Ana Asensio’s debut feature Most Beautiful Island follows Luciana (Asensio), a young undocumented woman, for a single day in New York City. Her daily struggle to survive takes an especially ominous detour when a friend offers her cash to show up at a high-end party, which quickly curdles into something very disturbing. Asensio, fearless in front of and behind the camera, ingeniously uses genre elements to amplify the real-life horrors faced by many young female immigrants.
The film, which is now in select theaters and available on demand, will likely become known for that “party” sequence, which runs for nearly a third of the movie. I recommend watching the movie cold—stop here if you don’t want to know more. The party finds Luciana in a barren warehouse with other women in cocktail dresses, who are led one by one to a hidden adjacent space from which we occasionally hear terrible screams. None of the women are allowed to leave. When Luciana is led into the room, we see men and women gathered in formalwear, and learn that there’s a financial reward in store for her if she can survive an exotic, highly venomous spider crawling the length of her body. It’s a twisted, literal manifestation of her vulnerability, and Asensio directed and performed the sequence herself, with little left to our imaginations.
For arachnophobes, the scene is likely to be unbearable; for the rest of us, it’s nerve-fryingly tense. I spoke with Asensio (and, later, animal wrangler Brian Kleinman) to discuss the logistics of the knockout sequence, the acting ability of spiders, and whether it’s easier to do a nude scene when you’re in the director’s chair.
Slate: I died a little bit watching that scene. What was like to direct yourself in a moment like that? You’re naked, the spiders—
Asensio: No body doubles …
Slate: Did it make it easier to have total control as director?
Asensio: You know, yes. In one sense, it was easier because I know I have the control. Like if you are exposed, naked for somebody else, you don’t know what is going to happen. Eventually in the editing room, you don’t know what the camera is actually capturing. But because I was the one making the decisions, in that sense it gave me peace of mind. I know exactly how I’m going to treat that nudity. At the same time, it was extremely challenging after doing that scene to have to go back into my director’s chair, and be like “OK guys, now we’re going to do this, and this—”
Slate: I can imagine.
Asensio: Believe me that was just weird. Awkward too, you know? Not only for me, but, I kept thinking, for the others.
Slate: And there were spiders crawling all over you. Are you just like not afraid of bugs, or what?
Asensio: Ha, no, it’s just that I as a director had a vision. As an actor, I would have said to a director, “What? A low-budget movie paying me this little? And having to do all this? Hell no.” But just because it was for my own movie, I put myself through this.
Believe me, I scream when I see certain creatures in my kitchen or in my bathroom. The second part of the movie is spiders. That wasn’t that hard for me. But the thing in the bathtub? That was pure hell.
Slate: Uh huh, the cockroaches in the bathtub [from earlier in the film].
Asensio: What I wanted is for all of them to start crawling all over my body. Obviously, that never happened, even though I waited and waited. When one started to crawl over my hand, I freaked out. Because I never knew this, but they have spikes. Those legs had tons of spikes. And they just penetrated into the skin of my fingers. And I was like, “Holy shit.”
Slate: Oh my God.
Asensio: This is what you see on the screen, as far as I was able to do. It was like one long take. I really freaked out, but before that I was totally cool. Brian [Kleinman], the spider wrangler and roaches wrangler, is going to join us now in case you wanted to ask specific questions about that …
Slate: Wonderful. Hey Brian. We were just talking about spiders and cockroaches.
Slate: Are you a full-time insect and spider wrangler?
Kleinman: I have a company called Represent Reptiles. I do educational programs of live reptiles, amphibians. It’s a full-time job. I pretty much just do educational programs. I’ve done a few documentary films on native species.
Slate: What species of spiders were actually used here?
Kleinman: When Ana came to me, she said she wanted to make it as real as possible. Most people know that tarantulas are big, hairy, creepy-looking spiders, but they’re relatively harmless. She wanted to make it more real. So I had to do some research, and find some spider species that kind of looked a little bit more dangerous. Like faster, creepier looking. I found a spider, a very venomous spider called a wandering spider, which is from South America. I had to find a spider that looked similar to that, but, obviously, wouldn’t be dangerous for myself or the actors as well. I ended up using a fishing spider from Florida, which looks very similar to a wandering spider. Then I used another spider called a southern house spider. Which is, more or less, similar-looking to a Chilean recluse, which is another highly venomous spider. I wanted to make it as believable as possible.
Slate: Are some spiders better actors than others?
Kleinman: They’re kind of predictable. Some spiders are definitely more agile. They’re quicker. Some are more aggressive, so obviously, I didn’t want to use those spiders … It was a little bit of trial and error.
Slate: So the ones you got from Florida are just really chilled-out spiders? They kind of just go with the flow?
Kleinman: Yeah, well, southern house spiders, they’re really laid back. They just pretty much have one speed. Which is kind of like, just a slow walk. They’re kind of lurking-in-wait type of predators. Whereas the fishing spiders, they can go from like zero to 60 in like milliseconds. You’ve got to be a little bit more wary with those when you first take them out, because they can run really fast, and take off. I was really prepared for that. Catch them if I had to.
Slate: How did it all go down on set?
Kleinman: We took a couple takes. Just to see what the spiders’ reactions would be. But we just filmed anyway. Just in case we got some good footage.
Asensio: Yes, we shot it from the beginning. Like Brian said, they were not deadly spiders.
Kleinman: But they had poison. There was a potential threat.
Asensio: Brian was super cool about everything. But two days before the shoot, he was like, “Well, you have to sign this release. I must inform you that, well, I’m not responsible even if anything happens.” I was like, “What? But you told me they were spiders from Florida. That they were harmless.” He was like, “Well, not exactly … ”
Kleinman: Note that the spiders were very well behaved. Didn’t bite anybody and were treated very well.
Slate: Uh huh.
Asensio: We didn’t get bit. I’m sure Brian did?
Kleinman: No. They know who feeds them.
Asensio: Brian provided us 100 cockroaches as well.
Slate: Oh yeah, the cockroaches.
Asensio: We wanted to find realistic cockroaches that are not the ones sometimes put into horror movies. Those cockroaches are not in my apartment. Brian brought these amazing 100 male cockroaches.
Kleinman: In a lot of movies, they use a tropical species called Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which are like these big, two-to-three inch cockroaches. Which are super neat, but obviously not super realistic. If you’re talking about city roaches, you’re talking about those little tiny or smaller ones that scurry really fast. I used a different type of species from South America that looks more similar to that of a city roach, but are a little bit easier to maintain and control.
Slate: Were you just standing behind a wall with a bag and funneling them into the bath with Ana?
Kleinman: Yeah, pretty much. When I got there, there was really no game plan of how to make these cockroaches come out of the walls. I kind of made a plunger system out of an empty paper-towel roll, a coat hanger, and a ball of paper towels. I lowered all the cockroaches into this paper-towel unit. Then when it was time for the scene, I just gently start pushing them through the plunger system. They started popping out of the wall into the bathtub with Ana. Thankfully, it worked out great.
OK, Ana, last question for you: What inspired this scene? Did you hear rumors of something similar happening in real life?
Asensio: I thought that this could actually exist. I talked to a couple of detectives from the New York Police Department. I spoke with a couple of people who are … obscure party goers, I would say. Like people who have been going to strange parties, and secret society-type places. Within my research, right? Everyone told me that this particular thing, they’ve never heard of that. Both the police and the detectives and so on, they told me about other crazy things that are happening in the city. But not this.
Slate: That’s a relief?
Asensio: You know, it could exist, and they haven’t been caught yet. Or maybe it doesn’t exist yet. Or it might never exist. I hope so. I hope I’m not giving people ideas.
Slate: Oh God.
This interview has been condensed and edited.