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
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