The consequences of Brexit weighs heavily on the mind for many immigrants to the UK who may already be struggling to make a living from day to day. Real life actress Ana Asensio, who moved from Spain to Brooklyn, New York in an effort to live the American dream quickly found her money running out and was having to find odd jobs just to keep her head above water. But one job she took quickly turned dangerous and she deeply regretted accepting but what happened became the inspiration for the actress’ first film as a writer, director and star.
In ‘Most Beautiful Island’ she plays Luciana, strapped for cash and behind on her rent when a friend offers her the chance of easy money. All she has to do is pick up a parcel and wear a little black dress to a party where she will be paid just to attend with the promise of more work but only if she can go through what quickly becomes a nightmarish ordeal.
Much like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense this is one of those films that is ruined if you give away the ending and it’s a brilliant debut that keeps the audience on its toes as it slowly draws you in wondering just what exactly she‘s let herself in for with a climactic scene that will have some audience members watching with hands over their faces.
Our Deputy Editor Simon spoke to actress and first time writer/ director Ana Asensio about the film…..
AnyGoodFilms: Ana, why the title ‘Most Beautiful Island’? It gives no clue as to what to expect in the film.
Ana Asensio: Well the original title of the film was not this one. I wrote the script many years ago with another title and over time another film came along with the exact same title so I thought, ‘Right well I can’t have that !’and then it took me a long time to find another title. And then one day, actually it was already in the editing room, when I realised the title was always there in the script.
AGF: So ‘Most Beautiful Island’ is deliberately ironic?
AA: Yes! So in that moment it’s sadly right. It’s the place of hopes, the beautiful island where people come with dreams and as I come as an immigrant it is an iconic place, the city where all the immigrants arrive in the first place. And also because what we show in the film is the other side of the glamour and the bright lights.
AGF: At the start you have a credit which reads, ‘inspired by a true story’. Can you tell me about that?
AA: Yes it was pretty much inspired by my own true life experience when I was very new to the city and transitioning from a visitor’s visa to a working visa and at the time almost all of my savings were gone and it takes nine months to get the visa and I couldn’t leave the country because you lose the opportunity to get it. And I became this girl who just lived day by day and surviving on bagels and just doing random jobs that I could find in the paper and I couldn’t get real jobs because my English was so bad, not even waiting tables. I did try but it didn’t last more than two days because the clients would lose their patience with me so the details of what the character does in the story are very much things that happened to me and the heart of the story of the character being misled to go to a job which is not what it’s supposed to be well that happened to me. I was told that I was going to a party and that was not the case.
AGF: So what happens at the end of the film is that what happened to you?
AA: Ahhhh (laughs) no it was fictionalised. When I wrote the story I wanted to keep that vulnerability and being afraid of being trapped in an illegal place but what happened to Luciana in my film is not what happened to me.
AGF: So what was it that happened to you then?
AA: Ahhh well was told I was going to work a Halloween party and the only thing I had to do was go dressed in a Halloween costume and just walk around and be decoration in a way. There was a woman who picked me up and drove me into the highway and into a place with no way to leave unless you actually had a car picking you up. I had no money, no cell phone, no one knew I was there and when I arrived I said, ‘I don’t want to stay here. This is not a safe place’ and they said, ‘No you are staying here. You’re not going anywhere’. Emotionally it was very disturbing and scary and I really thought if anything happened to me here, if I disappeared no one would know the last place I was in
AGF: so what was that actual thing that happened?
AA: um oh, Simon. No, no I think it’s not good overall for the film. Maybe another time I will tell you Simon. In a way it might mislead the story…..
AGF: OK well I don’t want to spoil it. So it’s taken you four years to finance the film. Where did you manage to get the money?
AA: Well from the very beginning I told everyone that I would cross paths with… not just a meeting but anywhere….you know, a doctor’s appointment, anywhere that I was looking for money because it was that sort of mentality that this is going to be an independent production, I can’t find a production company that will back me up and I’d never directed before, never written a script.
AGF: That must have made it even more difficult for you? And despite people like Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins, you are, for a first time FEMALE director, in a very male orientated business.
AA: Absolutely. It was a long, long journey and I applied for every grant that was out there for first time film makers and for New York film makers. I didn’t get any grant. I knocked on production companies doors but no one was interested in my script or my persona. Producers from Spain and France who believed in the script and said they would try to raise the money and they tried to finance it through the government but they couldn’t get money. So then I decided to give up as well and I continued waiting another year so I just knew that the only way was if people donate. At that point I thought about doing crowd funding but all my friends are broke so how much was I going to get? Maybe $5000 with all my friends donating or I can see if maybe business people might put money into this as one of their investments. So I just found my investors in random situations but again I would just talk to anyone. You know I would go to an audition and wait at the front desk and someone would come in for something else and I would say I was looking for a producer, I’m looking for an investor.
AGF: So what was the films budget then?
AA: Well because of the distribution deal I can’t say but it was very low budget. It was ultra low budget for the United States.
AGF: Less than seven figures?
AA: (laughs) Absolutely! I could make several movies with that!
AGF: When you were auditioning and then casting did you find anyone dropping out when they found out what was involved?
AA: Because of what was involved I needed someone to commit 100% and not be a diva actress . I’m going to put myself through it and if you believe in this then I’m definitely going to have the sensibility and the pace to not make you look bad in anyway but I think it’s important that we show that there’s no body double, that the actress is actually going through this nightmare. This is not a Hollywood production filled with tricks. I wanted it to be really raw. It’s fascinating that one of the things that when I was casting actresses that was important to me that I only see actresses who were foreigners rather than an American trying to put on an accent. So these girls would come and when I told them well this, what you are going to have to do, they’d say, ‘I’m fine, I’ll do it’. And it comes from you having made strong choices in your life. You’ve already left your country and struggling here trying to make life as an actress. You’re going to appear in a first time directors film and you don’t even know what the outcome will be so this is just another risk in your life and this is exactly the sort of women I’m talking about in this film.
AGF: So Natasha Romanova who plays Olga, the other female in the film, she was your first choice? No one dropped out before her?
AA: Yes when I saw her I thought she’s definitely Olga. She’s beautiful and sinister at the same time. She has this energy which is just scary and she was so brave.
AGF: Now you’ve written this knowing what you’ll have to do. Did you not consider alternatives to what you know you’d have to do and also direct on set? You could have made it a lot easier for yourself.
AA: (laughs) That’s exactly what my mother said Simon, ‘Why do you do this to yourself when you could have made a romantic comedy and not as risky?’ It was hard and uncomfortable and in a way I had to block myself from my own fears and insecurities.
AGF: There’s a lot of nudity in this for you too which is a brave thing to do when you’re directing also.
AA: Especially filming in the US where society is very private about nudity and I come from a country where we’re pretty well connected and it’s much more natural to be naked than to show….. I mean in the US it’s a huge deal like, ‘Whoa! this is a scary thing to do!’ but for me showing my body was not a problem. My conflict was I AM the director and I don’t want to lose that perspective of me but for them, the crew, it’s a huge deal to see you this way.
AGF: But this must have been very awkward and embarrassing perhaps more so for the crew?
AA: Yes I feel like the crew were more tense. One of the things we did also for Natasha was just to have minimal crew but again that was a hard part.
AGF: Part way into the film you have a scene in a bath of cockroaches now that can’t have been easy but I guess you don’t have a phobia about that sort of thing.
AA: No, though I’m not a fan of the roaches I have to say they’re pretty disgusting. It was not easy because the roaches are not a trained animal so we had to do take after take and sometimes they would not do what we wanted. We had to make a tunnel for them to go where we wanted but the moment we wanted them to perform,they wouldn’t perform. When the scene happened it was hard for me too. Although it did help me with the character because it’s so disturbing which is how her mind’s state is at that moment in the story. The shooting part of it though was miserable, the water was freezing cold. .
AGF: Even though they’re cockroaches did you still have to run the scene past the American Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals in Film?
A: Oh yes. The roaches had a wrangler, so a reptile wrangler came with a box of them. They were counted, they almost had names and they all went back home with him and everything was regulated you know, the amount of time they could be there. Everything was there following the rules even more so than the actors.
AGF; You’re a brave woman to have put yourself through everything for this film.
A; It’s miracle that it worked. It’s a miracle that I’m still here, believe me, every single choice I was asked, ‘Are you out of your freaking mind?’
AGF; So there’s been a load of positive buzz around the festivals with the film but what’s next?
A: well I’m writing my next script which is an intimate thriller with surreal elements to it.
AGF: Writer, director actor? Which one of these are you most keen to continue doing?
AA: I definitely want to continue directing because it’s extremely pleasurable and you create your own material. I would love to continue acting if the roles come but I’m taking it all with a different approach now. I would love to work with great people and do great parts but if it doesn’t I don’t want to do bad roles anymore.