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Interview with THE VESSEL writer/director Julio Quintana

September 15, 2016

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Julio Quintana is a filmmaker to watch. I discovered this after watching his aesthetically captivating feature-length film debut, “The Vessel”. Produced by his wife, Marla Quintana and starring his brother, Lucas Quintana, this captivating film, which touches on universal themes, is certainly a passion project for the writer/director. The  story he tells takes place in an unnamed Latin American coastal town that has been in a deep state of grief and mourning since a tsunami destroyed their school house ten years ago, washing all their children out to sea. What the small community decided on after that unimaginable tragedy and how a lone priest (played by Martin Sheen) looks after them is both troubling and compelling. “The Vessel” is a poetic, emotional film that resonates deeply and its artful imagery lingered in my mind long after viewing.

The film caught my attention even before I saw it, when I noticed one of its executive producers is Terrence Malick (“Badlands”, “Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder”), which led me to wonder what it was about this filmmaker that would compel such an auteur to get involved. That made sense once I saw Quintana’s film.

I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Julio this week to discuss “The Vessel” and the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker couldn’t have been more accommodating and gracious in his flexibility and openness. In an email correspondence, Julio kindly answered my questions and the result is informative and insightful. My review of his film is forthcoming, but in the meantime, please enjoy this interview as much as I truly did….

 

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David J. Fowlie: “The Vessel” is your first feature-length film and it stars Martin Sheen, who also starred in “Badlands”, the first feature-length film from one of your executive producers, Terrence Malick. How did that come about and what was it like working with Sheen?

Julio Quintana: Marla and I met Terry Malick on “The Tree of Life” where we both started off as interns. I had been thinking of writing a script about a young man who has a near-death experience, and I wanted Martin Sheen to play the priest because I knew he was a devout Catholic. One day I told Terry about my story and he said, “You know who you should talk to is Martin Sheen because he had a near-death experience on Apocalypse Now”. So for two years I wrote “The Vessel” for Martin Sheen without him knowing, and every time I would see Terry he would say, “Let me know when you want to talk to Martin!”

When I finally finished the script, Terry sent it to Martin on a Friday, and that Sunday Martin called me a said he would love to do the project. From that day forward Martin was one of our strongest advocates, and for the two years we struggled to raise money he would call me every couple of months to encourage me. “Don’t worry kid”, he would say to me. “It’s easier to kick a barn down than to build one”. And he was the same way on set, which gave all of us the confidence that we were doing something special and important. Martin is just such a warm and beautiful person that I can’t imagine making this movie without him.

DF: What did you learn from being on the set of Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” and did those experiences prepare you in any way when it came to shooting “The Vessel”?

JQ: I think it’s impossible for a young filmmaker to interact with Terry and not be influenced by him. He is just such a creative force that once you see something through his eyes, it changes you. One time Terry invited me to the studio where he was shooting visual effects plates for the natural history portion of “The Tree of Life”. The shoot was run by the legendary VFX supervisor Doug Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”, “Blade Runner”), and Trumbull had designed all these incredible mechanical rigs that injected ink into huge water tanks, shot flames at steel orbs, etc. My 26-year-old mind was blown away.

Well, Terry started wandering around and looking at all of the supplies, and he saw a small bucket of dry ice. “Oh Julio, look at the Dao in this fog! You should get your camera and film this!” I looked at the bucket and saw nothing interesting, so I decided to imitate what Trumbull’s team was doing. I built a large cone out of poster board and tried to pour dry ice through it so the fog would shoot at the lens, but it wasn’t impressive at all. Terry came over and again said, “Just point the camera right down at the fog”. Still not understanding, I obliged and pointed the camera straight down at the fog. To my shock, when I looked at the monitor I saw the fog dancing and flowing in a way that was almost magical. And that was when I began to learn that if you are open and flexible on set, you can capture beautiful little moments that you never could have imagined.

Our cinematographer Chago (Santiago Benet Mari) was also a strong believer in this approach, and the images in The Vessel are absolutely the result of his ability to adapt and collect any beautiful moments that happen in front of him. Although Chago and I could never hope to imitate what Terry and Chivo Lubezki do, the spirit of their approach was definitely a huge influence to us on set.

DF: Most films that feature devastation due to a natural catastrophe are usually set immediately after the tragic event. Yet you set “The Vessel” ten years after a tsunami has struck a village. How did you arrive at that decision and how did this story come about?

JQ: I think if the film had taken place immediately after the tidal wave, the grief of the town would have seemed healthy and normal, so it was important to set the story years after the tragedy to really emphasize that these people are stuck in a state of destructive mourning. Like I said, the original idea of the film was about a young man who has a near-death experience and a priest who investigates it, but that alone wasn’t a compelling story so I had to create a fictitious community that could react to the event and give it context. Although I didn’t realize it as I was writing, the philosophical questions raised by the characters are actually just reflections of my own questions about death, faith, and the ultimate purpose of our existence on this tiny planet.

 

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DF: This film features emotional elements that any viewer can relate to – such as grief and mourning and hope and faith – to the point where we see extreme versions of these elements. What were the challenges in including these elements in your screenplay and having them portrayed on-screen?

JQ: Unlike, for example, a bank heist film or a buddy cop picture, there was no template I could use as reference as I was writing this movie, so it was extremely difficult because I had to take ideas that are essentially spiritual or philosophical and translate them into concrete elements that are tangible and physical. I always prefer when the structure of a film makes the audience experience what the characters are feeling, so for this movie it was very important that the audience be conflicted about the “supernatural” occurrences in the film. The goal was for the viewers to always feel like there is something important just below the surface of every image, even if they don’t know exactly what. We tried to evoke this feeling through Chago’s ethereal cinematography, or Hanan’s (Hanan Townsend, who scored “The Tree of Life”, “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups”) mysterious music, or by the actors’ subtle and nuanced performances. The hope was that all of those elements would come together in a way that would allow the viewer to relate the story to their own life experiences.

DF: You and cinematographer Santiago Benet Mari, shot in Le Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico as well as El Morro, all beautiful locations that are rich in character and history. How important was it to set your story there and what was it like shooting in these locations?

JQ: La Perla was an absolutely magical location to shoot because after decades of hurricanes the coast is lined with destroyed buildings that were perfect for our story. To make the story feel more like a fable or parable, we thought it was important for the location to be timeless and nameless, so the biggest challenge of course was to make it feel like we weren’t shooting in the center of San Juan with a Burger King a hundred yards away. Chago had shot in La Perla before so he helped me find some of the most visually stunning locations, and production designer Gerardo Vega did an incredible job of designing and dressing the sets in a way that felt classic and universal. On top of that, the small community there really embraced us, becoming extras and security guards, and allowing us to shoot in their homes or store equipment in their garages. I think in a way this helped create the feeling that the movie is a living and breathing town, which was very important to the story.

DF: Your brother Lucas is a lead character in “The Vessel” (and has also starred in your previous shorts) and your wife Marla serves as producer on the film. Do you find it’s easier to work with family when making a film?

JQ: I love working with my family. Making a movie is such a hard process that it’s invaluable to have collaborators that will never abandon you, and my wife and brothers are rocks in my life that I can always lean on for support. That being said, I did feel like my “family” expanded while making this film, and people like Chago Benet and actress Aris Mejias have become some of my closest friends and collaborators. I can’t imagine making my next project without them.

DF: Are you always writing, do you have ideas/concepts that you can see eventually turning into films? On that note, what comes after “The Vessel”?

JQ: I am always developing and researching ideas, though it looks like my next endeavor will actually be scripted television instead of movies. Along with our partner Pat Kondelis, Marla and I work for Bat Bridge Entertainment in Austin where we create both scripted and unscripted content. The Vessel will be our first scripted project, and I created a scripted TV series that we just recently signed to a major studio, which is very exciting. This is our first time delving into scripted television, so like when we made The Vessel this will be another sink or swim learning experience for us!

 

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“The Vessel” opens in limited theaters in the U.S. on September 16th. To learn which theaters and find out more about the film, click here. 

 

 

 

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