Joshua Marston talks “Complete Unknown”, working with Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk with writer/director Joshua Marston about his upcoming film Complete Unknown. We had a great conversation about the film industry, working with actors such as Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon and his inspiration for the movie as a whole. He was great to talk with and shed some light on the films ambitious ending. With a great body of work and the success of his last film, The Forgiveness of Blood, as well as a great project ahead of him, it’s without question that Joshua Marston is only at the beginning of a very successful career. I found the film to be a bit polarizing, as you can see in my review here. However, I feel his actual direction and style was superb and is an immensely talented individual.
You can check out the highlights from our conversation below, as well as the full audio from the interview at the bottom of the page.
Nick Casaletto: So with a film like this with you know such a mysterious plot, what message do you want audiences to walk away from this film?
Joshua Marston: I don’t think is a message so much as a question or a lot of questions. I mean I think. What I’m interested in is just provoking the question of how do we live our lives how do you make choices what does it mean to make a change? How important is making a change what would it be like if you if you changed your life radically over and over and over again? Is that is that something that we value and respect or is that something that seems completely scandalous?
NC: Yeah I got that message, it’s one of those films that stick with you.
JM: I mean that’s what our goal is, it’s one of those movies that hopefully you walk out in there and it just starts the more you think about it, the more there starts to be these strange questions that crop up. So something that stays with you hopefully.
NC: So what was your inspiration behind making this particular film?
JM: The inspiration was making a movie about a character who isn’t who she seems to be. And you know, we came up with this image, of if you were in a room at a party and looked across and saw someone that you thought that you recognized, and then were talking to her and she’s introduced to you by a completely different name and had a whole different biography and was presenting herself as totally different person. And you’re standing there thinking that you recognize her, but that was uncanny. So that was the starting point. From there we just started asking well why? Why is she doing that and is she, not the person that you knew she was, what if she’s changed and what if she’s changed more than once? And what would that life be like?
NC: So this film was premiered at Sundance. Talk about Sundance, how was your experience like this year at the Sundance Film Festival?
JM: We had a great screening at Sundance it was it was very special. We premiered at an enormous theater with over a thousand people and just everyone completely wrapped and on the edge of their seat and laughing at certain places. And so it was tremendous to have that kind of reaction to the film, and Sundance has always been a supporter. They supported Maria Full of Grace, and I’ve gone on to become an adviser at the Sundance film lab teaching other filmmakers. So you know, Sundance is an important part of my career as a filmmaker, so it was very special to be able to premiere the movie there.
NC: That’s great to hear. How is it working with this cast? I mean Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz are so talented. How was that experience like?
JM: They’re great, and she (Weisz) is perfect for this part. She has an air of mystery, and the camera loves her face. You aim the camera at her, and she has to do very little. And she knows that, and that’s one of the qualities of an actress who keeps it very real and is and is approaching the character in a grounded way. Michael Shannon is similar in the sense that he’s very smart regarding how he approaches the scripts And and they’re just both a lot of fun to work with, and I think, because of everything that’s embedded in the script they had a lot to work with. So I think they liked working with one another.
NC: Yeah you can do it in their chemistry. Like “oh my god we have a history, and we haven’t seen each other in so long” kind of chemistry. What that chemistry they had to work on or was it almost instantaneous?
JM: I mean it’s funny because I think that they’ve known each other and wanted to work together for a long time. So that feeling of like, we feel like we know each other, but we don’t, comes from the fact that they know each other as actors but haven’t had a chance to work together. And so that came through. And we had a lot of really great conversations about the script and other scenes with our characters and them; I think enjoyed picking it apart and playing with the scenes. So that was quite a lot of fun.
NC: Awesome. What was your favorite scene to shoot?
JM: I think my favorite scene to shoot would have to be the dinner table conversation. You know we wrote this, we conceived it initially as a dinner party and of course, the script turned into something much much more than that. And it moves on from that dinner party and goes places that are completely unexpected. But the dinner table conversation itself you know, it was this long scene with eight different people sitting around a table and there’s a lot of mystery suspense going on between two characters at the table. Who knows something that no one else knows and are exchanging looks like everyone else at the table is having this conversation that seems to come close to hitting the mark. Michael Shannon steers the conversation and tries to get her to open up. So there’s a lot of tension in the there. So that was a lot of fun to shoot that scene. It was it was a bear to shoot, and all the actors were committed. I think it came out well.
NC: That’s a standout scene for sure. As it gets more intense, you almost feel like you’re in the scene and at the dinner.
JM: Yeah. As much as possible I want the viewer to feel like they’ve could be in this group of people, they could be at this dinner party, and they could be running across someone like Rachel Weisz in their life. So that the next time you’re at a dinner party, and you’re sitting around the table with a bunch of people who you think you know you might look at them, and I’ll go and think more actually. How much do I know about these people in front of these people? You know a couple of years ago was someone else entirely. How would that be? A lot of it is the idea that Rachel Weisz’s character is like this bomb that goes off in a room and completely polarizes everyone regarding what they think of her and what she’s done.
NC: Yes absolutely. So in some ways, it was almost the most difficult scene to shoot?
JM: Well we were shooting on the tail end of winter and had some frigid nights outside that were challenging. We know that the things that are most difficult end up being just the physical challenges to shooting a movie like this. So you know we have a scene where Rachel is swimming so that she gets a whole technical challenge of being in the water with an actor. But you know nothing that was unpleasant for sure.
NC: That’s good. So who was an inspiration to you as an aspiring filmmaker and as you were growing up?
JM: I think there are a number of filmmakers. Steven Soderbergh is now only a few years ahead of me. But I think inspiring because he’s so active and does so many different things equally and seems to reinvent himself with every movie and just completely does whatever genre. You know, I envy the filmmakers, and I aspire to be. Like filmmakers who are constantly evolving and doing different things are very able to move from one genre to another and not get stuck doing one thing.
NC: Yeah absolutely. Any advice would you have someone going about filmmaking at all?
JM: You know I think I think the most important thing is just to do it as much as possible and not get stuck waiting. And that’s a challenge that we all face at every level and that it’s very easy to find yourself in a waiting mode, either waiting for an actor or waiting for money or waiting for the weather or waiting for a collaborator. So I think one of the greatest challenges of being a filmmaker is balancing the desire and pursuit. Making something of quality that is the best thing that you can make. On the one hand and then, on the other hand, not becoming overly precious and working quick and light on your feet and freeing yourself. One of the most challenging things I think in the film industry is that we spend so much time on a project, and the longer you spend on one project, the more difficult it becomes because it becomes freighted with you know all of that pressure. And one of the best ingredients for being creative is to unburden yourself of that pressure. So you know, do good work but don’t take too long doing it.
NC: That’s really good advice. Thank you for that. So the last question. After Complete Unknown what’s next for you?
JM: I’m getting ready to shoot a movie that was inspired by an episode of This American Life about a preacher in Carlton Pearson in Oklahoma who was a Pentecostal preacher who got up one Sunday in front of his mega-church and said how to change your theology and declared that Hell does not exist and that everyone is already saved and headed for heaven. And that went off like a lead balloon and created quite a lot of controversy within his congregation. So, Chiwetel Ejiofor, we’ll be playing a preacher. And Robert Redford will be playing Oral Roberts.
Complete Unknown opens in select theaters August 26th, 2016