Directors Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood) and Braden King (Here) discuss the making of their very different pictures through the prism of their shared experience — making an independent film in Eastern Europe.
At the start of the conversation you’re about to read, writer-director Joshua Marston recalls to writer-director Braden King what he found a common occurrence two years ago: people mistook each of them for the other. Both dark-haired, New York-based American independent filmmakers, Marston and King traveled the globe at the same time raising money for independent productions set entirely in Eastern Europe (Albania and Armenia, respectively). But while it may seem expeditious to lump the two of them together as representing some new wave of globally-aware American auteurs, there are as many differences between the two men and their now-completed films as there are similarities.
Here is King’s debut fiction feature, following his acclaimed documentary, Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks its Back, by more than a decade. Ben Foster plays Will, an American cartographer hired by the Armenian government to do the physical work of mapping that is now so often constructed in cyberspace by first-world spy satellites. The certainty of compass points and fixed destinations fades as he meets a local photographer, Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), who is creating an art project from photos of her countryside. There’s romance, and drift — the characters away from and toward each other, and Lol Crowley’s camera, as it surveys the land, occasionally detaching itself from the story and the people we might think are the real subjects of this tale. King is, you see, as interested in the immersive and meditative aspects of film as he is a linear story. Punctuating the tale are brief, beautifully realized experimental short-film interludes, and King has even remixed his movie in a series of live film/music performance events.
If Here explodes outward, beyond its story, then Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood, his first feature since 2004’s Maria Full of Grace, telescopes inward as a portrait of Albanian society becomes the tale of a teenage boy literally trapped indoors due to a familial blood feud. Refet Nabazi plays Nik, whose father is involved in the death of a neighboring man following a petty land dispute. With a blood feud declared, Nik risks death every time he steps outside the grounds of his house. Trapped indoors, he watches his younger sister — who, as a young girl, isn’t targeted — take on the family business, delivering bread to local merchants by horse and buggy. In Marston’s story, meticulously constructed based on research into real blood feuds, adolescence itself becomes the threat as Nik’s desire to see his girlfriend and chart his own identity collide with ancient tradition. The Forgiveness of Blood’s depiction of small-town Armenian society feels vividly naturalistic just as its storytelling is inflected with the urgency of a smart, character-based thriller.
If the two films, then, sound quite different once they’re described, there is still one aspect they share, and that is the effort required to bring an American independent production sensibility into a foreign filmmaking land. In their conversation, Marston and King discuss not only their different aesthetic visions but also the challenges of realizing those visions many miles from home.
Here will be released this spring from Strand Releasing, while The Forgiveness of Blood arrives in February from Sundance Selects.
Joshua Marston: Braden, you and I wandered around the circuit for a while when we were both trying to get our movies made, and people would mistake me for you. I think that’s because people imagined there are all these similarities in what we did. I think there are a lot of similarities, but what I notice are the differences. One of them is probably the way we both came to our material. As far as I remember, you became fascinated by Armenia, and the project happened because you had that specific relationship to the country.
Braden King: Well, yes and no. I went out searching for a location for this story before writing the script. I had a vague concept of a road movie about a mapmaker, but I didn’t want to go into the next phase until I knew exactly where it was going to be set so that I could kind of collaborate with the locations. And, as part of that process, I found Armenia and committed to it. I made six or eight trips there between 2004 and 2009 when we finally shot. I got embedded with the film scene there, and the people on the ground in Armenia became excited about the project. But I think that a lot of my original motivations were perhaps a little more conceptual in terms of process. I definitely had an attachment to the idea of the production process being a kind of expedition to a location that hadn’t really had an American film shot in it before. Whereas it seems like for you, Albania was obviously tied into the narrative of your film.
Marston: Yeah, mine was not, “I want to make a movie about a blood feud, where are there blood feuds?” I happened to read about this specifically Albanian story and started researching it. But I think once we both landed in our countries, we probably had similar processes in terms of figuring out how the reality of the places might impact the stories we had imagined before we got there. But your journey was slightly different in the sense that you had a theoretical concept and wanted to find a place to set it, whereas I had a place to shoot a film and needed to find out more about it.
King: I think our development processes were, in many ways, more akin to documentary development processes in terms of the research, discovery and working with the locations. I’ve often referred to it in Q&As as more like an archaeological process than an architectural one. We’re uncovering something rather than creating it. Do you agree with that?
Marston: For me, I feel like a word that keeps coming up is “immersive.” One of the tasks at hand was having enough information about the place to create a story, but another was about me feeling confident that I understood enough about the place in order to be empowered to write a story and make a film. For me, that feeling of empowerment comes out of immersing myself in the place. I think that desire to immerse myself comes from having had a number of home-stay experiences, starting with living with a family in France when I was 16. I fell in love with the idea of going to a place, immersing myself and getting to understand how it works.
King: It almost seems like you’re trying to find a certain kind of accuracy or authority to feed into the story. How much of your research and that immersion process is about feeding the actual narrative?
Marston: A lot of it is, but there’s a weird contradiction. I started out wanting to make a film that people could look at and go, “Wow, if I didn’t know who made that film I would assume it was a movie by an Albanian director or by a Colombian director.” And at the same time, I’m very aware, by the time I’ve watched films made locally and gotten to the point of actually directing the film, that my film aesthetic is very, very different from local filmmakers, and that I don’t want to make what could be taken for an Albanian film. It’s a specific cinema, and the same is true of Colombia. Occasionally after Maria Full of Grace I had Colombians saying, “Well, you don’t get Colombian cinema because your film doesn’t have any dark humor.” And I was like, “I’m not claiming I wanted to make a Colombian film. I wanted to make a movie that is a Colombian story, but my approach might not necessarily be the same as that of Colombian filmmakers.”
King: In many ways, the process that went into developing Here was built on the way that I made an earlier film, Dutch Harbor. I am interested in blurring the lines between a more constructed piece of cinema and something that might be construed as nonfiction. That film was widely seen as a nonfiction film even though it’s extremely manipulated in many ways. It’s using a real location and real people to ultimately create a very self-expressive piece. With Here, the evolutionary step was going to Armenia, spending a lot of time traveling, photographing and talking to people, using that research to feed into the script and allowing the locations to influence the journey that these characters might go on. On one level the process is almost like some kind of quasi-documentary journey through this place. There was a definite desire to take the audience on that trip as opposed to making a movie about a road trip. I got obsessed about the idea, given the film’s themes of mapping, orientation and how we find our place in the world, of actually using real locations, and in some cases, real people, and then mapping a fictional story on top of them. That allowed me to let the film to wander between different kinds of cinematic practice.
Marston: With the angle that the environment that the story takes place in and the film is shot in is not just a backdrop.
Marston: And that it in some way is organically and inherently linked to what’s happening to the characters on the screen and to the way in which the film was made. It’s not just about, “Oh, let me get a nice pretty market in the background.” It’s like, “Oh, well if I’m shooting in a market, let’s just see what happens there, and let’s make sure that the people we’re interacting with are genuine.” Creating a vibe that is different than a Hollywood movie coming into a foreign locale just so they have the nice mountains in the background. There’s a scene in The Forgiveness of Blood where the young girl goes to the city to buy contraband cigarettes. We just parked a car in the midst of a market, opened the trunk and put a bunch of cigarette cartons in there. And then we had her wander through the market. Another example was when we had scenes where the elders were discussing the blood feud — those were real mediators. Part of it was scripted and part of it was me saying, “Okay, debate X,” or “What if such and such were to happen?” Rolling the camera and getting them to have an actual conversation about the statutes and rules of blood feuds. Creating an actual, as best as I could, environment that felt like what would happen after a killing in Albania.
King: There are probably dozens of examples like that in Here. I mean, there are a few sets in the movie, but it was primarily shot almost entirely on location. There are a large number of non-actors in the film. And then, at the same time, some of the people that you might think are non-actors are actors. It’s all sort of all jumbled up a little bit. Again, I wanted to be constantly blurring that line. I had this idea about bringing the characters and the audience into these spaces and allowing them to encounter these people and experiences in a way that’s true to the actual experience one has while traveling. There’s also a degree to which the frame of the film is often purposely out of synch with the story. There are scenes that our characters will wander out of that we’ll stick with for a little while, or we’ll enter into a landscape and the cartographer, played by Ben Foster, isn’t quite there yet. I wanted there to be a little more looseness to the film’s frame. In contemporary cinema, I feel like it’s taken for granted that the frame of the screen is always going to be efficiently and pragmatically mapped — in a one-to-one ratio — onto the narrative. One thing that Dani Valent, my co-writer, and I spent a lot of time talking about was the way a road journey really feels, the looseness of it, and this idea that maybe if we just let the camera wander off from the story every once in a while it will allow the audience to have their own experience of this journey.
Marston: Which is totally different from what we were doing. I’m creating an experience, but it’s not necessarily an experience that non-Albanians would be able to relate to. It’s not the traveler’s experience. It’s not the experience of the outsider.
King: You’re bringing us into a world in a very visceral way.
Marston: Right. There’s the experience of the claustrophobia, of the kid who’s stuck inside the house. There’s the experience of kids hanging out in Albania. So, in a way, yes, it’s still experiential, but stylistically it’s different than what you were doing. When I saw your film, the scene where the woman accuses Ben Foster of only being interested in his maps, in only seeing the topography and never actually penetrating deeper, really resonated with me. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Albania that was a concern I constantly had. I always want to make sure that I’m penetrating as deeply as I can, that I’m understanding with as much nuance as I possibly can. A question that kept getting asked of me over and over again while I was researching the film in Albania was whether I had read the Kanun, which is this sort of rulebook of laws and codes dating back hundreds of years that governs various aspects of Albanian society, from the rules of marriage to the rules of hospitality to the rules of blood feuds. Albanians take the Kanun very seriously; it’s an important centerpiece of their cultural heritage. And, that question, “Well, have you read the Kanun,” was sort of code for, “Are you really serious about understanding Albania?” But the irony was that no one who asked me that question had read the Kanun! And, more to the point, it turned out to be a false question. Halfway through my first research trip I realized that the Kanun is an oral tradition, and that it was collected, written down and published in book form in the early 20th century. You can buy it, but pretty much the only people who buy it are Albanian ex-pats who come back to Albania for a two-week holiday with their kids, and they want something that they can take back and put on the bookshelf. People who are actually mediating the blood feuds don’t open up the book, like the Talmud, and consult it word by word. It’s much more fluid, much more complicated. A more useful question for people who genuinely wanted me to understand Albania would’ve been, “Have you heard about the Kanun and do you understand that the Kanun is this sort of amorphous tradition that has many interpretations?” Instead, they were perpetuating an incorrect representation and understanding of their own society. Asking, “Have you read the Kanun” was as if to say, “Our culture is fixed and knowable.” And, precisely the thing that’s interesting and problematic in Albania is that it’s not fixed and knowable.
King: I had a funny thing happen once when I was at a dinner party among a number of Armenians. There was a gentleman sitting across from me, a historian who was asking, “Have you traveled to this city?” And then telling me, “You gotta make sure this thematic is in there.” He was grilling me about my research. It was a great conversation; I learned a lot. He was very passionate. There was kind of a lull at one point and I asked him, “When was the last time you were in Armenia?” And he just looked at me and said, “Oh, I’ve never been to Armenia.” That was a fascinating moment because I realized that with Armenians, and especially the diaspora, there’s a very interesting aspect of identification that isn’t actually tied to on-the-ground geography. For many people who are most passionate about their country and culture, it is a conceptual idea that exists in a sort of virtual space, which I found really lovely given the film that I was making.
Marston: But overall in terms of the production itself, I think the Albanians were very excited about an American filmmaker coming to make a movie there. We had people in the film community on the crew and recruited film students as production assistants. They were very excited to have the opportunity, and they brought a really great level of enthusiasm and excitement to the film. And I think that Albanians who weren’t in the film world felt somehow honored that an American cared enough or was interested enough to come, spend time, actually get to know the place and make a movie about this subject matter.
King: It was similar with Here. By American standards we were a relatively small independent film, but we were one of the biggest productions that’s ever been mounted in Armenia, I think, outside of some Russian productions that had come to do period pieces. And we did a similar thing as you; we had a lot of young people on the crew who were very excited to be a part of it. Maybe half of our crew was Armenian and had never worked on a production of this scale. In many cases we brought them to parts of their country they had never seen before. And I hesitate to call them political ideas, but I had two other thoughts about going somewhere like Armenia. One was wanting to, as an American filmmaker, bring back new images to my own culture. To kind of force people to look out for a change. And then there was the idea of, “Where are we going to get the biggest bang for our buck in terms of actually creating something positive?” I don’t want to sound condescending, and filmmaking is certainly not any kind of charity, but there was an element of, “As an American filmmaker who even at the budget level I’m working at is certainly relatively privileged, what can I do with that? Where can I take it where it might have some kind of impact?”
Marston: After our first trip to Albania, we got people to donate used laptops and then took a couple back and gave them to kids living in isolation so that they would have some form of access or connection to the outside. One of those kids — someone who was on self-imposed house arrest because of a blood feud — really got into it. By the time I came back he had gotten his own Internet access and a webcam and was Skyping family members in other places. But, you know, there are two challenges to making movies in foreign places. One is the really enjoyable challenge of trying to understand a place and weave a story that feels coherent, organic and true. The other is a logistical challenge, which is, how do you figure out who to trust, and then, how do you work with them? That’s a much more prickly subject. For me, the first challenge is entirely about submitting myself to the place I’m in — learning about it, immersing myself in it and not imposing myself on it. Letting the place wash over me so that I can then create a story. But when I then take off that writing hat and go into production, there’s the question of who to put trust in and collaborate with and how to do so, and it becomes less about submitting myself to the local way of thinking. Where to strike that balance between my way of thinking and the local way of thinking is more difficult. For example, one day I walked into the office and an Albanian crew member was yelling at the top of his lungs at someone, ostensibly doing a negotiation for a location or a driver. Afterwards I said to him, “No way, this is not how I treat people. You represent me as a filmmaker. You work for me, and this is not how I want to do business.” And he turned around and said to me, “This is how business is done in Albania. And, moreover, if I don’t raise my voice, he’ll take advantage of me and won’t respect me and by association won’t respect you or the production. He’ll run roughshod over us. So I’m protecting your best interest, and you have to let me negotiate the way that I know how, even if that’s an Albanian way of doing things.” And that was a really, really difficult choice to make, and there was a point at which I said, “No, I’m not going to submit to this. I think that there are other ways to gain respect.” The attitude that yelling at the top of your lungs to get what you want — that’s embedded within the story I was telling, the story of a blood feud. And I do believe insofar as I am implicated in Albanian society while I’m there, that I can do things differently in an attempt to not engage in a behavior that I don’t see as worthwhile.
King: For a year or two leading up to production we were trying to figure out how to actually mount a production of our scale within this country that has very different business practices and a very different legal system. That question of whom you trust can be incredibly daunting. In our case it involved a long process of vetting people. For a very long time we negotiated with Paradise Films, a big Russian production company with an arm in Armenia, trying to do a production service deal. Ultimately, we just couldn’t get to anywhere that made sense. We ended up partnering with a company that’s more in the hospitality business. The president of the company, James Tufenkian, splits his time between New York and Yerevan — his company is called Tufenkian Hospitality. They have a number of hotels throughout Armenia and they do tours for people coming over. They had no experience in production or filmmaking at all, but they understood logistics — moving people around, feeding them and finding them places to stay. There is no traditional film infrastructure in Armenia — there’s no gear in the country, no labs, nothing. So what we did with Tufenkian is very similar to how we were training crew. There were stumbling blocks, but their accounting was Western, they understood our needs as an American LLC and it actually worked out wonderfully. It was a big learning experience for them, but I think their employees loved doing it. A lot of the production was kind of improvised in that way. The second part of what you’re talking about, the cultural thing, was something that was very present for us as well. We made a decision very early on that there were hierarchies within Armenian culture that we were not going to abide by because it wasn’t going to be good for the film. We said from the get-go, “[Hiring] is not going to be based on, ‘let’s bring in my cousin to be my assistant.’ It’s going to be based on, let’s get the best person for the job.” We made a hard and fast rule about how we were not going to pay bribes for anything. We had people telling us, “You’re not going to make your film here. This is going to collapse.” But it’s such a slippery slope. The first time you pay to get something out of customs, you’re going to pay again and again. And we did have gear stuck out at the airport for two and a half weeks at the beginning of the shoot and couldn’t do our tests until we got this worked out and understood.
Marston: The way that it worked for us was that we showed up at the Albanian film commission and they pointed us to a producer they wanted us to use. It was pretty clear that the idea was not just that this was the main person with experience, but that this was so that we could then apply to the film center to get financial support. Some of that money would obviously go to this local producer and probably then get kicked back to the head of the film center. The problem for us came when the head of the film commission was ousted shortly before we were supposed to go into preproduction. The reason was there was a pushback locally on the film center giving money to foreign productions. There was a significant contingent within Albania who said, “This is xenophobic. The only way that we as a film industry are ever going to grow is if we encourage companies with experience to come in from the outside and make films so that we can get more knowledge.” But then, there were other people who said, “Well, why isn’t our money going to movies that have been directed by Albanians?” So the head of the film center was thrown out, a new guy was brought in, and then suddenly the people who we ostensibly were going to work with to do our local producing said, “We’re probably not of much use to you anymore, so we’re not going to help you produce your film. And in fact, we might be a liability.” I said, “I don’t care about getting film center money. I just want someone who knows how to get 100 chickens if I need 100 chickens!” But, they weren’t interested because they knew that the principal way that they were going to get paid was to get a grant from the film center and pocket a portion of it. And so we had to empower the guy who I first came to Albania with. He started off as my translator and fixer and then rose to be my co-writer and then rose from there to be my casting director and, consequently, became our co-producer. Even though he lives in New York, he became our local guy. The challenge was that although he was a filmmaker and he spoke the language, he hadn’t been living there for 15 years.
King: Our co-producer ended up being a guy named Jeff Kalousdian, an Armenian-American who worked for 15 years in development in Armenia. He worked in rural villages and knew how to mediate conflicts between two neighbors or build a new school and he has traveled throughout the country. That’s the kind of thing that’s a godsend for you as an outsider — someone who has one foot in your own culture and another foot in the other culture.
Marston: One of the things that we ran into in Albania that was very specifically Albanian was the rivalries. Albania has a lot of rivalries, and they relate to the content of the film. It’s a place where people get into fights and form alliances — it’s a whole mentality — and it was something that we had to negotiate very carefully. So, for example, there are two main film schools in the capital city. One is a private school set up by a guy who got financing and built his own really great campus with state-of-the-art equipment. He charges tuition, which is not cheap, but he has a really great environment. The other school is the state school that is probably less well-endowed. I was invited to a human rights film festival at the private guy’s, and I came and showed Maria Full of Grace there. And then I made sure that when the film festival organized by a professor from the other film school invited me to be on the jury, that I went and also participated in that as well. And it was like that all down the line. I was constantly making sure that we were not favoring any one camp over another. It was very taxing, in a way, to have to worry about that, but we realized early on that we couldn’t afford to alienate anyone. You ran the risk of alienating people not because you had done something actively against them, but simply because you favored someone who they viewed to be an opponent. So, Braden, would you do it again, make a movie like this in a different country?
King: I don’t know if I’m ready to go on record about that. [Laughs]
Marston: If money wasn’t an issue, would you again choose a place and become so obsessed by it?
King: One of the things I love most about filmmaking is the places that it’s taken me. Given how much of our lives and energy go into these projects, I’ve always felt very strongly that I’d rather try to embark on something that’s going to have a decent amount of life experience attached to it. I want to come away with an experience that in many ways is bigger than making the movie. But I will say that I have a much stronger interest now in making a film with which I don’t have to battle logistics as hard.
Marston: So you’d do it again in the south of France, is what you’re saying?
King: Well, I’m only half kidding when I tell people now that I’m looking for romantic comedies set in Central Park. Walk to work every day and everybody’s speaking English and nobody’s getting sick from the food and we’re not getting arrested at gunpoint by Russian military. That sounds pretty good. What about you?
Marston: I would be happy to do it every other film.
King: And so far it’s been every film, right?
Marston: Well, that’s because all the other films didn’t get financed.
King: That’s a big irony, in a way. You think what should be the easier ones are what gets made, but it’s often not.
Marston: Yeah, I know. It was easier to get an indie movie in Albania made than it was to get a movie made in the studio system.