Joshua Marston’s latest film, Complete Unknown, is an exploration of what it means to be a filmmaker, a film actor or even a film writer.
The creative life, all of life really, is a series of performances, each one hiding a story behind the one we are witnessing.
In Marston’s film, Michael Shannon plays Tom, an agricultural lobbyist whose marriage is starting to fray. His wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) wants to move to San Diego for graduate school but Tom is reluctant to leave New York. Still, the couple puts on a brave face to celebrate his birthday with friends. One friend, the lonely but ever hopeful Clyde (Michael Chernus), has brought a woman he has only just met—Alice (Rachel Weisz). Clearly the outsider at this dinner party of close friends, it becomes clear that Alice isn’t quite what she seems— especially after Tom pulls her aside and addresses her as Jenny. What follows is a lyrical mix of personal thriller and romantic drama that explores the slippery nature of identity and personal fulfillment.
While he is far from the shape-shifting imposter he has crafted for Weisz, Marston has certainly embraced an ever-shifting professional identity over the course of his career. He was a journalist for ABC during the Gulf War, taught English in Prague, learned Albanian, produced stories for NPR, abandoned a graduate program in political science and then, finally, attended NYU’s film school. His feature debut, 2004’s Maria Full of Grace, earned an Oscar nomination for its star Catalina Sandino Moreno, and his 2011 follow up The Forgiveness of Blood won a Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin International Film Festival. In between features he has had a successful career as a television director, working on such shows as Six Feet Under, The Good Wife and The Newsroom. More recently, Marston has served as an artist trustee on Sundance’s board of directors.
It was at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, after Complete Unknown’s premiere, that we caught up with this man of many faces.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Who do you see yourself as—the person who has to keep changing identities or the person in a perpetual state of figuring other people out?
Joshua Marston (JM): I can relate to both characters. People say that at some level every character is a reflection of the screenwriter. The question is whether the audience members can relate to both of them. We’ve all been in both situations. [But] we’re more apt to be in Michael Shannon’s shoes then fantasize about being in Rachel Weisz’s.
MM: Complete Unknown has a very deliberate pace, shifting from a fractured montage of vignettes, to the leisurely reveal of your central characters and plot, to flashbacks and back again. How much of that was planned in the writing and how much of that evolved during production—say, in the editing room?
JM: When I write the script I’m very aware at what point we’re revealing what. Which is not to say I conform to the conventional choices. But I’m not willy-nilly choosing a fast or slow pace. The pace is deliberate in the sense that I’m engaging with what I imagine to be the audience’s attention level or the questions they’re asking themselves. This film opens in a way that is not typical. The first five or six minutes of the movie are very deliberately not the opening you’ve seen before. The less you know about the movie the better. If you don’t know anything about the story and you just walk in, you’re confused and questions are raised. Yet at the same time it’s constructed in a way that hopefully by the end of that section of the film you’re already to beginning to formulate a hypothesis about what’s going on. And as the film unspools it continues to raise and answer questions.
The funny thing is when I watch the movie I’m aware of it moving… quickly is maybe not the word… but apace. I’m very aware of not lingering too long or indulging. I’m trying to keep the story constantly moving [because] I’m effectively telling the story of two different characters. Whose point of view I’m in when I’m servicing the story of Michael Shannon versus the story of Rachel Weisz and how I’m trying to tell both stories at the same time is very much in play for me in the writing. And also in the editing.
MM: There’s a feeling of misdirection about Rachel Weisz’s motives in the beginning. There’s a thriller aspect to how you parcel out the information and you get the sense that she’s stalking Michael Shannon, but don’t know why. Is she a con artist? Is she going to subvert his political goals?
JM: That is intentional on two levels. One, it’s intentional simply because it’s a conceit that I can engage and exploit, have fun with. But also on the level that this is a story about a woman who regularly uproots and completely changes her life. I was interested in it, not only because I, on some human level, fantasize about doing what that character does, but also at the narrative level. I’m not interested in following the path that we’re supposed to follow because Syd Field told us we were supposed to be at a certain place at a certain page. When [co-writer Julian Sheppard and I] were writing there was a conscious desire to make a radical left turn and then another radical left turn. In certain respects, the movie is doing what the character does. Form and function go together. Talking about it with the folks at Amazon, someone said: “It’s a shape shifting movie about a shape shifter.”
MM: The film’s first act revolves around the dinner party, which runs for about 20 minutes. You handled so many characters in a limited space and their personalities emerge through naturalistic conversation. How did you handle that on set, putting those pieces together so that you don’t lose the spontaneity of the scene?
JM: The idea was that I was going to make something very small and contained. There’s a whole subgenre of movies that take place in more or less one location because for practical purposes it is very cheap and easy. So we ended up having eight shooting days in one house. It’s nice to be able to settle into a place and not keep uprooting—ironic given the nature of the movie—, to stay and get comfortable. But it’s challenging in that you’re often tripping over one another.
The most challenging scene was 13-14 pages with eight characters all with speaking roles that we had one day to film. What made it a little easier was that they were all sitting so there wasn’t an enormous amount of moving around. But there was certainly a lot of coverage …and I didn’t want it to be standard coverage. The cinematographer and I looked at a number of references that were useful as an indication of what we did not want to do. He showed me an interview with cinematographer Chris Doyle, who said one of the things that is sure to kill any artistic or creative impulse is to shoot one character’s coverage and then the camera assistant takes out their tape measure and measures how far off the camera is off the ground and how far away the camera is from the subject and then those measurements determine the rest of the subsequent scene because everything has to be “mathematically balanced.” Suddenly the crew is asleep because there’s’ never any question of where the camera’s going to go and it’s never in response to what’s dramatically happening in the scene. It’s because everything is supposed to “match.” So we made a decision early on that we were going to shoot what was interesting instead of what was correct or matching.
MM: How many cameras did you have covering the scene?
JM: That was the only day that we had two cameras.