One of the most anticipated film premieres during this year’s SXSW Conferences and Festivals was Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island. The film follows undocumented immigrants Luciana (Asensio) and Olga (Natasha Romanova) who are exploited and subjected to a cruel game in exchange for payment. Most Beautiful Island has gone on to be named the winner of the Narrative Feature Competition in the 2017 SXSW Film Festival Awards.
After viewing the film, and absolutely loving it, we had honor of speaking with Ana Asensio this week during SXSW.
HorrorGeekLife: Ana, you’ve had many roles in front of the camera as an actress, but this marks your debut film as director and writer. What made you decide to go behind the camera?
Ana Asensio: I have to say that being an actor, I had so many frustrations and no control at all of my career. Since I moved to the United States, things were much harder for me. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people that I could play roles that they didn’t see me in. I suffered. I realized that this wasn’t making me happy. So I started to produce my own work in theater. That also led me to think that I love film, I actually have my own visions. Maybe I could do my own story. I do have a story I would like to tell. That is what made me think that I could do this. I didn’t study film making, so my only reference were from working on movies and television, reading scripts, and being a film lover, but that’s it.
HorrorGeekLife: You’ve certainly told a story that needed to be told. Can you go into the true events that inspired Most Beautiful Island?
Ana Asensio: Part of this are stories that happened to me at a time in New York when I was transitioning my student visa into a working visa. That took many months. It was nine months of waiting and I couldn’t leave the country because of that status. I didn’t have a social security number, so it was illegal because I didn’t have paperwork. I ran out of savings and I didn’t want to ask for money from my family. So I started to work on whatever I would find that wouldn’t require well-spoken English or having a social security number. So, Craigslist jobs, babysitting horrible children, and shitty promotions like the ones that you see in the film. I became a witty street person, just to figure out how to survive on bagels because that was the cheapest and more filling option.
I never thought that I would see myself living like that because I come from a normal family and a country that isn’t in a huge crisis. I found myself living a life that I didn’t think I would, but in a way I was like, “This is what I want to do. I want to prove that I can go over and survive in New York on my own and not ask for help.” So that time was very vulnerable because I did not have friends or family here. A lot of inspiration comes from that, and a lot of inspiration come from a situation that happened to me. Someone gave me a call and said, “I got your number from a girl that you met recently and she told me that you’re looking for a job. I have a party that I’m booking for, it’s a Halloween party. You just need to go dressed in a costume, work there, it’s very simple and you will make tons of money.”
She actually lied to me. It was way more complicated than just being dressed in a costume at a party. It was an illegal place. I didn’t have a cellphone at the time, nobody knew I was there. She drove me and left me there. I felt very uncomfortable. I said I want to leave, I don’t want to be here. She didn’t let me leave. Nothing happened to me, but the fear that I felt in that time and the situation that I found myself in. It inspired me to also write this story. How someone would end up in a situation like this. The steps that happened right before. How cool would it be to just tell the story of one day in the life of someone, in the moments leading to this event? It’s a very simple story, living moment to moment. Also the stories of other girls at that time that I met and what they told me they were doing to make money.
HorrorGeekLife: Since it comes from such a personal place, did you immediately imagine yourself in the role while writing? Or did that come later in the process?
Ana Asensio: When I was writing, I couldn’t think of anyone but me. Because everything was drawn from feelings and things I thought. How I perceived the city at the beginning, in my earlier months, I was extremely overwhelmed by New York City and the energy, sounds, and people. I wanted to put all of that in. I was always thinking of me. This is my first time writing, but I think that probably every writer feels like they are in the mind of the main character. Later on, I said maybe that makes sense I would actually love to play this main role.
HorrorGeekLife: You did an amazing job with the film all around. There is a scene I have to ask about, since I was cringing. You were actually naked in a bathtub with huge swimming roaches! Was that nerve-racking? How did you prepare?
Ana Asensio: There were no body doubles, no CGI, and they were real cockroaches. For me, the roaches at the beginning it was fine. I had my mind set, that is what I want to do, that is the vision for the film. I was so inspired by repulsion. At one point during shooting the scene, I said I can’t do this anymore please cut cut cut cut! I started to get anxious because the water was really cold and I was naked to really get into the character and feel that. At some point, I started freaking and they have spikes. I didn’t know that, I’ve never touched a cockroach in my life before. One of them got in my hand and it didn’t get out because the spike gets into your skin.
HorrorGeekLife: I noticed at one point that you were trying to shake one off your hand. Was that the moment?
Ana Asensio: Yeah, because the spikes of the legs of that roach where just right there, so I couldn’t get it out. It was one thing that they are swimming towards me, it is another thing if they start to get into my body. Originally, I wrote it as the roaches started to crawl all over my body, but I have to say no. First of all, it’s hard enough to find roaches that were able to swim. I tried this scene before and they would drown and it wasn’t working. I ordered them online, my husband wanted to kill me… “You are really receiving a box with a 100 cockroaches in the mail?” I said, “Craig, don’t worry, it’s under control.” Because I did a test in our own bathroom at home. My husband wanted to kill me. He said, “Do you realize if one gets loose, they are going to reproduce?” Believe me, I don’t like them, I was just so stubborn that I wanted to get that scene. But believe me now, I really don’t like them.
HorrorGeekLife: I can just imagine! What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Ana Asensio: I would love for them to realize that first of all there are many more immigrants than the stereotype idea that we have. When you are illegal in the country, you are very vulnerable. You are susceptible to find yourself in the wrong place just because your options are limited. So maybe be open to feel more empathy with others. We’re all living in the same country. We are all contributing to the economy. People who are working for money under the table are being exploited. And the people that are hiring them are making more money by hiring them instead of other people. So we are part of this pyramid system, and we all need each other.
HorrorGeekLife: This is certainly a good time to put that message out there. Do you plan to continue writing and directing? And will you continue working with Glass Eye Pix?
Ana Asensio: My experience with Larry Fessenden and Jenn Wexler couldn’t be better. They were so generous and respectful. It was a long journey and it took us a while to get this film made. I would love to continue working with them and I would love to continue directing. I just hope my next film won’t take six years to get made. Hopefully it would be a little bit easier because here, it was my first film so I had to put a lot of myself in it. But I would really love to continue on this journey. I thought it was really fascinating. As an actor, you are just by yourself. As a director, you need help from absolutely everyone. It’s like constant help at all times and a collaborative process, I love it. I loved how much everyone was involved and how much I learned from other people. I would love to make another film.