It’s pretty fitting that one of the best scenes in “Most Beautiful Island” can come and go without much notice. Luciana, a recent emigre to New York struggling to make ends meet, has been summoned to an undisclosed location as part of a job she’s been promised will be paid handsomely, but requires her to wear a tight black dress, carry a small black purse and leave all her other belongings behind before entering the building. With no one to trust with the few possessions she has, she finds the nearest trash can to dump her backpack, which she empties out and scatters around the wastebin so as to protect the items from being snatched in one fell swoop. In a literal throwaway moment, you can tell Luciana is a survivor and Ana Asensio, the woman playing her, is a fiendishly brilliant writer/director to ratchet up the suspense in making the question of if she’ll ever see her belongings again part of the film’s mystery.
Although Asensio shares certain autobiographical elements with Luciana, initially finding the hook for her bewitching feature debut from her days of taking jobs with dubious origins after arriving in America from Spain as she pursued an acting career in New York, it is the wits and thick skin that she seems to have most in common with her lead, using them as much to get this story to the screen as to inform her wily performance as a woman whose cockroach-infested apartment is indicative of how she’s fallen through the cracks of society. While Luciana dodges the slings and arrows of living in the margins, unable to pay for a doctor’s appointment to diagnose her occasional dizzy spells and nose bleeds and working multiple odd jobs to afford more minutes on her phone card to stay connected to home, Asensio found attracting support for her first feature behind the scenes wasn’t much easier, diligently attempting attract potential financiers since 2010 for the small-scale thriller and knocking on the doors of strangers to secure locations, using the downtime to sharpen the script.
Maybe that’s why for as much as you see Luciana sweating things out on screen, one doesn’t sense the same from Asensio’s most confident turn as an auteur, weaponizing the uncertainty inherent in the immigrant experience for the many twists and turns in “Most Beautiful Island.” Walking into an unmarked building alongside the West Side Highway in the film’s second half may feel like completely uncharted territory for an audience, but for Luciana, it is the accumulation of spending every day never knowing where she stands, unable to feel any fear about it. Uncompromising in both projecting a social conscience and its desire to entertain, it’s an incredibly daring film that needs to be seen to be believed and shortly before it hits theaters after premiering earlier this year at SXSW, where it won the festival’s Grand Jury Award, Asensio spoke about the load road to bring “Most Beautiful Island” to the screen, achieving such a vivid sensory experience and how her own nerves are doing in putting out such a tense potboiler.
My background is in acting, and I lived in New York for x amount of years trying to work as an actress and then one day I decided that I wanted to take control of my career. I started to produce my own one-woman shows and I started to travel with them around the world and I thought that was cool, but I’m a film fanatic – and I never studied film – but I thought I could try to do that. So I decided to write a script and from the very beginning, I knew I had to be very active in order to make this movie. I knocked on every single possible door out there – production companies, individuals…anything but crowdfunding because I knew all my friends were broke, so it would make no sense for me to be begging them for money when I’d already been harassing them to come see my one-woman shows. [laughs] Eventually, I got five individuals to give a little bit of money and I put all of my savings into it and went ahead and shot this movie on 16mm. It sounds like a little bit like a fairy tale, but no. It’s more like sweat and tears. [laughs]
How did Glass Eye Pix get involved? They’re known for being able to provide a strong infrastructure.
While never abandoning the project, there was just time waiting for people to say yes or no, so it took a very long time and in the mean time, I did revisions to the script and you know how it goes, you never finish with that. [laughs] Basically, I was in this state of mind that I said, “That’s it. I’m shooting this film this year” and I believe when you put things out into the universe, somehow it happens, so I wanted to make a very strong decision. I didn’t have any money. I only had my own savings, which was not going to take me that far, but I said I’m putting my own savings in, I’m shooting this movie no matter what.
At that point, I met Jenn Wexler and Larry [Fessenden] from Glass Eye Pix – I knew them from the indie scene in New York, but it was actually at the Stanley Film Festival [where] we were just sharing some time together. I was actually a part of a reading show that Larry puts together called “Tales from Beyond the Pale,” and I told him, “Look, I’m doing this…” and [after he asked] “what is that about?” I pitched the whole story. Larry and Jenn are like, “That sounds pretty exciting. Who is producing this?” And I said, “Me.” Larry’s like, “Do you need any help? We would love to help you out, however possible.” It really was a friendly approach, [not the idea that we’d] be doing business, but then Jenn read the script and she’s like, “This is terrific. Let’s get onboard.”
Then Larry read it and then said, “Look, listen, we cannot bring money upfront at the moment, but we can bring you logistical support and structure. We can get a crew together. You can use our offices, our resources and we can make this happen.” So it was amazing having them attached because it was much easier for me to do my final round of calls and be like, “Well, I’m making this film, this production company is working on it and…would you give me money?” [laughs] And Larry is always very supportive of first-time filmmakers. He was extremely helpful, yet respectful like “Well, it’s your vision, so you’ve got to do it in the way you believe in it,” like how he made “Habit” 25 years ago, so it was very collaborative, very inspiring and a great experience.
Did you find being an actress in this and at the center of the action made it easier for you or with all the responsibilities that you had as a writer/producer/director, was it difficult to focus on your performance?
That was the biggest struggle for me. Because I created this character and this story and it’s pretty much inspired by my story, I knew the character very well, but as an actor, you want to take time to just make sure you get in the moment. But directing is all new to me, so I had to concentrate on what to tell to every single department to make sure everything was the way I wanted, so then when I came to the point of, “Wait a moment, now I have to jump into the character,” I just had to hope that I got it because there’s not even time for me to invest into this. My mind was 90% as a director and 10% as an actor, and it was difficult for me to put aside the control [you need as] a director and then just be myself [as an actress]. Every take was a big challenge, much more than if I was only acting because that would’ve been my only job.
Is it then helpful or nerve-racking to get to the edit room and cut your own performance? I got the sense there was a lot of stripping away of the narrative to keep it elusive.
In the first half of the film, my goal was to shoot the majority of scenes in one continuous shot. Eventually, I end up having to do jump cuts just because the scene [might not be] feeling right or a couple of times I ended up deciding to [cut] a closeup, but for the most part, it was long continuing shots and for those, you’re looking at so many things that have to happen – not only the performance, but also how the camera moves and [if] the timing right for this scene, so it was a combination of all these things rather just than looking at what was the best performance. And we really didn’t have that many takes per shot. So some things were what I wanted and some things were not exactly what I dreamed about, but what I got and I had to work with that.
Originally, when I created the whole concept of the film, the camera was going to be one of the leading characters – and maybe the lead. It just depends on where you want to put yourself – if you want to be that voyeuristic person or you want to be that main character. But I wanted to have [the camera be] that vivid dynamic character, always handheld just breathing with the action. I never wanted it too predetermined what was going to happen, even though it was a decision made between me and the cinematographer that this is what the camera’s going to do. I was always saying, “Please, please allow freedom.” If you had to move two seconds after to refocus, I love that because that’s human and I want that camera to be a human who is getting into this private world. That’s why I’m always using obstruction between the lenses and having that kind of voyeuristic look into this woman’s life – which is the way that it is, you open the door and [see her for a moment] and you just close the door and let her be.
Sonically, this took me right back to the experience of being in New York – the moment in the subway station where you can hear a fire and brimstone street preacher alongside the rickety tracks and the way certain sounds raise anxiety. Did you have a lot of fun with the sound mix?
Originally, I wanted the film to be without a score. I just wanted real sounds from the city that would fill in the ambiance of the scenes and create tension, so we recorded as much as we could of the sounds of New York City. I was keeping it as realistic as possible, but then the sound designer created a much heightened world in which you notice the sounds are much richer and vivid and more dramatic at times. When you have rising tension, you can actually hear things you usually don’t hear, so we [wanted to] have those rich sounds.
The first time I had to actually put it out in the world with a real audience, not just my friends and family, it was scary. I was thinking, “Oh my God, I hope people will stay. [They must think] the hell is she, how pretentious she is for trying to do it, and she didn’t do anything right – she’s trying to do everything herself,” so I was very worried I was going to be criticized by being extremely pretentious while honestly, my intention was not to be. I actually saw this film as a simple story, whether you like it or not, but I was very worried. And when the reaction was positive, both from the audience and the critics, I was just so relieved. People are actually getting it. They’re getting nuances of the story that maybe I thought would be too hard to catch or just too subtle, but people seem to be talking about those things, so I was afraid, but it’s extremely rewarding, but also liberating.