By Donna Hill
For the Fort Bend Star
“The Vessel,” the new movie starring Martin Sheen that will open in theaters Sept. 23, was written and produced by a Sugar Land family.
Julio Quintana, who graduated from Austin High School, is the film’s writer and director. Sarah Green will also serve as Executive Producer.
The director’s younger brothers went to Walker Station Elementary. His wife and brother graduated from the University of Houston.
The executive director is Academy Award nominee Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line” and “The Tree of Life”).
The movie takes place 10 years after a tidal wave destroys a small-town elementary school with all the children inside. Father Douglas Wood (Martin Sheen) urges the grief stricken mothers to have more children, but they refuse. All of the mothers are in a perpetual state of mourning.
When a local young man named Leo slips off the pier and drowns, only to mysteriously awaken three hours later, do the townspeople wonder whether it’s a sign from God. Father Douglas sees this as a glimmer of hope for his island of mourning. Then Leo builds a mysterious structure out of the remains of the school, which ignites confusion and passions and changes the community forever.
After years of work as a freelance cinematographer and camera operator, with work appearing in films such as Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder,” Quintana makes his feature directorial debut with “The Vessel.” He now lives in Austin with his wife, Marla Gomez Quintana, the film’s producer, who is also from Sugar Land. Marla’s film resume includes “Marshal Law: Texas” with Jerry Bruckheimer Television and the CNN original series “High Profits.”
“‘The Vessel’ is a love story,” he said. “But the central element running right through the heart of ‘The Vessel’ is the concept of mystery. The parents try desperately to grasp the meaning of their tragedy; they become paralyzed by their inability to understand. Mystery becomes a hostile element in their lives, something to be feared and avoided. Leo’s cryptic structure becomes the catalyst for growth, demonstrating that mystery can also be a source of comfort and reconciliation.”
Quintana said his inspiration for the film came from some very basic questions.
“What is my purpose and how can I find meaning in life?” he said. “This question became the central theme as I wrote ‘The Vessel,’ and I created a fictional community that is faced with a powerful and mysterious event, and is forced to struggle with its meaning. Is this a sign from God, or just a meaningless string of unrelated events?”
The Quintanas met in Fort Bend County at Austin High School, but they didn’t date back then. They actually didn’t even like each other much, according to the couple. But fate, in the form of a film class (him) and a political science class (her) at the University of Texas brought them together.
Julio Quintana did his best to talk Marla out of going to law school.
“I thought if she learned how to argue, that may not be good for us,” he joked.
They started dating and married three years later.
Marla worked on some of his first films, including “holding a mic with duct tape to a broomstick over an actor’s head” when recording for a scene. Although she helps with on site development and production, she is mostly in charge of the film’s finances. Julio writes and directs.
Marla started as a clearance intern in Austin on the set of Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” As an intern she worked on clearing the rights to use books and magazines that Malick would use in the film. Later she was hired to be the post-production coordinator and as Malick’s assistant.
Julio also interned in Austin with Malick.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Terry single-handedly transformed what I believed was possible with filmmaking. As an editorial intern during the first few months of their post-production, I had the privilege of reading the screenplay for ‘The Tree of Life’ and I remember getting to the end and thinking, ‘This isn’t intended to generate box office numbers on some opening weekend. It’s intended to be studied by philosophy students 500 years from now.’”
Inspired by the on-set reading of the screenplay, Julio started writing his own screenplay.
So how did Sheen find his way into the cast of Julio’s new film?
“I knew Martin was a devout Catholic and that he and Terry had been close friends since they made ‘Badlands’ together back in the ’70s. So when I decided to write a role for a priest, Martin seemed like the perfect candidate,” Julio said. “For two years I wrote the script for Martin without his knowledge, and every time I saw Terry he would say ‘Let me know when you want to talk to Martin Sheen’ which of course was a huge motivation for me.”
When Julio gave the finished script to Malick, Sheen called two days later wanting to do the project. Julio then started working on the final script for “The Vessel” with Sheen’s encouragement along the way.
Julio is candid about working with Sheen.
“The only hard thing about working with Martin is having to interrupt his incredible stories. He would be sharing some amazing anecdote about Marlon Brando or Bob Dylan and I would reluctantly have to interrupt him because the sun was setting, or because we only rented the donkey for an hour. He would just laugh and jump straight in to whatever dramatic moment we were shooting,” Julio said. “It was such a wonderful experience for all of us and I’m forever grateful for it.”
The film was made in Puerto Rico with two versions, one in Spanish and one in English.
“It was a really special project for me because it was a real family effort. My brother Lucas, of course, played the lead, my wife Marla was the producer, and my younger brother Alex was the camera assistant. For months we lived in a small apartment in San Juan, helping paint sets, finding extras, securing locations. I really have no idea how I would have made this film without my family.”
The big obstacles? The business of getting an independent film into a movie theatre. The Quintana’s agree it’s a combination of writing the script, financing and getting the film sold.
“A huge bulk of the work – the phone calls – the advice – made this film possible,” Marla said. “Financing, script approval, selling to investors. An awareness of independent film and explaining to backers why the movie needs to be in theaters. Every movie that gets made is a miracle. There are so many roadblocks and setbacks. So it’s important to have a good team and people who believe in you.”
Crediting Malick and Sheen’s advice, Marla said, “It took a couple of years to raise money for the film, but the encouragement we received from the very beginning was worth the wait.”
The Quintana’s still have ties in Fort Bend County with as many fond memories. The name of their movie production company is New Territory Pictures.
The Vessel will be shown at AMC First Colony on Friday, Sept. 23. Other local theaters include Gulfport 30 in Pasadena and Santikos Palladium AVX in Richmond. The independent film will be in over 20 cities around the country, plus Canada and Puerto Rico.
Faith and art are what this couple is about when it comes to film. They think of “The Vessel” as a film, which strives to combine both.
To view the trailer and to read more about the movie, check the website www.thevesselmovie.com.