DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Fly-on-the-Wall Fiction: Joshua Marston on “Maria Full of Grace”
by Jessica Hundley
[EDITORS NOTE: Jessica Hundley spoke with Joshua Marston earlier this year, prior to the theatrical release of “Maria Full of Grace.” The film, from Fine Line and HBO Films, will be available on DVD this week, December 6, 2004.]
An emotionally resonant narrative told through the eyes of a young Colombian woman sounds just about as far from Hollywood as you can get, but Joshua Marston, the 35-year-old writer/director of “Maria Full of Grace” has thankfully managed to slip his unique story in through the cracks.
Crafted at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and financed by HBO, his gentle, nuanced story won the audience award at this year’s Sundance fest and a host of accolades (including a shared Berlin Silver Bear) for its star, first-time actress Catalina Sandino Moreno. She gives a stunning performance as Maria, a teenage girl forced by circumstance into an ill-advised stint as a drug mule, ingesting rubber-coated heroin capsules for transport into U.S.
The film is based on true stories Marston collected from recent Colombian immigrants in Queens, N.Y., and he uses a clean documentary style to follow Maria’s path from her small village outside of Bogotá into the seamy world of international drug smuggling. There are few romantic moments here and none of the glitz of a traditional thriller; instead, Marston chooses to remain as close to the truth as possible. The result is both brutal and beautifully moving, a socially relevant narrative lent depth by its emotional intimacy. indieWIRE contributor Jessica Hundley spoke to Marston; Fine Line releases the film tomorrow.
indieWIRE: There is an element of realism to Maria that reminds me a little of news footage. It feels as if all this is really happening.
Joshua Marston: Well, I started out as a photographer. I had always had an interest in photography; I was interested in particular in documentary photography, meeting people and documenting situations and being a fly on the wall and observing. I contemplated going into photojournalism, and I actually had an internship at Life magazine and ABC News during the first Gulf War. I liked the idea of going into foreign places and capturing environments. I would take lots of photos and show them and inevitably I would want to show the story behind the photographs. I always felt like the photo wasn’t quite enough to convey the whole context of the situation I had been in. I thought film would be a way to tell the story in a better way. I had flirted with film, but it wasn’t until I was in grad school in the midst of a earning a political science degree, and hating it, that I really started to explore the idea seriously. I directed a short and loved it. I saw film as way to combine my creative desires with my intellectual interests.
I left my first school and went to NYU for film. The first year out of grad school was when I wrote the first draft of the script.
iW: Well, you can see your photojournalism roots in this film. And you based the script on research you had done, stories you had heard from women who had been actual drug mules, is that right?
Marston: Yes. I live in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, N.Y.] and I was going to Queens around 1999, when I heard the first story of someone who had worked as mule. I started collecting information, talking to people about this. It had already been ruminating, I had been reading a lot about what had been happening in Colombia, I was aware of what was going on down there. I started to write the script in English in the first year and a half and then writing it with a Colombian friend to help me to translate it into Spanish. But I have to say the real script didn’t fully form until I brought the actors in. They really humanized it and gave it the right nuances.
iW: It must have been a bit difficult to show this script around.
Marston: Oh yeah. We got a lot of rejections, just on the basis of it being in Spanish, although people did like the story. And then finally we went to No Borders at the IFP Market and that was the moment. While we were there Sundance became interested. Sundance had read an earlier draft and Sundance accepted it for the Lab and I think that helped HBO feel more comfortable moving forward, so it was a very symbiotic type of thing.
iW: It really seems like you had the ideal development for a film like this, all these organizations coming together to help you realize your idea. It must have been reassuring to see that that whole infrastructure actually works for the young, unknown filmmaker.
Marston: It reaffirms the value of those institutions, there’s no question. I think all those institutions have two different values, one is a value in and of themselves, and the other is the value of the stamp of approval, the kind of cachet they lend to a project. No Borders was useful in terms of meeting people and having been involved was useful. The Sundance Lab was the same, there were a lot of good meetings out of that which helped improve the script, but the simple fact of being able to say we’d been at the Lab was a weighty thing, as far as making HBO feel comfortable. Technically speaking it was an independent production. HBO financed it but in a way, which allowed us to be truly independent in the artistic decisions we were making. They would weigh in with opinion, which they deserved certainly, just by virtue of the fact they were investing in a film from a first-time director, in Spanish, with unknown actors. They went into it knowing that we would make riskier decisions based on an aesthetic vision and that was what they were signing on to. Which is phenomenal. They got it. Not a lot of people do. But HBO got it. Which is great, because it’s a cyclical sort of thing. There’s nothing better than when someone takes a risk than to have that risk pay off. Because that helps other people in the future continue to take risks and do interesting material. More and more studios are getting into the game; it’s just a question of them truly understanding what independent means.
iW: Tell me a little bit about the casting process. Your actors are all amazing, but many of them had never been in front of the camera before. How did you find Catalina?
Marston: Casting was a long and arduous path that drove me crazy. We started in the U.S. by doing open calls in New Jersey and New York, working with contacts that we had there. That was an interesting process. It was clear that the people that were the most interesting to me were the ones who had just arrived from Colombia. So we started looking in Colombia. Most of the professional actresses there make their living off soap operas, so they have a tendency for melodrama and for acting “large.” We had a team down there looking, driving through towns, plantations, and villages, everywhere. We saw 800 girls in three months and it still wasn’t right. You keep hoping someone is going to walk through the door and just BE Maria. And then I got this tape of Catalina and it was exactly that experience, it was her. She had studied theater as a hobby and as a student, but never professionally. Her life is completely different than it was two years ago.
iW: As is yours, I’m sure. What are you planning on doing now that “Maria Full of Grace” is finally fully realized?
Marston: After we finished “Maria” I drove from Virginia into the South, into the Bayou. I spent 10 weeks on the road by myself, meeting people with no plan, no itinerary. I just collected characters and new experiences. [Inspired by a] family that I met in Tennessee, I wrote a new screenplay that takes place in small town outside of Knoxville. Screenwriting for me is not simply that I go off to a place in order to do research. It’s kind of the other way around. I make a film in order to have an excuse to go traveling and talking to people and to be a fly on the wall. That’s what I enjoy doing, most that’s my favorite part of the process, because that’s the part that’s the most open and that allows me to discover something truly new.