How Director Joshua Marston Went From Columbian Drug Mules to Albanian Blood Feuds in Latest Film (Berlin)

Joshua Marston Headshot 2011
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 14:  Director Josh Marston attends the after party for the premiere of "New York, I Love You" at M2 Ultra Lounge on October 14, 2009 in New York City.

His powerful Spanish-language debut Maria Full of Grace, which won a Silver Bear in Berlin and garnered an Oscar nomination for star Catalina Sandino Moreno, put U.S. director Joshua Marston on the top of hot-indie-talent-to-watch-lists. But plans for an English-language follow up were smothered by the economic crisis. So Marston has again gone abroad for inspiration: his coming of age tale The Forgiveness of Blood is set in Albania and follows a teenager caught between the modern world and the eons-old blood feuds that still hold sway in the Baltics. Marston talked to The Hollywood Reporter's German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about going half way around the world and well outside his comfort zone to make his Berlin Festival Competition entry.

The Hollywood Reporter: For Maria Full of Grace you went to Columbia. The Forgiveness of Blood is set in Albania. Why do you go so far from home to find your stories?

Joshua Marston: Well it wasn't planned that way. There were a number of projects in-between. I tried to make a couple of films in the U.S. but because of what's been happening in the industry, it wasn't possible. After Maria I wrote a script about truck drivers in Iraq who work for Haliburton. Everyone loved it. The studio loved it. But would have cost $20 million and it was determined that wasn't financially viable. Then I was going to adapt a novel for $9 million. But it had kids as the main actors. There wasn't a main role for a bankable adult actor, and it was a period piece so we couldn't push the budget down any further. So it fell through. That's how I came to Albania, to a story we could make for a reasonable budget. I was very conscious of the fact that in this movie it's not the main talent but the story that will draw people in.

THR: How did you find this story – about a teenage boy caught in the world of Albanian blood feuds?

Marston: The short answer is I read it in a newspaper. About every six months or so, a major English-language newspaper runs a story about Albania and they are usually about the blood feuds. But what was fascinating for me wasn't the feud per se – you have blood feuds all over the world – but the co-existence of something so incredibly antiquated in a modern setting. These kids sitting at home with their video games, Internet, cell phones and satellite TV, but they can't go outside because they'll be killed by the dictates of a 15th-century legal code, the so-called Kanun, which dictates eye-for-an-eye justice.

THR: How did you develop the story?

Marston: My initial research involved one very concentrated month in Albania, where every day, all day, I'd have conversation after conversation with anyone who could be in someway touched by the narrative I was spinning in my head. I started with the families who were still in blood feuds, or had been in blood feuds and could tell me what it is like to be under this self-imposed house arrest. There were so many stories I couldn't put in the film. And some were so weird or complicated it would be impossible to explain them. There was this kid, for example, who'd been under house arrest since he was five and one day he decided he wanted to get his driver's license. The feuding family had told him, if we see you outside we'll kill you. But he was determined. So for weeks he'd get on his bike and ride very fast across the city to take driving lessons. Then he took the exam. He passed, got his license and went back home to house arrest.

THR: The plot of Maria Full of Grace also had a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it: a Columbia drug mule trying to enter the U.S.

Marston: This film definitely isn't a sequel to Maria, it's a very different film. It's a very different story, it has a very different mood, feel and pace to it. But what the two films have in common is that, on the surface the story does seem ripped from the headlines, but the way in is not the usual one. So with Maria the focus isn't on the drug king pins and the mafia but on this one girl's experience. For the story of the blood feud in Forgiveness, I chose to focus not on the killers but on the kids who try to live normal lives but are caught in the cross hairs. The basic requirement for me to do a story is can I find a new way in? Can I find aspects of this story that are dramatic, but unexpected, something we haven't seen before? That makes it interesting – to give a new point of view to a story we think we know. I like discovering something new, going outside my comfort zone, outside my own experience. Trying to see a situation with new, fresh eyes.