Hossein Amini is one of Britain's most respected screenwriters whose credits include The Wings of the Dove (for which he received an Oscar nomination), The Four Feathers & the pop culture phenomenon known as Drive.
Now Amini can add director to his impressive resume, with The Two Faces of January a stylish, tightly paced & exceptionally performed adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name.
Amini spoke to Matt's Movie Reviews about the making and inspiration behind his directorial debut.
The Two Faces of January is your directorial debut. What was it about Patricia Highsmith’s novel that leapt out to you and made you say ‘Yes! I want to direct this’?
I think it was the combination of crime story, and I’ve always loved thrillers and crime fiction, but also that she was sort of really using that kind of genre things to explore character, and she was almost using criminality to explore things we all share, whether it’s jealousy or paranoia.
And in this particular book the criminals were normal human beings who were flawed, and unlucky, and weren’t necessarily bad people, but through greed and bad luck sort of fell into this vortex of crime, and I just thought it was very unusual.
(Highsmith’s) hero was Tolstoyevski and “Crime and Punishment” was like…and again, that same thing where he sort of took a crime story and used it to explore guilt and the human psyche, and here she uses it to explore relationships between men who are the male dynamic in love triangles and things like that. So it has that combination of crime and the character story.
When adapting someone else’s words to a different medium, do you have a set of guidelines? Do you have any rules? Or is it whatever works for that particular novel?
I think it changes from book to book. But I’m certainly drawn to the ones that almost leave me enough space to have half adaptations, half original screenplays, where they’re not necessarily perfect scene by scene by scene, and that there’s enough room for me as a reader or an adapter to kind of go, ‘Well, I love that character, and this bit was slow and I want it to go a bit faster’.
It’s almost like that feeling you have when, for me, lying on a sofa and reading that book and nobody else has experienced it like I’ve experienced it. I try to capture some of that elation of finishing a great book and trying to put that on the page.
“In this particular book the criminals were normal human beings who were flawed, and unlucky, and weren’t necessarily bad people, but through greed and bad luck sort of fell into this vortex of crime, and I just thought it was very unusual. ” - Hossein Amini
You have three great characters played by three great actors. Talk about the casting process. You’ve had the book with you for a long time, I’m sure you’ve thought about different actors playing these roles over the years…
Well that’s the thing. When I write I try not to think about actors, and then when it’s cast what I’ve written as a screenwriter, I re-write for the actors.
But on this one Viggo (Mortensen) had read (the book) without me knowing it. We were at the same American agency, and my writer’s agent sort of sent it to all of the actor’s agents, and I got this fantastic phone call saying that Viggo is interested in talking to you about playing Chester.
So I had to go out and meet him at an audition, but he didn’t make it feel like an audition, he’s such a lovely man. But it was pretty daunting. But he’s the reason it got made. With him I could really finance it.
Casting was the same again with Kirsten (Dunst), again she read had read it without me knowing, and she wasn’t sort of who I had in mind really. The Clare in the book is sort of slightly careless, mean spirited, kind of very sexy but kind of nymphomaniac character who just doesn’t care about what damage she causes, and I thought with Kirsten’s screen persona, she brings this intelligence, sensitivity and I just couldn’t buy her being that character. So when she came on I re-wrote the part quite considerably for her.
But Oscar (Isaac) was the one that since Drive I thought he’s such a brilliant actor and he could play anything. But it was hard to put him in the movie originally, because I had shown him the script and he liked it but I couldn’t persuade anyone…you know he was impossible to finance. You know he hadn’t done the Coen brothers movie (Inside Llewyn Davis) at that point, but the moment that he did it became really easy.
Something I thought was funny when watching the movie, was that if this film had been made 15 years ago Viggo Mortensen would have been the perfect Rydal.
Yeah! Absolutely. I mean, the Viggo Mortensen of The Indian Runner and all of that…I didn’t think of it, but that’s absolutely right.
The film has a great style to it. Can you talk about influences in regards to the films style?
Yeah, I sort of….one of the things I was quite nervous about was using a kind of shooting style that was so modern that it could almost break that spell of being in the ‘60s. I thought it was really important.
Also, even though there was big landscapes and they go to different countries, it was a really intimate story of these three people and sometimes as if no one else in the world can exist. You know it’s the three of them in this sort of hazy world.
I watched a lot of ‘60s movies and really just in terms of camera style and stuff and… Purple Noon was one that I watched a lot, and what I loved about it is that it sort of went from very steady, kind of classical tracking shots to handheld, and there was messiness to it which I liked.
I loved The Talented Mr. Ripley, but The Talented Mr. Ripley had been almost perfect the whole way through. I though with this one that…we didn’t have that budget, but also I think it’s a more ragged story, it kind of lurches from this to that more. So I tried to get that messiness of the lower budget ‘60s movies.
Then in terms of the style I just thought that with the costumes it was really important to me that they told a story. Because I felt that….Chester starts off with his perfect white suit, he’s like a Greek god who walks out of the sunshine and then by the end of it he’s in a gutter with his suit all muddy and dirty and whatever.
And I just thought that…and maybe it’s because I come from a writing background, I always just sort of felt that whether it’s a camera move, a choice of costume, or a location that it has to reflect psychology as well as…you knows stories that can’t just be…and particularly this kind of story which is old fashioned. I didn’t want it to feel not spontaneous but I sort of thought quite hard on how to make it.
In regards to shooting on location, how important was it in regards to not only you with this story, but also the actors in regards to shooting in Greece and in Turkey?
I think for them it was really important. Because I just think that particularly these actors and there…I just think it helps them because they are there in that real place, and you are trying to create an environment where they feel they can be that character.
The artificiality of being in a studio I think invariably creeps in to a performance, and that you can walk away and you’re in your trailer or whatever, that sort of breaks the spell. Whereas when you’re actually there, I think for all of us we were in that sleepy Greek town and kind of living there and then shooting…
That was the thing…having said it was quite controlled, and as a screenwriter I plan everything and I storyboard the whole thing. But what I found really enjoyable about directing was that spontaneity and accidents happening, and locations not being what you expected…and I sort of realised that there is a life that comes into a scene when things don’t go as planned.
Like there is a scene where Oscar and Viggo are face to face on the fairy scene, it was like a three page dialogue scene…there face-off. In rehearsals we cut out all of the dialogue and on the day Oscar just didn’t want to talk to anyone. He was moody in a corner and I slowly realised he was trying to work himself up and left home alone…and I sort of learnt that directing is sometimes not about saying anything.
"What I found really enjoyable about directing was that spontaneity and accidents happening, and locations not being what you expected." - Hossein Amini
When it comes to those ‘accidents’, those happy things that happen…when you approach your writing again, now that you’ve been through your directing experience, will it change the way you look at your writing?
No, I think with writing it’s a combination of having a plan then being prepared for that to change. I think (director) Nicholas Winding Refn on Drive did it brilliantly, because that’s where I watched someone doing it and how he just listens to everyone and lets the whole day kind off dictates what happens, and I learned a lot from him.
But I think it’s, especially as a first time director, I just felt I needed to direct it once I wrote it, once I storyboarded it, and then whatever goes wrong or changes happens. But going back to writing I think I’ve become much more aware, particularly in the editing room, is how important rhythm and momentum is, and particularly with this book I had real struggles with pacing, because it sort initially went from being a drama to a thriller, and back to a drama, and back to a thriller…and then I very quickly realised that showing it to audiences they are very prepared to go from a drama to a thriller, but once it becomes that they want to stay on that rhythm, or go faster and faster.
But to go back and, you know…those were just things…or having three back to back dialogue scenes how difficult it was to edit that. But when I write the script I often do that and not think about it, not think about how you need to change, or how you need to have a silent or an intimate moment with the character just thinking.
You mentioned ‘Drive’. That was a film you adapted and it turned into this big pop culture phenomenon. How important was the success of that film in regards to getting a boost on this film to be made?
It was a big help. I mean it wasn’t as big a help as Viggo suddenly saying he’s interested but it certainly…I guess it made actors take me slightly more seriously and financiers too. So yeah it was a big help but I think it still so hard as a screenwriter to get taken seriously as a director, and particularly I’m in my forties so it’s not like I’m a young up and coming whatever.
When you’re a screenwriter people sort of want to keep you there. So I think without Viggo’s interest it would have been like ‘Great, you wrote Drive, but let’s get someone like a Nicholas Refn to direct this one’, and I think it’s pretty hard to say ‘Let me direct it.’
You’re now working on an adaptation of John le Carre ‘Our Kind of Traitor’. But what’s the next thing in regards to directing for you? Is there a something that you have which you always wanted to directed, similar to ‘Two Days of January’?
Well I sort of feel a bit…and it’s not false modesty, but I just sort of think and depending on how the film does really, because like with writing…no one can stop me writing. I can go away and write a screenplay as a spec, or whatever.
But with directing someone needs to put a lot of money into it and stuff, and the financiers need to say ‘We want you to do this.’ So if it does well enough for that to happen, I would love to write a sort of…(Jean-Pierre) Melville, he did Le Samourai which is sort of my favourite film and I borrowed a lot for the Drive screenplay.
But I would love to do one of those minimalist crime thrillers, particularly set in London, because in London you either have that sort of cockney gangster movie, or you have very upper class ones…I just think it’s a city I love and I kind of grown up in and stuff, and I would love to do a really big crime epic set in London.