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Hossein Amini on directing 'The Two Faces of January' and living with Nic Refn

"Drive" screenwriter Hossein Amini makes his directorial debut with "The Two Faces of January," and talks about the time he lived with Nicolas Winding Refn.

Seasoned screenwriter Hossein Amini, next to Viggo Mortensen, makes his directorial debut with the Patricia Highsmith adaptation "The Two Faces of January." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Seasoned screenwriter Hossein Amini, next to Viggo Mortensen, makes his directorial debut with the Patricia Highsmith adaptation "The Two Faces of January."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Seasoned screenwriter Hossein Amini (“Drive,” “Snow White and the Hunstman”) spent a very long time wanting to film Patricia Highsmith’s 1962 novel “The Two Faces of January.” It finally got made, with Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst as a couple who wind up seeking help from a conman (Oscar Isaac). And the lengthy gestation time, Amini says, was a good thing, allowing him to understand the material better — and to be okay with sometimes making dumb mistakes on what would be his directorial debut.

Why it took so long to get made: “There was so little interest in the story, I think, because of the ambiguity of the characters, and that they weren’t necessarily likeable. It was really when Viggo came onboard that it suddenly went from no one wanting to finance it to…well, not a lot of offers, but a few. It made me realize how movie stars get films made.”

The appeal of Highsmith's novel: “It was just rare for me to read a crime novel where characters weren’t psychopathic. They’re actually very normal and human and not always very smart. For me, Highsmith’s great ability is being able to find the very tiny human details in criminals. You see so much of yourself in them. With my wife, who I love dearly, we can switch from being very nice to not being nice, if she says something that hurts me and then I bite back and the whole thing spirals out of control. Those moments are what Highsmith captures so brilliantly.”

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Screenwriters need access to actors: “I’ve been very lucky to do that with [director] Nic Refn on ‘Drive,’ where he allowed me to work with the actors a month before shooting, then I’d go back and rewrite without the pressure of a shoot. I did the same thing here. We met in London a month before we started shooting. We had a week of just discussion, not really rehearsal, and I got to go away and spend four weeks writing. It’s so important for writers to be given access to actors, because they can be amazing collaborators in the writing process, not just for directors later on.”

His diverse influences: “There were the films noirs and Hitchcocks, but also a lot of looser ’60s French and Italian movies. There was [Michelangelo] Antonioni, who couldn’t be more different from Hitchcock. I liked the way he captured people falling out of love. Of the French New Wave, I watched ‘Contempt’ a lot, because of the colors and, again, because it’s about a marriage breaking up. Some of the scenes where they were sitting around talking were much more influenced by the French, then the set pieces were more Hitchcock and film noir influences.”

The casting of Viggo Mortensen (with Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst) was what helped "The Two Faces of January" finally get made. Credit: Magnolia Pictures The casting of Viggo Mortensen (with Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst) was what helped "The Two Faces of January" finally get made.
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

The appeal of adapting novels: “There’s something I love about adapting. You read a book and it’s a very intimate thing. I read my books on sodas and lay out while reading. It’s a very private place with the book I’m reading. When adapting, it’s not just what’s in the book by my experience reading the book. There may be pages I flipped through because I was bored. That’s part of the process. Or there may be a passage I read again and again. How do you capture that very imitate thing you have when you read a book. That for me is the joy of adapting: You’re trying to capture the experience of reading something for the first time.”

How directing for the first time turned out: “I lived with it for so long. I’d written it, I storyboarded the whole thing, because I just wanted to direct it one more time before I actually directed it. I very quickly found it was OK to be stupid and to not know stuff. That was really important for me as a first-time director. Sometimes I’d ask for the wrong lens and everyone would laugh. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s OK to let these very talented people help you.”

The worst part: “I found the editing the hardest bit, just because I hadn’t been prepared for how quickly you lose sight of the film. You watch it two or three times, then you really don’t know what’s good or bad anymore. I was projecting all my fears about how bad I am or how bad the movie is going to be, and the terror and paranoia started to influence the viewing process. It’s about trying to figure out, when you’re completely snowblind, how to make the movie work.”

His stint living with Refn while shooting “Drive”: “He’s terrified of living alone, which is, I think, why I had to stay with him. He’d rented a house and I was in the kid’s room with a bunk bed. The thing is neither Nic or I drive. The difference was Nic had a driver who picked him up in the morning, and he’d go off and I’d be stuck in this house up in the Hollywood Hills. Occasionally I’d persuade a friend to come and take me out for air. But it was a great process, really, because people would just show up. You’d have Carey Mulligan or Ryan [Gosling] or Albert Brooks turning up to talk about the parts.”

Yes, neither the director nor screenwriter of “Drive” can drive: “I told him I’d failed seven times, and then I suddenly saw in interviews that he said he’d failed eight. Which I don’t think is a coincidence. [Laughs]”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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