- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2016

A man looks across the table at a dinner party and realizes the woman seated there disappeared from his life one day years before without explanation. She is seated there now with a new companion — and a new name.

She knows he knows.

Thus is the setup for the new film “Complete Unknown,” opening Friday in the District. Michael Shannon is Tom, who knows that the woman now known as Alice (Rachel Weisz) is in fact his former flame.

Director Joshua Marston, who co-wrote the script with Julian Sheppard, explains the impetus for the story:

“You get up in the morning, you get in your car, and you fantasize about what it would be like if you just turned right and went in a different direction and never came back,” Mr. Marston told The Washington Times. “That’s a little bit where the movie comes from.”

Mr. Marson and Mr. Sheppard used that as the starting point for the story of a chameleonlike woman who inadvertently re-enters her ex-lover’s life — and may use the unplanned meeting for a chance at an even newer identity.

“We hit on this idea of what an uncanny experience would it be like if you were at a party and looked across the room and thought you saw someone you knew, and then she presented herself as someone you didn’t know,” Mr. Marston said. “Not acknowledging that you had any history.”

In fact Mr. Marston likened the concept of identity-shifting to the process of filmmaking itself, which is in effect a way to explore entire new realities each time out.

“This was just taken to a much more extreme place of someone who just completely pulls up stakes and moves on to something completely new every year or two,” he said.

When Alice makes a hasty exit from the party, Tom runs out after her. The two then wander the city streets, with Tom alternately trying to figure out why she ran out on him, and perhaps knowing she is about to do the same thing yet again.

From the time of the germ of “Complete Unknown” to the first date of shooting was but a year apart — a “nanosecond” in Hollywood time, Mr. Marston said. With such a brisk turnaround, he and his cast — which also includes Oscar-winner Kathy Bates and Danny Glover — learned the script and blocked it much like a play in one location around the dinner table before the action moves outdoors.

“We started developing the idea and realizing what a good hook we had, we wanted to sort of move out of that once location and just allow it to evolve and move into places that we couldn’t have predicted, much the way that she lives her life,” Mr. Marston said of the bitingly cold outdoor New York shoot.

Mr. Marston previously gained much critical acclaim for his 2004 film “Maria Full of Grace,” which starred unknown actress Catalina Sandino Moreno as a poor Colombian woman who takes a job as a “mule,” a person who swallows balloons of cocaine to smuggle across the border to traffickers in the U.S.

When researching the screenplay for “Maria Full of Grace,” Mr. Marston, who speaks Spanish fluently, said he heard incredible tales that were simply too horrid to put into his film.

“The stories you just can’t imagine,” he said. “I would have loved to have put [that] in the movie, but people would have either said that could never happen or it would have taken the story [to] a whole other realm.”

In the dozen years since his earlier film came out, recreational marijuana use has become legal in several states.

“What’s amazing is that U.S. drug policy has actually changed to an extent since I made that movie,” Mr. Marston said. “So that gives some hope.”

More than just being a license to pleasure, Mr. Marston hopes that legalized pot use will help empty jails of nonviolent drug offenders.

“I hope we are able to treat drug problems as a public health crisis rather than a criminal crisis,” he said.

Mr. Marston, who counts Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as among his influences, says that when aspiring filmmakers approach him now, his advice is simple: Just do it.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in waiting for [a specific] actor, waiting for money, waiting for the script to be just right,” he said.

“Filmmaking takes such a long time that the project ends up becoming very previous,” Mr. Marston explains. “It’s very hard to be creative when there’s so much riding on it. So it’s a tricky balance to do your best work and make sure everything is just right and not spend so much time that you’re shackled and unable to be truly creative.”

There are more outlets than ever before for filmmakers to get their work seen. Keep on going, Mr. Marston says, and don’t wait for absolutely everything to fall into perfect place.

“Do good work, but don’t take too long doing it,” he advises.

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