It takes a herculean effort to produce a first film that’s accepted to festivals and showered with praise (and prizes – SXSW handed it the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Award this past March), but first-time director Ana Asensio pulled it off in her debut Most Beautiful Island, a grounded-in-reality genre film following a Spanish immigrant who moves to New York City to start a new life. Emotionally distraught over the death of her child, Luciana (played by Asensio) works dead-end jobs—in one scene, dressing up as a chicken to promote a local poultry joint—trying to make ends meet and keep the growing guilt at bay. One afternoon, her co-worker informs of a well-paying gig requiring minimal effort: dress sexy and be gawked at at an undisclosed location for rich party guests who need something to fantasize over. She agrees to attend (the money is solid), and, after a series of unfortunate and nagging hiccups, arrives in a decrepit basement under circumstances she never could’ve anticipated. Out of the Fantasia International Film Festival, I observed that the film’s villains were less “a hoard of bloodthirsty monsters than a shady crowd of emotionless everybodies, feature-less folk your parents would prefer you never share company with.” Viewed a second time in the fall of 2017, the film’s antagonists seem the most dangerous imaginable.
I spoke with Asensio about the struggles of being a first-time filmmaker, the unusual aspects involved in being a multi-hyphenate artist on set, and the equally limited and limitless virtues of living in New York City. The film launched its theatrical and digital release last Friday.
Filmmaker: This is your debut feature, and you kept yourself busy. What lead to you wanting to tell this story and choosing to take on hats as writer, director, producer and leading actress?
Asensio: Since my background has been as an actress, I’ve had a desire to be on the other side of the camera, to be a creator. This came from a need to have some sort of control over my career; as an actor, I had no control whatsoever. That being said, I wanted to create a role that was going to be good for myself. When thinking about what that story could be, I thought it would be really cool to tell a story in one day (I love films that take place over 24 hours). I also wanted it to be inspired by my own experiences of arriving in New York City while, of course, fictionalizing some things.
It was to be a story that I had never before seen on screen, of an immigrant of my kind if that makes sense. Because I had never directed a short film nor written a script before, I knew this was going to be super difficult and I’d have to do as much on my own as possible. I had the attitude of needing to be a producer from the very beginning and taking on all hats. I didn’t know if I was going to be the only writer or director on the project, but I wanted to be the creator and the lead actor, and as time went by, it became clear that I had to be the only writer and director. The producer side came from me to wanting to get this film made.
Filmmaker: How did Glass Eye Pix come aboard the project?
Asensio: I had known Larry Fessenden for a while, not quite as a friend but as an acquaintance, through the independent film community. I had the opportunity to work with him on one of his Tales from Beyond the Pale episodes, the radio series he produces. I mentioned to him that I was determined to make my film over the next year and that I wasn’t going to wait for anyone else. The film had a journey of going to different places and not being financed, so I was determined to do it myself with my own savings.
I told Larry about the story. He was interested and asked to read the script to see if he could help the film. He approached it as a friend, to see if he could advise me on the film. When Jenn Wexler, a producer at Glass Eye Pix, read the script, she sat down with Larry and they both decided that they wanted to make the film happen. They had limited resources, but we wanted to put our means together and see what we could do. It was fantastic. It was very collaborative from the very beginning and I had a lot of freedom. Larry, himself being a director, understood how a director feels when creating his or her own material and let me know that his door was always open if I needed to bounce off ideas. Glass Eye put all of the logistics together and even part of the financing at the very end.
Being a first-time director, it was a very safe environment to work in, being so exposed, as I am, in the film. This group of people took care of me and were protective of me as a first-time director. It was a really wonderful and nurturing experience….as well as wild [laughs].
Filmmaker: There’s a recognizable, practical style to Glass Eye films that Most Beautiful Island upholds. It’s independent genre filmmaking working within an economy of means, and there’s a human aspect centering the material. How did you find this film works within the the company’s previous filmography?
Asensio: I am a huge fan of Larry’s film Habit, a terrific, one-of-a-kind film that I would put at the top of everything at Glass Eye Pix. I am a fan of certain kinds of horror films (not all of them), but the nature of filmmaking that Glass Eye Pix displays was something that I’ve connected with from the very beginning. I knew that my film possessed a genre element, and knew that, although not a 100 percent horror film, it could appeal to the horror community as well.
Filmmaker: The film opens with the title card: “Inspired by True Events.” Given the genre elements in play in the film’s tense second half, I have to ask: which parts of this story were actually inspired by true events?
Asensio: A lot of things that happen to Luciana are things that happened to me as I tried to make a living in New York City. The core of the story, of someone who gets involved in something dangerous and illegal (and is subsequently lied to), did happen to me. No, I didn’t end up in the physical location shown in the film, but I did end up in a situation that was illegal and that I was forced to stay in. I was frightened throughout the evening and afterwards wondered, “What if I had never been able to leave?” No one knew I was there and I didn’t own a cell phone. I was an illegal alien at that time, so who would be looking for me and where would they look? This stayed in my mind. If I were to disappear, as someone who comes from a “normal” family and a somehow “normal” Western country, how does someone like me end up in a place like this? What are the circumstances that lead me to this moment? That’s the story I wanted to tell, of the hours leading up to this big moment, this big event, and how people make decisions based on necessity and circumstance. We sometimes live in the moment rather than thinking of the big picture: “What am I doing with my life, struggling in this city?”
Filmmaker: The initial visuals observe identity-less women frantically wandering the streets of New York. Are they running from something or looking for someone? The film is very much about immigrant women coming to New York and being overwhelmed by a sea of strange, imposing faces.
Asensio: That opening sequence wasn’t shot until the very end of production. It wasn’t originally in the script and it wasn’t in the original part of our shoot. It was only when I had my first cut that I realized that the film needed something more to be complete. I re-thought the story and realized that it needed to open with that voyeuristic search. Once you focus on one woman, you realize by the end of the film that this is just one story of many. If you follow almost anyone in New York City, immigrant or non-immigrant, there are rich and powerful stories there behind the city itself. It’s a city that attracts survivalists, and for most of us, it’s very difficult to live here. By adding that sequence in the beginning of the film, and by focusing on women who are clearly not from the United States, it would add a sense of each of these women having a very powerful story to tell.
Filmmaker: That sequence features Columbus Circle, Union Square near the Strand Bookstore, and other notable New York City sights. Were you attempting to get as much exterior footage on the fly as you could?
Asensio: It was definitely done like that, primarily because I felt that was the only way I’d be able to capture what I wanted to. But you know what? It actually wasn’t as challenging as you’d imagine, simply because we used long lenses. The camera was quite far from the main object, and besides that, New Yorkers don’t really care if they see a camera in front of them; they just go about their daily life. No one looked at the camera. New Yorkers don’t care! They go about their daily businesses, and the sequence really benefitted from how rich the city is: the sounds, the colors, the energy and the people.
Filmmaker: In heightening the stakes of Luciana’s dead-end predicament (she has a deceased daughter, a crappy apartment, embarrassing side jobs, rude children she has to babysit), how did you work to heighten the character’s desperation while at the same time keeping it grounded in believability?
Asensio: When I originally thought up this film, I didn’t think about Luciana’s background. That was something that came out of further drafts. We had to make clear, at the beginning of the film, that this woman had experienced a tragedy which was the reason she couldn’t return to her home country. She had to make a living in her new home, in her new life, no matter what. She needed to begin a new life and find redemption from this horrible guilt she’s experiencing.
We planted that guilt in a very subtle way at the beginning of the film. Because it’s such a heavy subject, it could actually evoke audience rejection rather than empathy, due to it being very hard to comprehend. We had to just address it at the very beginning and hope that it would stay in the subconscious of the audience—that this woman had to remain in New York for a very specific reason. It’s imperative for her to begin a new life in a new city, and so I focused on elements of basic survival, i.e. she needs to pay rent or she will be kicked out of her apartment. Then the film moves to the specifics of her working at the evening party. In order to work at the party, she needs to buy a dress, she needs to take a cab to the location, etc. By going through these “little” things, the character is able to remain grounded to the audience. We can all relate to what it feels like to be late in Manhattan or trying to rush to somewhere or needing something you just don’t have money for. That keeps the character grounded and is a part of the guilt and remorse she’s dealing with.
Filmmaker: In terms of narrative and staging, the film feels of two parts: one of sunshine-filled, handheld-shot New York City, the other a dark piece of claustrophobic dread in a shoddy basement interior that feels less built than stitched together for an evening of debauchery. Were you mapping out these two visual contrasts while you wrote the screenplay?
Asensio: Absolutely. Even with just a draft of the story, I knew that I wanted to make a film featuring two drastic parts: from day to night, with the story running from one place to another. In the second half, we would be locked into one location, and the camera and plot would subsequently change with that choice. I knew it might not work, but I wanted to try it. Many people told me that I had not one but two different films, and that I should consider making two short films rather than a feature. It wasn’t easy to show how those acts were going to translate into a feature film.
Filmmaker: Where did the impetus to shoot on Super 16 come from? There’s a grainy texture to the film that provides a soft, translucent look that adds to its anachronistic nature. I imagine shooting on Super16 provided its own share of challenges.
Asensio: Similar to the idea of telling a story with usual forms in two radical parts, I wanted to do something unique with the visual approach. Nowadays, it’s unique to shoot on film. Growing up in Madrid, my idea of New York came from films like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. Those films provided the first images I’ve ever had of New York City.
I wanted my film to be raw and realistic, to possess a documentary style, and I thought that if I used a digital camera, it would too realistic and too ugly. Even though I wanted the film to be raw, I did want some “film glamour,” if you can call it that. I wanted a layer that would introduce a separation between the audience and the story. I wanted the dreamy, nostalgic look of Manhattan I originally had seen, rather than the result that comes from shooting digital as a result of a limited budget.
Shooting on Super 16 was more expensive, sure, and we needed three people working with the camera as opposed to one. I told the crew and the cast, “We’re all going to have to work for less money than anticipated, but in exchange, we’re all going to shoot a movie on Super 16.” Somehow everyone agreed to work on on the most minimum of budgets and they seemed excited to be part of something being shot on film. I think for a lot of us, we felt that this might be the last opportunity to be involved in a movie shot on film. It was challenging, but at the same time, it unified us in a way.
Filmmaker: Geing both the director and the lead actress, were you looking at playback quite frequently on set, toggling between those two roles?
Asensio: Because of my non-experience as a director, my brain had to be 90 percent director and 10 percent actor on this film. I didn’t put as much time nor care as I would have wanted on the acting side. Logistically speaking, there was just no time. It was very important that I’d get across my intentions regarding the visuals to my cinematographer and crew, and that was very challenging for me. Whereas speaking with the actors was easy because I knew that language so well, speaking with the crew was just a whole new world for me, and I ran into conflicts because I didn’t know the technical terms for things I wished to get across. During production, take after take, I’d look at our tiny, tiny monitors where I could only see if the camera had performed the intended movements. I couldn’t see the actors’ faces, and really, I couldn’t see anything. It was just a tiny, black-and-white, grainy monitor. I had to rely on what I was feeling as an actor while I was performing the scene rather than check in on the performances [after the fact in playback].
Filmmaker: There are also two striking scenes involving wandering insects. As we observe the multi-legged creatures, intensely uncomfortable close-ups of their bodies and faces almost dare the viewer to push away from the screen. Were they real? How did you work on nailing down those shots?
Asensio: Oh, they were real animals! Those shots were another piece that came while I was editing. I had an edit of the film and knew that something was missing. One of my editors, Francisco Bello, said, “I think you need to check out a few animal documentaries to get some inspiration and to go for something much scarier than what you currently have.” I started watching animal documentaries and realized how many details you see; they use special micro-lenses so you can see everything. I thought that would be fantastic to include in my film, so we shot our insect footage with the digital Canon 5D with micro lenses. We headed to Connecticut to meet with our reptile wrangler, Brian Kleinman, who supplied the animals, and he allowed us to shoot in his studio. Due to the extreme closeness, we had to shoot the footage digitally and added the grain and color-correct the shots to match later on.
Filmmaker: The wrangler is based in Connecticut?
Asensio: Yes, Brian has a zoo there. He’s not an actor, even though he appears in my film as the man handling the spiders. He’s a real reptile wrangler and provided us with all of the insects. This is a funny story: I found him on Youtube when I was doing research for my script. I came across one of his reptile video tutorials and thought he was fascinating, not only because of the way he talked but also because of the way he looked. I asked for advice regarding what kind of insects to use and then said I wanted him in the film for a specific role, rather than cast a professional actor, and he finally agreed.
Filmmaker: I first saw the film this past summer at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where the post-screening Q&A led to questions about viewing the film in the context of “Trump’s America.” Watching it again this past week, however, had me seeing it in the context of rampant sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. Gemale characters are gathered in a circle, given a number on which the spectators can place their bets and wait to be summoned to a physically and emotionally exposed game of life or death.
Asensio: It’s interesting because, as you said, when the film premiered earlier this year, people were talking about how we’re living under Trump and Trump’s particular views on immigration. Now we’re seeing the film with different eyes, focusing on the abuse of women. When I shot this film, Trump was not in power and Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults were not publicly uncovered. In a way, these themes and ideas were, unfortunately, there long before this current moment. If the film can help to contribute to this debate or argument then I’m happy about that, but the film wasn’t made with those intentions.
Filmmaker: What have you taken away from directing your first film?
Asensio: I realized how difficult it is to be a filmmaker and how much work and dedication is involved. It’s very different from being an actor, where you come in and then go. As an actor, you’re very limited. I found the process of filmmaking extremely rewarding and creative. I’m excited to continue writing and directing—and acting, if it comes my way. I’m putting all my focus into writing my next script and, hopefully, turning it into my second film.