The title of director Mike Ott and his co-writer and star Atsuko Okatsuka’s film is a reference to California’s State Route 138. There’s a loneliness to the territory that 138 cuts through that is reflected in the lives of Ott and Okatsuka’s characters who are themselves drawn in part, as the lore goes, from the cast’s own lives.
Okatsuka plays the nearly eponymously named Atsuko Sakamoto, known as Anna to her American friends. Anna is a Japanese immigrant, a shade of the outsider drawn to others on the fringes of the small town society she’s found herself in with her aunt and uncle. We discover quickly that– at great risk– Anna is prostituting herself. The money she earns, it seems, she intends to use to return to Japan to see her ailing grandmother. At least that’s the logic that her own statements suggest, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Anna seeks any kind of escape she can find.
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For first time director Brandon Cronenberg comparisons with the work of his famous father, director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, A History of Violence), were going to be inevitable.
“Even before I was in film it’s just one of the weird aspects of having a famous parent,” said Brandon Cronenberg, whose feature debut screened at this month’s AFI. “Your identity and you life gets weirdly entangled with their career and people’s perceptions of who they are.”
The strange ways that people perceive each other is one of the themes at the heart of Cronenberg’s Antiviral. Celebrity culture is viewed through a twisted science fiction lens, as the writer-director posits an alternate version of our world where celebrity obsessed fans pay to be infected with diseases taken directly from their icon’s bodies. (more…)
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It seems like at AFI Fest I have an interview that just eclipses every other interview of the year. Last time out it was my discussion with Panos Cosmatos, director of Beyond The Black Rainbow. This year it was with performance artist and filmmaker Drew Denny, whose deeply personal The Most Fun I Ever Had With My Pants On surprised and delighted me.
Truth be told I nearly skipped watching the film. The words “performance artist” remain incredibly loaded for me. Flashbacks to incomprehensible, humorously earnest college productions are sparked by that phrase. Yet so too are memories of seeing Miranda July practice her craft.
Denny’s film debut– which I’ll call Pants On for short– has something in common with July’s The Future. Both were drawn from performance art pieces. In the case of Pants On the performance was a work that centered on a recent, dark episode in Denny’s life. (more…)
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Tobias Lindholm’s film about a Danish container ship hijacked by Somali pirates is an exercise in tension and paitence that ultimately unravels thanks to deliberate pacing.
As an experience A Hijacking (Kapringen) does an excellent job of thrusting the audience into the psychological confinement exerienced by both the ship’s crew– personified in the character of the chips’ cook (Pilou Asbæk)– and the CEO of the shipping company.
From a design perspective there is much to praise. Director Lindholm brings a documentatrians’ sensibility to his first feature. The ship used for the film had actually been hijacked at one point, and the grim little details of the crew’s experience feels as if they were drawn from news reports. (more…)
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Director David O. Russell’s followup to The Fighter may lack some of the pugilistic oomph of that triumph, but more than makes up for it in terms of the all-cylinders effort he gets out of his seasoned cast.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, who we meet on the day of his release from a mental hospital. The hospital stay is part of his plea bargain for beating one of his co-workers half to death when he found him in the shower with his wife some eight months previous. Cooper has become a go-to leading man for studio dramas in the past few years, the nebbishy qualities he had in the TV series Alias pretty much burned away with the setting of this type. (more…)
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Is it for the simple reason that the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest Presented By Audi* is in my backyard that it winds up being my favorite film festival of the year? Is it the fact that by being so close to the Awards season they get to host major premieres? Or could it be that by being at the end of the year’s cycle of films they get to cherry pick from all the other festivals to create an awesome program slate which they then offer up to the public for free.
Of course it’s all those things.
But you don’t care about that. You just care about movies, so here’s what I’m psyched to see at this year’s AFI, as always it’s a hodge-podge of genre, indie, and foreign films that have caught my eye… (more…)
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Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman are the creative forces behind The Color Wheel, a favorite on the film festival circuit (read our review) for the high speed, high grade chemistry between the two. Perry and Altman play a brother and sister that on the surface can’t stand each other, but deep down are the only people who truly understand each other.
It’s a quick-witted road comedy with some dark, daring twists born from a feeling of disconnection with the world as it is. We talked to Perry and Atman, co-writers and co-stars (Perry directed) at this year’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
Noah Nelson: A lot of the choices you make set up this world of alienation. When did you know that you wanted to make a movie that was so much about that?
Carlen Altman: I guess we knew from the beginning that we wanted to write where the main characters are alienated based on us as real people feeling alienated from people growing up. I spend a lot of time on Facebook as does… I don’t want to speak on your behalf…
Alex Ross Perry: That’s something we talked about. There’s nothing of that in the movie, but the characters start off not having seen each other, or being aware of what other people are up to. We talked about how depressing it is because of the internet having to know what all these people that you’ve known your entire life are doing with their lives.
CA: And like how a lot of them have big dreams and they’re doing something really different from what you imagined them doing, and how I guess, in real life, we feel like were trying to hold on to a sense of not giving up… it sounds so cliche… but it’s like our dreams. So I guess the character of JR (Altman) is supposed to represent a more exaggerated us kind of clinging on to what we want to do creatively. Which is kind of, at least for me, kinda vague… JR’s character. Whereas the real world people are what we imagine Colin (Perry) and the other people around her kind of like cartoonish versions of the real world. So that was like a top priority for us expressing alienation.
NN: There’s nothing but 1980’s technology in the film. You give her a digital watch, there are pay phones, and no one is on cell phones. The film has this throughly modern sensibility but almost no sign that we’re living right now. When did that idea come about?
ARP: We didn’t give her that watch; I think that is Carlen’s watch. It is my watch as well.
NN: It’s just organic.
ARP: We don’t have that meticulous of production design meetings. We just kinda wore our own watches. But I have no creative relations with anything that is technologically modern and I don’t think that you need that. 99% of books and movies you’ve ever seen don’t have that stuff in it, and therefore it seems easy for me to picture a complete thing without any of those trappings.
Alex Ross Perry, director, co-writer, and co-star of The Color Wheel. Photo courtesy AFI Fest.
I just have no relationship with that. There’s nothing that I find interesting about being glued to a cell phone. I think that’s very stressful and very ugly. I’ve seen the movies about the people who need to check their email all the time. It would have been easy to make my character the type of person who’s just like ‘Oh I’ve got this work thing’ but that’s… I’ve seen that before and it just doesn’t really look like anything. I think it would have conflicted with how everything else in the movie looked. I think that shooting on like digital video and making it black and white is like you’re making a joke. But I also think that shooting the way we did [on 16mm film] and putting laptops and cell phones in it also would have looked like a joke.
CA: I agree.
ARP: That would have exposed the visual palate of the film as just having been –
CA: A choice.
ARP: Yeah, just a flip decision that’s at odds with the content. So everything had to unite under the same umbrella of meaning. None of that stuff would have fit in the tone of the story.
NN: You guys have this great banter. I was conscious of that about 20 minutes into the film, that I could just listen to these two talk to each other for the next six hours. What was your writing process?
CA: We would meet up and talk about what we wanted to do and Alex would go home and write dialogue based on that. And then I guess I would look over it and say ‘I don’t think JR would say that, she’d say this… blah blah blah’.
ARP: And then we’d just be sitting there reading the scenes and in the middle would be like ‘Well, these lines, the way we’re saying them, don’t really sound like anything, so let’s just draw an ‘X’ through that and we’ll come up with something else to get us from the beginning of this interaction to the end of it.’ We just did that a lot and it was just a lot of talking about it — two or three hour sessions a couple of times a week.
Eventually it just became very particular. Everything else kind of just got like the block that gets chipped into the carving. It just started as this thing that was nothing; which is like ‘whatever’ type of dialogue. Which is what the first draft of the script would reflect and by the end it was this very idiosyncratic, very personal and very tailored by both of us to things that we felt like we could and would say. Or wanted to say.
That’s the other thing just: ‘Well I really want to deliver this line’. That’s like an an easy way to write if the two people who are doing this are saying 90% of the dialogue in this movie. So I want to say this and I want you to set me up so I can say this joke. It just kind of emerged. It really didn’t seem that unique when we were doing it.
CA: Also I don’t have any siblings… well I have a half sister who lives in Mexico who I’ve met five times TMI. I think that in terms of that I tried to channel what I imagine a brother and sister of a certain age would say. And like I said [at the AFI Q&A] perhaps seemingly jokingly watching the Gilmore Girls, the way daughter and the mother talk. Not that that was my muse. But just I guess in terms of the rhythm of speech I tried to imagine what a brother and sister would…
NN: Actually Gilmore Girls made sense to me because famously that television show would have 60 or 70 page scripts –
NN: — for like a 42 minute shows and they’d have to deliver it at this speed —
NN: — in order to get all the lines out. And it creates that –
CA: That rhythm, yeah.
ARP: Our script was like 105 pages ultimately. I mean, the first cut of the film was like 98 minutes but still it was longer than one page per minute. I think that the draft that we shot was just over a 100 pages maybe.
NN: Oh my gosh.
ARP: But stuff like the diner scene, and the motel scene towards the beginning, is really fast cutting there. That stuff is way shorter than it was as written. And, also, we cut out beginnings and ends of those scenes. Maybe it would have been 100 minute movie if we left everything in it.
NN: I can’t remember the exact, there was one cut that made me laugh and I think it was the clothing…
ARP: Just one.
NN: No. No.
NN: That I can remember consciously being ‘That’s a beautiful cut’ when you say ‘I’m not gonna change my clothes’ and then boom you’re in the clothing store.
ARP: People think that’s a mistake.
ARP: People think uniformly that’s some really bad editing error. And it was really hard to figure out the right part of which word to put that cut so that people wouldn’t think that was a mistake. But to me that’s just a Simpsons joke and always makes me laugh… that type of thing. My first movie was full of cuts like that and I don’t think that anyone could ever look at those and think that there a mistake. But people are watching a movie that’s made by young people and are looking for errors. I think that’s a pretty funny joke and it’s written like that.
NN: What’s next?
ARP: I’ve done two movies where I’m asking my friends from high school for 2000 dollar checks every couple of weeks and I can’t …doing a third one like that would be really unpleasant.
The one thing I would have killed for on this would have been to have had three days of reshoots. That would have been so great. Just to have edited the movie and been like this scene and that scene need to be reshot and we need to add a scene here that we didn’t have before. There’s just no way that would have been financially possible, or even logistically possible, because everything we had to do would have been in another city. So that would have been $5,000 expense to shoot for three more days, and that never would have been possible.
That’s a type of filmmaking I’m excited to mature past.
The Color Wheel directed by Alex Ross Perry, written by Perry and Carlen Altman. The film screened as part of AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.
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One thing that makes a genre fan a genre fan — whether you call them a geek, nerd, or otaku — is their unique capacity to fall completely in love with a creative work. Be it film, game, or comic book, the object of devotion overwhelms the nervous system and transports the imagination of the fan into another realm.
This is what happened to me while watching Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond The Black Rainbow (read our review) at AFI Fest last week. So it was with great joy that I discovered that Cosmatos is a kindred spirit, a fellow geek whose fascinations span the range of midnight movies, 70’s sci-fi, the occult, and the depths of the human psyche.
The nature of Cosmatos’ film, which in many ways is the quintessential midnight movie, means that it is limited in its appeal. Yet the audience it is destined to attract — cinephiles and genre hounds — are already beginning to rally to its dark banners. No less than the reigning king of the geeks, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim) has professed his fascination with the film on Twitter.
To set the scene properly for the interview that follows, I’m going to share with you the director’s statement on Beyond The Black Rainbow, Cosmatos’ glorious freakout film that conjures up a modernist nightmare world out of the remnants of the pop culture of his childhood. The story is of a seemingly demonic psychotherapist named Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and his lone patient: an apparently psychic girl named Elena (Eva Allen) who has deep ties to Nyle’s mysterious past.
I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films when I was a kid, but when we’d go to the video store in the corner, a mom and pop shop called Video Attic, I’d obsessively look at all the horror movie video tapes. I was mesmerized by the lurid box covers and the vivid descriptions on the back. So I’d imagine, in great detail, my own versions of these movies without ever having seen them. That was one of the key inspirations for the film. The idea of making one of those imagined movies.
The mood of the film is my memory of how the late 70s and early 80s felt to me. Both the reality and the fantasy world of the pop culture i would immerse myself in. I think in making it I was trying to grasp something intangible. It’s a nostalgic movie, but it’s a poisoned nostalgia.
After a couple of informal chats at festival mixers and on Twitter about our shared love of genre films, Cosmatos and I sat for a formal interview.
Noah Nelson: You call it a “poisoned nostalgia” in the press notes.
Panos Cosmatos: Nostalgia by definition is looking through the past through rose-colored glasses so this is looking through the past through more of an acerbic lens.
NN: I liked this idea of you standing in the video store dreaming up what these lurid video boxes might be.
PC: After my father passed away I got kinda nostalgic for my childhood and my past, so I started watching all the films I was into back then in a much more emotional way, I would say. But I realized I wanted to make a film that was about the past, but I didn’t want to make a film that glorified it or looked at it in a purely nostalgic way but in a much darker way.
NN: Were you in psychotherapy as a kid?
PC: Not as a kid. I did go into therapy after my father died… for a while. Not with a psychiatrist but a psychologist.
My mother had died in 1997 and I hadn’t at all dealt with that. I completely just compartmentalized it and not dealt with the grief at all. So when my father died it compounded. I realized that if I didn’t deal with [his death], it would really [screw] me up, so I just went into therapy.
NN: Was your therapist then part of the inspiration for the sinister Barry Nyle in the film?
PC: Maybe. My therapist was actually a really mellow Buddhist guy that I really got along with. But I’m always drawing inspiration from wherever and I think that experience of going to therapy made its way into the script because of that. But it’s not at all a reflection of the reality of it.
NN: Well and there’s something to really calm Buddhist people that sometimes you think they’re actually-
NN: Yeah. No. Absolutely.
PC: I think every therapist — in general a lot of them — have a strange side to them.
[Ed Note: Cosmatos’ immersion in film was deeper than video store love. His late father, the director George P. Cosmatos made such films as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone. Still, it was the work of other 80s era directors that inspired him to pursue the craft.]
PC: The two movies that made me want to make — realize in a very crystal way — that I wanted to make movies was seeing Evil Dead 2 and After Hours back to back. And I think it was the really dynamic, exaggerated use of camera and sound in those films that made me sort of, clicked in my mind “that’s what a director does.” The potential of the director.
Now as I’ve gotten older, and a lot of time has gone by since then, for a while there I wanted to just make Evil Dead 2. That was kinda what I wanted to make when I was younger, when I was a teenager. Over the years I’ve kinda drifted away from that and also in the meantime it seems like every guy and his mother made their version of Evil Dead 2.
PC: Weaker and weaker versions. So I just completely lost interest in doing that kind of film. I think its just the dynamic cinematic style of them. The very exaggerated artificial camera moves.
NN: There’s so much of the 60’s freak-out movie stuff and that super modernist use of color.
PC: What I had in my mind in a very universal way, I don’t think I articulated this to anybody, maybe the DP. I was just thinking about Michael Mann a lot of the time while I was shooting it.
NN: Oh God, Red Dragon.
NN: Manhunter. [Here I’m an idiot. Red Dragon was the Thomas Harris book that Manhunter was drawn from. Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter. It was remade by Brett Ratner with Anthony Hopkins in the role he made famous. In my defense I read the book before I saw either film.]
PC: Manhunter. The Keep. Even his newer films like Heat and Miami Vice. Were actually sort of in my mind at certain times.
NN: But the hallways in Manhunter, and the hallways in here, there’s a lot of resonance.
PC: I just wanted to make something that… I think that Michael Mann is an incredibly modernist filmmaker and I wanted to have the sort of overall omniscience of the film be as modern as possible. That’s why I was thinking about him.
NN: Now when did you come to the decision to mic Michael Rogers so close. Because that texture…
NN: … you get out of him was completely unnerving…
NN: …and it sets the tone beautifully.
PC: That might have been a happy accident. In that, you know, that room in particular had a lot of reverb in it because of the materials. So we had this raw audio and when me and Eric were mixing the movie he sort of suggested maybe me should soften it. We tried softening it but it completely lost its impact, so we decided to keep it crisp and it was a lot more unnerving that way. It’s just the sort of thing that came out in the process.
NN: I guess a related question in my mind. Why go from the 4:3 aspect ratio that starts the film to Cinemascope?
PC: I don’t think I would ever make a movie that’s not Cinemascope. I just like it. It’s the most cinematic aspect ratio. I just like the feel of it. It’s the most photographic.
NN: But the decision to start in one format, to have a complete prologue…
PC: I think the inspiration for that was the opening of The Road Warrior which starts in 4:3 and then blows up into Cinemascope. It’s one of my favorite openings to a film ever. I don’t think I consciously did it, but it probably went to the back of my mind because I’ve probably seen that film more than any other film.
I liked the idea of starting a film with a prologue that sort of explains the world, and then having it blow up and be like “now its a movie”. Now you’re watching the full movie.
[Ed Note: At key points in the film Cosmatos draws on occult imagery to illustrate the depths to which Nyle’s mind and soul have become twisted by his experiences.]
PC: I’ve always been fascinated by the occult to a certain extent. I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessive about it or anything like that.
For me the occult stuff came probably from the 60s generation. The baby boomers attempting to find spiritually and also drifting into strange occult and darker areas. Sort of corrupting their ideals.
NN: At the end Nyle becomes, for lack of a better term, a demon. Is this… are you pessimistic about humanity?
PC: I think maybe I’m just sort of expressing a cynical attitude towards the baby boomers more than humanity in general.
NN: I think I spent most of the 90s ranting about that generation and how they failed us miserably.
PC: I think they can take a little criticism, you know?
NN: They were spoiled and got away with murder…
PC: Lord knows they criticize us enough.
When Beyond The Black Rainbow begins to infect art houses with it’s unique brand of poisoned nostalgia next year a whole new generation of otaku is destined to be spawned.
Beyond The Black Rainbow, written and directed by Panos Cosmatos screened as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.
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Do we have a better documentarian than Werner Herzog right now?
Into The Abyss, Herzog’s clinical look at the death penalty through the lens of one horrific triple murder in Texas may not be awe inspiring as Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, but awe isn’t the director’s goal here. In his introduction to the film this week at an AFI Fest screening, Herzog implored the audience to not think of Into The Abyss as an anti-death penalty film. While the director makes his own position known — he doesn’t believe that any human being should be executed — the film is an act of true journalistic restraint.
Seemingly alone among filmmakers, Herzog watches humanity with a scientist’s dispassionate eye. He lays out the facts of the murders — there was Sandra Stotler, her son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson in Conroe, Texas — like a surgeon. Herzog creates what feels like a balanced portrait of Michael Perry, the young man who was executed on July 1st, 2010 for his part in the crime, and his accomplice Jason Burkett who is serving a life sentence. Herzog lets his subjects — the daughter of Stotler who lost what was left of her family, a sheriff’s deputy who worked the case, locals who knew both victims and perpetrators and the two convicted men — tell their stories direct. He refrains from adding a voiceover to stitch the narrative together, making his voice present only to question his subjects.
In a film filled with moving moments, perhaps the most devastating is the testimony of Fred Allen. Allen was captain of Texas’ death row tie-down team for years until the execution of Karla Faye Tucker — the first woman put to death by the state in 135 years — shook him to the core. In just a few short minutes the toll of having shepherded scores of people through their last moments on earth, and then dealing with their mortal remains, is made clear.
Yet at the same time Herzog does not turn away from the details of the senseless crime. While the director would likely shy away from ascribing the word “evil” to describe the events, it’s hard not to think in those terms. Three people lost their lives over a sports car. The interview with Perry reveals a man who has compartmentalized what he’s done in a way only a sociopath can muster. There is something broken there that does not elicit pity, but primal disgust.
The act of filmmaking is an inherently manipulative act. What the filmmaker choses to show — and selects for omission — sets the terms of what the audience is allowed to think and feel about the material as presented. What Herzog manages here is a feat that all television journalists should be required to watch. He makes a case against the death penalty while simultaneously making it very clear as to why executions are still practiced.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment Herzog makes here is in the economy of storytelling. In the Q&A after the AFI screening the director revealed that the movie — with a running time of 107 minutes — was assembled out of just around eight hours worth of footage. With only one exception, Herzog had met the interviewees for the first and only time while filming them, some for as little as 20 minutes. It is a near supernatural feat of investigative journalism that Herzog is able to (at least appear to) lay bear the heart of his subjects in such a short period of time.
By staring Into The Abyss Werner Herzog has delivered another existential affirmation of the sanctity and fragility of life. This is necessary viewing.
Into The Abyss. Directed by Werner Herzog screened as part of AFI Fest presented by Audi and opens in limited release today.
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Director Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood (whose first feature was the award winning Maria Full of Grace) takes audiences inside the life of an Albanian family living under the shadow of a blood feud.
“I was fascinated that this was still going on in present day Albania where there is Facebook and cellphones,” says Marston, “living side by side with this very old tradition.”
The film focuses on Nick, a teenager on the cusp of manhood whose entire life is shaken apart when an old family rivalry culminates in his father taking part in the killing of one of their neighbors.
While Nick’s father goes into hiding the rest of the family holes up in their house, attempting to honor the loss that the other family has suffered according the dictates of the Albanian oral tradition of the Kanun. The ambiguities of what the family needs need to do to honor the debt of blood provides the underpinning of this incredibly tense film. After the initial transgression there is a palpable sense that at any moment Nick could be shot — just for standing too close to an open window.
“Part of the challenge of the situation is that there are no hard and fast concrete rules,” says Marston. “One of the things that causes people to remain inside their houses is not simply out of self preservation for fear that the other family might try to come and kill them, but also out of a form of respect to say effectively ‘I know that my crazy cousin killed your brother, so we’re not gonna walk around and force you to look at us in the street.’ It’s a form of penance, basically.”
The variable nature of the feuds led to strange situations during Marston’s time researching the tradition in Albania.
“I had a family that wouldn’t even speak to me because they didn’t want word to get back to the other family and the other family to believe that they were in some way profiting from their circumstances. It was that extreme. They didn’t even want a foreigner visiting the house. On the opposite end of the spectrum I visited a family that said ‘You know we can come and go as we please. The other family hasn’t told us that we have to stay in the house. They said ‘if you leave the house we’ll kill you’.”
One thing that is agreed upon in the tradition is that women and children are off limits in a blood feud. In The Forgiveness of Blood, this means that while Nick — who is arguably still a child, but close enough to manhood to become a target — has to stay inside the house, his sister takes on the family bread delivery route that her father abandoned when he went into hiding.
“So here you have this story about this antiquated set of circumstances, where the family is locked inside the house because of these old fashioned norms; and yet it creates this incredibly ‘modern’ situation whereby a young girl is afforded the liberty to go out and have a job and roam around freely. Of course it’s not quite that because she’s stared at, and intimidated and threatened. She has to give up going to school and having the future that she otherwise would have. It’s that contradiction. That constant grey clouds silver lining situation that makes it an interesting story for me. That was one of the things that attracted me to go make the movie.”
None of which would have worked without the incredibly strong performances of Marston’s young cast. Both Tristan Halilaj as Nick and Sindi Laçej as his sister Rudina give the kind of performances that teenage American actors wish they could conjure up. Finding his two leads was the biggest challenge the director faced on the project.
“We saw over three thousand kids over the course of several months,” says Marston. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to find someone at the end of the day. And we just got lucky. I mean it was a lot of hard work. When the kid who plays the main character came in it was quite immediate. He was incredibly charismatic and very entertaining and could really tell a story. Then, about a month and a half later, we met the girl who plays his sister and they hit if off great and were immediately doing great improvisations together.”
Marston marshals the strong performances with masterful acting to create one of the tensest dramas in years. When The Forgiveness of Blood reaches theaters next year it will give audiences an opportunity to experience a feat of cinematic world building as impressive as any genre film, made all the more powerful thanks to its basis in reality.
The Forgiveness of Blood. Directed by Joshua Marston, written by Marston and Andamion Murataj. The film screened as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.
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