Directorial debuts rarely arrive as fully formed as Murina, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s riveting Cannes Camera d’Or winner that follows a coming-of-age journey of liberation and rebellion. Led by Gracija Filipović in a revelatory performance, the Croatian drama bursts with tension in every frame, following a love triangle-of-sorts set against a cruelly domineering patriarchal figure.

Ahead of this Friday’s release I spoke with the Croatian writer-director about working with legendary cinematographer Hélène Louvart, leaving things unsaid, collaborating with executive producer Martin Scorsese, the important motif of water, and much more.

The Film Stage: Murina draws from your 2017 short Into the Blue, also starring ​​Gracija Filipovic, but reframes that story. Can you talk about what you learned making that short and its connection with this feature?

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović: I think that actually the characters, in a nutshell, are completely different because the daughter in Into the Blue is in love with her father—whereas in this one Julija hates her father, so it’s a very different character. Also the story is just completely different, but you know, just because the actress is the same and it’s a girl who is a little bit in touch with her animal instinct and intuition and ready to jump off the boat, people very often connect it. And I do have to say that she has the same name, but that’s my laziness of finding a better name for the character. [Laughs]

But yes: when I wrote Into the Blue and when I shot it with Gracija and I discovered working with her, I decided to write Murina for her, given her strengths as a non-actress at that point and for something that she could truly empathize and perform, based on her moment in life and her development. So Murina was really, truly only written and created for her to capture that moment before she becomes fully an adult. So there was no connection between short and feature.

Ah, thank you for that clarification. There’s a beautiful dance through the whole movie with your camera and the characters, and such a rhythm you find just from the get-go. Can you talk about kind of developing this visual language with Hélène Louvart?

We started, of course, from the character and from the place. We knew it’s very important to avoid any sense of cliche postcard because you’re really confronted with such crazy nature and really beautiful places. And you can’t get into that trap of portraying beauty of the space, so character was always the primary thing. And there’s a certain movement that comes from the sense of being a little agile animal, a moray, but also from nature that we wanted to show this dark and difficult way of living in that place. It’s a hard job. It’s an everyday struggle. It’s a desert. Isolation. It’s mentally tormenting. It’s physically hard to live. It’s survival. It’s not a holiday for those who live there. And then, of course, it was vital to constantly narrow this emotional space of the people.

As the story tightens, even when they’re in a vast and large space, they feel closed down on them. They’re burning. They are exposed in the sun. There’s no shade. It can’t happen in a room with an air-conditioner, this story, because the problems and dynamics are really not that existential. They needed to really surface from an inability to escape your desire, your guilt, your remorse. We did a lot of scouting and we had to work with nature. That’s it. People and space. Nothing else. There were no big lights and big cranes. We were on an island with no electricity sometimes.

I love this dynamic between Cliff Curtis’s character, the mother (Danica Curcic), and the daughter. You leave so much unsaid. There are some insert shots of reactions that speak much more than any big monologue. Working with the actors, the blocking, and how you planned to capture this, how much was written on the page and how much did they bring to the table? It feels so finely tuned in the editing as well, this simmering tension running throughout. Can you talk about developing that?

Yes. Well, first I do write it. I think it exists on a page. My script reads, “And he looks at her and she looks at him and then she moves back.” It’s impossible to read. [Laughs] But then also I spend a lot of time in rehearsals before this shooting. I spent months together with them in the house where they were inside the character. We had these very long rehearsals, uninterrupted—like living the day, going through the day within their characters.

And from observing that I’m writing notes and I steered them in the direction if they are far off, but I also let them explore. And then that brings me ideas all the way up to the shooting. I’m adjusting the script and putting in new ideas. But once we are on set, all their exploration that’s been incorporated in the script, it’s free to use. I change the rhythm of the scenes and certain dynamics but I’m honoring the script once I’m on set.

Not to spoil it, but in the film you’re suggesting a bit that Julija’s path—neither staying with her abusive father or going off with Cliff Curtis’ savior character—is the right way. The only freedom is total liberation and rebelling against the men in her life. Even her mom has accepted that this is her life and this is the way it is. Can you talk about exploring this idea of liberation and rebellion, and what you hope audiences may take away from it?

The only freedom we have is to confront your fear—meaning, confronting your aggressor. Where I think that things switch is when somebody who is aggressive to you fears for their life. It’s very liberating, but also freedom comes from not revenging. I think it’s very hard to live with revenge. I never understood “revenge is served cold,” because that means that you wait for a very long time to serve your revenge. And then you live with this cold dish as well. It’s like: no, I think you need to let them live with their revenge and you move on. I think that was very important for my character: that she had to rise above violence, revenge, small mentality, and oppression. And that strength can be earned if it’s given to you by others.

That’s a great way to put it. With Martin Scorsese coming on board as executive producer––he’s done such great work championing other filmmakers––can you talk about that process and what you learned from him?

It was great to talk to him because we come from a similar backgrounds. Catholic. He’s from the south of Italy. I’m from the south of Croatia. Our mentalities are similar, and mentalities is a charged word because mentalities is sometimes called violence as well. Like, “Oh, that’s just our mentality.” But he understood [my characters] very well. This is very valuable for me. And I think that Murina has a lot of… I don’t like the word “spiritual” and I don’t like the word “religious,” but let’s say faith. There’s a lot of faith that is throughout the film. And that’s something that we definitely connected on.

He wrote such beautiful words about Murina recently, and he was there, really, for me through the editing. And we met before I went to shoot the movie. He is very generous of not being over-imposing. He said to me, “Everybody is the master of their film because you spend the most time with it. You know what to do.” That’s very liberating to hear from Martin Scorsese. 

Water is such an important element of this film. It’s both a place for her to escape and there’s also a feeling of suffocation and danger with that. It bookends the film. Can you talk about how you use water throughout the film?

Yeah, it’s a different state. You’re entering a place where time is different, movement [is different], no breath, no words. It’s really entering the subconscious, because time slows down and you can dissect the looks and thoughts and energy and dynamics differently. And a lot can be solved underwater that can’t be solved above. I was very interested to portray full scenes underwater, not just getting the camera wet.

It’s important for me to have a reason to go on the water. If I would not shoot that scene above the water, there’s no reason to shoot it under. I have no interest in seeing people fishing; the Discovery Channel is for that. So for me, I had to have a strong need to resolve, desire, the need to revenge, and the need to forgive, spilling blood, wishing for the things that are forbidden to us. And also for men, confronting their true opponents: young women.

With this being your directorial debut, what were your biggest takeaways that you’ll bring to your next project?

I learned that it’s great to work with women. I learned that it’s also great to work with good men. I also learned that location is very important to me. I drew a lot of drama from the space and I learned that actors have very different backgrounds and methods of working. I had a mix of different actors: a Hollywood actor, non-actor, a Royal Academy Danish actress, and then a Croatian actor. So it’s like, being between theater, TV, and film. It’s very important to bring these people together. Rehearsals are not for the director. Rehearsals are for the actors and then for the audience. It’s never for the director because the director knows how they want that and that is something that I learned that I loved and I will continue doing in my work.

Just to wrap up, what are you working on next? And yeah, what do you want to do?

I’m working on a screenplay. I’m so excited about it. It is with me with a wonderful woman co-writer, Yinuo Wang. We are writing a mother-daughter story, but in a very unusual, exciting, sensual, and dark world. And it is going to be a wild ride.

Murina opens on July 8 in NYC at Metrograph, July 15 in LA at Laemmle Theatres, and will expand.

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