“Maria Full of Grace,” the first feature by writer-director Joshua Marston, has emerged as one of the most highly-praised films of the summer. It follows, in a quasi-documentary fashion, a young Colombian girl (Catalina Sandino Moreno) as she becomes a drug mule for narcotics smugglers, carrying heroin in capsules she’s swallowed into the United States. During a recent stopover for a screening of the picture in Dallas, Marston, a 1998 graduate of the NYU Film School, talked about the inception of the project.
“I was interested in the politics of what was happening in Colombia, and also in the drug war,” he explained. “In the context of all those interests, I happened to meet, four years ago, a woman who had traveled as a drug mule, in Queens. Like most people, I had read about it in newspapers and heard about it more as a sort of urban legend–that people did this, [but] never really wanted to contemplate what it would actually be like to do it. But when I heard that story, what it was like to swallow grapes to get your throat in training, and get on a plane with pellets in your stomach, I realized that it was not only a very dramatic and intense story, but also a way into doing something about Colombia and the drug war and life in the United States as an immigrant–all of which were themes that I had been interested in for quite some time….From my point of view as a writer, that was the starting point. Having heard the story from this young woman, the motivation was really to begin to say ‘Who is it that’s doing this? What is it that pushes someone to make such a risky decision?’ We’ve seen drug stories a million times that are told from the top down–from the point of view of the DEA agent or the drug kingpin, with the guns and the violence. I was much more interested in telling a story from the bottom up, from the point of view of the person lowest on the totem pole, who’s sort of living the drug trade day in and day out and suffering the consequences of it in order to have more of an understanding of who that person is, and perhaps a little bit more sympathy and a realization that these people are making their decisions for economic reasons, for social reasons, and that if we’re trying to solve the drug problem, we need to focus less on military solutions and more on solutions that are economic and social and humanitarian. After having heard that story, I wrote the first half of the script very quickly–in a couple days, actually–in English. I’d never been to Colombia at that time. Then began a process of a lot of research, of going to Colombia and also to Ecuador and speaking to people, going to flower plantations, talking to people in prison here and also in South America who had traveled as drug mules, spending time at customs at JFK, and I continued constantly rewriting the script. But it wasn’t until two, two-and-a-half years in that I worked with a friend…who translated the script into sort of neutral Spanish. And then once we cast all the parts and we started rehearsing, I worked with all the actors and did a lot of improvising, and then they–or we together–did a last pass on the dialogue and made it very specific Spanish, specific to that region of Colombia where these characters are from.”
Mention of the casting turned attention to Moreno, who accompanied Marston in the interview. “I always knew that I wanted it to feel very realistic and very authentic, and I was committed that all the Colombian characters be played by Colombian actors, perhaps to compensate for the fact that I’m not Colombian,” he said. Teams were assembled in both New York and Colombia, and filling the pivotal part of Maria was a focus of attention. “Over the course of three months we saw something on the order of eight hundred girls. And it got to a point where…we were getting close to the shoot and got to be pretty desperate, and I was concerned that we were actually not going to be able to do it. I mean, I was starting to think the worst. And the next morning another casting tape came in from Colombia with another dozen auditions, and Catalina was the first person on the tape.”
Moreno described the process from the other side. “I was still in college, studying theatre, too,” she explained. “Somebody knew that I was studying theatre and called my house and told me about the casting, and I went.” Though she’d done no film prior to that, she got the part. How did she prepare for the role? “I went to a flower plantation for two weeks, and I worked there from 6am to 7pm. And I could understand why Maria actually hated that job. It’s very, very hard. The fumigants can itch your eyes and burn your skin–not burn, but just dry. And when you’re seventeen, you don’t want to be doing that job. I never thought about talking to drug mules, because Maria doesn’t know how to be a drug mule, and neither do I. So the first time I’ve seen a pellet made was the scene in the movie, and the first time that I had to put the pellet in my mouth was the first time I took a pellet in my hand….I did understand why they’re risking their lives. It’s very sad to learn that in your own country this is happening.”
Another piece of important casting involved Orlando Tobon, a well-known resident of the Colombian community in New York, who virtually plays himself as community leader Don Fernando. “I was about two years into the process of making the film, trying to get financing, and someone, my Spanish producer, said to me, ‘Well, have you met with the Mayor of Little Colombia?’–Little Colombia being Jackson Heights, Queens, where the story takes place. And I said, ‘No, who’s that?’ And he said, ‘Well, he’s also referred to as the undertaker for the mules.’ So I started to find out he’s this man who’s about sixty–no, mid-fifties–and he’s been in the United States about thirty-five years, and he’s got a little travel agency….It’s tiny and it’s constantly full of people. And the reason why it’s packed is not because they go there to buy airplane tickets, but because they’re there frequently for some sort of help. He’s a fixer–he’s the person who, if you need to rent an apartment or you need help to fix your papers or get in touch with someone back in Colombia, he’s the person who is there–a man with an incredibly large heart, a truly wonderful individual. Twenty years ago…when he went to a morgue for other reasons he found that there were bodies, unclaimed, of Colombians who had died as drug mules and were going to be sent to Potters Field and buried in an unmarked grave. He took it upon himself to raise the money to have their bodies sent back so they could have a proper Christian burial. And in the past twenty years he’s done that something on the order of four hundred times. When I told him about the subject matter [of the film], he was very open and very generous and wanted to help me, and allowed me to sit in his office and watch him at work. For me it was a way into seeing the Colombian community. And very quickly, within a few days of sitting in his office, I knew if I was going to represent the Colombian community in Queens, this man was an important part of it. So I went back and rewrote the script and fashioned a character based on him, and then ended up casting him.”
“Maria Full of Grace” has already opened in Colombia, to great success, and Marston noted at least one positive effect it’s already had. “We heard back from a seventeen-year old man who is Colombian and who had agreed to go travel as a mule and accepted the advance,” he said. “And two days before he was due to travel he went to a theatre in Bogota out of curiosity and saw the film, thought twice about it, and decided to pull out.” The young writer-director seemed as pleased at that as he was with the picture’s enthusiastic reception by both critics and audiences.