Starring Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon, 'Complete Unknown' shatters your sense of reality—in part because it questions the very nature of how we construct ourselves.
The first six beguiling minutes of Joshua Marston's Complete Unknown are rivaled by no other in recent memory. In opening sequences, we look for clues to anchor us in a new reality: Who are these people? What's important to them? What are the rules of the world we're now living in? What kind of movie is this? Our brains evolved to process new information with schemas that aid in quick orientation, thereby increasing chances of survival. As Marston's film opens, it deprives us of this biological need for a well-organized and predictable world order.
We're in a crunchy place—maybe Portland—and our apparent main character, who introduces herself as Connie, is looking at a room to rent. Speaking to the landlord, she explains that she's fresh off a botany tour of the Amazon before beginning her studies in environmental law. Seconds later, we cut to the same woman (Connie? Is that you?) in a hospital ER, but now she's a nurse attending to a badly hurt patient. Then she's a sexy and mysterious magician at an upscale nightclub. Then she's outside of a suburban house, looking completely different and observing the scenery.
Is Connie a con artist? (If so, unfortunate name choice.) An identical twin? An actress? A liar? Does she have split personalities? Or is this even the same person? Our brains reel with the possibilities. Needless to say, it's an unmooring feeling, and it doesn't get any more comfortable when we come to realize that we were right: she is all of these things.
"After Maria Full of Grace, people said, 'We really want to be in the Josh Marston business.' I came to understand that they wanted to be in the Josh Marston business as long as it was commercial."
Joshua Marston's thriller-drama-mystery was born of an identity crisis. Marston conceived of Complete Unknown as he contemplated throwing in the towel on his filmmaking career, having made two low-budget features, the critical hit Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood. In not entirely knowing what it wants to be, Complete Unknown is always searching; its cinematography wanders, looking for the most expressive elements in the frame; its protagonist vivisects her own persona many times over; and it all comes together, loosely, with elliptical editing.
No Film School spoke with Marston about intentional cinematography, his minimalistic approach, working with seasoned vs. non-actors, directing for film vs. TV, and more.
No Film School: After you make a big critical hit like Maria Full of Grace, how difficult is it to get your next films off the ground?
Joshua Marston: Difficult, but because I tried to make a number of films that were challenging. I tried to make a movie that was set in Iraq during the war. Half the movie was going to be in Arabic. Then I tried to make a movie that was based on a novel called The Fortress of Solitude, which is about kids; I was told that no one wants to find out it's a movie about kids for an adult audience. There were a lot of projects and there were always various reasons [they didn't work out]. It's a challenge because after Maria Full of Grace, people said, "We really want to be in the Josh Marston business." I came to understand that they wanted to be in the Josh Marston business as long as the Josh Marston business was also commercial.
"The money fell apart 3 weeks before filming."
NFS: But on paper, Maria Full of Grace didn't look like a commercial success, I'm sure. It didn't have dollar signs coming out of it.
Marston: It was all in Spanish with unknown actors.
NFS: Wasn't that any consolation for prospective financiers?
Marston: Well, I mean, every film was slightly different. Some are more commercial than others. In theory, they were amenable to it, but then sort of in the specifics.... There wasn't an issue necessarily that the Iraq film was half in Arabic. It was an issue more that they wanted me to cast Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise and I wanted to cast Chris Cooper. You know?
NFS: What was the process of getting Complete Unknown off the ground?
Marston: Well, this film came out of the ashes of another movie that had fallen apart. I was supposed to do a remake of an Italian movie called The Double Hour.
NFS: I love that one.
Marston: Yeah. It's a good movie. I mean, I thought I could make it even better. But when that movie fell apart, it was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. I felt like I'd had enough projects fall apart. Part of the conceptualization of Complete Unknown was to do something that would be small and contained enough that I could be guaranteed of it not falling apart.
"Part of the conceptualization of Complete Unknown was to do something that would be small and contained enough that I could be guaranteed of it not falling apart."
I got together with a friend of mine who's a writer, and we began to conceive of the story that is now this movie. We discovered, as it turns out, that no movie is too small to fail. The money fell apart 3 weeks before filming. Fortunately, we were still able to find other money to replace it. The goal really was to do something that I could control and that I could make sure wouldn't fall apart completely.
I think there are elements of this story that are related to where I was at. When that movie fell apart, the frustrations of watching a movie fall apart and the frustrations of trying to do my film work and not being able to get things off the ground led me to write a movie about someone who contemplates and then chooses to leave everything behind and go do something else with her life. There were times when things were so challenging that I thought of leaving filmmaking and going and doing something else. Obviously, I wasn't really going to leave filmmaking, but that inquiry of "What am I doing with my life? What else could I be doing with my life?" is connected to the frustrations that I and I think a lot of people go through with their work from time to time.
NFS: What do you think ultimately led you to stay in the game?
Marston: Love of filmmaking. I mean, the enjoyment of being on set, the enjoyment of being in the edit room and of crafting a story, the enjoyment of working with actors. It's what I love to do. It's sort of an addiction. It's not always a healthy one, but it's definitely rewarding when you get to finish a movie and bring it out to the public, as we're doing this weekend.
NFS: Speaking of editing, I noticed that the editing was quite elliptical. I really liked it. Did you have a specific vision for that?
Marston: You know, my other two movies were more linear and narrative than this one. This one had specific questions and challenges narratively. In the edit room, we played around a little bit more; for example, with the opening of the film, whether to include the opening as it stands now. How to make the opening work, how to pace the film. Of course, to speak in detail about the specifics of what we were debating in the edit room would be hard because it would be to give away the movie to anyone who hasn't seen it.
"Our cinematography is challenging the viewer to lean forward and try and get a better glimpse of the main character."
But definitely this movie, more than others, has certain storytelling challenges. Because most of the movie takes place in one night, but it's about a character who's lived this incredibly vast and fascinating life that has her globetrotting all around the world up until the night that most of the movie takes place. The question is how to tell the story—the main story of the one night—and also in some way tell the story of everything that she's done before.
NFS: What about the cinematography? I noticed that you would often linger on a specific shot or find a small detail, like a shadow, to follow. It seemed very intentional.
Marston: I'm interested in the cinematography that engages the audience. That means shots where the character leaves frame and comes back in, or shots where the character's seen two rooms away, or shots where the character is allowed to be cut off by a door frame. I love shooting a character from behind or 3/4 from behind.
At the end of the day, our cinematography is challenging the viewer to lean forward and try and get a better glimpse of the main character. In this case, it's relevant to the story, because she's a character that's very hard to understand and very hard to get to know. It's about trying to create a certain amount of mystery around her with the camera.
NFS: I want to talk about a specific scene, the scene at the dinner party where everybody's around the table and a group conversation splinters into one-on-ones. There were people talking over each other and you were moving from one person to another. I liked the way that you covered that. How do you cover a scene like that?
Marston: It's tricky, but not unusual. I mean, if someone's off camera, we're asking them not to step on people's lines. The really tricky part about shooting that dinner table scene was that it was a long scene with eight different characters all sitting around a table. On the one hand, there was a lot of material and I didn't want to begin the scene and then have to come back and continue shooting it on another day. For the purposes of the performances, I wanted to shoot it all in one day. We got a second camera.
"I was very concerned that we not fall into simple coverage—hosing down a scene, where you make sure that every character gets their shot, every line of dialogue is covered."
I was very concerned that we not fall into simple coverage—what people often refer to as simply hosing down a scene, where you make sure that every character gets their shot, every line of dialogue is covered—but rather to make sure that with every camera setup, we're framing something that is suggestive of a mood and has a point of view. Even if it doesn't necessarily "balance" the other shots that we've done.
The coverage is not in any way standard coverage. Instead, every shot is designed and set up to be ... To help tell the story and to help create the mystery rather than simply documenting what's being said.
NFS: I also noticed that the dialogue was very spare. You do a really good job with the minimalist approach, which many filmmakers and writers have a hard time tackling because they don't know what is superfluous or what the bare minimum should be. In the writing process, how do you ensure the characters are only saying what they absolutely need to say?
Marston: We definitely edit a lot, even on the page. For me, what's most interesting is to keep track of exactly what information the audience knows at what point. It's one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing: to regulate exactly what information we're getting and having people be both spare with their words but also speaking organically and speaking the way their character would actually talk.
"What's most interesting is to keep track of exactly what information the audience knows at what point. It's one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing."
NFS: Did you find that there were any significant differences in working with seasoned dramatic actors, like Michael Shannon, versus actors with a little bit less experience, like the ones in your previous films?
Marston: I think the difference between working with more seasoned actors and the non-actors that I worked with on my prior films was, on the one hand, you can be a lot more technical and a lot more specific and you can use the language of acting because these are people who are trained in that. There may be more refined in their performance. On the other hand, there's definitely an enjoyment and a freedom in working with young actors, people who have never acted before, who are just excited to try everything. They're completely malleable. It definitely has its pluses and minuses.
NFS: What about the differences directing for film and television? You've directed many TV episodes—including, impressively, one of Six Feet Under. How do the experiences compare?
Marston: I mean, at a technical level, you're doing the same thing. You're placing the camera and you're speaking to the actors and you're figuring out how to tell your story. But, you know, when it's your movie, you have complete control. You can make choices that are completely your own and follow your own aesthetic and creative vision. That was definitely the case for this movie.
"Directing TV is like learning a language. You walk into a TV show and you learn the language of that show."
Directing TV is like learning a language. You walk into a TV show and you learn the language of that show. You learn the characters of that show. In some respects it's similar to the last week of a feature film shoot, where all the actors know their characters, the DP already knows the visual language, and you're simply making subtle adjustments and sculpting, as opposed to making large creative decisions.
NFS: Were the biggest challenges that you experienced on this shoot?
Marston: I think one of the biggest challenges was simply getting the film shot in a small number of days, much of it taking place at night outdoors in cold weather. Then, the challenge of shifting tone slightly. I mean, there are ways in which the movie makes subtle adjustments over the course of the story, where it starts off in a very mysterious tone and then shifts gears in the middle and then shifts gears again to something more ... a little bit lighter, with the Kathy Bates and Danny Glover sequence, and then shifts tone again to something a little bit more poetic or lyrical with frogs. Making those adjustments was challenging; making sure that it felt like one cohesive movie.
NFS: What about identity most interests you or fascinates you?
Marston: I guess you might say that the tension between how people choose to define their identity and how someone's identity is defined for them by external circumstances. Whether it's the way other people view them or their job or the context that they're living in. You know? The question of how much are we in control of our own destiny and the definition of our own identity.
There are connections to the other two films I made, as well. I mean, Maria Full of Grace was a movie about a young woman who is not willing to accept the fate and the identity that's been forced upon her, so she takes a radical choice. The Forgiveness of Blood is about a 17-year-old boy who wants to be a modern teenager but can't. They're stories about how people are struggling to create—to define their identity.