Feature Article: Austin People
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Hayden Spears
A filmmaking couple opens the aperture on how they wrote, directed and produced America’s first English-and Spanish-version film.
Even if you didn’t grow up speaking two languages, chances are that you’ve had to learn words to navigate our newly globalized era— even if your new vocab is limited to “sushi” and “shavasana.” For many Texans, fluidly transitioning between cultures and languages comes as naturally as ordering a breakfast taco. At a time when political tensions over the border continue to climb, art can serve as a unique reminder of the shared worlds that exist within each of us. When Austinites Julio and Marla Quintana decided to make “The Vessel” in English and Spanish, they seized upon an emotional truth that also made economic sense. Two versions of the film would double their market, and, by using bilingual actors, it would honor the two worlds that they’ve always known—and eliminate the frustrations of dubbing and subtitling for their audiences.
Two Hollywood icons loved the project, too. Terrence Malick, the legendary director, screenwriter and producer who has a home in Austin, served as an executive producer for the film. Veteran actor Martin Sheen, who plays a starring role in the movie, received the script on a Friday and was so excited about it he signed up for the part two days later. While the Quintanas were bolstered by such enthusiasm, making two films demanded a Herculean, seven-year effort, and came with a million-dollar pricetag. (Ever hosted Christmas for one side of the family, only to turn around and do it all over again for your in-laws? Now picture doing that, every week, for seven years straight.)
I met Julio (the film’s writer and director) and Marla (the producer) in their office space on West Seventh Street, in a quaint, yellow brick building. The couple originally met in high school, but didn’t exactly click. “He was my arch-nemesis,” says Marla. Julio has a different account: “She assumed I was arrogant because I was quiet, so she proceeded to make fun of me for three years. This of course was an obvious sign that she was madly in love with me.” They patched up their differences in college, when they began dating, and have now been married—and working together—for 11 years.
Their first feature, “The Vessel,” is a meditative parable shot in Puerto Rico about a village struggling to recover its faith in life and God ten years after a tsunami killed 46 schoolchildren. It has been lauded by critics. The Village Voice called it “thrilling … compelling … a major work by an exciting new talent” and the New York Times applauded Julio Quintana’s “exquisite visual acumen.”
Despite such acclaim, the Quintanas were remarkably humble and soft-spoken about having made American film history, and their habit of picking up where each other’s sentences trailed off made it easy to picture them as a team. Their little dog, Yuki, seemed to be the most outgoing member of the family: he moved among laps as the interview progressed and appeared puzzled by difficulties, like film funding, that went beyond who would pet him next.
TRIBEZA: Do you both stick to your respective writer-director and producer roles when you work together?
JULIO: I turn to her for help with my script and editorial feedback.
MARLA: He’s a director with a business mind. He’s able to adjust his creative vision to fit pragmatic constraints that I bring up.
TRIBEZA: Julio, your script explores some interesting theological questions about justice, forgiveness and healing. Are you religious yourself?
“I’m always drawn to the narrative of someone trying to do something positive in a hopeless situation.”
JULIO: I used to be very religious; I come from a family of devout Catholics. When I came to the University of Texas in 2000, I majored in religious studies. But after sifting through tons of historical documents, I found I had more questions than answers, and that there was nothing I could prove. I felt paralyzed. Seven years ago, I began writing the script for this film, I think it became a metaphor for what I was going through in college: the searching, the frustration. I was Father Douglas [the priest, played by Martin Sheen], trying to control everything, to manage the mystery. Now I see myself more as Leo [the film’s protagonist, played by Julio’s brother, Lucas]: putting content into the world. It wasn’t a conscious approach to the film, but I believe that’s what originally inspired those themes.
TRIBEZA: So filmmaking allowed you to dwell in the questions, in a way that religious studies didn’t?
JULIO: Filmmaking is more of an emotional medium. It allows for what we can’t prove, for what’s open to interpretation. I wanted my viewers to go on the same journey as the characters. In their moments of doubt, the audience also doesn’t know what to think. I tried to allow for hope, beauty and love.
MARLA: I love the idea of delving into mystery. That resonated deeply with me. I was fascinated by how the village never stops believing in God. Instead, they believe that God has abandoned them.
JULIO: Yes. But at the end of the day, what’s the difference between God not existing and God abandoning us? In a practical sense, it might feel similar.
TRIBEZA: Is that a recurring theme for you?
JULIO: I think it’s inevitable that I write about mysticism and religion. It’s very difficult for me to avoid that. But I also wrote this movie to suit my brother’s personality. He’s an aspiring musician. I think he connected with Leo’s struggle to try and make it, the feeling of being stuck on that island. My other brother, Alex, who built the boat, has also done a lot of religious searching. He was in seminary for a year. Now he makes movies with us.
TRIBEZA: How did you get into film production, Marla?
MARLA: I studied political science and psychology. Julio and I married after undergrad. I was going to go straight to law school, but Julio suggested I take a year off, so we could enjoy our first year of marriage together. Then he sneakily convinced me to help him out with his first short film! I was doing things like duct taping microphones to brooms. It’s very natural to work with him. I think we have a complementary relationship. I can’t imagine not working with a spouse on a project like this.
TRIBEZA: How has it been for your marriage?
JULIO: It forces you to achieve a certain level of communication. You can’t fight for days and days and try to work together on a set at the same time.MARLA: In that way, it forces us to get along!
TRIBEZA: The Puerto Rican setting you chose is very evocative.
JULIO: We shot it in a slum in the heart of San Juan, called La Perla. It’s actually a crime-ridden neighborhood with a lot of drug addicts. Historically, it existed beyond the city gates, so it was always slammed by the waves, and it looked the way I had imagined it, full of dilapidated buildings.
MARLA: It became a beautiful community experience: many people living there became our extras, our security guards.
TRIBEZA: Did you have a special connection with Puerto Rico?
MARLA: We wanted a Latin American setting, and we needed bilingual actors. Everything there is already in two languages, so it worked wonderfully.
TRIBEZA: Why did you decide to do it in two languages?
MARLA: We initially wanted to do it in Spanish. But everyone we spoke to wanted it to be in English. So we decided to shoot it in both, to expand our market. We figured that it would only be shown in English in America, and Spanish in Spanish-speaking countries. But art-house lovers in America wanted to see it in Spanish, with subtitles. They thought that was more “authentic.” And people in Puerto Rico wanted to see it in English. That seemed more “exotic” to them!
TRIBEZA: Is there a difference between the two films, aside from the languages they were shot in?
MARLA: Martin Sheen’s character, Father Douglas, is the only actor who didn’t speak flawless Spanish. So we had to trim his lines down. He also came across as more of an outsider in the Spanish film.
JULIO: Martin’s grandfather is from Spain. So when it opens there, it will be the first time that audiences will hear his real voice, since all of the foreign films in Spain are dubbed.
TRIBEZA: I was fascinated by the village’s communal grief in the film, since mourning is often portrayed as a very private affair.
JULIO: I’m always drawn to the narrative of someone trying to do something positive in a hopeless situation. When we made the movie, we didn’t have a child—we told ourselves we’d wait until after the film. Our son was born a year after we wrapped. Now I don’t know if I would have been able to write the same script, in which so many children die in a tsunami: I feel that loss more intensely now, as a father.
TRIBEZA: The villagers seem to be trapped in the symbols of mourning. They’re more devoted to their grief than they are to God or one another.
JULIO: Yes, they’re terrified of betraying the memory of their loved ones. I gravitate to working with symbols; I love how they tell the viewer there’s something deeper going on. Being Catholic I just can’t help myself. It adds mystery and depth.
TRIBEZA: Was Terrence Malick an influence on the film?
JULIO: Marla initially began working with Malick as an intern while he was working on “The Tree of Life,” and she wound up being his personal assistant. Then I came on board, and he asked me to start shooting little experiments, like bubbles in soap and shots with fish tanks. Over the course of that time, I wrote my first feature script, which was unfortunately utterly unproduceable. But [Malick] kindly took me under his wing, and suggested that I talk to Martin Sheen, because he’d had a near death experience, and was Catholic. Malick pushed me to see that you can make a movie where the central question is philosophical and spiritual, not merely the internal/external conflict paradigm that we’re taught in film school.
TRIBEZA: Do you two think that you have different personalities in English and in Spanish?
JULIO: I have no sense of humor in Spanish, whereas I enjoy dry wordplay in English. I’m also cruder in Spanish, even though I didn’t realize it until I went to Spain and found out that my Cuban relatives used language that shocked a lot of Spaniards. Marla speaks better Spanish than I do, so she transitions more seamlessly between languages. In Spanish, I sound like a ten-year-old with a head injury. I think our actors enjoyed working in both languages. It was like flipping a switch: their performances were virtually indistinguishable. At the same time, it kept the actors from getting in a rut.
MARLA: It was interesting dealing with Puerto Ricans. The Latin culture is a lot more laid back. A lot of our team would go surfing after shots. In that culture, you have to be more open.
JULIO: We speak English to each other and Spanish to our son. We tried speaking only Spanish to each other once, but it only lasted a few days.
MARLA: We were pretty quiet, it was so awkward.
JULIO: (laughs) We have a hard time fighting in Spanish.
TRIBEZA: What was the most challenging part of making the film?
MARLA: Raising money was the hardest part of production, the constant ebb and flow: you’d finally raise some money and then an actor would leave and you’d have to start casting that character all over again. It was also difficult to market; people had a hard time categorizing it.
JULIO: “The Vessel” hugs the line between faith and art, and people don’t know quite where to put us. Every task felt like climbing a mountain. Nowadays we tend to be adverse to mystery, we see what we can’t explain as negative. I wanted viewers to realize that mystery can also be a positive force.
TRIBEZA: Where can readers watch “The Vessel”?
MARLA: It’s no longer playing in Austin theaters, but will be available on DVD and VOD at the end of January.
TRIBEZA: Is Austin a good city for your careers?
MARLA: Austin is a fertile place for filmmaking. I recently worked on a series for CNN, and encountered a deep pool of talent in Austin. It’s not quite New York or Los Angeles, but it’s getting there, and people are moving here from those cities. It’s great for bilingual projects, too.
TRIBEZA: What’s next for you two?
JULIO: We both work at Bat Bridge Entertainment in town, and they recently started a TV company. Marla runs the unscripted side. I create scripted TV. I’m working on a series that’s totally different from “The Vessel.” I wanted to get out of my own head.
TRIBEZA: Let me guess: a bilingual religious comedy?
JULIO: Unfortunately, we can’t say anything about it right now! I’m enjoying the work. Independent films are sadly in decline, but it’s the advent of really exciting TV.
Read more from the People Issue | December 2016