On of the more intimate films that screened at Fantasia 2017 was Most Beautiful Island directed by Ana Asensio, who also wrote, produced, and starred in the film. It was a hit at SXSW and several other festivals before it finally screened with our good friends in Montreal to great reception. I got the chance to speak to Asensio about several aspects of the production. Check out the trailer below the interview.
ScreenAnarchy: You wrote, directed, and starred in your feature debut, Most Beautiful Island. I can’t imagine that was easy. Would you do it all over again?
Ana Asensio: It was very hard, partly because it was my first time doing it and because of the low-budget nature of the project. For part of the shoot, I was pregnant, which made it more challenging. I was also producing, and I can say I wouldn’t like to do that again! But for me, it's possible to write, direct, and act in a film again. Hopefully next time, it'll be easier!
Did anything in your real life influence this script?
I was inspired by my life in the early 2000s when I was new in NYC, didn’t speak English well, and I was trying to obtain my working visa. That was an especially intense time in my life, in which I lived many experiences and learned how to survive in the city with very little money.
How long did it take to bring the project to screen, from the script to its premiere?
I conceived the idea for the film in 2010. Then I completed the earlier drafts of the script in 2011, and it was in 2015 that I was finally able to shoot the film.
What was it like working with Glass Eye Pix?
It was a fantastic experience. Larry Fessenden welcomed me with warmth and incredible support. Jenn Wexler, one of the main producers, also from Glass Eye Pix, helped me tremendously, from the moment that Larry agreed to produce this film. She cared deeply about the story and the integrity of it, as well as making sure we would keep the shoot within the restricted budget we had. Larry, as opposed to other producers with whom I spoke to in the past, was extremely supportive about shooting on Super 16mm and not afraid of the challenges that this choice involved. He is a film director at heart, and at all times, he was empathetic with my dreams and struggles as a first time director. He acted as a mentor in many ways. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with both of them.
Have you worked with any of your actors on previous projects?
No, it was the first time with everyone.
Did it take a long time to find someone to play Olga? I imagine it would have to find just the right person.
Natasha Romanova was great. I was most excited about casting the role of Olga, having thought about her many times and imagined her. And indeed, it was the hardest role to cast. I saw probably thirty actors, all of them provided by the great casting directors Sig De Miguel and Steven Vincent. They kept sending me new actresses, since I couldn’t find the right one. I always imagined Olga as a very tall, thin and blond young woman, but when Natasha Romanova walked into the casting room (she was thin but neither blond or as tall as I imagined), I knew she was Olga.
I experienced what I heard other directors talk about the certainty of knowing she was the one at first glance. She was unexpectedly perfect for Olga. She was gorgeous and had a sweet face, but there was something about her that was dangerous --- exactly what I was looking for in this role. We then did a second audition, in which we played the scenes together to see the chemistry and the look of both on camera. The result was better than I imagined it. I was so excited to begin working with her.
You do some particularly brave things in the film. I imagine that your previous life as an actor helped prepare, particularly for some things other actors might not ever touch --- like sitting in a bathtub with what I assume were real roaches?
They were real, and even though I was determined to do this, it was difficult to keep in character and not freak out. Eventually I did and creamed “Cut!!! I can’t do this anymore!”
The basement scenes are intense. How did you and your other actors prepare for that?
The place where we shot was an abandoned building, in the process of being remodeled. There was no one else there but us. The location was also in a remote area in Dumbo, Brooklyn. We didn’t have a bathroom there or any comfortable areas to rest. All of this was helpful to create this atmosphere and really feel the isolation that was needed. The actors playing the guests did a terrific job as well. They also stayed apart from the actresses to create the difference between who each one was in the story.
We created this micro-world with the lights and the strange sounds that we could hear through the walls that really helped all of us believe we were part of some sort of clandestine, illegal event.
If you ran into any issues during production, I’d love to hear how you overcame them.
It was difficult to find the perfect basement, and we kept running out of time. Every time we thought we finally found one, something will happen that will make obvious we couldn’t shoot there, like excess humidity. We finally found our location right before filming.
We barely use special effects in this film, and it was mostly to remove something that shouldn’t have appeared. In one particular case, in the taxi scene, I had the driver secured and I really loved him, Sabuj Hassan, is not an actor, but a real taxi driver. A couple of days before filming, I found out that he couldn’t access a yellow cab, that the one he could bring to the shoot was the green one. I rewrote the scene with a dialogue that explained that. At the end, it was too confusing for an audience who doesn’t live in NYC to understand the whole green taxi business, and we had to use VFX to make the car yellow after all.
Were there any scenes you chose to cut?
Unfortunately, I cut a few. The reason to cut them was that they were slowing down the flow of Luciana’s journey (the lead character played by Asensio), and losing the tension that was otherwise present through the entire film. It was particularly hard to remove a few scenes with the actor Jimmy Ryan, who played a business man at a coffee shop. Luciana stumbles on him and spills his coffee over his coat, which leads to a very creepy and tense situation later inside a bathroom. These scenes were in the script for years, and I had a clear vision of them. They were hard to shoot because there was a choreography involved in it and they were long continuous shots. After several screening tests with trusted people, we came to the conclusion that at that point in the story, it was more important to have Luciana moving forward rather than running into another bizarre situation.
The final scene of the film was always there.
I love to know that this argument exists, because it was always my intention to leave it up to the audience imagination.
I have many, specially on the first part of the story, where we were on the streets, using improvisation and embracing whatever the city was providing us. When the character I play is looking for Julia on the streets, screaming to the top of her lungs, I asked anyone walking by if they had seen the little girl. People were genuinely worried and asked me many questions because they wanted to help me find her, and I went with the flow. Obviously these people were unaware that there was a camera filming the entire thing. In one of those scenes, a little boy drove by with his bicycle and I used him to improv the scene. The dynamic of that improvisational scene was very nice and it made it into the edit, so the child got his first role on a film!
Fantasia was such an incredible experience. The audience was genuine and smart and they created a very interesting debate after the screening. I hope I will have an opportunity to be back with my next film!
I am currently working on my second feature screen play. It will be an intimate raw thriller also set in NYC.