Anchored by Asensio’s fearless and gripping performance,
“Most Beautiful Island” directs an unflinching point of view toward an often invisible population.
SXSW 2017 Award Winners: ‘Most Beautiful Island’ and ‘The Work’ Win Jury Competition Prizes
by Chris O’Falt
“Most Beautiful Island”
At a packed Paramount Theater this evening, the SXSW Film Festival, now at the halfway mark, handed out their big film awards. The fest’s two big competition jury prizes went to director Ana Asensio’s “Most Beautiful Island” (Best Narrative Feature) and directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s “The Work” (Best Narrative Feature).
Asensio, a Spanish actress and filmmaker living in New York, shot her film in super 16mm. It tells the story of undocumented female immigrants struggling to start a life in New York. It is a feature film debut for Asensio, who also stars and wrote the screenplay. “Island” is being billed as a dramatic thriller and was produced by the New York horror master Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.
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Ana Asensio’s SXSW winner burst onto the scene when it bowed at the festival back in March, and as it hits BAM and readies for a theatrical rollout, the timely feature will likely only garner more well-deserved attention. Our review explained, “Asensio, a thirtysomething Spanish actress whose work is virtually unseen on these shores, not only wrote, directed, and produced this fraught metropolitan thriller, she also appears in just about every frame. And while the film might begin by suggesting that its heroine was chosen at random (a mesmeric prologue follows seven different women as they weave through the sidewalks of Manhattan, the camera picking them out of a crowd as if to wordlessly reassert that most of the Naked City’s seven million stories remain untold), Asensio’s compulsively watchable lead performance splits the difference between the specific and the representational.”
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‘Most Beautiful Island’ Review: Ana Asensio’s SXSW Winner Is a Spellbinding Thriller About Immigrant Life In America
by David Ehrlich
A short, stressful, and utterly spellbinding debut that transforms the immigrant experience into the stuff of an early Polanski psychodrama, Ana Asensio’s “Most Beautiful Island” is a worthy winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature, and — more importantly — strong evidence of a cinematic juggernaut in the making.
Asensio, a thirtysomething Spanish actress whose work is virtually unseen on these shores, not only wrote, directed, and produced this fraught metropolitan thriller, she also appears in just about every frame. And while the film might begin by suggesting that its heroine was chosen at random (a mesmeric prologue follows seven different women as they weave through the sidewalks of Manhattan, the camera picking them out of a crowd as if to wordlessly reassert that most of the Naked City’s seven million stories remain untold), Asensio’s compulsively watchable lead performance splits the difference between the specific and the representational. She’s an undocumented women of a certain age, and also all of them; never just one or the other. But she’s about to have a night that will force her to forge a unique American identity for herself or die trying.
All we really know about Luciana is that she’s fresh off the boat from Spain, as desperate to distance herself from old life as she is for some help establishing her new one. The film tells us precious little about the raw data of who this woman is, almost nothing that we couldn’t glean from seeing her on the street — an early phone call reveals that she can’t shake a lingering sense of guilt about what she did to someone named Sofia (a daughter?), while a harried trip to a doctor’s office makes it clear that Luciana is even shorter on sleep than she is on cash, but that’s about it. Any further details are learned observationally, from the overdue rent notice that she turns into a paper airplane to the bright red sneakers that she wears like someone who can’t afford to slow down. And she can’t.
It’s never fun to have a bad day, but it’s even worse when you have one on the longest day of the year. Summer in the city makes everyone seem like they’re about to drown in their own flop-sweat, but Luciana is truly at the end of her rope. Her morning job, which requires her to wear a short skirt and a chicken mask as she shoves fliers at tourists in Time Square, is too degrading to sustain. Her afternoon gig babysitting two of the neediest brats in Manhattan is even more barbaric.
In between, she sinks into a bath in her dilapidated apartment and picks at the duct tape that her landlord used to cover a missing tile in the bathroom wall. Dozens of cockroaches spill out of the hole and into the tub, each of them large enough to fight Godzilla. Don’t be fooled by Asensio’s docudrama stylings, this terrifying moment — so intense that it feels lifted from one of co-producer Larry Fessenden’s gory horror films — is no cheap departure from a story that otherwise seems like a grounded vérité portrait of America’s invisible underclass. On the contrary, as Luciana will learn the hard way after a fellow immigrant offers her a mysterious (but highly lucrative) job in the meatpacking district, “Most Beautiful Island” is increasingly defined by how well it blurs the line between rotted dreams and waking nightmares.
It would be criminal to describe what happens to Luciana that night, or say anything about why the super secret payday requires her to buy a slinky black dress and pick up a locked purse from the basement of a Chinatown restaurant, but it’s impressive how seamlessly the movie blends the anxiety of neo-realism into something that resembles the suspense of the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut.” Asensio, whose sunken, model-like features are fleshed out with hope (and makeup) as Luciana plunges deeper into the underworld, is as dynamic behind the camera as she is in front of it.
The film gets a bit silly towards the end, albeit it in a perversely enjoyable way, but its first-time director does such a careful job of descending from New York’s sweltering iconography to its hidden underbelly that Luciana’s inferno feels all too real. As “Most Beautiful Island” plainly begins to borrow from other micro-budget horror stories of migrant exploitation (“13 Tzameti” comes to mind), the primacy of Asensio’s vision — and the fetishistic intensity of her imagery — overpowers any trace feelings of familiarity. By the end, even the handful of amateurish supporting performances begin to feel like part of the film’s surreal charm.
Creating a lucid sense of reality only so that she can defile it with a wicked pivot towards madness, Asensio’s film creates a vision of immigrant life in America (and its value) that’s all the more urgent for how it uses genre elements to exaggerate the experience. “I’m so tired of the possibilities,” Luciana complains to her friend at one point, exasperated at the thought of what might happen to her next. “The possibilities are why we’re here,” the friend replies.
America might still endure as the land of opportunity (at least for the time being), but few films have so vividly illustrated what opportunity really feels like to those who have nothing else left, or how it leads immigrants into a selectively visible economy that exists just parallel to the one that lured them here in the first place. More than just its unexpected thrills, “Most Beautiful Island” is a ruthlessly effective parable about how, both underground and above, this place will only remain a beacon of hope so long as its people decide to pay forward their good fortune, however little of it they might have left.
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March 14, 2017
SXSW Film Review: Most Beautiful Island
Poverty and immigration power this taut thriller
by Richard Whittaker
There’s a key image that unlocks the central metaphor of Most Beautiful Island: cockroaches, fallen into a tub of water, scrabbling to survive. But are they treading water, treading each other down, or creating a raft for mutual survival?
In her directorial debut, seasoned Spanish TV actress Ana Asensio heads to a grimy New York of undocumented workers and lousy cash-in-hand jobs. In the lead role of Luciana, she’s on the run from her old life, washed up in the Big Apple, and living gig to gig. There’s a measured bitterness and a self-destructive streak that seems destined to take her down risky paths.
Asensio’s opening act is one of measured subtlety. Rather than have her characters engage in long, declaratory exposition about life without documentation, she paints their stresses in smaller brushstrokes, like having them pass over a Craigslist job ad because it requires a social security number. There’s almost a dash of mid-Nineties Ken Loach, or more recent Joe Swanberg (also a fan of Super 16, on which this was shot) in the lo-fi depiction of daily grind, of owing the bodega for ice cream or taking crappy jobs to make ends meet.
But this is not Swanberg’s Chicago: this is Larry Fessenden’s New York. As one of two titles under the genre-bending auteur’s Glass Eye Pix shingle (along with Like Me) at SXSW this year, there’s more seething under the skin than dealing with ungrateful kids on a babysitting gig. Her friend/fellow migrant Olga (Natasha Romanova) tells her of a deal that sounds too good to be true: a few hours at a party, no stress with a big payday. Of course, if it sounds too good, it is too good, and there’s something more sinister at the end of the cab ride than bad DJs and watered-down martinis.
Asensio sets herself an almost impossible challenge: a slow, tense second act that is just the mounting tension of a waiting room. How can the third act possibly pay off that invested time? Well, it does. Moreover, she creates a final resolution that avoids any of the trite defaults of a thriller.
Most Beautiful Island is a character study of survival in a capitalistic, hierarchical world that is not completely bereft of humanity. Arsenio gives Luciana a true inner life, and even the antagonists make deep emotional sense. And then she puts everyone through a ringer that matches the most devious and nail-biting stories of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, an intriguing and slow-burn reinvention of survival horror.
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The New York Times
Review: ‘Most Beautiful Island,’ an Immigrant’s New York Nightmare
Dark corners of the immigrant experience in New York City, especially for women, are frighteningly dramatized in Ana Asensio’s suspense film “Most Beautiful Island,” a modest but effective writing-directing debut for Ms. Asensio, who also stars.
The film opens with distant shots of diverse women walking through Manhattan before it alights on Luciana (Ms. Asensio), who has left her native Spain after a family trauma. Barely eking out a living — babysitting two indulged Manhattan brats, and working part-time in a chicken costume to promote a restaurant — Luciana is desperate to pay her rent in Brooklyn. She increasingly despairs of ever finding a path to financial security and personal fulfillment.
Her Russian friend Olga (a vivid Natasha Romanova), an ardent believer in the promise of American opportunity, suggests an answer. She invites Luciana to attend a fancy “party” in a Chelsea basement, one that will pay Luciana well for her presence. What Luciana enters is a nightmare rabbit hole of objectification and physical peril for the amusement of wealthy New Yorkers. And we discover what is to become of the women who appear in the opening sequence.
Ms. Asensio paints a Manhattan populated by threatening hoodlums, demanding roommates, indifferent doctors and scheming merchants. Greatly aided by her cinematographer, Noah Greenberg (shooting in Super 16 millimeter), and her sound designer, Jeffery Alan Jones, she uses restless tracking shots, hectic cityscapes, ambient noise and sequences of prolonged stillness to conjure unease and dread. Her producer, Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”), is an old hand at indie horror, and Ms. Asensio has skillfully rendered a fate that is horrible indeed.
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The Village Voice
What are you willing to do for money? That’s the question Luciana (Ana Asensio) must ask herself throughout the thoughtful thriller Most Beautiful Island. As an undocumented immigrant barely getting by with cash-under-the-table jobs in New York City, Luciana, it turns out, will do nearly anything to make ends meet: babysitting for obnoxiously bratty kids, flyer hustling in Times Square, and attending a mysterious party for two grand. But it’s that last, lucrative gig that gives Luciana pause. One of her flyer-hustling comrades asks Luciana to step in for the night, but offers few details other than the promise of a massive payout. And as the party draws closer, it’s clear that something’s not quite right.
In this promising debut, Asensio does triple duty as writer, director, and star. At a lean eighty minutes, Most Beautiful Island has little extraneous material in it, and Asensio spins a suspenseful web that delivers a truly shocking — and strangely satisfying — revelation. As a rumination on the experiences of undocumented immigrants, Most Beautiful Island presents an extreme example of what people will do to scrape by — but it does so without belittling its vulnerable characters. Beneath Luciana’s desperation lies a silent strength that grounds her in this story with life-or-death consequences.
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Most Beautiful Island
There’s little in the first half of Ana Asensio’s feature-length directorial debut that foreshadows its outrageous second half, except maybe the credit for indie-horror distributor Glass Eye Pix. At first, it seems odd that Larry Fessenden would have produced what seems like an archetypal Sundance selection about multicultural strivers in New York City: The story focuses on one, Luciana (Asensio), an immigrant from Spain, running away from her past, struggling—often along the F line, in Brooklyn—to survive and find odd jobs.
Most Beautiful Island follows Luciana during a not-atypical day: to a doctor she can’t afford, because she has no insurance; to her apartment, where most things in the fridge have “Not Yours” notes taped onto them by her roommate. We see her pick up insolent children from school and walk them home, and we see her dressed up in a provocative yet silly costume, handing out fliers. Then, a fellow immigrant and friend, Olga (Natasha Romanova), from the flyering job, asks Luciana to fill in for her at another gig, which sounds too good to be true: Get paid $2,000 to show up at a cocktail party and look pretty—no sex-stuff required, just a black dress and some high heels.
Up to this point, Most Beautiful Island feels like a meandering, ethnographic quasi-documentary, set all over New York City, on familiar streets but also in back rooms and back alleys many people don’t often see. It’s set in a milieu of hustling immigrant women, living within a culture of seemingly infinite economic possibilities that all seem somehow out of reach. Each has her own reasons for being in the city and her own ways of making money—through Craigslist, or networks of other women in similar circumstances. Luciana often relies on the kindnesses of other immigrants: the shopkeepers who say she can pay tomorrow, and give her an extra little treat, or the cabbies who shrug off her inability to pay. But others tell her that we make our own luck and get what we deserve, espousing a moralistic social Darwinism that’s brought to life in the film’s second half, in the form of a biting metaphor.
Olga’s job offer, which leads Luciana to a cinderblock-lined basement along the West Side Highway, is indeed too good to be true. Women stand in narrow circles, drawn and numbered in chalk, in which they’re ogled by ladies and gentlemen in evening dress holding champagne—and stern men in black prevent the women from leaving. We’re made to wait there with them, airs of tension, menace, and mystery getting denser as the women are led one by one into a “party room,” to which the well-dressed have retired. When Luciana is finally called in, the moment is nightmarish—a relatively simple yet quite unexpected scenario that’s stomach-twisting in its elemental horror but also in the fact that many of these women, abject in their desperation, have volunteered to participate, putting their lives at risk for sport and cash. The experience seems as dehumanizing as a sexual assault.
Many genre movies in which bad things happen to women end with them fighting back, but here, as people surely would in real life, they just take the money and run. There’s no grand climax, no wicked revenge or Grand Guignol comeuppance, just a shot of a stretch of New York City highway, a faded sign, painted on a brick wall, visible if you squint: BIG APPLE BIG DREAMS. Its irony turns grotesque if you remember the film’s opening text: “Inspired by true events.” This is how the other half really lives today.
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SXSW Film Review: ‘Most Beautiful Island’
Winner of the narrative competition at SXSW, Ana Asensio’s directorial debut reveals a surprising, strong-willed side to her undocumented New York immigrant character.
by Peter Debruge
In Ana Asensio’s Big Apple-set “Most Beautiful Island,” a cash-strapped but model-gorgeous undocumented immigrant agrees to attend a dangerous party for rich and ruthless New Yorkers. For think-the-worst Trump haters, this gritty low-budget drama could be seen as a dark spin on last year’s “Southside With You,” dramatizing an alternate history of how the Donald first met Melania. In truth, the inspiration behind Asensio’s high-suspense, dread-infused debut was a peculiar eye-candy assignment the Spanish-born Asensio endured herself, heightened to show the lengths to which outsiders will go to make it in America.
Awarded the top prize at the 2017 SXSW film festival, “Most Beautiful Island” is a modest first feature, spanning less than a day in the life of a tough yet brittle-looking woman named Luciana (Asensio), but it makes quite an impact on very limited means — enough to score its impressive writer-director-producer-star more film work, even if it’s barely seen upon eventual release. Though it’s set against a bright-lights, big-city backdrop, the movie offers an illicit cockroach’s-eye view of New York, in which nearly all the characters scurry about wary of being crushed by anyone with the power to enforce their arrest or deportation.
The story sprung from Asensio’s own early immigrant experiences, specifically the period when she overstayed her visa and found herself taking degrading jobs for cash. In this case, we see the clearly-stressed Luciana juggling a thankless nanny job with one of those rump-shaking street-corner gigs where she advertises a local fast-food joint in a skin-baring chicken costume. Burnt out and barely able to pay her bills, Luciana turns to her venomously escort-esque Russian friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) for advice, never suggesting that the too-good-to-be-true job — for which she’s supposed to report to a shady basement wearing nothing but a sexy black cocktail dress — Olga offers could have potentially fatal consequences.
Of course, we don’t know that either, although Asensio orchestrates it such that our Spidey senses start tingling long before Luciana’s, and by the time she finds herself in said basement, surrounded by half a dozen other tall, nervous-looking foreign beauties, it’s too late to change her mind. Shooting in the coarse handheld style on scrappy 16mm film (the sort that recalls classic John Cassavetes movies, or the more recent work of “Daddy Longlegs” directors Josh and Benny Safdie), DP Noah Greenberg never ventures far from Luciana’s side, resulting in the distinctly anxious impression of being trapped in her skin — which, as we’ll soon see, is no place we’d want to be, and all the more nerve-wracking given the director’s stripped-down neorealist approach.
The movie’s payoff is every bit as delicious as its build-up, during which Asensio allows our imagination to do its worst as the other girls are called away one by one to do whatever their sadistic hosts have in mind. The first emerges from a back room, visibly shaking, while the second lets out a piercing scream that merely exacerbates Luciana’s already tense state of mind. But what’s a woman in her position to do? When the authorities don’t even know she exists, what’s to stop these creeps from snuffing her out and dumping her body where it will never be found? And just how much resistance can a spindly-limbed stunner like herself possibly put up?
Plenty, as it turns out — and that’s where “Most Beautiful Island” earns whatever trust audiences have put in its unproven storyteller (assuming that you’ve never seen one of Asensio’s one-woman shows): The easy-to-underestimate star effectively conveys her character’s exasperation, but not what her actual skills or potential might be. In addition to being unusually resistant to a pest problem in her squalid New York apartment (her lack of reaction to a stomach-churning roach infestation speaks volumes about her iron-willed character), Luciana is also slyly resourceful in several early scenes, as when she scams the little black dress from a high-end Manhattan shop.
Still, there’s not much to suggest what Luciana might contribute to society, which is just the sort of judgment Asensio intends to upend when the moment is right — and that she does, demonstrating the same spirit of fearlessness in character that she did when translating this belief-straining, reality-based story into her big-screen debut. Stepping in to make Asensio’s self-made statement possible, indie horror legend Larry Fessenden not only produces, but appears as the toughest of the basement bouncers, and the ironically titled “Most Beautiful Island” proves a worthy addition to his Glass Eye Pix catalog, especially where the work of insect and spider wrangler Brian Kleinman is concerned. In the end, as with the Black Widow and many other species, Asensio’s female heroine is much deadlier than the male.
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FANTASIA 2017: A Brief Look at Glass Eye’s MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND
There’s no denying that female directors are making a name for themselves as of late, and quite frankly it’s absolutely beautiful to see. If there’s anyone that deserves major credit, it’s Ana Asensio. Not only is Most Beautiful Island a powerhouse of a directorial debut, but Ana also produced, wrote, and starred in this 80 minute indie gem.
Most Beautiful Island depicts a story about an undocumented immigrant, Luciana (Ana Asensio), in New York City. She takes odd jobs and will do anything to get some money, from working as a walking ad for a chicken restaurant to babysitting bratty kids. Luciana agrees to work at an underground soiree and is promised a hefty amount of cash upon finishing the work. This is where things get wild. The disturbing climax in the story gets very dark and will send chills down your spine. Revealing anything would be wrong. Stress doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings while watching the third act.
Asensio creates a rugged look at what it’s like to try and make it work in the Big Apple. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows. The world is tough and sometimes you’ll do whatever it takes to get by. Most Beautiful World is tense, unnerving, and one hell of a debut.
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Film Journal International
Film Review: Most Beautiful Island
Ana Asensio’s debut feature as writer-director is an intense, sometimes claustrophobic allegory about the physical and moral pitfalls of the immigrant experience.Particularly over the course of its deceptively mundane first half, Ana Asensio’s debut plays like a kissing cousin to Ben Barenholtz’s recent, similarly themed Alina. Both films take pains to point up America’s pernicious tradition of callously exploiting the labor (and often the very flesh) of fledgling immigrants to its shores. “America ated her up,” one of the characters in Most Beautiful Island says about her Russian traveling companion. Barenholtz adopts a loose-limbed, borderline-melodramatic approach to his material, whereas Asensio has crafted an intense and sometimes claustrophobic allegory about the pitfalls of the immigrant experience under the generic disguise of a psychological thriller.
The opening shot’s funhouse-mirror distortion of a shuffling crowd perfectly encapsulates a new arrival’s experience of physical and mental disorientation on the teeming streets of the Big Apple. Asensio follows this up with a protracted sequence that focuses (in increasingly voyeuristic fashion) on lone women caught amid floods of pedestrian traffic. First-time viewers are likely to misread the significance of these seemingly random shots, but these ladies will feature prominently in the second half of the film. The final shot of the sequence brings one of the women, Luciana (Asensio), into startling close-up.
Most Beautiful Island now seems to settle into a groove following Luciana through her daily routine, but practically from the get-go there are increasingly troublesome signs that something is amiss. When Luciana raids her roomie’s refrigerator, filled with foodstuffs clearly tagged “Not Yours” via numerous Post-Its, it might just register her chronic fiscal desperation. Licking the rim of the juice bottle before putting it back, on the other hand, betrays a puckish sense of spiteful humor. But hordes of roaches scurrying from a crack in the bathroom wall seem to be setting viewers up for a Repulsion-like storyline concerning Luciana, especially since we’re never entirely sure whether or not it’s a hallucination, until the film veers into left field for its second half.
A thread runs through the film betraying a deep-seated ambivalence toward children: As we soon learn, Luciana’s daughter has died under circumstances sufficiently questionable to encourage her to flee her native Spain for the U.S. Her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) displays a pronounced dislike for children when they meet for coffee. And, last but hardly least, the two children Luciana babysits on a regular basis are depicted as flagrantly bratty little monsters. Luciana herself seems to subsist almost entirely on lollipops and ice cream, much like a child, as though she has assimilated certain aspects of her dead daughter’s personality into her own.
Intensifying this aura of psychological malaise, events turn darker and more foreboding as Luciana gets ready for the “party” she believes will pay big money for her to attend as little more than window dressing. Provisions include a descent into the steaming bowels of a Chinese restaurant, where the aggressive attitudes of the owners only contribute to the mounting sense of danger. An analogous plunge in an industrial elevator to the party prepares us to anticipate a hellish fate for Luciana, but what Asensio has in mind for her character is far more disturbingly ambiguous.
DP Noah Greenberg’s image is framed at 1.66:1, the industry standard in Europe, and the film’s bravura central set-piece definitely conveys a decadent European sensibility, like one of those indolent swinger romps out of a Jess Franco De Sade adaptation. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that proceedings in the “game room” involve a particularly insidious form of wagering. The mood for these festivities is oddly reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, minus the masks and Buddhist chants. The idea that the elite toy with the disenfranchised for their jaded amusement certainly parallels Kubrick’s film.
Jeffrey Alan Jones’ rumbling, resonant sound design for this sequence adds immeasurably to its impact, utilizing a discordant rattle that recalls a ball rattling around a metallic roulette wheel. It’s to Asensio’s credit that she relies almost entirely on the audiovisuals to convey the impact of the film’s finale. The ambiguous final shot leaves viewers to parse Luciana’s response to her ordeal for themselves, while a sign advertising Big Apple NYC Dreams ironically hangs in the distance.
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[SXSW Review] The Chilling ‘Most Beautiful Island’ Is a Powerful Debut
by Trace Thurman
Depending on how much time you have, it’s not possible to cover every film at a film festivel, which means that a potentially amazing film can sometimes sneak by you. Unless it is an upcoming major studio release, many of the films showing at a festival have just one publicity still and a brief log line to promote them. You are left to your own devices to decide which films you want to see. Ana Asensio’s wonderful film Most Beautiful Island, almost got past me. It was on my initial list of films to catch but was in the “if I don’t catch it I’ll survive” section. When it was announced that it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the SXSW Conference and Festivals I quickly made it a point to see it. Most Beautiful Island turned out to be one of the best films to screen at the festival, and is a strong directorial debut for actress Ana Asensio.
Shot in Super 16mm, Most Beautiful Island chronicles one day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), a young immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet in New York City while striving to escape her past. She makes money by taking undesirable jobs such as handing out flyers on the street for a chicken joint or babysitting spoiled rich children. Her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) sees her desperation and offers her a job opportunity that will earn her $4,000 in a night. What Olga doesn’t tell Luciana is what she will have to do to get that money. Luciana eventually finds herself a central participant in a cruel game in the seedy underbelly of the city.
To say anything more about the plot of Most Beautiful Island would be a disservice to the viewer. At a brief 80 minutes, the film is deliberately paced, but never feels boring. This isn’t a film where a lot happens, as the film spends the majority of its runtime following Luciana around the city, observing her daily routine. Nor is it an outright horror film, but once Luciana enters the basement of a local Chinese restaurant, Most Beautiful Island dips its toes into the horror well. This should come as no surprise, considering genre veteran Larry Fessenden co-produced (and also has a small but key role in) the film. The film maintains a significant level of tension throughout the entire last 45 minutes or so, which is all the more impressive considering the entire second act is set in a waiting room. This leads to a climax that is as chilling as it is unpredictable. Asensio holds off on the big reveal until the mounting tension becomes almost unbearable, finally exploding in a moment of catharsis that rewards viewers for their patience.
Asensio, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, makes for a compelling lead. Luciana is a complex character who is so jaded by her past (which is left ambiguous in the film) that she is unfazed by almost anything. There is a scene early on in which dozens of cockroaches pour out of a hole in the wall and into the bathtub with her. Rather than immediately jump out of the tub, she just stares at them as they attempt to swim. Luciana’s lack of reaction speaks volumes about the character, and the subtle touches that Asensio integrates into her performance. The viewer is left to put most of the pieces together. It just so happens that many of those pieces are missing. That we get to know the character as well as we do with so little background information is a testament to Asensio’s performance and screenwriting skills.
Most Beautiful Island is a powerful debut for Asensio, who is able to accomplish so much with so little (the budget was apparently minuscule). With the current political climate, the film is more timely than ever. Asensio transports you into the streets of a distressed and grimy New York City before plunging you into its dark and unforgiving depths. What you see there may shock you, but it sure does make for some gripping filmmaking. I look forward to what Asensio has in store for us in the future.
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The Film Stage
Jared Mobarak 10/30/2017
It’s easy for Americans to look at a film like Eli Roth’s Hostel and find themselves afraid of the situation presented as one they could fall prey to if the circumstances arose. We’ve been instilled with that anxiety for decades — the notion that our freedoms at home do not transfer over when traveling abroad. It’s up to you to learn your destination’s customs and to be vigilant about your safety so as not to be the next Michael P. Fay (caned during a 1994 trip in Singapore) or Natalie Holloway (disappeared while on a 2005 vacation in Aruba). There’s an air of danger and uncertainty with every breath we take, but only when we leave the comfort of constitutional rights do we acknowledge how little control we have.
Now turn the table to witness the immigrant experience — especially today as xenophobia increases ten-fold under a regime thriving on “America First” rhetoric spreading fear into the hearts of its citizens that “the other” is their enemy. Legal or illegal, the moment someone who cannot speak English (or does so with an accent) steps foot on our stolen earth marks them as “less than.” They discover the streets aren’t paved with gold and Americans aren’t standing to greet them with open arms as dictated by the poem intrinsically bonded to Lady Liberty’s beacon of hope. Instead they find a struggle for survival bred from opportunities made possible by our nation’s entitled privilege to be above certain occupations. Undocumented aliens become a crucial off-the-books workforce, forever replaceable and amorally expendable.
This is their horror. Rather than willfully going to strange lands with less freedom for a thrill, they’ve come to one with more for salvation. Even if a court may provide the ability to seek medical care or do what it can to insure safety, however, the hoard — those possessing just enough power to have the means to protect it at others’ expense — will never let these foreigners be equals. This is the hard truth behind Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island and its “inspired by true events” tale of a downtrodden woman seeking compassion from a peer under similar duress. Luciana (Asensio) has yet to become jaded by her experience in America, still trusting that things will work out if only she dedicates herself to those ends.
And so, like Hostel, the first two-thirds of the film sets up Luciana’s precarious predicament with what it means to live in paradise. She’s relegated to babysitting brats without notice, a pre-paid cellphone that gets used up with one call home to Spain, demoralizing work as a nice body dressed like a chicken to sell overpriced fast food, and the position of accepting a job with few details simply because the payday could take care of her rent for a couple months. She’s smart enough to game the capitalist system and acquire things she can’t afford and vulnerable enough to earn the sympathy of strangers who have and still go through some of the same struggles (kindness shown via convenience store owner and NYC cabbie). She’ll do anything.
Unfortunately this part of the story can drag because we aren’t as much working towards the wonderfully tense climax as staying in one place while life piles on. There are really just two details from this period that truly impact her psyche beyond stereotype: the thoughtful and empathetic introduction of a backstory revealing why Luciana came to America in the first place and an opening prologue where the camera voyeuristically follows random (are they?) women walking the streets of New York City with steely determination. It’s the devastation and strength respectively of these plot threads that position her as a woman with back against wall — one to feel for, cheer on, and know she’s good at heart and worthy of success it seems only luck can now provide.
But even as most of this exposition feels redundant, there is still the friendship between Luciana and Olga (Natasha Romanova) that feels important (even if it’s a plot device). The latter is presented as a role model, someone who’s traversed the landscape of being undocumented and therefore can impart wisdom on a newcomer under her wing. She is the one who puts Luciana onto a path towards the unknown — a destination billed as a “party” wherein standing around and looking pretty (while not being pressured to do anything she doesn’t want) can earn two to four thousand bucks. We know as well as she that the deal is too good to be true, but what choice does she have? Olga vouches for it and Luciana needs the cash.
Being that the details of this “party” are what really increase tension — Asensio’s ability to keep us in the dark so that we’re on the edge of our seats rather than bored is precise — knowing as little about what’s to come is best. The suspense arrives from our ignorance alongside Luciana’s as she attempts to find out what’s happening from the other girls waiting for Vanessa (Caprice Benedetti) to escort them through a locked warehouse door. Is the task sexual in nature? Will her life be in danger? The absence of comprehending just how bad things can get aligns us closer to her than ever before, especially since she keeps her head and attempts to stay calm despite the urge to escape often getting the better of her.
The result is an example of America’s superiority complex above foreigners “stealing jobs” they’d never perform themselves. I say example rather than metaphor because the situation is inspired by life and honestly doesn’t seem wildly embellished despite its depravity. We watch as citizens demean and use Luciana — even the kids she babysits threaten her with white privilege learned from bigoted parents — before a get-together of elites literally puts a price tag on her head. What makes Most Beautiful Island standout, however, is that it isn’t just about desperation. Whether Luciana survives the night pales in comparison to whether she can gain power in the process by peering behind the curtain of paradise’s lie. When you have nothing to lose, why not use your oppressors’ vices to your advantage?
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SXSW Exclusive: Trailer & Poster For Psychological Thriller ‘Most Beautiful Island’
by Edward Davis
As immigration continues to dominate the national conversation, things couldn’t be more timely for Ana Asensio‘s “Most Beautiful Island,” which is getting ready to premiere at this month’s SXSW Film Festival.
In addition to directing, Asensio wrote and leads the film, which also stars Natasha Romanova, David Little, Nicholas Tucci, Larry Fessenden, and Caprice Benedetti, and tells the story of a single day in the life of a young, undocumented immigrant in New York City. Here’s the official synopsis:
“Most Beautiful Island” is a psychological thriller examining the plight of undocumented female immigrants hoping to make a life in New York. Shot on Super 16 with an intimate, voyeuristic sensibility, “Most Beautiful Island” chronicles one harrowing day in the life of Luciana, a young immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet while striving to escape her past. As Luciana’s day unfolds, she is whisked, physically and emotionally, through a series of troublesome, unforeseeable extremes. Before her day is done, she inadvertently finds herself a central participant in a cruel game. Lives are placed at risk, while psyches are twisted and broken for the perverse entertainment of a privileged few.
“Most Beautiful Island” launches this weekend. Check out the exclusive trailer below along with the poster created by Mondo artist Jay Shaw.
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No Film School
SXSW Grand Jury Prize Winner ‘Most Beautiful Island’: Shooting a Gripping Low-Budge Thriller on Super 16
Ana Asensio’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning film ‘Most Beautiful Island’ plumbs the depths of desperation on Super 16.
by Emily Buder
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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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[Review] ‘Most Beautiful Island’ is a Unique and Anxiety-Inducing Debut Film
Ana Asensio’s directorial debut Most Beautiful Island is a fascinating look at a day in the life of an immigrant living in New York City. Luciana (Ana Asensio) works multiple dead-end jobs but still can’t seem to make ends meet. One day after finishing a shift working as mascots and handing out fliers for a restaurant, Luciana and her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) are discussing their various jobs when Olga gets a phone call. She tells Luciana that she was just asked to work a party but is unable to do so, offering Luciana the chance to go in her place. Desperate for money, she agrees to work the party, despite not knowing anything about it besides the fact that she will receive $2000 when she’s done. Unbeknownst to Luciana, she has just agreed to work a top-secret event for a group of wealthy New Yorkers with mysterious intentions.
There is a lot to love about this film, not the least of which is the wonderful direction by Asensio. Her choice to place the camera just over Luciana’s shoulder for much of the film gives a voyeuristic feel and a sense of disorientation as the audience follows her through the bustling city. This camera placement also lends itself to a feeling of isolation because we only really ever get to know Luciana, despite the numerous people around her at any given time. This isolation is key to creating terror and anxiety in the audience later on, when Luciana- the only character we have to hang our hats on- is in a potentially dangerous situation.
In addition to the direction, Asensio is responsible for the writing and acting, both of which are fantastic. The film features Larry Fessenden and Nicholas Tucci in small roles, but it is Asensio herself who steals the show. Although there is not much dialogue, Asensio’s story is compelling and is told in clever ways. We come to know all we really need to about Luciana through seemingly trivial interactions and throw-away lines.
One example of this is when Luciana arrives late to a martial arts class to pick up two children she nannies. The young children begin to act out, saying their mother will fire Luciana when she finds out their nanny was late again. She all but drags the children down the street and attempts to bribe them not to rat her out with ice cream. At the corner store, the children continue to misbehave even as they pick out ice cream (after complaining that it isn’t the kind they want). As they whine and pull at her, Luciana asks the clerk if she can pay him tomorrow because she has no money, to which he replies yes. Recognizing that she’s very stressed while wrangling the rowdy children, the clerk calls Luciana back to the counter and gives her a piece of gum for free, which she accepts with sincere appreciation. Through this simple interaction, we come to know a lot about our main character. In this moment, we understand the gravity of Luciana’s day-to-day struggle- dealing with bratty, thankless children of someone who could afford to compensate her well but doesn’t. Because this is her second job of three that day, it’s easy to see why she would jump at a chance for easy money. It’s also clear that Luciana often relies on the kindness of others to get by- naivety which later proves to be a mistake.
What is most remarkable about Most Beautiful Island is how it creates terror within just a few short scenes. When earlier Luciana seemed so sure that she wanted to work this event in Olga’s place, she begins to second guess her choice when she is pushed into a dark room to wait amongst other nervous women there for the same mysterious job. As Luciana begins to freak out, we begin to do the same. Throughout the course of the film, it’s clear the story is building to something, but when it comes time to find out to what, we want nothing more than for our lead to forgetting the money and bail.
What happens at the party needs to be seen and experienced, so the events will not be revealed here. The climax is as quiet as the rest of the film, but there is a palpable tension in the air- both on screen and off- as we find out just exactly what it is Luciana is doing at this affair. Asensio achieves feelings of genuine fear and unease with the scenes that unfold. There has not been a film like Most Beautiful Island in recent memory, and it really should be seen by anyone who thinks horror films have nothing unique left to offer anymore- especially in terms of scares.
This film will surely be divisive, as many artistic genre films are of late (see The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, etc). Most Beautiful Island not only tests the idea of a traditional horror film, but it exceeds the confines of that definition. It at once returns to basics by relying on dread to move viewers while also offering a fresh story from a new perspective and new voice. For those who have doubted that horror films can be artful or express important messages, Most Beautiful Island is a must-see. For those of us who have stood by the horror genre and are excited to see how it will further evolve, we need to be supporting films like Most Beautiful Island.
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Film Pulse Magazine
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND Review
7 Film Pulse Score
In Most Beautiful Island, Ana Asensio keeps coming back to this idea of uncertainty. In the film she writes, directs and stars in, Asensio – who plays Luciana, a Spanish actress who has relocated to New York City – lives from moment to moment. She works odd jobs, is always looking for what she can do next and, because of her undocumented status, has to live with a particular degree of inherent improvisation.
One of the first things that we see, an early indicator that this movie is one of uncomfortable, mounting stressors, is the main character in the bathtub of her broken-down apartment. There’s a broken tile on the wall that has been covered up with duct tape. She rips it back. Dozens of cockroaches come scurrying out, plopping into the water. She does nothing. She moves back and gazes at the critters as they splash around. The camera moves to painstaking closeups of their antennae and abdomens, in case we wanted to check and make sure that they really were roaches and not, I don’t know, strangely colored transistors.
What does this scene tell us? Matter-of-fact to the point of operating like a deadpan dream sequence, it’s a fitting introduction to the film’s central thesis. Most Beautiful Island depicts Luciana in that same state, occupying both a constant flux and a frozen impassibility. When she goes to one of her day jobs, babysitting two spoiled kids, she moves between laying down the law and letting them walk all over her. When she goes out to buy a new dress, she covertly damages the fabric so she can buy it off-hand; later on, she flagrantly tosses an empty box into the back of the garbage truck, startling the workers stationed at it.
Eventually, Luciana learns of a mysterious job offer. It’s the reason she bought the dress. It has something to do with performing some kind of function at a social gathering. The guests must be wealthy, considering how well she’ll be paid. This sets up Most Beautiful Island’s barnburner of a third act, which manages to set off several common phobias all at once – fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces and some other fears of which describing them would constitute spoilers. You might think you know what’s going on at the party and what they want her and the other women there to do. But you definitely do not.
Asensio’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is gaining our interest through methodical build-up and unleashing a wave of tension, which becomes unexpectedly compelling. She is a good director. She is a good actress. But she may not be as good a screenwriter. The last third kills and keeps our eyes glued to the screen, yet everything that comes before is lackluster, especially in comparison. Most Beautiful Island doesn’t develop Luciana but depends on her acknowledgement as a protagonist as an automatic given. We care because the film depicts her as desperate, hopeful and scrappy – more traits of the performance than a testament to the structuring of the plot. Everything before the sudden transition to the party feels like a meandering introduction to an incredible short thriller.
It’s clear Asensio still has a ways to go in developing her craft, particularly if she plans more three-pronged projects like this in the future. But at 80 minutes, nobody could accuse the filmmaker of overstaying her welcome, and she gets a lot done in that space. Most Beautiful Island has many illusions to perform, nerves to rattle and setpieces to conjure up.
Go a little deeper, however, and you see a budding statement within, an elaborate digression against the invisibility of immigrants in modern society. Her ability to balance a message with firm direction shows a self-discipline that deserves fostering. There is something here, and when you watch through to the end and can finally unclench your hands from the armrest and chuckle at the sly final gag that rounds things off, you’ll agree.
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“No One Knew I Was There”: Ana Asensio on Most Beautiful Island
by Erik Luers in Directors, Interviews, Screenwriters
on Nov 6, 2017
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.
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Horror Geek Life
INTERVIEW WITH ANA ASENSIO OF ‘MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND’ (SXSW 2017)
by Melissa Hannon
One of the most anticipated film premieres during this year’s SXSW Conferences and Festivals was Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island. The film follows undocumented immigrants Luciana (Asensio) and Olga (Natasha Romanova) who are exploited and subjected to a cruel game in exchange for payment. Most Beautiful Island has gone on to be named the winner of the Narrative Feature Competition in the 2017 SXSW Film Festival Awards.
After viewing the film, and absolutely loving it, we had honor of speaking with Ana Asensio this week during SXSW.
HorrorGeekLife: Ana, you’ve had many roles in front of the camera as an actress, but this marks your debut film as director and writer. What made you decide to go behind the camera?
Ana Asensio: I have to say that being an actor, I had so many frustrations and no control at all of my career. Since I moved to the United States, things were much harder for me. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people that I could play roles that they didn’t see me in. I suffered. I realized that this wasn’t making me happy. So I started to produce my own work in theater. That also led me to think that I love film, I actually have my own visions. Maybe I could do my own story. I do have a story I would like to tell. That is what made me think that I could do this. I didn’t study film making, so my only reference were from working on movies and television, reading scripts, and being a film lover, but that’s it.
HorrorGeekLife: You’ve certainly told a story that needed to be told. Can you go into the true events that inspired Most Beautiful Island?
Ana Asensio: Part of this are stories that happened to me at a time in New York when I was transitioning my student visa into a working visa. That took many months. It was nine months of waiting and I couldn’t leave the country because of that status. I didn’t have a social security number, so it was illegal because I didn’t have paperwork. I ran out of savings and I didn’t want to ask for money from my family. So I started to work on whatever I would find that wouldn’t require well-spoken English or having a social security number. So, Craigslist jobs, babysitting horrible children, and shitty promotions like the ones that you see in the film. I became a witty street person, just to figure out how to survive on bagels because that was the cheapest and more filling option.
I never thought that I would see myself living like that because I come from a normal family and a country that isn’t in a huge crisis. I found myself living a life that I didn’t think I would, but in a way I was like, “This is what I want to do. I want to prove that I can go over and survive in New York on my own and not ask for help.” So that time was very vulnerable because I did not have friends or family here. A lot of inspiration comes from that, and a lot of inspiration come from a situation that happened to me. Someone gave me a call and said, “I got your number from a girl that you met recently and she told me that you’re looking for a job. I have a party that I’m booking for, it’s a Halloween party. You just need to go dressed in a costume, work there, it’s very simple and you will make tons of money.”
She actually lied to me. It was way more complicated than just being dressed in a costume at a party. It was an illegal place. I didn’t have a cellphone at the time, nobody knew I was there. She drove me and left me there. I felt very uncomfortable. I said I want to leave, I don’t want to be here. She didn’t let me leave. Nothing happened to me, but the fear that I felt in that time and the situation that I found myself in. It inspired me to also write this story. How someone would end up in a situation like this. The steps that happened right before. How cool would it be to just tell the story of one day in the life of someone, in the moments leading to this event? It’s a very simple story, living moment to moment. Also the stories of other girls at that time that I met and what they told me they were doing to make money.
HorrorGeekLife: Since it comes from such a personal place, did you immediately imagine yourself in the role while writing? Or did that come later in the process?
Ana Asensio: When I was writing, I couldn’t think of anyone but me. Because everything was drawn from feelings and things I thought. How I perceived the city at the beginning, in my earlier months, I was extremely overwhelmed by New York City and the energy, sounds, and people. I wanted to put all of that in. I was always thinking of me. This is my first time writing, but I think that probably every writer feels like they are in the mind of the main character. Later on, I said maybe that makes sense I would actually love to play this main role.
HorrorGeekLife: You did an amazing job with the film all around. There is a scene I have to ask about, since I was cringing. You were actually naked in a bathtub with huge swimming roaches! Was that nerve-racking? How did you prepare?
Ana Asensio: There were no body doubles, no CGI, and they were real cockroaches. For me, the roaches at the beginning it was fine. I had my mind set, that is what I want to do, that is the vision for the film. I was so inspired by repulsion. At one point during shooting the scene, I said I can’t do this anymore please cut cut cut cut! I started to get anxious because the water was really cold and I was naked to really get into the character and feel that. At some point, I started freaking and they have spikes. I didn’t know that, I’ve never touched a cockroach in my life before. One of them got in my hand and it didn’t get out because the spike gets into your skin.
HorrorGeekLife: I noticed at one point that you were trying to shake one off your hand. Was that the moment?
Ana Asensio: Yeah, because the spikes of the legs of that roach where just right there, so I couldn’t get it out. It was one thing that they are swimming towards me, it is another thing if they start to get into my body. Originally, I wrote it as the roaches started to crawl all over my body, but I have to say no. First of all, it’s hard enough to find roaches that were able to swim. I tried this scene before and they would drown and it wasn’t working. I ordered them online, my husband wanted to kill me… “You are really receiving a box with a 100 cockroaches in the mail?” I said, “Craig, don’t worry, it’s under control.” Because I did a test in our own bathroom at home. My husband wanted to kill me. He said, “Do you realize if one gets loose, they are going to reproduce?” Believe me, I don’t like them, I was just so stubborn that I wanted to get that scene. But believe me now, I really don’t like them.
HorrorGeekLife: I can just imagine! What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Ana Asensio: I would love for them to realize that first of all there are many more immigrants than the stereotype idea that we have. When you are illegal in the country, you are very vulnerable. You are susceptible to find yourself in the wrong place just because your options are limited. So maybe be open to feel more empathy with others. We’re all living in the same country. We are all contributing to the economy. People who are working for money under the table are being exploited. And the people that are hiring them are making more money by hiring them instead of other people. So we are part of this pyramid system, and we all need each other.
HorrorGeekLife: This is certainly a good time to put that message out there. Do you plan to continue writing and directing? And will you continue working with Glass Eye Pix?
Ana Asensio: My experience with Larry Fessenden and Jenn Wexler couldn’t be better. They were so generous and respectful. It was a long journey and it took us a while to get this film made. I would love to continue working with them and I would love to continue directing. I just hope my next film won’t take six years to get made. Hopefully it would be a little bit easier because here, it was my first film so I had to put a lot of myself in it. But I would really love to continue on this journey. I thought it was really fascinating. As an actor, you are just by yourself. As a director, you need help from absolutely everyone. It’s like constant help at all times and a collaborative process, I love it. I loved how much everyone was involved and how much I learned from other people. I would love to make another film.
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How They Did It: First-Time Director Ana Asensio Split Most Beautiful Island Into Two Stylistically Distinct Halves
Making Most Beautiful Island was my first time writing a script and directing a film.
Up to this point in my career, I had focused on acting and producing my theatrical one-woman shows. As a film lover, I had been watching great auteur filmmakers and studying those films on my own for many years, but was unaware, until trying to make my own film, of the depth and breadth of the art form. Making Most Beautiful Island was an ambitious adventure that taught me many lessons along the way—some of them painful, and all of them necessary.
In the fall of 2011, I asked my long time friend and cinematographer Noah Greenberg to shoot a teaser for Most Beautiful Island. I wanted to shoot one scene as both a proof-of-concept for my vision, and also as a sales tool for prospective financiers and producers that I hoped to involve in the project. It had been almost a year since I had completed the first draft of the screenplay and begun searching for financing. I was certain that a visual aid would help immensely with my pitch.
It was always my intent to shoot Most Beautiful Island handheld, on film, with a very documentary/voyeuristic approach. I was interested in the notion of the camera as an active observer. I trusted Noah to follow the action and find the expressive angle, the important detail, and to follow his instincts on when to move with me or to hold back—knowing that we both love the negative spaces and quiet moments within a scene that build tension.
Initially, I was also convinced that each scene needed to be done in one take—that this would lead necessarily to an intimacy and tension that an edited squence could not. We shot the teaser scene as one long, fluid, eight-minute take in my Brooklyn Heights apartment—following Luciana (whom I play in the film) from the hallway outside her apartment, into the kitchen, through the livingroom and, finally, into the bathroom for her disturbing bath scene. It was shot with just us and two friends helping with art and props. It was challenging to do this as an actor, but also technically challenging, as all four rooms had to be lit consistently looking 360 degrees, and, since I end up naked in the bathtub, all of the audio had to be done with wireless plant mics.
It worked beautifully as one take, but as we began to play with it, I found that it had more energy and tension with a few key edits. That first directing experince proved to me that my single-shot concept was solid, and something that I wanted to pursue, but also opened me up to editing in the form of jump cuts, which we employed in the feature.
In late 2014, we finally were able to begin shooting Most Beautiful Island. The plan was to have two very distinctive halves of the film, differentiated not only by the narrative shift, but also in the camera work. In the first half of the film, in which we are meeting Luciana and learning about her, we wanted to shoot in a documentary style, embracing available light and filming the majority of the scenes in one continuous take. We also wanted to embrace the city as a character, and to welcome the crazy, unpedictable energy of the streets. Having very little control over our shooting environment was of course a blessing and a curse; often we would run into problems because someone would block our shot, or a bus with a big logo on it would show up in the middle of a take. Also, as the film takes place in such a short, linear time frame, lighting continuity was a continuous challenge. At the same time, we were often surprised with moments of real-life unfolding around us that framed (and elevated) our staged scenes.
One example of this was the scene in Chinatown where Luciana wanders the streets looking for the address given to her by Olga. We were just a skeleton crew composed of the sound mixer, the first AD, Noah and his camera assistants. The acting and the camerawork were both totally improvised. Neither I (nor my character) knew which direction to take, so I just started running, then stopped to ask random pedestrians for help, wandered some more, stopped again, until finally finding the location—all of this without a camera rehearsal or a real idea of what exactly was going to happen.
It was really fun… for me. As an actor, I felt so free just being in the moment, discovering things and embracing those spontaneous decisions. For the crew, it was a little more stressful. They had to run after me, stop suddenly, and hide among the crowd to shoot in a purely journalistic style. I remember talking with Noah after we wrapped. He said that it was thrilling for him to just follow and kind of mind-meld with me, thinking about what I might do and where I might go and choreographing the camera movements accordingly. But, the whole time he was thinking about how much film was left on the magazine, worring that it might run out before we were “done,” and whether his ACs and the sound mixer were keeping up. In retrospect, I guess it was a little crazy—running wild through Chinatown without a plan—but we really got amazing footage.
The second half of the film begins when Luciana arrives at the “party.” From that point forward, the tone and the camerawork shift dramatically. The lighting becomes much more stylized and formal, and, while the camera is still handheld and favors longer exploratory takes, there is also more traditional coverage woven in throughout. We only had five days to shoot the second half of the film. Fortunately, it was all in one location. We had a couple of days to prep/pre-light the space and turn the raw warehouse into the creepy basement I had imagined. Discussing with Noah and Chad how to approach the lighting, we agreed that it was key to find something warm and flattering, yet realistic in that kind of space. It was a particular challenge, as the walls were white, the space not that large, and the camera needed the freedom to look nearly 360 degrees for every shot. Noah and Chad struck upon the notion of a soft, pretty top light for the ladies in the semicircle, and then practical fixtures to illuminate the surrounding walls which would leave the clientele mostly in and eerie, shadowy relief. It was an elegant solution and kept us moving very quickly, as we just needed little tweaks for the close-ups.
We created a detailed shot list along with a story board in pre-production, but found ourselves re-imaging the shots on the fly in the final space. It was a fascinating process finding the balance between that very improvisational feel of the camera—letting it breathe, finding the moments and focus on the fly—while covering long static shots with many characters speaking. The majority of the action in the basement happens within a semicircle of nine women who don’t move at all. In a way, the restrictions that Luciana is facing in the space were also reflected in the restrictions the camera was facing – being trapped in her perspective. It was scary yet fascinating problem.
I was fortunate enough to assemble a team with more experience than me. I had been on film shoots as an actress, but I had never been on the other side of the camera. Our producer Larry Fessenden, who also plays the role of Rudy, was a kind and generous mentor for me from day one. When we ran into a complication on set we would all gather around: Jenn Wexler, Chadd Harbold, Peter Phok, Larry, Noah and myself, to discuss how to creativately resolve the issue and move forward as fast as possible. This was always a very open and generous approach with all of them; always allowing me to have the last word. I felt like they were always there for me, protecting me, yet not imposing anything upon me. Even when they thought I was wrong about something, they would just politely mention it to me. And, in the cases when I was stubborn enough to pursue it anyway, they were always on my side. Working with minimal resources, being exhausted and often cold, somehow brought us all together in this at times quixotic adventure that was the shooting of Most Beautiful Island.
Looking back at this whole journey, one of the most best lessons I learned was in the editing room, when, nearly in tears, I had to cut entire scenes from the film. I hadn’t yet realized that this was a normal and necessary part of the process; and, every time we cut a shot, I thought of the time and money it took us to shoot the scene and of the actors’ now-wasted efforts. That angst initially clouded my judgement and forced me to keep shots out of guilt. Eventually, however, I came around and became pretty ruthless about pairing down to the essentials that would most efficiently tell Luciana’s story and help articulate her world. As I move forward, now writing my second script, I think of those moments in the editing room—editing more carefully and efficiently in my head as I write, being vigilant about keeping the characters and storyline tightly focused. Out of the many lessons I learned while making my first film, I think this has been the most valuable.
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