One film I simply can’t get out of my head is director Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, a narrative he co-wrote with Julian Sheppard. The tale centers on Alice (Rachel Weisz), an unpredictable yet in many ways bold woman who changes her identities at the drop of a hat, ready to experience new adventures once the proverbial well runs dry. Michael Shannon co-stars as Tom, a Brooklynite who Alice reunites with during a fateful dinner.
This movie has thriller, romance, and melodramatic elements, subverting each genre in the process. Can you talk about the diverse storytelling behind Complete Unknown?
On the multiple choice exam, I circle all of the above. I think the movie gets to be a bunch of different things in the same way Rachel Weisz’s character gets to be a bunch of different things. She doesn’t want to be pinned to being one thing.
I think there’s as much challenge to living a life that is diverse as in releasing a movie where film critics and reviewers can’t pin it down to being a thriller or a romance or something else. People want things to be a single identity because it’s convenient and comfortable and helps them understand something.
I’m interested in making something that is complicated and complex and can be multiple things all at the same time. Some of those things are completely contradictory. Just because they’re contradictory doesn’t mean that they’re not both true.
I was interested in making a movie about a woman who’s not as she presents (herself) as being. That was a starting point and it led us to the idea of a dinner party where you’re looking across the room and you see a woman who you think you recognize from your past – but you’re not entirely sure. And she’s introduced to you and she’s not acknowledging that she knows you.
That was the image we began with and from there we asked, ‘what if she’s done this more than once?’ What would it be like to re-invent yourself again and again and again?
The basic premise of the movie is (Alice) has put herself in the orbit of Michael Shannon’s (character). It’s about these characters who are crossing paths. He has lived in New York for quite a while and she is (a) more recent (New Yorker). We were looking for something in terms of a job that she could do in New York. But at the same time I wanted something that would take her slightly outside New York City and enable her to take him with her to have an adventure and an experience that on the one hand is in New York (but also) under his nose – just far (enough) away that you didn’t even know this existed.
Alice’s current job has her working with frogs. How did that element come about in the story?
I had heard this talk given by a guy, who at the time was a Ph.D student who was deep into researching frogs and had discovered a new species of frog in Staten Island which was this crazy news headline. Who thinks of a new species of frog in Staten Island? The reason why you don’t is because it sounds like there’s a jungle right outside your doorstep in New York City.
That is what the movie is about. It’s about going into other worlds and having other experiences and completely immersing yourself.
Can you name a particular film that you go back to time and time again, either for entertainment value or creative inspiration?
There are so many. One movie, when I’m writing, and I’m trying to write complex relationships, one movie that I go back to all the time is Ordinary People. Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, directed by Robert Redford. Similarly, the Kenneth Lonergan film You Can Count On Me.
For entertainment value, I go back to Blade Runner and 2001 are two of my favorite movies of all time. I have a very eclectic and diverse set of movies that I’m interested in. We watched The Graduate several times before making this because it’s so masterly constructed. If you watch The Graduate closely, long scenes that are played out in one take with a beautiful choreography of actors was something that was very inspiring to us in the making of Complete Unknown.
Can you talk about the dinner table sequence which features overlapping dialogue among several characters? That must have been difficult to shoot and edit.
The dinner table conversation was the most challenging scene in the movie because it’s a 10 or 12 minute scene with eight characters all sitting around a table and it was a lot of material to cover and one thing I didn’t want to do was shoot it over two days because I didn’t want to come back and get everyone back up and running. We shot with two cameras and the actors were amazing and once they got into a flow it became very easy and the cinematographer set it up in such a way where we could keep the camera moving around. We shot an incredible amount of material. It was essential that we’d be able to do that and safeguard their performances that they stayed organic and natural and never got stale.
Everything we shot in the house was a pleasure to shoot – the actors, because it was these eight actors who were together for a week and a half of filming, started to refer to themselves as the Rutland players because we were shooting it in a house in Rutland Road in Brooklyn. They felt like sort of a theater troupe and it was quite enjoyable to work with them on that.
What was the idea behind the memorable last shot of the film, where we see a brief glimpse of Rachel Weisz’s character?
John Sayles famously said that a movie gets written three times. It’s written when it’s written. It’s written when it gets shot and it’s written when it’s edited. And it was in the post production process that we really honed in on what the ending of the film wanted to be. We had scripted something else and we had focused on what would happen to Rachel Weisz’s character after the movie was over and where she would go from there.
We discovered that once we had the film assembled and sat back and watched that you wanted to know that she moved on and had more adventures afterwards. You didn’t want to know too much detail about what those were. So it was about finding a way visually to express that she was somewhere new without constraining the audience with the details and what that new thing was.
Thank you for your time!
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
***Complete Unknown is now playing in select theaters.
***Along with Complete Unknown, other films playing this week include Sully, Meg Ryan’s directing debut Ithaca, and Author: The JT LeRoy Story. To check out this week’s review of those films, listen to CinemAddicts below: