If there is any justice in the film-world, Hossein Amini will be a household name very soon. The talented writer takes his first foray into the world of directing for this weeks EF Blu-ray of the Week – The Two Faces of January.
Amini has worked on numerous projects over the years including Drive, 47 Ronin, Snow White and the Huntsman and Jude. His latest effort finds him adapting and directing Patricia Highsmith’s novel, starring Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac and Viggo Mortensen.
EF’s Jason chatted to Hossein about his work on The Two Faces of January, his approach to film-making and a potential sequel to Drive.
First off congratulations, The Two Faces of January is a stunning directorial début. How did you first get involved with the project?
Thank you so much. I first read the book at University and it completely got under my skin. I spent the next twenty years trying to get it off the ground, failing repeatedly, until Viggo Mortensen, Studio Canal and Working Title came onboard. It’s the only project I’ve ever originated and it’s very hard getting those off the ground.
Was it a challenge adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel and making the story feel cinematic?
Like every book it had different challenges. Highsmith is often more interested in her characters and their psychology than her plots. She does write very visually though and her locations in particular are very cinematic. She was a great traveller and Two Faces is as much a road movie as it is a thriller.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Viggo, Kirsten and Oscar played an important role in you being able to direct this project. Can you tell us more?
Their support was vital, not only in agreeing to be directed by a first timer, but also in helping me get the movie financed. As I said before, I’d spent twenty years trying to get the film made unsuccessfully. The moment Viggo came onboard it suddenly became more tempting for financiers. We went in pretty much as partners, asking for a certain budget to do the book and its locations justice. Kirsten and Oscar’s involvement added significant foreign sales and though it is still a fairly low budget film I think we were able to give it real scale and production value thanks to their involvement.
You utilise some breathtaking location shoots during the movie – was it a challenge to film in some of the locations?
It was a huge challenge. We had to move very quickly, shoot in different locations almost every day and travel to three different countries. Sometimes in Greece we didn’t know until the very last moment if our permission to shoot in the monuments would be granted. I had alternative scenes written for the Acropolis in case our permit was denied. It was fairly hairy but a great adventure too.
Stylistically, the film feels like classic noir – was this a conscious move? We would love to see a cut of this in black & white.
I’ve always loved film noir. Not just for the visuals but the atmosphere of doom and dark romance. This was very much a film noir in sunlight though. The beauty on the surface hides the darkness underneath. Like the characters the story begins as one thing, then the layers are slowly stripped away to reveal the rotting heart underneath. I wish we could still shoot in black and white. The first black and white film noir I saw on the big screen was Kiss Me Deadly and it’s stayed with me ever since.
Can you talk to us about the level of collaboration you had with the cast during filming?
That was probably my favourite part of the process. As a first time director I had storyboarded the whole film but on set I quickly found that the truth and specificity the actors bought to a scene was far more interesting than what I’d imagined in my head. They also brought so much of themselves to the parts, warts and all, and I think that takes real talent and courage. They were my collaborators from the script stage right up until the final mix.
Was there room for improvisation during scenes because the rapport between the cast feels so organic?
It’s funny, as a screenwriter the idea of actors changing my lines used to fill me with horror. As a director I learnt that improvisation and allowing the actors to change lines so that they felt more real to them is crucial. I now think that shooting a script exactly as written is a recipe for disaster. It becomes still born. Improvisation, or at least an openness to alternatives, gives a shoot and the film its life and fluidity.
You’ve spoken about your love of Highsmith’s book in the past. How many times have you read The Two Faces of January and does it still challenge your perceptions of Rydal, Chester and Colette?
I’ve read it many times over the years and as I’ve aged my understanding of the characters and my sympathy for them has changed. In my twenties Rydal’s obsession with a father figure really spoke to me, now in my forties, Chester’s struggle with middle age and the theme of how life slowly but surely defeats our hopes and dreams really resonates. Sorry to sound so gloomy!
Did you have any idea that Drive would become such a phenomenal hit when you were scripting it?
No idea at all. Genuinely. I loved the film myself but before Cannes I was pretty convinced it was going to have a mixed or potentially even worse reaction. And I wasn’t alone. The success of the film was probably the best surprise of my career.
What is Nicolas Winding Refn like to collaborate with?
A joy. He is very collaborative and involves you in so many aspects of the filmmaking process. I got to work with the actors and go on location scouts and it all helped make the script better. He is confident enough not to feel threatened by a writer or any other collaborator and as a result he gets the best work out of them.
Would you like to explore where the character of Driver (Ryan Gosling) goes next? Could a sequel happen?
I always saw it as a one-off. A sequel could happen but it would have to be better than the original. No point ruining a good thing. And I think it wouldn’t make any sense without Nic and Ryan.
Many believe that we are in a golden age of TV, and that it’s overtaking film. What do you think?
I think they can happily co-exist. As someone who loves adaptations, I think some books are better suited to long form TV while others need the conciseness and impact of film. It’s also interesting how a series like True Detective seems to straddle both.
How has the industry changed since you started? Do you think it’s easier to get started now?
I think it’s much harder to get started. Film schools and screenwriting courses have multiplied and the industry is much more competitive. Creatively things have changed too. The financial cost of film is so high now that it forces filmmakers to be more aware of audiences and box office results. Good reviews are no longer enough. The business side of film has imposed itself on the creative side, for better or worse. There’s also a lot more competition for people’s time and interest with games and the internet. The one thing I do regret is that there’s less room for films that try to strike a balance between the art house and the commercial.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’m writing a couple of TV pilots and then I’m very keen to write a London based crime movie. I think London is an amazing noir city and I would love to make a contemporary film set in its ever changing and increasingly cosmopolitan criminal underworld. With a heist and a doomed love story in there somewhere.
The Two Faces of January is out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now.