The Forgiveness of Blood (opening in theaters on February 24th) is a drama from writer/director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) that focuses on an Albanian family caught up in a blood feud. Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is a carefree teenager in a small town, until his world comes to a screeching halt when his father and uncle become entangled in a land dispute that leads a fellow villager murdered, and a centuries-old code of law entitles the dead man’s family to take the life of a male from Nik’s family as retribution. With his uncle in jail and his father in hiding, Nik is the prime target, indefinitely confined to the home while his younger sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), is forced to leave school and take over the family business.
During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Joshua Marston talked about telling this story of the clash between antiquated traditions and the more modern lives of the young people whose futures are threatened by them, the challenges in taking a story about a place that people aren’t familiar with and simplifying it to make all of the information universal, and his feelings about the film being disqualified as the Albanian entry for the Academy Awards, in large part because he’s American. He also talked about how he came to be working with Aaron Sorkin, directing an episode of his upcoming HBO drama The Newsroom, and how he hopes his next feature will be a remake of the Italian thriller, The Double Hour. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
JOSHUA MARSTON: I was a photographer, starting in high school, so that was the beginning of my career, visually as an artist. But, I studied social sciences in college and lived abroad, and thought, for awhile, that I would work in the foreign service. I did an internship, at one point, in the U.S. Embassy in Paris. I thought, for awhile, that I might do journalism. And then, I thought I would go into academia to study international relations and political science.
It wasn’t until each of those, in some way, had proven not quite stimulating enough and certainly not creative enough that I finally came around to film, partly because I had been taking photographs. I found that while it was interesting to travel around and take the photographs, I would find that I was more interested in the stories behind the photographs. I was more interested in narrative.
So, filmmaking became a possible way for me to combine my interest in photography and in gathering stories, as well as my interest in journalism and political science and international relations. It was really a way to bring all of those interests together. It wasn’t really until my mid-20’s that I finally came around to film and went to film school at NYU, and then was fully invested in making films.
Why do you think it is that these international tales have such an appeal for you?
MARSTON: As a teenager, I had an experience one summer of being able to go to France and live with a family, outside of Strasbourg, and that opened my eyes to living in another culture and a completely different way of life and really learning a new language. All of that was very exciting for me. I did it again, the following summer, with an Italian family in Italy. And then, again after that, I went to Mexico and found a Mexican family. So, traveling and being in foreign cultures has always been really stimulating for me, partly because, when I’m living abroad, everything is new and like a puzzle to work out, by virtue of it being a foreign culture. I like learning foreign languages, as well. I like that process in filmmaking itself. I like going to a place where I don’t know the world and I don’t necessarily know the way that it works and figuring it out. And then, I like, in turn, giving that experience to the audience and plunging the audience, for two hours, into a completely different world that hopefully they also find fascinating.
MARSTON: Yeah, absolutely! That’s a really good question. There are a couple of really specific challenges that came up, in both Maria Full of Grace and Forgiveness of Blood, and I’ve dealt with any time I’ve gone abroad for writing other screenplays. The first and most paramount challenge is feeling like I’m getting it right, I have done my homework and I’m sufficiently representing someone else’s world and culture, and that I’m not, in any way, relying on stereotypes. The whole point is to learn about a foreign place, a foreign culture and a new world, and I really am doing that and am presenting what I’m learning, and not, in any way, simplifying it.
Having said that, the next challenge is communicating what I’ve learned, not only in a way that feels true to the world, but also is understandable in a very short amount of time. For example, in the case of this film, there was a huge challenge, having spent weeks and weeks, and having had very long conversations through which I understood the nuance and complexity of this system that enables blood feuds. You have to take all of that and then work it into a narrative where someone who’s not from the culture feels like they understand what’s going on and, at the same time, through the very same dialogue and performances, tell a story that, for someone who does know the culture, doesn’t feel like the story is stopping, in order to explain something that they already know. In screenwriting terms, it’s referred to as exposition. It’s finding a way to make your exposition of the cultural framework seamless.
The next challenge is then taking all of the very specific knowledge of a foreign place and constructing a story that not only feels fascinating and foreign, but also feels familiar and relatable. That’s about finding the universal themes within the very specific storyline. I’m not just telling a story about blood feuds in Albania. I’m also telling a story about family and about being a teenager and a coming of age story about growing into adulthood. It’s a really important challenge, to me, to make sure that my stories are both specific and universal, at the same time.
MARSTON: Casting is a huge, huge job and we spent about six months, going from school to school. We ultimately went to about 50 schools to do interviews with students. We would go and set up a camera in a classroom or the computer room and the teachers would send us groups of kids, all day long, and they would cycle through and we would do short interviews with each other them. And then, I would choose a dozen or two dozen from each school. At a later point, we would go back to the school and do a callback, and that was often difficult and challenging. I had to figure out how to do a callback in a way that was useful, so that was a learning process.
The first time I did a callback, I met with a group of students and told them that I was going to give them a scenario so that we could do an improvisation, and then sent them all out and brought them in by twos. They were like a deer in headlights. They just froze. I had been very careful and really talked them through, with my Albanian co-writer/casting director, to make sure that I was coming up with a scenario for an improvisation that they would be able to relate to, and they were still completely stiff.
It wasn’t until we had done it a few times that I had developed a system where I would sit with a group of them and put them in a semi-circle, and I would encase them in a conversation, in Albanian. Usually, it started with a question like, “What’s the most difficult thing about being a teenager in Albania today?” If you ask a question like that to teenagers anywhere, pretty much all over the planet, teenagers will have strong opinions about what makes their life such a travail. In Albania, that’s no exception.
What’s interesting is that often the answers revolved around the conflict between the old-school mentality and a modern mentality. Especially the girls would complain about living within a very patriarchal society. That would lead to very lively debates, and those debates would eventually turn into scenarios where I would get them to roleplay conversations. That would then enable me to see if they could act. It was a combination of those casting sessions and research sessions, to learn about teenage life in Albania.
Are there challenges specific to directing people in languages that are foreign to you?
MARSTON: The core actors on this film were speaking English and Italian, and I speak Italian fluently. The situations where I had to speak Albanian tended to be more when I was dealing with the bit parts. I tried to use my Albanian for that. I’ve learned some Albanian, but the obvious challenge there was being able to string together a sentence to accurately describe what I want and not confuse the actor completely. If I couldn’t get it out of my mouth, or the person I was trying to direct suddenly wanted to say something too complicated or quick for me to understand, then I relied on a translator, which can be time consuming and a little bit frustrating. Sometimes I would understand what the translator was saying well enough to pick up that the translator didn’t fully understand what I meant.
One of the most interesting challenges of directing and actor is that you have to find the exact right word or metaphor that will help the actor have a lightbulb go off over their head and go, “Oh, I know what you mean. I get it.” So, I choose my words very carefully. I think most directors subscribe to the principle that less is more, and the best direction is the most concise direction. It becomes harder to do that when you’re either working through a translator or you’re not working in your own language. The advantage is that, if you’re not entirely focused on the verbal, you’re more attuned to the subtext of the non-verbal. In some ways, that can make you a better director. You don’t get hung up on the specific intonation or inflection that the actor gave to a word. If you’re in your own language, you could go, “Why did they put the emphasis on that syllable?” The truth of the matter is that what’s really more important is the emotion.
Having put so much time into this, in order to make such an authentic film, is it disheartening, at all, to be disqualified as the Albanian entry for the Oscar because you’re American, or is that awards recognition secondary to making sure you tell this story authentically?
MARSTON: Yes, it is secondary. For me, what was really relevant about that submission was the fact that the Albanians watched the movie, met and, having seen the other films that were in contention, selected this film to represent the country because they felt that this story was Albanian and the film, to them, was Albanian, regardless of the fact that I was not Albanian, and they wanted to be represented by it. For me, that’s a validation of the work that I did, in collaboration with all of the Albanian filmmakers and cast members. We created something that feels genuine and authentic. That’s where it becomes really relevant.
As far as it being disheartening, what’s disheartening for me is seeing how upset and frustrated the Albanians were when the Academy said, “Sorry.” They felt really cheated, especially because of the way it happened. One of the deciding factors was the fact that the key crew members, with the exception of the Albanian costume designers, were coming from the U.S., the U.K. and Italy. That’s true, even on films that are directed by Albanian directors, and that was true on the film that ended up replacing mine. Half of their crew was Greek.
That’s a reflection of the fact that the Albanian film industry is very small and, even with a movie directed by an Albanian, you have to rely on crew coming from abroad. That’s a necessary thing, at the moment. That’s how their film industry is going to grow. So, for the film to be disqualified, in large part, because of that, seemed like even more of a reflection of how little the Academy understood the nuance of what Albania was, and felt like a real affront that the Academy would claim to know better, about what was and was not Albanian.
MARSTON: I’m sure it will be challenging because it’s challenging material, but I’m not the only filmmaker who works in TV, so it’s not that out of the ordinary. It’s fun to be able to get to direct stuff while waiting for the next movie to happen, and the Sorkin show seems likes it’s going to be really, really great, so I’m very excited about it.
Will you just be directing one episode?
MARSTON: Yeah, they’re bringing in a different director for each episode.
Do you enjoy the different and quicker pace of TV?
MARSTON: On the Sorkin show, we’re going to be shooting 12 pages a day. On a big day in Albania, I shot three or four pages in a day, maybe five. Feature films frequently shoot one or two pages a day. That’s a huge difference between film and TV. The other difference, obviously, is that it’s not your own. I liken it to being on the last week of a feature film shoot where, by that point, all the actors know their characters, so you’re not defining the characters, everyone knows what kind of wardrobe the characters would wear, and the look of the show has already been defined. What you’re doing, as a director, in both the last week of a shoot on a film and on a TV show, is that you’re giving subtle adjustments to mold something into a narrative.
Would you want to direct a pilot, to establish the look of a show, at the beginning?
MARSTON: Yeah, I would be happy to direct a pilot. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but hopefully, I will.
Are you already developing your next film, as well?
MARSTON: My next feature will be set in the United States, and it will be a thriller that I’m hoping to shoot this year. At the moment, it’s called The Double Hour. It’s actually a remake of an Italian film. It’s very different from the stuff that I’ve done before.
What are the challenges in approaching a remake and still giving it your own vision?
MARSTON: I don’t know yet. The motivation for doing it was that, when I watched the original, I saw a great premise, skeleton and story, but I also saw things that I would want to do differently that I thought I could improve upon. Precisely because I’ve done films in foreign countries and foreign languages, the simple fact of translating something into English, so that lazy Americans can watch it without having to read subtitles, is not enough for me to want to do a remake. In order to want to do a remake, I have to be able to look at the original and see a way that I can improve upon it and make it my own, which in this case, I think I can.