Academy Award nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini has covered everything from period films (“The Wings of the Dove”), to fairy tales (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), to a film with few words but lots of impact (“Drive”).
In the director’s chair for the first time, Mandy caught up with Hossein while he was in Australia for “The Two Faces of January”, a 1960s thriller centred on a con artist, his wife, and a stranger who flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective, based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr Ripley”).
Firstly, congratulations on the film. I know making a film in general is a very long process but I understand for you it was a particularly long process – in the realm of 25 years – if you could go back to your young student self that picked up the book and loved it, knowing how long it would take and everything you had to go through to get it made, would your advice still be ‘hang in there?’
Hossein: Well I gave up on it so many times. And I kept on doing other stuff and then picking it up and falling back in love with it again and thinking I had to keep trying. But yeah I wish I’d found something I didn’t love quite as much [laughs].
You have an incredible calibre of actors in your core cast. I know you’d worked with Oscar Isaac before on “Drive”, but how did Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst become involved?
Hossein: Well I didn’t even know they were reading it, it was one of those fantastic surprises where Viggo and I shared an agent in the US and my writers agent had slipped it to his actor’s agent and then I just got this phone call out of the blue saying Viggo had read the script and was interested in meeting. So I went off to Spain where he lived and really sort of auditioned for him. He’s incredibly gracious. He became a real partner and we wouldn’t have gotten the film made without his support.
Yes I imagine having a star attached helps to open a few doors.
Hossein: Yes especially for a film with a lowish budget like this. Having a big movie star makes such a difference.
And now Oscar’s going to a galaxy far, far away…
Hossein: Yes it’s fantastic. After “Drive” I really wanted him to do this part, but he hadn’t been cast yet in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and we couldn’t get finance with him – and he was the first one to understand that. But then he got that part and it was a huge success and now he’s in Star Wars so his star is really rising.
But hopefully you’ll still get to work with him again?
Hossein: I’d love to work with him again. I just think he’s one of the most gifted actors of his generation. He has that quality of being edgy and masculine but with also an almost innocent, tender side. So his range is so extraordinary that I think he could do almost anything.
For the character that he played in this film I think he really needed that – he was very complex.
Hossein: Yes they were all very difficult characters to like. I think you need actors that are very likeable on screen but have that ability to find the human in the villainous characters they play. I thought all three of them managed to make their characters very familiar even though they would do things we wouldn’t do, they made them familiar in a lot of their other emotions.
I understand from “Drive” that you had a very collaborative approach with the actors, going through all the scenes in detail, did you take a similar approach for this film?
Hossein: I did. I learnt so much from Nicolas Winding Refn’s approach on that which was to create this environment where everyone would just chat and chat before you got into the filmmaking. And so I’d go off and go to Madrid and see Viggo for a couple of days and just talk about the character, not specifics, but just talk and talk, or I’d go to see Oscar in New York, and get on the phone with Kirsten. We were talking the whole time. And then we rehearsed a month before shooting which is quite rare because normally it’s a few days before. And that gave me a chance to go away and re-write with their input without having the pressure of filming. I found, and even during the filming, I loved that whole notion of collaboration and the best idea wins not the person who’s the most powerful person on set. It’s a great fluid process which I really enjoyed.
I have to say you don’t often hear about screenwriters being so open to change things they’ve worked so hard creating!
Hossein: And I ended up being much less precious about writing as a director than I did as a screenwriter, because as a screenwriter you sit at the monitor and think ‘oh my God they’re changing this inflection’ or ‘they’ve left out that word – this will destroy everything!’ When I was directing I realised, if they wanted to change the line, fine, as long as the intent of the scene was there. Often the way they’d phrase would be better than what I’d written. [laughs].
I understand the director is often the first on set and last to leave. I imagine it is a very exhausting process – how did you find being in the director’s chair for the first time?
Hossein: You know everyone said to me that you have to be really fit to be a director, and you need to work out and go to the gym [laughs]. I was honestly just so happy to not have to get up and write every morning because I find writing so hard that it was almost like being on holiday. I couldn’t wait to get on set and work with other people and not be on my own in my shed having to stare at a blank screen.
The film looked absolutely incredible. When I was younger I spent some time working in the Greek Islands in Ios, which was granted more Party Island than classic Greece…
Hossein: Well we filmed in Crete which was definitely a party island as well [laughs].
True! I find Greece has such a timeless quality about it and as this film takes place in a specific period how did you go about scouting locations?
Hossein: We spent a lot of time to find the right places. I quite like the ragged feel. I think there’s a danger with these period films where you try to make everything look beautiful. What I wanted to do was make it touristy/kitschy in the beginning in Athens but as the film progresses and the characters start to unravel I wanted the landscape to be rougher and more ragged and the sort of places that as tourist you stumble into when you’re lost as opposed to the places where the guidebook tells you to go. And that’s why it was so important to film in Crete, the landscape reflects the psychology of the characters, and those very barren, rough mountains I think were so important to the story.
And I thought the costumes were perfect in setting up the characters and their current state of mind. Was this a big focus for you?
Hossein: Definitely I thought the costumes were a strong part of the story because it was partly that these characters present an image of themselves and gradually as the film evolves that turns out to be a lie, a sham, and the clothes almost reflect that – they get dirty and flabbier and dustier. Also there was something about people of that period, particularly with Chester’s character, they were veterans who had come out of the war, they were tough working class guys but they all dressed like gentleman. It was very important to them the way they dressed. And Viggo did a lot of research for his character, looking at the war vets of the time and how the way they presented themselves was incredibly important to them. He aided it as a con man but he also did it I think as someone of that generation.
It’s great, I wish that was still around [laughs].
Hossein: Yes just get Steven Noble to do everyone’s costumes [laughs].
When we get to Turkey the characters seem a bit lost, and almost relieved to be in each other’s company again when they’re reunited – at least that was my sense. I think Viggo’s character even says to Oscar’s ‘You’re the only one I can speak honestly to.’ It seems like this was such an important relationship for the whole film, was it a big focus for you?
Hossein: Yes and I’m really glad you picked that. That was one of my favourite things about the book was the notion that these two men who are kind of competitors and hate each other and try to destroy each other are sort of inextricably bound. And that is what the title “The Two Faces of January” is really about – this God with the twin heads who are joined, they can’t get away. There are lots of shots we had of them heading off in different directions but they always ended up in the same place. And however much they hate each other they’re sort of tied. And so yeah it’s a scene that really moved me, it was almost like they were the last two people on Earth. That even though they were in this busy bazaar having that conversation we put the sound down and gradually made it disappear so it was just the two of them. And I think that’s Highsmith’s writing, it’s so much about these hate/love affairs that the men have with each other. She understood male dynamics where you could admire someone but want to beat them the whole time. The way with men there is a constant primal battle going on – she got that better than most male writer’s I’ve read.
Yes that’s a great point, and I’ve read studies before where, when men are given the option of either impressing a woman or impressing their male friends, they will always choose to try and impress their male friends.
Hossein: Yes and all her books have that quality.
You’ve described this film previously as ‘film noir in the sunshine’ and I think that’s a perfect way to sum it up. And even though it seems worlds apart “Drive” has also been described as a neo-noir film. What is it about the noir genre that attracts you?
Hossein: I’ve always been drawn to that. Noir films have always been my favourite, but there was something about – I don’t know if it’s because my own parents divorced – the idea of love stories in noir where the man and the woman don’t end up together [laughs]. And the characters are not necessarily bad but unlucky. And they lose. And I find there’s something very bittersweet and moving about human failure in a way. It happens to all of us at some stage, and if we survive it with dignity that’s really important. That moves me when I watch those movies, that however nasty a criminal they are, that shred of humanity when it does pop up us incredibly touching.
Now that’s you’ve finally checked off your dream adaptation, what’s next on your bucket list?
Hossein: I would love to do some TV writing. There are so many books which I’ve loved that are too long to be turned into movies and I’d love to do one of them as four or ten part TV series. There’s more story you can tell in that form than in an hour and a half or two hours. I think they’re both such exciting mediums now. And I’d love to go back and direct something if I get the chance.
“The Two Faces of January” is now playing in Australia and will be released in the US on the 28th August.