Film Michael Bodey gets the low-down on Two Faces of Jan­uary

The Two Faces of Jan­uary marks the cul­mi­na­tion of an event­ful jour­ney for Hos­sein Amini. By Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

FILM­MAK­ING is a la­bo­ri­ous busi­ness but Hos­sein Amini laboured more than most to di­rect his first of­fer­ing. “It took 25 years,” he says of his first time in the di­rec­tor’s deckchair for The Two

Faces of Jan­uary.

He first read Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s novel of the same name a quar­ter-century ago and was en­am­oured. The Ira­nian-born English­man was only in a po­si­tion to think se­ri­ously about turn­ing the crime thriller into a film though af­ter his screen­writ­ing ca­reer took off with the pro­duc­tion of his adap­ta­tion of the Thomas Hardy novel Jude the Ob­scure (star­ring the ris­ing Kate Winslet) in 1996.

Amini tried to ac­quire the rights to the book and failed. His love for the story of an Amer­i­can cou­ple — played in the film by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst — caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse when they en­counter a young tour guide (played by In­side Llewyn Davis star Os­car Isaac) in Athens, Crete and Paris didn’t dis­si­pate, though.

Those three lead char­ac­ters seeped un­der his skin as he reread the book and his ca­reer as a screen­writer ac­cel­er­ated.

Amini earned an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for his screen­play for The Wings of the

Dove and has writ­ten, adapted and rewrit­ten a di­verse num­ber of films since, in­clud­ing re­cently Drive, an adap­ta­tion of James Sal­lis’s novel for Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn.

And in the in­terim, a num­ber of High­smith nov­els were adapted for screen, in­clud­ing those fol­low­ing the ex­ploits of the smooth crim­i­nal Tom Ri­p­ley: The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley, Ri­p­ley’s

Game and Ri­p­ley Un­der Ground. Amini loved High­smith’s 1964 novel, though, be­cause it didn’t fea­ture smooth crim­i­nals. The Ri­p­ley nov­els and films trade on the no­tion of the crim­i­nal as a kind of glam­orous psy­chopath, Amini ob­serves. Au­di­ences take de­light in how clever he is. Con­versely, The Two

Faces of Jan­uary in­tro­duces “three or­di­nary un­lucky people who are kind of vic­tims as much as they are per­pe­tra­tors”.

Mortensen’s Ch­ester MacFar­land is a con man trad­ing as a wealthy fi­nancier who ac­ci­den­tally kills some­one chas­ing lost funds (in a slight vari­a­tion from the book). His wife, Co­lette (Dunst), and an Amer­i­can stu­dent with sim­i­larly du­bi­ous mo­ti­va­tions, Ry­dal Keener (Isaac) be­come em­broiled in cov­er­ing up the death and flee­ing Greece.

Amini notes the novel has its MacGuffins — big plot de­vices that re­main su­per­flu­ous to the film’s core — in­clud­ing the po­lice and mob chas­ing the MacFar­land, but ul­ti­mately the book is about the three char­ac­ters.

“It’s this very in­ti­mate thing about how hu­man be­ings can de­stroy each other and I thought they were very re­lat­able, nor­mal — not even par­tic­u­larly in­tel­li­gent some­times — people and that’s what made them crim­i­nals,” he says. “They were un­lucky rather than psy­cho­pathic or ma­li­cious, and I thought that was very hu­man.”

Amini is at­tracted to the side of High­smith’s writ­ing that al­lows read­ers to see them­selves, rather than her plot­ting. “She shows their kind of weak­nesses, the drunk­en­ness, the jeal­ousy, the para­noia,” he adds. “They’re not par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive traits but we all have them, I think. To make char­ac­ters who em­body those things is very brave and very mod­ern, even if her sto­ry­telling isn’t al­ways mod­ern.”

The Two Faces of Jan­uary, in its hum­ble way, also rebels against screen and lit­er­a­ture’s seem­ing cel­e­bra­tion of evil. An­ti­heroes are every­where in mod­ern cul­ture and real vil­lains are ex­cused by un­der­stand­able mo­ti­va­tions.

Amini agrees the crim­i­nal char­ac­ters in mod­ern cul­ture “stop be­ing real”. Yet crime as a genre, in the right hands, is an ac­ces­si­ble way into ex­plor­ing char­ac­ter, he adds.

One of High­smith’s he­roes was Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky and his Crime and Pun­ish­ment. As the di­rec­tor sees it, that novel was an ex­am­ple of a thriller nar­ra­tive be­ing used to keep an au­di­ence in­volved in the au­thor’s ex­plo­ration of char­ac­ter, psy­chol­ogy and hu­man re­la­tion­ships.

Which is what he re­sponded to in High­smith’s novel, Amini adds, “be­cause it’s not bril­liantly plot­ted or any­thing, it’s just three ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters”.

“They’re charis­matic but I don’t think they’re par­tic­u­larly good at what they do,” he says, smil­ing. “With crim­i­nals some­times in crime thrillers we de­light in how good they are and in what they do (but) in this they’re not (good).” That proved a road­block. The Two

Faces of Jan­uary was dif­fi­cult to make and fi­nance, pre­cisely due to it be­ing a film about three losers. That’s where a pre­vi­ous High­smith adap­ta­tion — Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Strangers on a

Train — proved to be a help­ful prece­dent. And the fact High­smith adap­ta­tions have tended to per­form well.

Amini is ob­vi­ously well read but now with the trap­pings of a suc­cess­ful screen­writer. He stud­ied his­tory at univer­sity and now his re­search can in­volve such plea­sures as spend­ing days glean­ing di­rectly from es­teemed au­thors, as he did re­cently with John le Carre while re­search­ing his adap­ta­tion of the com­ing Our

Kind of Traitor (star­ring Ewan McGre­gor). But Amini ad­mits he only wanted to be a screen­writer be­cause he loved films, not be­cause he loved writ­ing nec­es­sar­ily. “I didn’t ever want to be a play­wright or a nov­el­ist, I wanted to be a screen­writer,” the 48-year-old says. “I think it’s closer to be­ing a film­maker than a writer, in some ways.” He be­gan writ­ing for tele­vi­sion and “it took me a hell of a long time, years of not earn­ing money when all your friends are be­ing lawyers and bankers.”

Yet since he has worked with no­table di­rec­tors in­clud­ing Shekhar Ka­pur ( The Four Feath

ers), John Mad­den ( Killshot) and Wind­ing Refn, and pro­duc­ers such as Anthony Minghella, who di­rected The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley.

He learned much from them and now he has the di­rect­ing bug.

“I’d prob­a­bly go back to writ­ing for di­rec­tors too, but (di­rect­ing) is some­thing I’d love to do again,” he con­cedes.

A num­ber of his di­rec­tors al­lowed Amini greater ac­cess to sets and the pro­duc­tion process than screen­writ­ers would nor­mally be al­lowed (di­rec­tors can be overly pro­tec­tive).

Amini par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fited from his time work­ing and talk­ing with ac­tors on Wind­ing Refn’s Drive, which Amini ad­mits was an­other book adap­ta­tion where “there wasn’t re­ally a story but there was an amaz­ing mood and an amaz­ing cen­tral char­ac­ter”.

He en­joys adapt­ing but only with books that leave him enough room to put in his own ex­pe­ri­ences or feel­ing re­lated to the book.

Amini shifts a lit­tle self-con­sciously while adding he can re­late to the jeal­ousy and para­noia in High­smith’s novel.

“If a movie’s a slav­ish adap­ta­tion it tends to be a bit dead,” he says.

“I sort of think my re­spon­si­bil­ity is to be true to the essence of the book rather than fol­low it slav­ishly. Some­one like John le Carre doesn’t want it to be ex­actly like the book be­cause he’s writ­ten the book. He wants it to work as a movie.”

Minghella, be­fore his un­timely death, was “very gen­er­ous with his time, of­ten to the detri­ment of his own di­rect­ing”.

Amini won’t for­get his ad­vice on his screen­play: “He said, ‘There’s a film in here some­where!’”

And his own di­rect­ing? Amini is rapt with the ex­pe­ri­ence, which he now hopes to re­peat.

De­spite warn­ings he would have to be­come fit­ter to cope with the phys­i­cal rigours of di­rect­ing, Amini says he “re­ally en­joyed the shoot­ing be­cause I’d just been writer”.

“I was so happy not to write! I just loved ev­ery minute of get­ting up and go­ing to work.”

The edit­ing, and “how quickly you go snow­blind” while try­ing to sec­ond-guess what an au­di­ence is feel­ing when you’ve seen the film 50 times, was dif­fi­cult.

Yet Amini is one of few di­rec­tors to have em­braced the test screen­ing process; most see au­di­ence re­search as an in­tru­sion on their vi­sion.

Amini says “the most use­ful thing is this bucket of cold wa­ter is poured on your head be­cause ev­ery di­rec­tor I’ve worked with thinks their film at first-cut stage is way bet­ter than it ac­tu­ally is.”

He en­joyed “that shock of re­al­is­ing you haven’t made the great­est movie ever”.

And the shock for The Two Faces of Jan­uary was its pace. The open­ing scenes are lan­guorous and beau­ti­ful, tak­ing in the splen­dour of 1960s Athens, the Parthenon and the linen suits.

It could have been so easy to revel in a pi­caresque thriller rather than the more ur­gent chase it be­comes.

“One of the things I learnt was you can go from be­ing a drama to a thriller but then an au­di­ence won’t al­low you to go back to be­ing a drama,” Amini says.

High­smith’s writ­ing can be al­most episodic in the way she moves from char­ac­ter to plot, then back to char­ac­ter, he notes.

“I found with the rhythm of this kind of film, once you say to the au­di­ence, ‘ OK, now you’re on a ride’, you have to get them on a ride,” Amini says.

“You can smug­gle in the char­ac­ter stuff but it has to be at a pace they’re com­fort­able with.”

Viggo Mort­sensen, Os­car Isaac and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of Jan­uary, top; Hos­sein Amini, left

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.