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      Filmmaker Joshua Marston. in Joshua Marston
      Filmmaker Joshua Marston.
    Joshua Marston

    First-time director Joshua Marston talks about the work and the spirit that went into his award-winning debut "Maria Full of Grace."


    Joshua Marston admits he's "living the dream." How many other filmmakers can claim to have walked home with some of the top awards from the Sundance, Berlin and Los Angeles film festivals with their first feature? The California-raised, NYU-educated first-time filmmaker has done just that with "Maria Full of Grace," an unblinking look at women smuggling drugs from Colombia to the United States in their stomachs. The film had its New York premiere last month at the Human Rights Watch film festival and opens Friday (July 16, 2004) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinemas, as well as in Jackson Heights, Queens, where parts of it were shot.

    Director of "Maria Full of Grace."
    Director of "Maria Full of Grace."

    Related links: Official site

      Review: Maria Full of Grace
    "Maria Full of Grace" paints a passionate but never overdramatized portrait of women who fly to America with drugs in their stomachs.

      Interview: Catalina Sandino Moreno
    The first-time film actress, born in Colombia and now living in New York, talks about her powerful, Oscar-nominated debut in "Maria Full of Grace."

    Actress Catalina Sandino Moreno has also won raves for her debut in the film, playing a young Colombian who leaves her job in a flower plantation to carry latex-wrapped drug pellets in her stomach on a tense, potentially deadly flight to New York. And some of the side characters are almost as fascinating as the lead — notably Orlando Tob—n, a real-life neighborhood institution in Jackson Heights, who both helped the film get made and got to play a character based on himself.

    Marston talked with Offoffoff this week from the offices of Fine Line studios in Manhattan. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

    Q: How did you get involved in film?

    JOSHUA MARSTON: Well, I was a photographer since being in high school, and loved taking photographs — particularly abroad, when I traveled — meeting people, using it as a way to sort of be a fly on the wall. But I often felt like the photographs were somehow too thin, that I would always want to tell a five-minute story about what was behind each image, and so I wanted something that was thicker, that was more narrative. But I didn't go right into film. I ended up going into academia and political science [as a graduate student at University of Chicago] and did this whole circuitous route, because I was also interested in public policy and politics, and it was only when I realized that that was way too esoteric — at least academia was too esoteric for me — that I ended up finding film was a way to bring my visual and my political together.

    Q: Esoteric in what way?

    JM: By definition esoteric! I mean, I think academia is esoteric partly because it's like anything else, you know, when you get to the upper levels of it, it becomes very technical. But the problem is ... there's a certain egotism that comes with the esoteric quality, which is that people stake out their claim on one remote element of their field, and try to assert their creativity, and then sort of piss around them and make sure that no one takes their territory, and get very competitive about it.

      "One guy told me the story of how, after he'd gone through all the travail of swallowing the drugs and bringing them to the United States, he was then presented with such a large wad — a bale — of cash, that he had to swallow the cash in pellets and smuggle the cash back to Colombia. So the stories that you hear are just phenomenal."
      — Joshua Marston
    Q: So you had something else you wanted to do in life.

    JM: Yeah, I wanted to change the world, you know? I wanted to go into politics and do something useful. But at the same time I didn't want to be in a 9-to-5 job that was going to be boring and sit in an office all day.

    Q: So far do you find this is the kind of thing you wanted to do?

    JM: I'm pretty happy. I don't think I'm in a position to complain! [Laughs]

    Q: How did you get interested in this subject? You didn't start with this story — you were interested in the big subject.

    JM: I had been interested in the drug war, yeah. I'd written another screenplay about a completely different facet of it, and I shelved the screenplay because it didn't work. And I think that was probably why I was that much more attuned when I came upon a story of someone who had traveled as a drug mule, which was something that I'd only ever considered really from the headlines and never really imagined from the experience, moment to moment.

    Q: What do you mean, when you "came upon" that story?

    JM: Twofold — one was that I met someone who did it, just sort of coincidentally [as] I struck up conversations with people, immigrants. And subsequently reading more about it. I read an article that referred to something called "shotgunning," which is this idea that if you put not just one but a group of people on the same plane, if one of them gets caught it will create enough distraction for the others to get through. So reading that gave me a sort of a way in, narratively, to construct a plot line that allowed me to also think more about the story academically.

    Q: Were you researching for academic purposes or to prepare to write the film?

    JM: I wrote the [first draft of the] script very quickly and then started to do a whole bunch of research, talking to all sorts of people. I talked to people who had done it, people who worked in it. ...

    Q: How different is today's film from what you wrote originally?

    JM: There's not a single sentence that made it from the first draft to the last.

    Q: Why? What did you learn in-between?

    JM: Everything! I mean, I hadn't ever traveled to Colombia when I wrote the first draft of the script. I had only talked to Colombians who lived here. And I had only had that one interaction with someone very briefly who told me in broad strokes what it was like, and then I went and talked to more people both here and in South America who told me in much more detail what it was like. And I went to flower plantations and got to see what flower plantations were like. So it was just a constant evolution.

    Q: About the flower plantations, it's interesting — this is a film that comes from two motivations. One is to show a kind of working world in the Third World, and then the other is the whole process of drug smuggling and the people involved.

    JM: Yeah, the intention is to show one working world and then to show another working world — drugs and flowers.

    Q: Did you observe the flower plantations?

    JM: Yes. I went to both Ecuador and Colombia, and went to the regions where there are flower plantations, and sometimes went in with permission through the front door, and talked to managers and got tours; sometimes smuggled myself on the bus with the workers at five in the morning, talked to the guards who worked at the plantations as well, when I couldn't get in, about what life was like for them. All sorts of aspects, just listening to people's stories, and just being in those towns [to see] when people were getting out of work and going out and hanging out, standing in line to put their paychecks in the bank.

    Joshua Marston directing Catalina Sandino Moreno on the set of Maria Full of Grace. Supporting actress Yenny Paola Vega is in the background. in Joshua Marston  
    Joshua Marston directing Catalina Sandino Moreno on the set of "Maria Full of Grace." Supporting actress Yenny Paola Vega is in the background.
    Q: What struck you or surprised you about what you saw?

    JM: Two things. One is that from a managerial point of view, I was struck by the incredible strides that have been made in improving the quality of work and the care of the workers. And from the point of view of the workers, what struck me was how awful the work is and continues to be, and how poorly the workers continue to be treated. So both things [were] going on — that it is a lot better than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but it still remains not very nice work, and it still remains work that you do on your feet for long periods of time. It's very supervised and controlled, and it's not work that you can have little side conversations as you work, and, you know [gesturing down office corridor], can't get up from your cubicle and walk down and kind of hang out for five or ten minutes and take a little break.

    And the chemicals, though they have made improvements in regulating so that theoretically people don't get exposed to the fumigants, inevitably they wear off on your hands from processing the flowers, and it begins to irritate your skin and your eyes, and there are still a dramatic number of birth defects associated with plantation workers in Ecuador and Colombia.

    Q: Is there a person you met in this process who stands out in your mind?

    JM: Well, the first person that I met, and then another man that I met in prison in Pennsylvania, who spent several days with me explaining in detail what it was like for him. A woman in an Ecuadorean prison. There are so many stories, just stories that prove that fact is more interesting than fiction. From a screenwriting point of view, it was often frustrating because I would get these incredibly detailed and fascinating stories that I couldn't then work into the script because I had to be true to Maria's point of view and experience. So for example, one guy told me the story of how, after he'd gone through all the travail of swallowing the drugs and bringing them to the United States, he was then presented with such a large wad — a bale — of cash, that he had to swallow the cash in pellets and smuggle the cash back to Colombia. So the stories that you hear are just phenomenal.

    Q: How did you cast Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria?

    JM: We saw 800 girls over three months in the U.S. and in Colombia. We had two teams in Colombia looking at professionals and non-professionals. The team for non-professionals was going to town around Bogot‡ — looking in schools, flower plantations, driving around with a megaphone on the car — all in an effort to encourage girls to open calls. After three months of this, without finding the right girl, we had to push the shoot.

    The very next morning another tape arrived in New York with another 12 auditions on it and Catalina was the first on the tape. She simply was Maria — the character I had had in my head for three years in the writing. And as an actress she was creative, smart and the camera loved her. Working with her I was constantly amazed by her ability to step up to the plate and deliver. On numerous occasions I turned to the producer, Paul Mezey, and marveled that she wasn't a seasoned professional.

    Q: How did you find Orlando Tob—n?

    JM: I met Orlando because someone fairly late in the game who had read the script and I was meeting with for financing said, "Well, have you met the mayor of Little Colombia?" Little Colombia meaning Jackson Heights in Queens. So I found out about the man and I called him up and told him I wanted to come out and meet him. And I went out to his office, which is half the size of this room, and it's full of people, and it's people who were there to get help with something in one form or another. He's a fixer.

    I remember we met for lunch — we walked out of the office, we walked across the street, and in walking the block to the restaurant he was stopped four or five times in the street by people who knew him or recognized him or had something to tell him. He is this community figure, and among the many, many things he's done he has become known for sending the bodies of drug dealers back, who've died. And so he was very, not only open to the project but very passionate about the idea of the project. And so he became very supportive and allowed me to sit in his office and watch the way it worked. And that then became the inspiration for me for rewriting the script and fashioning a character inspired by him.

      "What I was interested in doing was not telling a story that we've seen already from the top down, from the point of the view of the DEA agent or the drug trafficker, but telling it from the bottom up, from the point of view of someone fairly low on the totem pole who is suffering through this experience. I wanted to make it not so much matter-of-fact but everyday."
      — Joshua Marston
    Q: He's listed as associate producer.

    JM: Yeah, because he became the person in the community that we would turn to whenever we needed help with something, whether it was how fast did we get in touch with 17-year-old girls in the neighborhood to try and get them to turn out for casting, or we needed a restaurant for lunch for holding while we're shooting, or he would help us get this location, or we needed Colombians to do voiceover for background sound in the crowd scenes. He was our point man in the community.

    Q: He seemed like he could be a whole other story in himself.

    JM: Absolutely.

    Q: I thought, watching the film, that the events in the film are never overhyped, never overdramatized. It's presented in a sort of matter-of-fact way.

    JM: Right.

    Q: Was that something that you tried to achieve?

    JM: Yeah, because to a certain extent it's matter-of-fact in Colombia. I mean, what I was interested in doing was not telling a story that we've seen already from the top down, from the point of the view of the DEA agent or the drug trafficker, but telling it from the bottom up, from the point of view of someone fairly low on the totem pole who is suffering through this experience. And in that way, I wanted to make it not so much "matter-of-fact" but everyday. To give it a sort of everyday quality, a very mundane sense, in the literal sense of the word "mundane." It was, "What is it like to do this," rather than, "What's the most dramatic, glitzy, hyped-up way that we could do it with the flash of 'Miami Vice.'" So that you're really put into the shoes of the character that's doing it. Yeah, that was the goal.

    Q: Tell me what it took to get the film made.

    JM: Well, HBO is the main thing. There were a lot of people who said no to the script because it was in Spanish, and HBO said yes. So that was a huge crossroads, because they were willing to take that risk and then allowed us to make the film the way we wanted to make it. And then the next huge crossroad was making it in Ecuador because Colombia became too unsafe. And that was just about collaboration, you know, with bringing all the Colombians from Ecuador.

    Q: Tell me what kind of work you're hoping to do in the future.

    JM: I'm writing a new screenplay. It takes place in Tennessee. It's about a family in a small town. I'm interested in [making] films that have a powerful emotional story, really interesting characters, and that take place within a social and political context — they're not told in a vacuum simply for entertainment reasons but they're films that resonate and that stay with you for more than the time that it takes to eat dinner afterwards.

    Q: How has your experience been with festivals and all the response you've gotten so far?

    JM: It's great. I mean, to a certain extent I'm living the dream, you know, so I have no complaints. I think the most satisfying thing is the audience reactions to the film — sitting in the back of the theater and watching people shift in their seats and exhale, and having them come up afterwards to me and to the actresses and say that they've been moved, you know? And as far as the awards go, I think that the audience awards are the most significant, because it's the audience saying this film really moved us. The notion that so many people within a given festival could all vote for this film is like that Sally Field moment — they like me! They really like me! They like the film, you know — it stays with them. It resonates. And that's ultimately what you hope to do most as a filmmaker — to move the audience.

    JULY 16, 2004

    Reader comments on Joshua Marston:

  • congratulations   from Fabrizio Laurenti, Jul 20, 2004
  • Great Work   from norma, Jul 26, 2004
  • "unshakable courage"   from lilia estrada (dallas), Aug 2, 2004
  • Maria   from patricia Jablansky, Aug 6, 2004
  • Re: Maria   from Mary, Aug 12, 2004
  • book   from Mary, Aug 12, 2004
  • me encanto la peli   from diego, Sep 27, 2004
  • wonderful!!   from lisa, Nov 24, 2004
  • Felicitaciones   from Manuel, Dec 20, 2004
  • I have your next movie ready and waiting   from Wayne G, Jan 6, 2005
  • authentic and frightenly real   from sarah, Jan 6, 2005
  • Awesome film!   from Eric Bates, Jan 22, 2005
  • La pelicula es demasiado real.   from Marjorie Rojas Firmin, Feb 15, 2005
  • FATHER BEN, SISTER VICKIE?   from RON KORN, Feb 23, 2005
  • pregunta   from John Jairo Giraldo, Mar 31, 2005
  • Difficult to do better   from carlo, Jul 4, 2005
  • [no subject]   from Abe Anhang, Nov 16, 2006
  • Movie title   from Nunya, Jan 21, 2007

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