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The Two Faces of January press conference

Dunst, Isaac, Mortensen and Amini wow London with their new movie.

The cast and director of The Two Faces of January were in London this week for a special première and press conference.

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed novel and focuses on a glamorous American couple in 1962 – the charismatic Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Collette (Kirsten Dunst), who are in Athens during a European vacation. While sightseeing at the Acropolis they encounter Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American who is working as a tour guide.

Drawn to Colette’s beauty and impressed by Chester’s wealth and sophistication, Rydal gladly accepts their invitation to dinner. However all is not as it seems with the MacFarlands, Chester’s affable exterior hides darker secrets. As events take a sinister turn, Rydal finds himself compromised and entangled as an accomplice to a crime committed by Chester. Their journey takes them from Greece to Turkey, and to a dramatic finale played out in the back alleys of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Check out our review of The Two Faces of January

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Stars Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac and Viggo Mortensen were joined by first-time Director Hossein Amini in London for the gala première in Mayfair. Before that, they all participated in a fascinating press conference where they discussed the making of the film, the location shoots and the strong characterisation at the heart of the book.


Hossein Amini interview

two faces of january

You first read this novel when you were a student and it’s been with you ever since? Why this novel in particular?

Hossein Amini: I’ve always liked crime thrillers but this was a crime thriller, I thought, about three very ordinary characters who we could have met and who are very much like us. It’s the fact that these people are thrown into this world of crime and it’s the damage that they do to themselves. It wasn’t outside forces like policemen or criminals or whatever. It was really watching this very intimate triangle and the dynamics of it. The characters just stayed with me for 20 years. I kept re-reading it and re-reading it and re-imagining them differently. When I re-read it, I remember thinking Chester would be handsome and was wearing a white suit. But actually in the book, he’s very different. But that’s what’s great about the time it took to write – it was a combination of what was in my head and what was in the book.

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How did you manage to stay so true to the book yet embellish it and make it so cinematic?

Hossein Amini: I don’t think you can do that as a screenwriter unless you have three brilliant characters. I think that’s what Highsmith is so great at. I think she transcends the crime genre. It’s not one of her best but I think she just creates characters… But that’s what’s great about collaborating with actors. I think one of the great privileges on this movie was all the meetings that we had beforehand. It encouraged people to suggest changing things and, for me as a screenwriter, I think the collaboration with actors is so valuable. It’s something I moan about now but some directors, like Nicolas Winding Refn on Drive was fantastic because he completely involved me in that process, but others keep you out. And I think if they’re confident, they give you that freedom to work with the actors and I find they are often the best collaborators in developing a screenplay. I know my writing gets better and, certainly in this case, got better by spending a lot of time talking to the actors.

Were you ever tempted to change the name of the film?

Hossein Amini: No, because the thing I liked about it is that January is the two-headed God and there were things about the fact that the two heads are joined but they’re facing in different directions. I thought that was very much symbolic of Chester and Rydal in that they hate each other and are fighting over Colette but somehow because of Colette they’re drawn to each other and they can’t escape each other, whether it’s through guilt or shared love of her, they’re tied. And I thought the other thing about January, the God, was that it’s the old giving way to the new and the whole notion of the Greek myth that the son needs to kill the father in order to become a man. I thought that rite of passage was very much Rydal’s story. So, despite losing the January aspect of it, which was largely to do with having heat and sun, I felt symbolically it worked. It’s a tough title because you have to explain it but, to me, it says a lot about what the film is about.

Was it always your plan to shift from writing to directing? And how did you come to direct The Two Faces of January as your first movie?

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Hossein Amini: When I read it at university I just assumed that I’d be writing it and directing it immediately. It just didn’t happen for years. I just couldn’t get a job and when I finally got hired to write something, it never got made. So, you become a screenwriter and in this industry once you’re one thing, it’s very hard to do both unless you start off being a writer-director. But this was the book that I wanted to do and this was the one that I tried to get done for so many years. But that’s what I started off wanting to do – be a director. And it happened really because Viggo, Oscar and Kirsten said they were happy for me to direct. I’m sure it made a lot of people nervous… a first-time director and stuff. But they never treated me like a first-time director, and neither did the crew, the producers or the financiers. But you need support. If they hadn’t agreed to let me direct, I’d have probably said I was happy to let someone else so long as I could write it.


Viggo Mortensen interview

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This is such an intense psychological drama, did you and your co-stars talk through it much. Or did you just dive in?

Viggo Mortensen: Hoss[ein Amini, writer-director] got all of us together, maybe a month or five weeks… it was almost a month and a half before we started shooting here in London so that we could talk about things such as the three different relationships, how far he wanted to go with each one, and what initial ideas he had. And we felt more comfortable because we could ask questions or say if we weren’t so comfortable with something. Out of those discussions he thought a lot and changed certain things, so by the time we started shooting it was a lot easier than if we had just shown up and tried to wing it. I think it’s one of those movies that’s rare these days in that it’s quite subtle. And because it’s subtle and if you’re the type of person that’s seen lots of movies you can miss little things because… it’s like a classic thriller and noir movie.

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A lot of the behaviour and actions are really subtle. Just the tone of the film, the music…. what’s great about it is that when you see it a second time you see even more things about the characters and the complexity of their relationships. Most movies don’t work out that way. With most movies, you see them a second time and say: “Oh, it wasn’t as good as I thought.” And you start to see flaws. Here, it’s the opposite. It’s a delicate thing. So, for me, it was really good to be able to talk through as much as possible before we started because it looks like a relatively big budget movie and a rich looking movie but we didn’t have lots of money compared to other movies that look this way, or even time to shoot. We were moving around a lot. So, it was good to have a lot of time beforehand to prepare.

There aren’t too many directors that are so open about their scripts, either, especially first-timers. I mean, he’d been writing it for so many years and fine tuning it all along, and all of a sudden things change as you’re shooting. But if you’re smart, like Hoss is, you’re open to changing things. And many times it would be his idea. We’d be shooting and he’d go: “You know, it’s nicely written that part, if I say so myself [laughs]. No, he’d say, ‘maybe it’s nice on the page, but I think you guys… the scene works better without that bit’.” Most writer-directors are pretty defensive about their words. But that was really smart and it was really helpful to us because it was better to do it then than to do it later and have it happen in the editing, when it doesn’t work somehow. But he was really smart and humble about his script.

Is it rare to find a script like this that’s not based on a biopic or something real life?

Viggo Mortensen: And also knowing that we were going to get to these places. With technology nowadays, you can shoot and make it look like you were in these places. But to actually be there, it felt like an old fashioned movie-making experience, even though we were shooting with modern techniques and digital. But the way it was shot, from the lenses to the camera positions, to the approach to the costumes, and Hoss’s sensibility… it feels like you’re watching one of those great old movies. One of the really subtle things is the look of the movie. There are other movies from this period, you could even say it to some degree about The Talented Mr Ripley, or I could as I’m speaking for myself here, but I see that movie and say ‘it’s great, it has really good performances’ but there’s a real concerted effort where you feel, a lot of the time, that this is the year, and this is the look, these are the tourist spots. And from the first part of our movie, when we’re up on The Acropolis, you feel it’s going to be like that too. But it quickly changes and you’re in places you don’t know.

It becomes more murky and messy but it’s always true to the period without calling attention to it. It’s not a bunch of postcards saying ‘look at this’. They wear incredible clothes at the beginning, everythig is perfect, but then you just enter the story and that’s very subtle. And yet it looks like a movie that’s every bit as expensive when, in fact, it was probably three or four times less expensive than a movie like The Talented Mr Ripley.

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You seem to choose personable characters. After The Lord of the Rings, were you inundated with blockbuster scripts? And was it a conscious choice to opt for more independent films?

Viggo Mortensen: It’s not a conscious thing. I’m just trying to do good stories. You don’t find stories that are really good that often. I think the idea is that you want to be in movies that you feel good about seeing later, whether it’s next year or 10 years from now. Sometimes you make a choice, and there’s nothing wrong with it… there’s that old piece of advice in terms of the movie business that goes: “Do one of those big ones and then do one or two smaller ones.” And no matter how the movie turns out, if you do it right, it’s a long process to prepare it and to shoot it and then do what we’re doing now [press], so given that it’s the same amount of work, you might as well do something that you can go out and speak positively about rather than thinking “what am I going to say nice about it, because I really don’t care for it”. I really don’t like doing that.

So, for me, I realise there’s a risk to going off and doing movies in Arabic or movies that may not even be released in North America. There’s a risk that if you do too many of those then maybe you’re not even going to be asked to do the bigger movies [laughs]. But I’m not worried about it and I would have nothing against doing another big one if it was a really good story and somebody wants to ask me. A lot of times, people ask why I choose this or that. In reality, even if you become really well known as an actor, you really only have the power to say ‘no’. If you say ‘yes’, they have to want you, and it doesn’t matter how famous you are. And sometimes being well known, or people having a certain idea about you, can go against you. You may read a script and approach something because you really like it, but they might tell you they don’t see you that way and then you have to fight against that. So, you can say ‘no’ but saying ‘yes’ is a privilege that you have to be handed. It’s not just there.

Is it true that you were going to be cast in Man of Steel?

Viggo Mortensen: I was offered two different parts in that but I couldn’t do it. It would be fun to do something like that.

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Oscar Isaac interview

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It’s a very Patricia Highsmith device to have a man fascinated more with another man than a woman. Hence, Rydal, your character, is more obsessed with Chester than he is with Colette in many ways. Did you think a lot about the father-son undertones or whether you and Viggo had talked a lot about the dynamic between these two guys?

Oscar Isaac: Yeah, that definitely was very much in the book and the script, and figuring out how much he starts with this [father-son thing] because his father has just passed away recently and he hasn’t gone to the funeral. So, how much that influences his feelings when he first starts getting close to Chester and sees him. But I love how you never really know who is telling the truth. He says: “He reminds me of my father…” But is he just saying that off the cuff to this woman or does he really mean it. There’s a lot of those type of complications that she writes in that are so great.

This is such an intense psychological drama, did you and your co-stars talk through it much. Or did you just dive in?

Oscar Isaac: It was the most extensive pre-production that I’ve ever really done. But I think Hoss is very much about that for continuity’s sake. For two days, I just went over the script and I got to ask him line by line: “What is this? What does that mean?” So, that was one of the things we did. And then a month after that, we all got together to figure it all it. And it’s because of that that I think we were able to create so much nuance and layer it and not feel we needed to show everything. We really got to play with the subtleties.

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How was shooting in so many Greek locations?

Oscar Isaac: It was great. It was four locations that were vastly different. But the riots were going on for some of it. So, I’d finish shooting and then wondered out to see where all the tear gas was coming from and all these people would be running the opposite way with masks on [laughs].

Is it rare to find a script like this that’s not based on a biopic or something real life?

Oscar Isaac: Absolutely, and as soon as it came to me I said ‘of course, I would love to do something like this’ because these movies don’t really get made very often.

You’ve been cast in the new Star Wars movie. When do you get started?

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Oscar Isaac: End of this month [May] and, yes, it’s incredibly exciting because I grew up with it. My family are huge, huge fans. Like my uncle and cousin collect the toys and we’d have Star Wars parties. So, when I told them they had the biggest nerd-gasm. Literally, there’s nothing I could have said, or will ever say, that will top that or make them happier! That’s it!


Kirsten Dunst interview

two faces of january

Colette is a lot more sympathetic in the film than she is in the book. Was that a deliberate choice to make her that way?

Kirsten Dunst: Well, for me, when I first read the script, it was one of the best written materials I had come across in a long time. It’s very hard to come across a well written script. So, firstly it was the story that appealed to me and then I talked to Hossein. At first, I know that he was maybe thinking about casting someone a little younger than me because to have that innocence or the flightiness of a woman who married rich. But really, what’s more interesting, is creating a real dynamic between us; a real husband and wife. Yes, she’s disillusioned a little bit by the money and the glamour but I think that Colette truly loves Chester and in order to make this dynamic interesting we needed to have a more filled out woman, rather than the girl in the film. That’s not interesting to me and I don’t think it’s interesting to anyone else, either.

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Colette appears to be the most innocent of the three but there’s a scene where Chester is getting drunk and she knows he’s paranoid about Rydal and the way he looks at her. She spends so much time in that scene being attentive to Rydal and ignoring her husband, is she looking for a way out already?

Kirsten Dunst: I don’t think Colette is innocent. She knows what he does but she doesn’t need to know all of it. So, that’s not being innocent; it’s just turning a blind eye. I think that in the ’50s that was OK and acceptable. Before that scene, for instance, you get little pieces of him starting to unravel. There’s something on the boat before that where he’s already saying that the only reason Rydal is coming along is because he thinks Colette is cute. They’ve already had dinner and there’s been a tension. So, I think I’m pushing his buttons because he’s pushing mine and we wouldn’t be in that situation if it weren’t for him. So, I think like any jealous boyfriend or whatever, you kind of want to stick it back to them and that’s my way of sticking it back to him.

In a lot of ways your character is the Hitchcock blonde. Is that something you used as a reference point? And if you could go back in time, would you like to be directed by him?

Kirsten Dunst: Listen, I heard he was a real piece of work to his women obviously but I’ve worked with some real pieces of work in my time, so I think I could handle Hitchcock! [laughs]. But actually, I had seen La Ventura as a reference, which I really enjoyed. So, I think that was my first idea in my head. I definitely felt that this film had a Hitchcock-ian feel to it. But I was a Hossein Amini blonde!

Did you hang out with your cast a lot when you weren’t filming with them?

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Kirsten Dunst: We hung out a lot together, yeah. I feel like we were always sort of in the hotel lobby entrance. We were either in our room or eating meat and cheese sandwiches!

*with thanks to Rob Carnevale

The Two Faces of January is on nationwide released in the UK now.

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