"I storyboarded the whole film and ended up using next to none of it..." The Two Faces of January director Hossein Amini
With his directorial debut, The Two Faces of January, out this week, we caught up with Hossein Amini, the man behind the script for Drive, to talk about making his first feature film...
The film is adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley, among other things. What was it that fascinated you about this story?
“I think really it was those three main characters. I read the book years and years ago, I was a big reader of crime novels anyway, but I remember being struck firstly by how normal they were, in one sense, but also that they weren't 'black and white', if you know what I mean. I was used to reading stories where robbers were robbers and this kind of thing, but these were people who weren't fundamentally bad or malicious, and yet they cause damage and hurt each other without really trying. They end up hurting those they love the most, but care for those they betray. So it was those contradictions in the characters, the stuff that most drama is made out of, but combined with that kind of thriller genre and I thought that was really exciting because they were the kind of characters I hadn't really come across before in a crime world before.”
That does seem to be a theme in Highsmith's books, these characters that live in this sort of moral grey area, and many of them are them are these anti-hero figures. Would you say you share that fascination with those kind of characters?
“Yeah, I do, exactly. Again, it's that whole idea of trying to find the human being in criminals, and then somehow that criminal aspect that's reflected in us. I guess that's what I was trying to say with the previous question, they aren't black and white – it sort of allows you an empathy with the characters and also puts you in their shoes to a certain extent. So in terms of a thriller and creating suspense it means you can sort of go on a ride with these characters that normally you'd run a mile from. But also because they're characters that live dangerously or are under pressure – and that could apply to criminals and anti-heroes - there's something about that notion that I find very moving, in a weird way, just because they're struggling so hard. There's something almost tragic about it and they're often put in situations which can end in tragedy.”
Rydall in particular has some quite Ripley-esque character traits...
“Yes, but he's not as devious as Ripley. I mean, I love the Ripley films, but I think with this they were much weaker and more fragile than that character is, and almost more unlucky. That was something that was kind of unusual for me – well, I guess all film noir heroes are kind of doomed or unlucky in some way, and these characters felt closer to that than the very clever and devious Ripley, where we're kind of fascinated by how good he is at being bad.”
How did you go about casting the film?
“Well, Viggo read the screenplay before I even knew he was reading it, I'd given it to my agent and somehow it had made its way to him, so I suddenly got this call out of the blue saying 'Viggo's interested, would you go and meet him in Madrid?' So of course I said I'd be thrilled to, and I almost felt like it was me that was auditioning because it was for him to say yes or no! But he was so gracious he made it feel completely the other way around. With Kirsten as well, she'd also read it without me knowing and, again, I got another surprise call out of the blue saying she was interested.
“Oscar was the only one I was desperate to get in, because of Drive, and at the time it was impossible to get him, he wasn't in a position at the time where we could finance the film around him, so I was sort of in a position where I had to say 'look, I love you for this part, and you obviously like the script, but we just can't get it made with you.” But then he did Inside Llewelyn Davis and after that everybody wanted him in their film, so that suddenly changed everything.”
Did you get everyone you wanted, is this pretty much the cast you had in mind when you were writing it?
“Well, when I write I don't really think about that too much – although in fact I kind of had Robert Mitchum in mind when I was writing this one so for obvious reasons he wasn't available! But once a film is cast I'll re-write the script anyway. That happened on Drive as well, I re-wrote pretty extensively once the actors was on board and I find that really useful because they're bringing their suggestions, their personalities, all of which feeds into the characters on the page.”
So did the cast have quite a bit of input on this film too?
“Oh yeah, a massive amount. I just find that, in an ideal world, the period after rehearsals is a great re-writing time, so that's why I tried to do the rehearsals a month before we started shooting to give me time to go away and re-write specifically for those actors. I think that way you end up with characters that are much richer and more three-dimensional than what's on the page.”
With this being your debut feature, did you encounter any unexpected challenges while making the film?
“I found the editing much harder than I thought it would be actually. I sort of went in thinking that because I was a writer that would be the easiest part, because it's all about storytelling. But I underestimated how kind of snowblind you can get as a director, once you've seen the third or fourth cut you can start feeling like you can't really tell what's good or bad any more! Then you're sort of projecting your own fears and paranoia onto it, so it's quite hard to sit through that pain and still be able to be rational about what to keep and what to cut, how to shape it.
“Conversely, working with the actors was much easier and much more fun than I'd imagined, just listening to them and letting them change stuff which was something I hadn't anticipated and it was actually very liberating. I mean, I storyboarded the whole film and ended up using next to none of it because it was just so much fun letting it happen organically on set with the actors involved.”
How long did it take to shoot?
“It took about eight or nine weeks, and we had six-day weeks because we were on a fairly tight budget, and also we were running around in different locations and things.”
Was this film a bit more labour intensive than something like Drive? That's quite an atmospheric film and part of that is down to the fact that the dialogue is quite sparse...
“Drive actually took longer, believe it or not. For me, writing is as much about the silent moments as it is about dialogue. So, for example, the chase scene at the beginning of Drive was six pages long, even though there's no dialogue! There was also much less of a story for that film – the Highsmith novel has a much clearer story, with Drive the book is wonderful but it's much more about the atmosphere and the character, the story for the film I pretty much had to invent, so that took a lot longer. This probably took about a year on and off, Drive was twice as long.”
Have you been pleased with the way the film has been received?
"I am pleased, yes; it seems that it has tended to play a little better with the slightly older critics and older audiences. It's a very different kind of audience than Drive, which was aimed at a slightly younger demographic I guess. I think it's one of of those films where people either really get involved with the characters, or they find it quite difficult to go on a ride with them because they're actually quite dislikable in a way. So much of it depends on your investment in those characters.”
So what are you working on next?
“I'm doing a TV series at the moment, but I'd also love to direct a crime-drama set in London. I'd really like to do something contemporary next, having already done the 'period' thing, and I just think with London so much has changed. We've gone from from East End gangs to this cosmopolitan, international thing where the criminal underworld is becoming global in a sense. So that's exciting and new, I know it's been done in other films but I'd really like to do a London-based film noir.”
Can you say what the TV series is?
"It's based on a book called McMafia by Misha Glenny, which is all about how as the world has become globalised, all the various gangs around the world – the Russian Mafia, the Colombian drug gangs and all these – they're starting to cooperate and work together. So just as business has become globalised, the same is happening with crime as well. I'm just finishing a first draft of that though, so we're a while away yet!"
Thw Two Faces of January is available in hmv stores now