Ana Asensio's SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning film 'Most Beautiful Island' plumbs the depths of desperation on Super 16.
When we spoke with Ana Asensio and Noah Greenberg, it was the day before the 2017 SXSW awards ceremony. The writer-director-star and cinematographer, respectively, were excited to bring their low-budget run-and-gun film, about the pitfalls of the American dream, to Austin audiences, which are known to embrace first-time directors. (This is Asensio's filmmaking debut, and the first feature Greenberg has shot on film.) The next day, Most Beautiful Island would win the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for Narrative, the festival's most coveted distinction.
Shot on gritty Super 16, Most Beautiful Island is the story of an undocumented immigrant woman in New York City whose desperation for employment leads her to take on odd jobs, including a mysteriously lucrative offer to work an elite party for one night. What appears to be a stroke of luck builds to a disturbing climax as Luciana (Asensio) is trapped in an increasingly debasing—and ultimately life-threatening—situation.
Greenberg lenses Luciana and the struggling characters that inhabit her underworld in a voyeuristic vérité style, following her around dark corners and through the swarms of chaos that so often subsume the city's invisible people. More than just a gripping thriller, Most Beautiful Island is a window into the everyday plight of the underclass, where the rules for survival are "eat or be eaten."
"When you don't have many resources, it's very important that you work with people who care about the project, but also about you as a human being."
No Film School: What inspired this story?
Ana Asensio: Well, first of all, some filmmakers tell me that they read your site religiously, like the Bible.
NFS: Wow! That’s so great to hear.
Asensio: As for my inspiration.... Something happened to me while I was [an undocumented immigrant], waiting for a working permit. I was transitioning a student visa into a working permit. I waited for nine months. I ran out of savings. I couldn't leave the country, so I started taking on jobs that I would find on Craigslist. That period of my life was very vulnerable. One day, I got a call from a woman who [got my number] from another girl that I met and offered me a job at a Halloween party that night. I said, "Sure." I found myself trapped in a situation that was dangerous.
Years down the road, I thought, "How about I tell that story?" I thought it would be a moment-to-moment film—the hours leading to that big event.
NFS: How did you two start working together?
Asensio: We met over 10 years ago. We worked on a short film together, where Noah was the DP. It was shot in Spain on super 16. I was an actress in the film and I loved the outcome. We became pretty close friends after that. We've been talking about this project for so long.
NFS: What were the steps between the original concept and shooting Most Beautiful Island?
Asensio: I wrote a treatment, then I wrote a script. It took many years to get the script in shape. I really wanted to put my vision into it and I thought that with the visuals, I could express clearly what I wanted to say in the script. So I called Noah and I said, "Would you be up to shooting one scene—one very important scene in the film, with no dialogue—so we could show the style?" Because I think the style of the film is almost more important than the script itself.
Greenberg: Sort of a proof of concept.
Asensio: We got together and we shot that in my apartment with just the two of us and a 5D.
Greenberg: That was an important step.
Asensio: It was a huge step.
Greenberg: It worked! And that was energizing. It was one continuous seven-minute take that started in the hallway and went through the kitchen to the living room to the bathroom. It was pretty choreographed and everything needed to be lit and the sound had to follow us. It was one little scene, but it was a fairly complicated endeavor. And it worked.
Asensio: Yeah, because with that and the script—once the script was in shape—I [had something to] show people. I don't have a short film; I never directed before. But I could show my visual concept and since he would be the cinematographer, we have a team already. We just needed money to make it.
"I admire Cassavetes and how he put together his films just with a group of friends. Like, 'Let's make this movie now.' I felt like that was going to give us a lot of freedom."
NFS: Did that proof of concept attract potential financiers?
Asensio: Yes. The script was open to anybody's interpretation. Actually, before we showed the proof of concept, I sent the script to some people in Hollywood and I think they were visualizing it as a bigger movie. With this [proof of concept], it was very clear that I wanted a gritty, hand-held style of shooting.
Greenberg: It wasn't just about the take or about the actual action. It was the tone—the proof of concept communicated so much about the scope and tone. It also introduced some of the creepy-crawly elements of the story.
NFS: The gritty feel is really important to the story. It would be a completely different movie if it were shot differently. How did you shoot it?
Greenberg: We shot with an Aaton Xterà, a super 16 camera, which is very compact. We shot with Zeiss Ultra Speeds [Primes] and with 250-D and 500-T stocks. We did test the 16 to establish the look and what speeds we wanted and how much level of grain, but we didn't do any specialty processing. A lot of the grittiness has to do more with the style of the camera movement.
NFS: You used a lot of natural lighting. Would you plan out shots that maximized natural night, or were you shooting run-and-gun documentary-style?
Asensio: For half of the film, the intention was to shoot it as if it was a documentary. Then, the other half of the film is more stylized. [This change] marks a transition in the story and the emotional journey of the character. It was key to make that distinction with the camera.
Greenberg: Ana and I discussed how the camera would be a character, but also be in the moment. It blends with them. It's not so well rehearsed that the camera knows where to go and everyone anticipates the action. I’m finding it with them; the camera is discovering things in the moment.
NFS: It gives the film a frantic energy and a voyeuristic tendency.
Asensio: Yeah. Exactly.
Greenberg: We decided early that it was all going to be standard focal length primes. No very wide lenses, long telephotos, or zooms. We wanted to keep the camera in fairly close proximity to the subject. We move with the actors instead of from a reserve, but at the same time, there's some interplay, as other times the camera holds back and is more observational. Particularly in the bathtub scene, there's a little foreground obstruction. Where there's a little foreground, you have subtle hints of that voyeurism.
NFS: You build upon the feeling of desperation throughout the film. When you get to the end, you wonder, "How did she get here? How did this wind up happening?" Things go from bad to worse so quickly. How did you craft that desperation?
Asensio: I wanted to present the character and her circumstances in the first act of the film by having her by herself often. There's not much dialogue. I wanted to show her isolation. By showing little details of the pressures…like, she's about to get kicked out of her apartment tomorrow. There's a note in the fridge, "If you don't pay rent by tomorrow, you're going to get kicked out." Those little moments are there for exposition, of course. I wanted to make it clear that that was affecting her so much that therefore, later on, you will buy the decisions that she makes, because we understand where they are coming from.
"Sometimes being light and fleet of foot can be incredibly efficient. I like working on film because, in a weird way, it is lighter and faster and easier."
I felt that it was very, very important that you empathized with the character. That was a process; writing the script, I realized that certain things didn't [make you empathize] with her, so, I had to work on that. I rebuilt it.
NFS: You worked with a small crew in New York. That can be very stressful, especially when you're doing a run-and-gun film. How did you navigate that?
Asensio: I admire Cassavetes and how he put together his films just with a group of friends. Like, “Let's make this movie now." I felt like that was going to give us a lot of freedom. I wanted to have this spirit of, “Let's do a film with a lot of improvisation." We all had to put on more than one hat.
There are a lot of scenes on the streets of Manhattan where we're improvising in the middle of a crowd, and it was key that we were only three people. But I think, for Noah, it was different because he was carrying the camera. You said that it's small, but it's a heavy camera. Then [you had] two ACs following you with cables. It's different for you. I was free. I was like, "You follow me."
Greenberg: That was really fun. I actually loved it. One of my favorite beats is in Chinatown.
Asensio: That was insane.
Greenberg: All of the footage in Chinatown was shot in one take. We just shot and we almost ran out the mag. It was, like, an 11-minute shot.
Asensio: The boom guy was falling, running, like, "Where are you going now?!”
Greenberg: We had no idea. Here we are, again, talking about discovering. Ana just took off and I was like, "Well, we're going there." We just found her and as she interacted with the environment, found the shot. None of those scenes were scripted. Those were all chance interactions. Then we were just sort of playing with, how close can I get without interrupting this interaction that's now unfolding?
Depending on the circumstances, having a large crew can be incredibly efficient. But sometimes being light and fleet of foot can be incredibly efficient. I like working on film because, in a weird way, it is lighter and faster and easier if you can pack film and be fully loaded and ready to go with batteries. In that circumstance, you can move very quickly and be light and fast. Of course, all of these things can be bulked up in the big productions with wireless following video and all of that. But I was like, "Sorry we're leaving that all behind for the work on the street."
NFS: It sounds like that kind of production is very energizing.
Greenberg: Yeah. It's part of the DNA of the project—leaving it a little bit open to chance, being open to those happy accidents and playing with what's actually there instead of controlling [everything]. It's just a different way of working.
Asensio: I mean, we couldn't have the control, due to budget and the amount of people.
Greenberg: That also plays into lighting and camera. Your starting point is not, "Let's control everything and make everything uniform and perfect." It's "Where are we?" "What are our available resources?" "How do we supplement, tweak that a little bit to get what we need to start shooting?"
"Your starting point is not, 'Let's control everything and make everything uniform and perfect.' It's: 'Where are we? What are our available resources?'"
NFS: Yeah. And how do you be nimble once things change. Do you always shoot on film?
Greenberg: No. Actually, this is the first feature that I've shot on film. Actually, it's you, [Ana]! You're the film muse. Because the only other thing I've gotten to shoot on film was the short film that we met [working on]. I would love to shoot 35. But, no, it's almost all been digital. I started as a film photographer, so, for 13 years, I shot still film.
NFS: That's an interesting career path. I don't meet as many people that start as still photographers and move into cinematography anymore. It seems that these days people start being an AC and trying to work up the ladder.
Greenberg: Yeah. I mean, it was not remotely a conscious choice. I've always liked cinema but it never occurred to me, frankly, to become a cinematographer.
Then, I went for a drink and a friend of mine. He was an aspiring director who'd already had a film at Sundance. He was telling me about a screenplay that he had just written. I was busy congratulating him and he said, "You, too. You're shooting it." I reminded him that I'd never touched a film camera and he said, "It doesn't matter. You're a geek. You'll figure it out." I figured it out and it was a blast. After that, I started working with him more and transitioned into motion.
Asensio: You dropped the still camera. You never take pictures anymore.
Greenberg: Yeah. I know. I miss it. I mean, when I do my own personal work, it's always on Rollies [Rolleiflex TLR Medium Format still cameras]. It just became impractical, traveling with so much for work, you know, to drag a flight case with Rollies and film and dealing with the X-rays at the airport. Finally, two years ago I just bought myself a Fuji XT-1 system, which I leave in my backpack.
It's not the same, though. I miss Tri-X. It's literally a completely different thing. Film is sensitized silver halide; it has physical depth and has an organic quality. Digital won't replace that.
NFS: What has this experience been like for you, Ana, sharing a personal story? You said that was a vulnerable time in your life; do you feel vulnerable again bringing it out into the world?
Asensio: Well, originally, I wanted to write a film that was honest, like the kind of films that I like to watch. The only way for me to write something honest was to write about something that was very personal and close to me, where I could speak the truth because this happened to me. Something that was not bullshit. I really wanted that authenticity when I wrote the script.
It's only now that the film is coming out that I'm starting to realize, well, this is a level of exposure of my own persona that is making me more vulnerable than I would have been otherwise if I had written about something that it wasn't close to me. In a way, I feel happy that this is honest. At the same time, I think I'm more susceptible to criticism.
NFS: That's only human. I think it was very brave.
Asensio: Well, thank you. With this film, so many people helped me to put my vision out there. When you don't have many resources, it's very important that you work with people who care about the project but also about you as a human being.
For instance, with Noah, I had that. I knew that his level of friendship [would triumph] over anything else, so it made me feel very protected as the director and the actor. I knew that I was in the hands of a friend who wanted, ultimately, the best for me, regardless of the artistic visuals. I think that surrounding yourself with good people and good friends is very important when you work in the low-budget level of production.
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