“The information on how drugs are prepared,” explains Marston, “is actually not that difficult to come by. I came across it through a number of ways. One was talking to imprisoned mules, to hear exactly what it was like, what it felt like – what they actually did. How they swallowed the pellets.

“I also talked to customs inspectors and DA officials who had information on the travel preparations. In Columbia, all of this is actually fairly common knowledge. When it came down to actually filming it, much of the information came from people working on or around the production. Maybe there weren’t six degrees of separation, but probably one or two degrees of separation, in terms of knowing someone who had firsthand experience.”

Sandino, ironically, had little knowledge of the mule subculture before taking on the role of Maria. “I grew up in Bogota, the Capital of Columbia,” she describes of her sheltered upbringing. “It’s very different than living outside of Bogota, where there are more poor areas. And I grew up in a big house, with my mother, my father, and my brother.”

And unlike Maria’s dire, dead-end economic situation, Sandino’s Bogota-based childhood presented at least a handful of acceptable options for semi-upward mobility. “You must have a certain degree of study,” Sandino informs, emphasizing the importance of a high school education. “There’s working in a supermarket, or as a waitress. You can help in a hospital. I don’t know as much about things outside Bogota.”

Her director, however, knows a great deal about such matters, outlining the country’s financial hierarchy. “The largest economy in Bogota is the oil industry,” he explains. “There’s a lot of foreign industry that’s coming in and pumping oil out of the country. After oil, there are obviously drugs – cocaine and illicit narcotics, which a lot of people do get caught up in. Then there are other things, like coffee and flowers.”

Marston evokes the drab, regimented atmosphere of a rose plantation in the movie’s early scenes, showing his protagonist stripping thorns while dressed in an apron and goggles. “The important thing about the flower industry in Colombia is that even while the work is not enjoyable, it’s stable work. The flower industry is not going away any time soon. And because it’s not enjoyable, there’s a lot of rotation, and a lot of job openings, but people don’t stay in it for very long.

“Beyond that, it’s very much a rural economy, mired in a civil war where in many regions the guerillas and the paramilitary are at odds. There’s a lot of crossfire in towns that causes people to leave in great numbers, and go to the outskirts of places like Bogota. They end up living in shanties or small houses with no electricity and no power, trying slowly to rip their way into an economy that doesn’t have enough room for them, with unemployment being 15 to 20 percent.”

Understandably, cinema is a popular form of escapism in this troubled country for those who can afford it. Fortunately for Sandino, Hollywood films like “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Shrek” were always readily accessible during her childhood. Independent films, on the other hand, were completely out of reach. “In Columbia I would only see big Hollywood movies,” she confirms. “When I went to Sundance, I realized that there was this whole other world of independent film.”

Ah, yes – Sundance. Last January’s prestigious Park City festival saw Maria Full of Grace nab the Dramatic Audience Award, beginning a wave of accolades. At the Berlin Film Festival a month later, Sandino found herself an enviable position, indeed – sharing the Silver Bear for Best Actress with eventual Monster Oscar-winner Charlize Theron. Marston also took home a statuette, winning the Alfred Bauer Prize for Best First Feature.

“We showed up as the underdog,” recalls Marston, “just happy to be in the same category as a lot of other great filmmakers and not really considering ourselves to even be in competition, to the point where we were actually going to leave before the awards ceremony. Then we got a call from someone indicating that we might want to stick around. It was pretty much a shock.

“Sundance was great because we hadn’t seen the film in a theatre before. I had been the only one to view it up until then – alone, in the lab. It was a real trip to be able to be able to watch it for the first time with other people. There was a great Q & A afterwards. It took a couple of days to really believe the reaction of the crowd. We’d be walking around Park City, and people would be stopping us on the street and complimenting us on the film.”

Marston’s veneer of seriousness suddenly dissolves, and he chuckles. “We were amazed that people actually liked it.”

Get the rest of the interview in part three of AMAZING GRACE>>>

Posted on July 28, 2004 in Interviews by

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