The premise for The Complete Unknown
, the latest movie from acclaimed art house writer-director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace
, The Forgiveness of Blood
), stems from a conversation he had with co-writer Julian Sheppard.
Friends since they first met 15 years ago, the two wanted to write something that would be shot quickly and "below budget enough to not fall apart." The movie opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
“We were thinking of doing something contained and rather small, and we started to think about a dinner party situation,” says Marston in a recent phone interview. “We wanted to make a movie about a woman who wasn’t who she appeared to be. We landed on this image that was the starting point. We thought of being at a party when you run into someone you recognize but she doesn’t acknowledge that she recognizes you and even has a different name and a different biography.”
To cast the “woman who wasn’t who she appeared to be,” Marston knew he needed an actress who had that aura about her.
“I cast Rachel Weisz first because she is so alluring on screen and evokes so much mystery,” he says. “I knew that the character had to be mysterious.”
Michael Shannon plays the man whom she meets at the dinner party.
“The interest in Michael Shannon is that I loved him as an actor playing psychotic roles,” says Marston. “I was interested in reinventing him as an ordinary guy going through a familiar mid-life class. If you cast a character who’s ordinary, that’s not so interesting.You wouldn’t think of Michael Shannon as an ordinary guy going through a mid-life crisis but it’s more interesting to cast him as that.”
Other notable cast members include Kathy Bates, who plays a woman who lives in the neighborhood, and Danny Glover, who portrays her husband.
The film works simply because Weisz is so convincing in the role.
“Does anyone know someone who has done this?” Marston asks. “Would we know? How would you know and find out? I don’t think I know anyone. I had a friend who made a movie about a con man who was arrested for having falsified his identity multiple times. I think there are people who have done it. I don’t know if people have done it as pathologically as Rachel Weisz’s character has done it. I use that word carefully. I don’t view her or want her to seem crazy. She’s doing something pathologically in the sense that she’s almost addicted to the high she gets from it."
For Marston, it was important that the film stay within the realm of possibility.
"If you said Rachel Weisz's character was Sybil with multiple personalities it would be too easy to dismiss her," he says. "Part of the point is to challenge the viewer and ask if it’s possible. If you, like most people, walk around with this fantasy of leaving everything behind and starting afresh, what’s preventing you from doing that? Aren’t the reasons that you give valid or real?”
Marston likens the character to a director who regularly takes on a new persona.
“I took an improv comedy class and one of my favorite games is playing the expert,” he says. “You get questions and give answers and you make things up. To a certain extent, that’s what we do as filmmakers but I’m usually pretty rigorous in doing the research. That’s what’s enjoyable. Filmmaking affords me the ability to go into different worlds and learn enough. This is a much more fantastic premise and a much more literal version of that. She actually becomes these people.”
While the film has elements of a romance — there’s clearly tension between the two main characters — Marston says it doesn’t clearly adhere to the genre.
“I think of the movie as a bit of a mystery and a story about identity,” he says. There is a romance involved in it. It’s much more than the quintessential ‘ex-girlfriend shows up on your doorstep’ movie. There’s a lot more going on with it.”