Interview: Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood)

Interview: Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood). By Simon Miraudo.

New York-based writer/director Joshua Marston made a splash with his feature debut Maria, Full of Grace in 2004; a Spanish-language film that earned star Catalina Sandina Moreno a Best Actress nomination at the 77th Academy Awards. He spent the next six years trying to put together a number of projects, only to see them fall apart. At the beginning of the new decade, he finally re-emerged with his follow-up: The Forgiveness of Blood. Set in Albania, it tells the story of a family whose patriarch kills another man, and as penance for the ensuing blood feud are forced to endure self-imposed house-arrest. We spoke to Marston at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, where the picture made its Australian debut, about almost setting fire to the cast in Albania, his love for The Wire, and his five favourite films of all time. The picture is set to play the Perth International Arts Festival from March 27 to April 1.

Marston with co-writer Andamion Murataj, collecting the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival.

SM: Were there any films or performances that you remember seeing growing up that gave you the spark to want to get into filmmaking?

JM: A lot. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an amazing film, and I remember just watching Ken Loach’s films and being completely blown away. I remember when I was in film school, going in and seeing Ladybird, Ladybird, and not knowing anything about it. It was playing nearby. I walked out, and had to walk right back in and see it for a second time in a row. Films that have very realistic emotional dramatic performances, those are the ones that stuck with me the most.

SM: I understand that between Maria, Full of Grace, and The Forgiveness of Blood, your new film, you tried to set up a couple of English language features. Unfortunately they fell through. Can you tell me a little bit about those and what ultimately happened?

JM: Imagine that; an English language feature from the guy who did Maria, Full of Grace and a new film in Albania! There was a movie that I made – that I wrote rather – that was about American truck drivers who go to Iraq to work for the subsidiary of Halliburton transporting jet fuel for the U.S. army. So I went to Iraq and interviewed truck drivers and interviewed Iraqis and went around the United States and interviewed the families of those truck drivers and wrote a screenplay I was very proud of, but wasn’t financially viable for the studio that I was working for and it fell apart. I say ‘it just fell apart’, but it was a long and painful process over a couple of years. There was another project that was an adaptation of a novel that was really a beautiful story about a black kid and a white kid growing up on the same block in Brooklyn in the 1970s; it’s called The Fortress of Solitude, and it’s about gentrification and music and comic books in New York in the ‘70s.

SM: Have you put those to bed, or would you like to revisit them if possible?

JM: It would be great to revisit them. I don’t know if U.S. audiences are really excited to see a film about the war in Iraq, unfortunately. So that may take a while. The story that’s based on the novel, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. Maybe at some point.

SM: Well, you do have a film, in The Forgiveness of Blood. Can you tell me what the first germ of an idea was for this movie?

JM: The first germ of The Forgiveness of Blood was reading about these blood feuds that take place in Albania. They’re situations where someone has gotten angry or drunk and killed someone else and then as a result their family technically owes blood; they owe a life. It sounds very simple – it sounds like ‘an eye for an eye’ – but it has its root in a code that goes back hundreds of years and has evolved over time. It’s effectively an oral tradition; it still holds sway in Northern Albania especially. It’s sort of a parallel judicial system. There are a very specific set of rules; what to do if someone is killed, if they’re killed under specific circumstance, if it’s a woman that’s killed, it’s different than if it’s a man. So really the thing that sparked the idea for the movie was not simply these blood feuds, but the question of, ‘What happens to the kids in these situations?’ What it’s like to be completely modern and living life in present day Albania, using Facebook and iPhones – what happens to them when someone from their father’s generation kills someone, and they find themselves stuck in a blood feud? It’s really that juxtaposition between the old and the new, and the traditional with the modern that was of interest to me.

SM: Like you said, when you think of ‘blood feud’, you think of ‘an eye for an eye’; it’s revenge, and it’s very impassioned. But there’s actually a logic to it, or certainly to the people involved. I think with a story like this, there are opportunities to get into histrionics and melodrama; I can feel you restraining from that. You want to tell the story you are telling. Was that a conscious decision, to not make this tale melodramatic?

JM: I’m attracted to a realistic form of drama; I’m not interested in histrionics or melodrama or the sense of things being over the top. What I’m interested in is cinema that works in nuance and the smaller gesture, and a realistic performance. For example, the film uses a mixture of formally trained actors and people who never had any experience with acting, ever. Their performances come from a place of, ‘Well, what would it be like to really be in this situation?’ not, ‘let’s do what we think is going to be the most dramatic and over the top’. Rather, ‘What would be believably the next thing a character would say?’ That comes from me doing interviews with people who have been in similar situations and taking all of that wealth of research and constructing a narrative, and it also comes from working with the actors in a long series of improvisations, so that they may take what I’ve written, and make it real for themselves as they go on screen.

SM: Can you tell me a bit about that casting process, because like you said you have a mix of amateur actors in the lead roles – and they’re so natural, you think they are professional actors, which sounds backwards. Tell me about finding them.

JM: The most challenging roles to find were the lead actor and actress; it was a 17-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister. I always knew that they would be real kids; there’s no such thing in Albania as a “professional 14-year-old actress” or a “17-year-old actor”, so it meant going from school to school to school. We spent about six months and went to close to 50 schools; and we’d show up every day at a school – the Albanians were very welcoming and we were working with the minister of education – every morning we’d call up and they would send us back messages about which school we should go to and the principal was there waiting for us with open arms. We’d spend several hours cycling kids through, and having short conversations – five, ten minute conversations with each kid – just asking who they were; something about themselves. Some interesting questions to get them to open up a bit. We must have seen 3000 kids in that six-month period. When we finally found those two who are in the film, it was really quite immediate. They have real charisma; they’re very natural, very spontaneous, but at the same time have a certain vulnerability that makes you really care for them. They have these eyes; the camera just loves them.

SM: Can I ask what your shooting schedule was like? How many days did you have?

JM: Our shooting schedule was challenging. It was not impossible. We had 30 days. I think what made it challenging was the fact we were in Albania. There’s not a lot of production support in Albania; there aren’t feature films shot there every day. On the one hand, what that means is that the people are very welcoming, and have this great tradition of hospitality – generally, in Albania, but even more so there’s excitement for a movie coming to town – they’re interested in helping us work. By the same token, getting specific things – film related things – or even getting people to get along with one another, there was a lot of negotiating.

SM: I was going to say, there are logistical nightmares when you’re shooting a film in your bedroom, let alone Albania. Was there a specific example, or a day, where you thought – temporarily – ‘I’ve had enough; I give up.’?

JM: There were some things where if I’d been shooting in New York, it would just be a matter of getting the local professional. Whether it was a scene that involved shooting a gun through glass, or having glass break, or, we had to burn down a structure, over the course of the film. There’s an arson. There aren’t really pyrotechnic experts in Albania, so when the time came we doused this building with gasoline and the fire department such as it was; they didn’t have a fire truck, really…

SM: That normally helps.

JM: There was a big conversation about whether the fire might spread to the main set, which was someone’s actual house. I remember that the pyrotechnic expert that the producers had finally found – he had worked on one film many years before and was now driving a taxi – we had gotten him for this movie. He looked at the situation and chain sawed a four-foot gap between the structure and the house, to prevent the fire from spreading. He said, ‘You’ll be fine; don’t worry’. I felt quite confident, then I turned and turned back again, and I realised he was stepping on something and putting out his cigarette, and he was standing a few feet away from this structure that was doused in gasoline. I was a little bit nervous; we had one take to get it. Pretty much what you see on screen and the way the characters are responding to it, that’s quite real.

SM: Well, if there weren’t pyrotechnic experts in Albania before you got there, and least you left them with some. You’ve done some TV work in the last couple of years. Are there any TV shows you’d like to work on? They’re becoming more and more cinematic.

JM: If it was still on the air, I’d love to have done an episode of The Wire, which is, to me, the best thing that’s ever been on television, hands down. For me that was a 60-part miniseries on the sociology of an American city.

SM: It’s a great show, and great that people are discovering it now that it’s finished.

JM: Yeah, it’s fun to watch on DVD, because you can just keep hitting ‘play’. It’s ironic that it’s about drugs, because I found it to be like a drug. I’m a fan of True Blood and Mad Men, and was very happy to be involved with Six Feet Under, because I thought that was a great show. There’s a lot of really good TV on.

SM: Can you tell me what else you’re working on?

JM: I’m working on a bunch of things at the moment. I’m writing a new screenplay. I’ve had a number of conversations about a number of other scripts; one based on a short story, one based on real events in South America. I don’t want to get into too specific details. But there are a number of projects I like.

SM: I like to end interviews by asking for your five favourite films…

JM: (Grimaces)

SM: …Everyone makes the same expression when I ask, it’s so funny. It can be of all time; it can be recently; it can be ones you watched on the plane ride over if need be.

JM: Some of my favourite films include Blade Runner, Fitzcarraldo, Raining Stones by Ken Loach, Secrets and Lies by Mike Leigh, 2001.

SM: I have to ask: Which version of Blade Runner?

JM: Well, the director’s cut!

The Forgiveness of Blood plays the Perth International Arts Festival from March 27 to April 1. Click here for more details.

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