Most Beautiful Island

Ana Asensio (2016 91 mins, Super 16, color, 1.66 : 1)

“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.


Indiewire

3/14/2017

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.

Indiewire

3/15/2017

‘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.

Grade: B+

Austin Chronicle

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.

Variety

3/19/2017

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.

Bloody Disgusting

3/17/2017

[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.

Horror Geek Life

3/15/2017

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.

No Film School

3/17/2017

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

The Playlist

3/7/2017

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.

IndieWire

6/14/2017

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.”



ANA ASENSIO, “Luciana” – Ana Asensio is an international actress, writer and director from Spain, living in New York. She has acted in Spanish TV drama series and independent films, produced and starred in award-winning plays, and adapted a Spanish best-selling novel into a one-woman show. “Most Beautiful Island” is her first feature film as a writer/director.

NATASHA ROMANOVA, “Olga” – After moving to New York from Ukraine in 1996 to pursue her career, Natasha Romanova studied acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and TVI Actor’s Studio. She produced and hosted in her native language several television shows, and worked as a news anchor for major international Russian language television channels, NTV America and RTVi. Natasha has modeled for multiple designers, magazines and ad campaigns, and is also known as the “Sexy Candy Dome Girl” for her appearance on the cover of DEVO album “Something for everybody”.



ANA ASENSIO, writer/producer/director – An international actress, writer and director from Spain, living in New York. She has acted in Spanish TV drama series and independent films, produced and starred in award-winning plays, and adapted a Spanish best-selling novel into a one-woman show. “Most Beautiful Island” is her first feature film as a writer/director.

Executive Producer:  Peter Phok, Jose Maria Garcia, Ahmet Bilgen, Selim Cevikel, Christopher Todd, Gill Holland
Producer:  Jenn Wexler, Chadd Harbold, Larry Fessenden, Noah Greenberg, Ana Asensio