I met Joshua Marston in 2004 in the lobby of a downtown Portland hotel. He was on a press tour promoting his acclaimed debut feature, “Maria Full of Grace,” accompanied by the film’s star, Catalina Sandina Moreno. It was a tough call which of the two was more charmingly fresh-faced: the 35-year-old, California-raised director living his cinematic dream, or the 23-year-old Colombian-born actress making a memorable film debut as a pregnant, reluctant, drug mule.
“Maria Full of Grace” was the sort of calling card that could have led to a profitable career toiling in the Hollywood tinsel mines, but by the time Marston’s second feature, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” was released in 2011, it had become apparent that he had other priorities. That film demonstrated his continued interest in using non-professional actors to tell stories with a global perspective—in this case, that of an Albanian family torn apart by a blood feud and an ancient code of honor.
Having paid the bills and honed his craft over the last decade with TV credits (including episodes of “Six Feet Under” and “The Newsroom”), Marston is back with a belated third film under his arm. “Complete Unknown” is a more typical American indie production, with a couple of recognizable faces (Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon) and a New York-set tale about a woman reconnecting with an old boyfriend fifteen years after she abandoned her old life and took up the art of serial identity re-invention.
I reconnected with Marston last week. Our phone conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This is just your third feature in twelve years. Are you just a deliberate worker, or have there been other projects along the way that haven’t come to fruition?
A: This movie came on the heels of another movie falling apart and was specifically designed to be of a level that I could inoculate it from falling apart. And then of course three weeks before we were to begin filming, the financing fell out. So it started from “let’s do something practical and contained,” but once we really fleshed out the premise, we realized it was too good to keep in one location. Originally, the birthday party scene at the beginning was the whole film.
Q: Despite whatever limits you were working within financially, you managed to rope in some pretty significant and well-known talents, in contrast to your earlier films. What’s the biggest upside to working with more seasoned performers versus newcomers, and vice versa?
A: The upside to working with veteran performers is that they can read a screenplay and immediately delve in and work through the emotional subtext and the back story and mine all the nuances. They’re very adjustable on set. The real advantage is not having to do very much—you cast the performer and you get out of the way. The advantage of working with less experienced talent is just the excitement of discovering someone new and watching them grow. Both of the leads of my other two movies, who were teenagers, chose to go on to become professional actors.
Q: It’s obvious that Jennifer, Rachel Weisz’s character, would appeal to actors. After all, they do professionally what she does as a lifestyle, adopting new identities at the drop of a hat. But looking at your bio, you’ve been a teacher, a journalist, traveled the world, done plenty of things besides make movies. Is there something of Jennifer’s character in you?
A: I think I still harbor fantasies of going off and living a thousand lives and doing different things, and to a certain extent filmmaking affords me the opportunity to do that. There are aspects to both Rachel’s character and Michael Shannon’s character that come from myself. I want to be the person that goes off and has all these different experiences, but the stagnation that Michael’s character struggles with is not that different from how you feel during the dry spell between movies: waiting for the opportunity to do the thing that you’re trained to do, and wondering whether you should just go off into the wild blue yonder.
Q: What sort of cinematic techniques did you use to achieve shifts in perspective and put the viewer in the rather befuddled shoes of Michael Shannon’s character?
A: During the first part of the movie, I wanted to shoot in a way that made the audience want to lean in and learn more about this mysterious woman. So really played a lot with seeing her from behind, seeing her through a doorway or in another room. There’s a famous shot in “Rosemary’s Baby” where Ruth Gordon is another room, and the story is that audiences would lean in their seats to try to get a better glimpse of her. That’s what we’re trying to do.
We also tried to let form follow function. My cinematographer sent me an interview with the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle where he said that a lot of times you place your camera, and you measure how high it is and how far it is from the subject, and then everything has to balance. After that first shot, it’s all just mathematics setting up the rest of the shots. And there’s no more creativity and everyone on set goes to sleep. So we really tried not to fall into that trap.
Q: Which of the two lead roles was more difficult to cast?
A: None of the roles were particularly difficult to cast, but I was very happy that Michael said yes. I had seen him doing a stage play called “Mistakes Were Made,” and I’d never laughed so hard in my life. I knew there was going to be a certain amount of wry humor in this. It’s a movie about reinvention, and Michael Shannon is essentially reinventing his on-screen persona for this role. He’s an ordinary guy suffering from a very familiar midlife crisis, as opposed to some psycho killer that people may otherwise associate him with.
Q: You grew up in Los Angeles and actually graduated from Beverly Hills High School, correct?
A: That’s an identity I try very hard to mask.
Q: Clearly, since it’s fairly evident that joining the mainstream Hollywood film industry is not your highest priority. What’s more important to you: having creative and artistic control, or having the resources to realize the ideas that you have?
A: I wish I didn’t have to choose between the two. I do want to make larger films, and I’ve been trying. I don’t necessarily see myself as anti-Hollywood, but non-Hollywood stuff has been easier to get off the ground. You might not believe it, but it’s easier to get the money to go make a movie in Albania than it is to get $9 million to make an adaptation of an award-winning book like Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude.”
Q: How close did that come to happening?
A: Jonathan and I wrote a screenplay adaptation of the book and I spent a couple of years trying to get it made. I discovered that there’s an unspoken rule that getting a movie made that’s about kids but for an adult audience is very, very difficult.
Q: What do you have on your plate, then, in the near future?
A: The project I have coming up is called “Come Sunday.” It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Robert Redford, and it’s about a Pentecostal preacher from Oklahoma who one day declares that Hell doesn’t exist and was branded a heretic. Robert Redford will play Oral Roberts.
(“Complete Unknown” opens Friday, Sept. 2, at the Living Room Theaters.)