Breaking Out of My Identity as an American Foreign-Language Filmmaker

Joshua Marston on how he broke his run of directing microbudget films in other countries and made a movie in English — with movie stars!

There’s a joke that keeps coming up in press I’ve been doing leading up to the theatrical release today of my new film, Complete Unknown: Is this the same Joshua Marston — making a movie in English with movie stars? It’s amusing, in light of the fact that this is a film about self-reinvention, to watch journalists wrap their heads around the idea that the same guy who made Maria Full of Grace in Spanish and The Forgiveness of Blood in Albanian has finally sold out, come back to the mainland to make a film. So, have I changed as a filmmaker or am I still fundamentally the same? And if I am the same what is that “same” thing?

The truth is, I’ve never been as narrowly focused as people looking at my first two films would assume. I’ve always had as much love for Blade Runner and 2001 as I have for Kes and Naked. People like to categorize and pigeonhole. And then when you break out of what people have come to predict of you, they are either enthralled by the idea you’ve made a break or they’re completely disappointed that you’re not giving them what they expect.

I find those two different reactions fascinating. It was, in part, what motivated the premise of this new film, which spans a night between a character who needs to make change in his life (Michael Shannon) and a character who’s changed too much (Rachel Weisz).

So, it’s interesting that this film is being viewed as a change for me. When people ask the filmmakers whose careers I admire, I’ve often pointed to Ang Lee purely for the breadth and diversity of genres he’s worked in, from Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet to The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Whether you love or hate one or another of his films, it’s impossible to deny his range.

And as much as I look up to someone like Ang, I equally admire a filmmaker like Ira Sachs whose films, taken together, signal a director with a core set of interests that motivate him as an artist. Which is another way of saying that his work has an integrity and he isn’t simply directing movies because they fall into his lap. So, I find myself as drawn to consistency as I am to diversity.

The other thing that keeps cropping up is that journalists comment on the eight long years between my first two films and the five years until the third film. At the moment, I’m slated to direct my next film a mere two years after this current one. So I tell them I’m aiming to keep halving the length of time it takes to make each film.

But I wonder whether there’s a connection between the aim for diversity and the length of time I’ve spent trapped in purgatory between films. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying during those periods. After Maria Full of Grace, I spent three years traveling to Iraq and writing a film about American truck drivers working in the war as contractors hauling jet fuel, which never got made. Never got made because I naively believed the studio when it said it wanted to be in “the Joshua Marston business,” which to me meant I ought to be able to have an actor like Chris Cooper carry an $18 million movie. (Not.) And I spent three years trying to make an adaptation I’d co-written with Jonathan Lethem of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, only to be told again and again that it was a financial non-starter to make a movie about kids for an adult audience. I had a project with Robert Redford, a project with Focus Features, a project with This American Life, a top-secret project I pitched and wrote to be produced by J.J. Abrams…

The list goes on. And the one thing about them all: they were all in English. So, when none of them got off the ground, I went off and made a small movie in Albania in the Albanian language with an Albanian cast, which was put forward by Albania as their submission to the Oscars. (The Academy stamped it Return to Sender; not Albanian because directed by an American.)

So all the journalists saw was that I was the American director who went off to foreign lands and returned with movies not in English. Then after The Forgiveness of Blood, I tried again to make a few movies in English. One of them was actually a remake of an Italian movie called The Double Hour. I’m certainly not one to remake a foreign film simply to translate it into English. In this case, though the original was very good, I saw a way I thought I could make it even better. Unfortunately, familiar fates conspired against me. When the project was dumped by the studio (because a too-similar movie of theirs had tanked), an independent financier valued the cast (Michelle Williams and Joel Edgerton) at a number that had us trying to make it non-union in Alabama just to hit their target.

When Double Hour fell apart, I had finally had it. Around the same time, Ira Sachs was gearing up to make the beautiful Love is Strange and I was inspired by his dogged determination to make films small enough to control. That was when my co-writer, Julian Sheppard, and I sat down to start writing a movie that would be small by design. We began with a single location: a dinner party. And with the concept of a character who isn’t who she presents herself to be. That led to what is now Complete Unknown.

Although this new film is in English with movie stars, it does bear one consistent element in common with my prior films, and that is that it’s small. Mind you, being small didn’t stop the money from falling through three weeks before shooting, proving that no movie is really too small to fail at the eleventh hour. I said at the top of this piece that I admire Ira Sachs’ work. But I ask myself the question whether I am all right with the consistent attribute of my work being microbudget. The answer is that I’m not. And to be clear, I have no basis on which to say that Ira Sachs would be either. I suspect that he, like most of us, would love the opportunity for a larger canvas to work on.

As much as I enjoy the notion that Complete Unknown represents some sort of break, the truth is that I more enjoy seeing in my films a through line of work that focuses on character, work that, even when it flirts with genre (as Complete Unknown does) ultimately favors an examination of deeper themes and questions (frequently, how people find their place in the world and define their identity), work that leaves audiences with something to think about. My next film — about a pentecostal preacher who redefines himself by declaring that Hell doesn’t exist — certainly is consistent with that trajectory. But with that said, I do hope to be making one significant departure from my past work: a big, huge, enormous budget. Ha! Gotcha! No seriously, it’s a big budget. I mean, kinda big. Relatively. Not that we have enough money. But at least it’s not small!

Joshua Marston is a New York-based screenwriter and director. His first fiction film, Maria Full of Grace (2004), received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. His second feature, The Forgiveness of Blood (2012), won Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival. His latest film, Complete Unknown, is out now through IFC Films and Amazon Studios. He also directed the Coney Island section of New York I Love You, starring Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach, and episodes of The Newsroom, Six Feet Under, Law & Order, How to Make it in America, In Treatment and The Good Wife.