Maria Full of Grace has been playing to critical acclaim around the country. It’s finally opening in Colorado, and here to answer questions at a Denver screening (and during a day of interviews) are the film’s director and star.
The strange humidity of the day and the late afternoon time-slot make the two seem a little weary, but they’re happy enough to talk about their movie, the first for both of them.
After getting their recommendations (see the sidebar), I asked them about improvisation, being chosen, research, Colombia,”The Scene,” and a serendipitous ending.
- Raining Stones
- Dreamlife of Angels
- Ladybird Ladybird
- Secrets and Lies
- Blade Runner
Catalina Sandino Moreno
Marty Mapes: It’s interesting you recommended Secrets and Lies. What you did sounds like something Mike Leigh does — improvisation, then writing it down.
Josh Marston: Well it’s sort of a somehow an amalgam of Mike Leigh’s approach and Ken Loach’s approach.
MM: I’m not that familiar with ken Loach.
JM: A lot of people put them together because they both make films that have very compelling characters that feel very real. And they both use improvisation but they use improvisation in very different ways. Mike Leigh says that he starts without knowing what the film is going to be about, let alone having a script. He starts developing characters with the actors, and then slowly builds up interactions, and then he creates scenes, and a story, and then goes off and writes, and then comes back with the written text.
MM: ... and it’s actually nailed down pretty tight...
JM: ... by the time they shoot. Ken Loach has a script written irrespective of actors, before they’re cast, and then casts it, and then shows the actors the script, if at all, maybe the day before — the day of — and does a lot of improvisation in the actual shooting. He starts rolling the scenes well before the scene takes place and continues rolling well after the drama would have stopped on screen.
MM: Catalina, I’ve read that the casting was a surprise, and that you wanted to go see what this strange white guy was doing. It turns out you got picked over 800 other Marias. What do you attribute that to?
Catalina Sandino Moreno: Luck? Talent? I don’t know. I think the circumstances were so crazy because I was refusing to go to any castings. When the casting came, it was thanks to my mom that I went. She was like “You have to go, you have to go, go and see who this guy is, just go and see him.” And when I went, I saw him, and we’ve been working since. It was just... it was destiny. It was luck. It was, I don’t know, compilations of a lot of things, all together.
MM: Five years in the making! I’m surprised it’s a 90-minute movie and not a book. Is there a book in you somewhere?
JM: It’s not my medium. I like writing and I write, I would love to write a novel at some point, and I wouldn’t mind writing nonfiction, but somehow it just wasn’t the medium that felt right for this for me.
MM: There’s a lot of stuff that you can’t fit into 90 minutes.
JM: True, but there’s also an emotional weight and drama that you can give to something by fictionalizing it that you can’t by either making a documentary film or writing a nonfiction piece of work.
MM: It’s set in Colombia, but it was shot in Ecuador. How come?
JM: Because at the time we were getting ready to shoot, it was just before the presidential elections there; things were heating up. There were a few bombs placed, and we couldn’t get production insurance. So we had to move everything to Ecuador, which was probably the most difficult and harrowing moment of the whole film.
MM: Not getting insurance or having to move?
JM: Having to move, because it was one thing to be an American and going to Colombia to tell a Colombian story — who am I to do that? But to take it a step further and be an American going to Ecuador and fabricating a country that’s not my own was very daunting, because I knew I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to feel authentic. And ultimately our way to do it right was to collaborate with a lot of Colombians.
MM: Is Colombia really that unsafe? You’ve got family there. Do you think of Colombia as a dangerous place?
CSM: I lived in Colombia. I lived in Bogotá for 21 years, and nobody ever robbed me. I have nothing related to drugs, like none of my friends were involved with drugs, none of them have been robbed. So it’s pretty crazy. In a lot of place in Colombia of course you find violence, but the rest of Colombia is not like that. In Bogotá I feel safe.
MM: I was really impressed with the research that was involved. The swallowing scene of course made a huge impression. I was surprised at the low tech — they used latex gloves — then they used this machine, and I’m not sure what it was.
JM: It would normally be used to make homemade vitamins.
MM: I was thinking ‘has the drug trade developed this low tech solution and then developed this high tech machine?’
JM: No. All of it is based on research, all based on stories that I was told. In a way I actually think latex fingers are higher tech than condoms, and I personally never understood condoms, I could never wrap my head around it. Everything about it just seemed wrong.
MM: People used that for swallowing drugs?
JM: That’s sort of the urban legend. That was the only thing I had heard about when all of this started, was the idea of swallowing drugs in condoms and transporting them. And in a way that first story that I heard, the fact that it was latex gloves — it was so specific — that was one of those levels of detail that sucked me in to wanting to tell this story.
MM: On that scene — it’s really hard to watch. Was it hard to perform? Did you ever actually swallow something?
CSM: Yeah, I swallowed 8 pellets through the whole movie. And it was as scary as it looks. The fear that I have in that scene, it was a real fear. I didn’t act. It was good because it was my first time that I saw how a pill was made. It was my first time that I put a pellet in my mouth. I didn’t practice.
MM: Did you ever run into any trouble? You’ve done a lot of research into some dangerous people. Did you ever get so close that you were in fear of your life?
JM: No, not at all. I think making a film about a drug mill is about as threatening to the higher-ups of the drug trade as making a film about a drug pusher on the corner of the South Bronx would be. It’s a low-level person, of whom there are thousands, and doing something that’s fairly commonplace and common knowledge in Colombia.
MM: Catalina, do you think that’s true? Do you think this is common knowledge?
CSM: Yeah. Of course I learn a lot, but it’s not a secret and we know that there are mules. And we know they are caught and they are in jail and that’s good. The other part that I really learned from this movie is that behind every mule is a plot, and you have to respect that. It’s so easy to judge people. You just have to quit judging and just try to put yourself in their shoes and try to think “Why do they do that? Why do they risk their life for a couple of dollars?”
MM: There’s something at the very end that made me like the movie an extra bit. There’s a sign at the airport with the message of the movie. Was that serendipity?
JM: (Sheepishly) Yeah. I could lie to you. I’m very tempted to, because you say that it puts you over the top. It would never occur to me to work on the level of hanging a billboard with the message of the movie in the background. I didn’t even notice it until we showed a rough cut of the film and someone pointed it out to me. And I had to really search for it. I was traveling through the airport about two months later and there was a sign in the same place advertising shoes. I was really glad that that wasn’t what happened to be in the background.
MM: I’m actually glad it’s serendipity.
JM: I’ve looked at it closely, now that it’s been pointed out to me, and there’s no single frame that you can see the whole thing at once. That would be the only way to do it, and if someone had said “we can do it and you’ll never fully see it and we’ll block it and coordinate the camera movement,” I’d be like “get out.”