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How “Most Beautiful Island” Went From Blank Page To A SXSW Winner

A chance encounter in a New York restaurant yielded a screenwriting collaboration that led to one of South by Southwest’s top prize winners.

How “Most Beautiful Island” Went From Blank Page To A SXSW Winner

About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. “Revision History” tells stories about one of the least understood, but most creative, stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting…) of the screenplay.

The movie: “Most Beautiful Island,” a film about a day in the life of an undocumented immigrant in New York, combining slice-of-life and thriller elements.

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The writer: Ana Asensio, a Spanish-born actress who also directs and stars.

DRAFT ONE: THE IDEA

Many years before her film “Most Beautiful Island” would take the South by Southwest film festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, it was just a glimmer in Ana Asensio’s eye. By 2010, the Madrid-born actress had been living in New York for nearly a decade, and now she was itching to write and direct her first film.

Her initial idea was abstract, formal: she merely knew she wanted to make a film which followed a character through a day, in the hours leading up to a big moment. “Like a documentary, but fictionalized,” she recalls. “One character would go somewhere, that would lead to somewhere else, then somewhere else, until she gets to the final destination where the major event of the story happens.” She liked the idea’s continuity, its simplicity.

She knew, of course, that she would have to figure out who the character was, and what the big event would be. Early in her New York years, back when her English was poor, she wound up being lured into an evening of work at a sketchy party. “I found myself trapped in a place that was dangerous and illegal,” she recalls. Combining that traumatic memory with a strange interview she had seen about a man who became addicted to an extreme and dangerous activity (I won’t say more, to help preserve one of the chief pleasures of viewing “Most Beautiful Island”), a story began to suggest itself.

Asensio had never written or directed a film before. But she began scribbling out an outline of the story in a Microsoft Word file. Eventually, someone hooked her up with a bootleg copy of Final Draft, the screenwriting software, and showed her how it worked.

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Asensio wrote a first draft of the script, but devoid of dialogue, which she figured at that point could be improvised. The draft was only about 30 pages, about a third the length of a normal feature script. “Everyone was like, ‘I think this is a short film.’ I was like, ‘No no no, you’re not seeing it. We’re gonna expand it, add dialogue.’” People urged her to elaborate on her script, so she did, working on it every day, and finally finishing a draft by the end of 2011.

She hosted a staged reading of the script, inviting people she knew to get reactions. She found that people were passionate in their feedback–which encouraged her–but they often had wildly different interpretations about what was motivating the main character. “That’s when I realized, I need to work more on this character. Obviously, certain things aren’t fully clear.”

DRAFT TWO: FINDING A SOUNDING BOARD

Asensio decided she needed a collaborator or mentor of some sort. An acquaintance hooked her up with someone, but the initial sessions frustrated her. This would-be mentor was too prescriptive in his feedback. “He had specific ideas he wanted to plant in the film,” says Asensio now. “It was a little invasive.”

Asensio’s day job at the time was as maître d’ at the upscale Manhattan restaurant Nobu. One day, a tall man with a shock of wild gray hair walked in, looking professorial in a tweed blazer. Jerry Perzigian was awaiting a first date, but in the meantime, Asensio had caught his full attention (“dirty old man stuff,” he concedes of his initial inclination to approach her). Perzigian revealed that he was a former TV writer with credits on “The Jeffersons,” “Married…With Children,” and “The Golden Girls.” Asensio revealed that she had once played a bit part on “Las Chicas de Oro,” the Spanish adaptation of “The Golden Girls.”

Asensio explained quickly enough that she was married, and the interaction took a Platonic turn. Still, she gave Perzigian her number, mentioning she had a script she was working on.

The next day, Asensio and Perzigian got a coffee at a Brooklyn Heights Le Pain Quotidien to discuss her script. Soon, they were deep in discussing Asensio’s project. And over the course of regular meetings spanning two years, they also became good friends. “I hate everyone, especially actors,” says Perzigian now. “But she’s one of the most morally good human beings I’ve known on Planet Earth.”

Asensio was influenced by Eastern European art films; Perzigian, “a cinematic illiterate” by his own admission, just knew his world of sitcoms. “We would argue so much,” says Asensio. He kept pitching her jokes. “I would say, ‘That’s silly television stuff!’” she recalls. “‘I’m trying to make a profound film!’ It was just two completely different worlds coming together.”

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Yet somehow, he wound up being exactly the collaborator Asensio needed. “He brought a lightness to certain moments,” she says. And he brought a relentless clarity to scene after scene. “I was like, ‘How about we leave something for the imagination?’” Asensio recalls saying to Perzigian, in defense of an enigmatic quality in early drafts. “He was like, ‘Nope, that’s the worst thing. If one scene isn’t clear, then in the next scene the audience is scratching their head about the scene before, and they’re missing what’s happening. We can’t let that happen.”

Perzigian insists his role was minor, calling himself a mere private to “General Asensio” (he ultimately received the credit of “Script Consultant”). He says he was just “somebody objective and intelligent to bounce the narrative off of, to make sure that it flowed like a little parade.”

“As basic and first-grade as that sounds,” he continues, “often first-time filmmakers don’t do a good job of that. They’re lyrical and gorgeous as can be, but not necessarily as logical as can be.”

Finally, “there was a moment the script seemed right,” says Asensio, “and I said, I need to focus all my energy on getting the film produced.”

She raised funds and shot the film in late 2014 and early 2015.

FINAL DRAFT: THE SXSW CUT

As Asensio edited the film, Perzigian was consistently the first person she shared a cut with. Again, his focus was relentlessly on logic, clarity, and forward motion for the story. An early scene she had shot, in which her character spills coffee on a man, leading to an awkward encounter in the bathroom as she helps clean his shirt? Perzigian advocated its removal. “It was extraneous,” he says. She excised it from the final film, which premiered at South by Southwest in a taut, riveting 80-minute cut.

And on Tuesday, Asensio won SXSW’s top prize awarded to narrative features, trembling as she accepted it.

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Perzigian was one of the first people she called.

“I’m kvelling,” he says. “It couldn’t happen to a better human being.”

For more of the “Revision History” series, click here.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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