forgotten, no matter how many pieces in the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES or on FRESH AIR. Their names are moments away from inheriting the suffix "Oh yeah, that movie--has he/she done anything since?"
There's a scene in Bull Durham where veteran catcher Crash Davis discovers mold in the bath sandals of rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh:
"Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win twenty in The Show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colourful. Until you win twenty in The Show, however, it means you're a slob."
Marston and Moreno are sharp, passionate, sincere young folks who are, at the moment, on top of the world. Some rides last longer than others--I'm betting on Moreno, especially, becoming an important figure somewhere down the road. Her performance in Maria Full of Grace is just that good. But it's up to them how smooth the ride is. If they're as good as their press indicates, and a few eyebrows are beginning to arch, it doesn't matter how they act. If they stumble, well, vultures have to eat, too. Ugly. True. And not just in the screen trade.
FREAK CENTRAL: What's your philosophy of film?
JOSHUA MARSTON: I'm more interested in making films that open outwards. For me it's more of an excuse to go out into the world and listen to people's stories and explore environments that I know nothing about. To the extent that I write what I know, I'm writing thematically about what I'm interested in, but I'm more interested in using film to find out about what I don't know. I'm interested in telling stories that the audiences don't necessarily know about so that they're discovering something new. Emotional stories told within a political and social context--films that stay with people, that you remember longer than the time it takes to eat dinner afterwards.
was film your medium of choice in this endeavour?
JM: I'd been a photographer, gone out and taken a lot of photographs in the documentary style. After a while I found out that I'd frequently come back with these photographs from my travels, and I'd have to tell stories as to what was behind it, what was going on when I took the pictures. I felt like photos were too thin, that they didn't tell enough of the story, so I wanted to move into a more narrative medium.
political science, your major in school: too esoteric to be expressed
JM: Exactly right. Too academic, too esoteric--certainly hard to affect people through just that academic study when there was never going to be more than fourteen people seeing the work that I was doing. Film was a chance to do something more popular, for sure, but also a chance to do something that was more creative, more visual while also still being political.
the idea for the film came from one of your photographs?
JM: No, the idea for the film came from hearing a story from someone who had done that job, been a drug mule and swallowed grapes to prepare her throat, and to swallow pellets, to get on a plane. I think like most people I had heard about drug swallowing, but had never really visualized what it was like. But listening to this story, I was forced to look at it and I found it fascinating and compelling. More, this story encapsulated so much of what I was interested in: the Drug War, life as an immigrant in the United States, Columbia.
overtly political cinema inform your choices in the picture?
JM: Well, I was really influenced by Ken Loach, by Mike Leigh, Hector Babenco, Costa-Gavras...
picture actually reminded me a lot of Lukas Moodysson's Lilya
JM: Um, yeah, I really didn't care for that film. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but it was far too bleak. If my movie was like that movie, all my characters would have been killed in a hail of machine-gun fire.
does the term "grace" mean for each of you?
JM: Well you ask it that way and I can't give my stock answer. (long pause) I guess in the context of Maria, grace has to do with coming to some inner knowledge or wisdom or maturity that in this case Maria arrives at for Maria from within both literally and metaphorically.
CATALINA SANDINO MORENO: I always felt like grace for Maria is something inside of her that has always been with her. From the first moment that you see her smile, she has the grace inside, and I felt her that way--when I was watching the movie, I saw Maria in a lot of different facets. The simplicity of just a smile--she's always had that grace in her but she doesn't show it, maybe she doesn't know it. The last shot of the film, you see her just glowing--she's a warrior, she's a survivor, and it's because of that grace.
interesting facet of
your performance was Maria's growth--I know this is your first film, I
know that you shot out of order--how did you manage to keep place in
CSM: It wasn't really all that hard because we went to Ecuador to shoot the first part of the film and the film was mixed, but it wasn't too crazy. It wasn't like we were shooting the end on the first day. But I did have to have the script near me all the time so that I could always get up-to-date on what was happening to her right before that scene. It was a little complicated, and sometimes Josh would have to help me get back to the right place in her development, but pretty much we had good continuity and it wasn't all too difficult.
rehearsals and workshopping help in that process?
JS: Yeah, we had twelve days of rehearsal--more than that, almost three weeks--for the first half of the picture. Lots of rewriting, improvising, brainstorming--I'm not a native speaker of Spanish, so it really helped to have that kind of input. Also for the Maria character, Catalina brought so much to the character that I could never have written.
changed in the second half?
JS: Well one thing was we had to start the first half without having locked the cast for the second half so when we got back to New York we had to do all the casting. Plus New York was a union shoot so we were working with union labour and SAG. [We] could only do Monday-Friday--much more beholden to the clock. All that and the dollar didn't go as far so our rehearsal flexibility felt much more restrictive to me.
|Moreno in Maria Full of Grace|
JS: The most interesting process for me in making films is the discovery process. If I learned anything in making this first film it was to remain open as long as possible and not get attached to the page, but rather to be open to discovery and organic development. I think that the script developed that way, too, over the two years of research, so I can't claim that I sat down and looked for metaphors and symbols. The flower industry was there and that was something I really wanted to investigate. I didn't know that Columbia was the second-largest exporter of cut flowers in the world, so it was more of a sociological interest. Obviously, though, when I realized that flowers had this symbolic potential, I tried to make that resonate. But I'm not the kind of filmmaker that starts with the metaphor or the symbol first--I don't like to put the cart before the horse in that way.
been described as unaffected by your sudden stardom. Are you starting
to feel the heat from all the positive reviews?
CSM: No. I love to read positive reviews of me, who doesn't? But it's weird to be called a star, I don't feel like a star. When I was doing Maria I never thought we were going to win awards, it was just a chance for me to get in front of the camera and show people what I could do. But for me to read blah blah blah the new up-and-comer, it's weird because it was more of a collaborative effort. I think I need a little talent, but I think I need good actors around me, too--from Blanca to the cab driver. There were amazing people around me--without them, I wouldn't have these kinds of reviews.
read that you're bothered by Latin stereotypes in Hollywood--examples
of what bothers you.
CSM: Women Latins are sexy, involved with drugs, or poor and desperate and selling their kids. It's too much, way too much. In this movie, I was just a 17-year-old Columbian girl, that's all. Sofia Vergara, you know, Columbian actress...
CSM: Yes! Disgusting. All we see of her is her in a bikini--I think that's the stereotype: the lusty Latin. It's very sad--you have to fight and claw for these good roles and I will. I will. I'm not going to show any flesh--I'm an actress, not a model, I really want to do good projects.
kind of projects are you getting offered?
CSM: The typical ones--they're desperate or they're horny and sometimes they're a maid in a sexy skirt. If I can't find a good role in the movies, I'll just go into the theatre. I think the theatre may be the last place you can still do what you want to do. I can play whatever I want there, I don't have to appease the public taste and play to those stereotypes. For film, I want to work with people who write the films that they direct--I want to open a door for Latin actresses who want to be respected. I want to fight so that the generation hopefully coming behind me can enjoy the freedom to be a real person.