What do you do after your first film premiers at Sundance, snags a Silver Bear in Berlin, becomes the toast of indie-town, and gets an Oscar nomination like a sundae-crowning cherry? Most directors would ride the buzz straight to the nearest Hollywood studio and demand their right to helm a blockbuster. But after the breakout success of Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston sidestepped American production altogether, traveling to the hills of Northern Albania (of all places) to make his second feature, Forgiveness of Blood.
Like his debut, Marston’s latest film paints a stark and uncompromising portrait of a changing world. And like the best socially-committed filmmakers, Marston has developed an amazing talent for directing non-professional actors, using them to explore questions of modernization, justice, and the limitless complexities of the nuclear family. But while Maria bore witness to the injustice of the modern drug trade, Forgiveness studies the cruelty of an age-old practice. In Northern Albania families are still held to the ancient penal code known as Kanun (or Blood Feuds), essentially a form of tribal grudge-bearing which holds an entire family responsible for the crimes of a relative. In Marston’s film, one feud puts a headstrong and winsome teenager (like Maria, he too is full of grace) under indefinite house-arrest as punishment for his father’s violence. What ensues is as much the anatomy of a changing society as it is an Oedipal coming-of-age story.
When I spoke with Marston on the phone he was in LA shooting an episode for Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom. An ex-political science graduate student, Marston speaks with the precision and intelligence of an NPR pundit, taking pauses to gather his thoughts and choose his words carefully. As with Maria Full of Grace and now Forgiveness of Blood, you get the sense that Marston won’t make a statement he can’t stand behind.
BULLETT: I would like to begin by asking you about place. Place and setting occupy such a central role in both Maria and now in Forgiveness. What was it about Albania that drew you to this film?
Joshua Marston: What drew me to Albania was specifically the story about the blood feuds—about families living in self-imposed house arrest. It fascinated and captivated me. The story is so specific to a certain place, so that getting the story right meant getting the culture as well as the attitudes as well as the history all correct. In many respects it’s not just a portrait of characters, but also of Northern Albania in the current day, at a very specific moment in time.
What was it about the blood feuds that interested you?
Well what really interested me was the contrast between the old and the new. I was fascinated by the strange contradictions that come up when you talk about these archaic blood feuds happening in a modern setting. Since the end of communism, Albania is continuing to live through an extended period of transition. What strange juxtapositions does that create? How do people’s mentalities change or not change? Those are the questions I’m interested in.
The film feels so local, so Balkan, so authentic. It’s almost a shock to realize that an American directed it. Where does that authenticity come from?
I think the authenticity ultimately derives from the way I interacted with the people in Albania. And from various rounds of work. The first round is an extended period of listening. Just doing a lot of interviews, learning as much as possible about Albania, understanding from a sociological point of view how the blood feuds work, what it means to be a teenager in Albania. In the second round, the authenticity derives from the collaboration I have with the actors. It’s really about me allowing them to have participation in deciding what’s right for their characters, and bringing their own life experience to the world that’s in the script. As a writer and director I’m setting up the blueprint the actors can then fill in with all the levels of detail: everything from the specific word choice or slang to their activities and behavior. So the arrow also points the other way—it’s not just me telling them what to do, it’s them telling me what their characters ought to be doing at a certain moment.
I’m hard-pressed to think of American directors who work this way, and so far afield. I think more of Italian Neo-Realists, maybe even documentary filmmakers. Which filmmakers have had the biggest influence on you?
The biggest influence for that level of realism were Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. They both achieve a real level of authenticity albeit by very different ways. So I’ve stolen bits and pieces from their technique. They would be the two most contemporary, specific examples of people I’ve relied upon for inspiration.
When I think of a filmmaker like Ken Loach, I think of a kind of old-school socialist approach to storytelling. Your work seems to be something a bit different from that. Would you call yourself a political filmmaker?
Every filmmaker is political in their own way. I’m political in my way into the story. I think you can be political in terms of who you choose as your main character. For example, in Maria Full of Grace, there’s a political aspect in choosing a story narrated by someone at the bottom of the totem pole of the drug trade. It’s sort of a worm’s eye view of how the lives of people without power are influenced by those with power. So my movies are not ideological, but I do think they’re political. For me the difference is that a political film asks a question whereas an ideological film gives an answer.
Maria Full of Grace had so much movement in it. It was about a character literally in flight. This story is the opposite; it’s about staying put. Was it a challenge making a film about confinement?
Yeah, the challenge was finding a way to make the story active even while the character is passive. The solution was partly to find little ways the character finds changes in his life. So in the case of Nik, he continues to try to see his girlfriend, he uses his cell phone to communicate with her, he lobbies his grandfather and the elders in his family to engage in some form of mediation in the feud. All of these represent attempts to take action. The challenge is that a number of them are stymied. But ultimately even if he’s not as active as someone who leaves the house, my hope is that his character, his personality, his emotional journey is progressing steadily throughout the film. So that for every moment he is blocked or frustrated there’s a mounting tension that will contribute to his transformation at the end of the movie from a young man to an adult.
Was it hard to find financing for this film?
Finding financing for this movie was remarkably easy, far easier than for various larger projects in the United States. This movie, by virtue of having a small budget and a very clear story and a style that was similar to Maria made it easy to find money from European and other sources.
Do you find it’s hard to make the kind of movies you want to make in America?
It’s been a learning process. There is a limit financially speaking to making movies with unknown actors or languages other than English. That’s not to say those are the only kinds of movies I want to make, but those are the kinds of movies that have to be done with small budgets.
What are your current projects?
At the moment I’m directing an episode for the new Aaron Sorkin show, The Newsroom, for HBO. And I’m developing a feature, a psychological thriller, with Fox Searchlight.
Will that be in English and with big stars?
Yes, it will be an American movie.
Are you excited about the change?
Yes, actually, I am.