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Director Hossein Amini and actors Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac talk about the making of The Two Faces of January, a noir adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Amini reveals the influence of Chinatown and Bernardo Bertolucci, while the stars offer insights into their preparation for their roles.
Viggo, Hoss has described you as kind of the patron saint of this project. What was it that appealed to you? Was it the character? Are you a Highsmith fan?
Yeah, I had not read the novel, The Two Faces of January, but I have read pretty much all of her short stories and her other books, including the Ripley series. When I read Hoss's script I thought it was really great. It's complicated, it's subtle. It's not just set in a time when they made those kinds of movies, you know? But the script has a rhythm, it has a pace, and a subtlety in terms of the characters that like those old movies that you sometimes see on TV late at night. And I thought, that's really cool, and we can actually shoot in these places it's going to be really interesting. Something you don't get a chance to do that much, you know? I was curious about the book of course so I read it to see what it had done.
I found that the adaptation was a lot better than the book. The characters were more interesting, they weren't what they seemed at first, it took a while to get to know them, and just more layers. Then when I met Hoss and his ideas about what he wanted to do. Well, you never know how it's going to turn out, but his intentions were great. I mean, there was no question about it, I liked it a lot, right away.
What about your script, because you worked with Hoss on Drive and I think he showed you the script during the production of that movie.
Cruelly, because he couldn't cast me at the time. So he just showed it to me.
Because I hadn't gotten the Coen brother's movie yet, so I couldn't...
But I wanted it.
Oh. But you were in Drive, that means something.
I know. But's that’s why he showed it to me because he was like, "Oh this is great, wouldn't it be great if you could do this?"
It's the cruelty he was talking about.
Yeah. That's the sadistic side of him.
And so then I got cast in the Coen brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. And then literally a day or two later Hoss was like "You can do it now."
And I jumped at that chance to, just because it's, you don't get a lot of scripts like that, so great, and had such a classic element to it. And I knew that Viggo was attached at the time. And this was before you had gotten on board. And the fact that we were going to be able to shoot in these incredible locations... and yeah, it was an easy yes.
What about you Kirsten, because I think you kind of chased it, didn't you?
Me? Yeah, I read the script, and I immediately also was like, this is a brilliant piece of writing, and I want to be apart of it. Viggo was a part of it at that point. But Hoss made me wait a little bit. You can say why Hoss... Well, he was flirting with the idea of a younger actress.
No, it's definitely not true. In the book the character is the same age but she's...
He is Chester MacFarland.
... she's dumber. I think the thing is she is not as bright. I suddenly thought, well, the thing is, that, and this completely and totally honest, I think Kirsten's screen-persona there's always an intelligence and sensitivity. And that character in the book is not like that at all. It was just a bit of a leap. But then we sat down together and talked and I ended up rewriting the part and I'm really thrilled I did.
And I think you kind of rewrote all three parts after you cast the actors too?
Well they helped me too. There was a process where we met. Well, we kept talking, it took us a long time to get made, from even when Viggo and I first spoke, and Oscar and I were speaking. It's something I learned from Nick Refn on Drive, who was incredible generous in the way that he just included everyone.
There were these conversations with the actors the whole time that I felt helped me make that script better. And then I sort of wanted to do the same thing. With Viggo, we were sort of swapping emails and stuff and talking the whole time and visiting. Then I went and stayed with Oscar for two days in New York and we worked on the script. It was just such a great process that we met a month, actually more. Five or six weeks before we started shooting. I wanted to rehearse then, rather than what normally happens, which is you do it a few days before. That was because I wanted to go away, based on those meetings we had and those discussions, and rewrite with a kind of clear mind.
Rather than in this under-the-pressure-cooker situation of shooting. But we worked very closely the whole way through.
I want to ask all three of you, how you worked and how you tweaked your characters. Because you know, Chester in the book is not the, sort of, the Gatsby-esque figure that he is in the film, he's more of a kind of slob and a loser, isn't he?
But that was a choice you'd already made in the script. I think you were already presenting them as being, apparently, a little more together and a little more elegant, right? I mean, you had that element there already. More like a Gatbsy couple or something.
Yeah, in the book Chester is already a desperate sort of sweaty, con-man, slob person. And in the movie it takes a few minutes to get to that.
But it was a really smart thing to do because, whether it's your first-time movie or your tenth movie as a director. Days before you shoot, you have everybody in the world asking you questions, from the make-up department to design, you're swamped. So that was smart that you did that way before. And it was also good for us because we got to know each other. We didn't... I had met Kirsten once, I had never met Oscar... So, we got to hang out a few days and not just work on the script, but just get to know each other and have a few laughs too. By the time we showed up the first day it didn't feel like that first nervous day, not really knowing the actors, and for the director on his first movie. It was just like a continuation of work we'd done. It was smart, it saved a lot of time probably.
And what about Oscar and Kirsten, how did you tweak the characters?
Well, for me, I always work privately. I've work before I had our rehearsal, and I had my ideas of what I think it should be. Because if you have someone who just frivolous and along for the money, and that's her whole objective of being in love with him, it's kind of like, "Who cares about this girl?" And as a woman watching the movie, I would be very annoyed with that character.
I wanted somebody who's truly in love with him. Yes, turns a blind eye to his business, but in the Fifties that was, you know, it's fine, let him do his thing. She was definitely attracted to him and the money and the glamour. But I think she truly loves Chester. So it's a real unraveling of a real relationship. As opposed to something that just was phony from the beginning.
Yeah, I think the big way in was trying to figure out why he's helps them, and unlocking that. And not necessarily having to communicate my reasons why he helps them. Because I think what's interesting about Patricia Highsmith and what Hoss has done is. Also what I like to do and what I think all of us like to do, is to not try to spell out motivations. You really just try to create someone and then they react spontaneously. Sometimes they don't even know why they are doing what they are doing. Once I was able to, through our conversations and through our rehearsals, figure out that little bit for myself, then the whole thing started to make a lot more sense to me.
Because you've, Hoss, said you don't see them as bad people, you see them as kind of heroic in their own way.
Well, "heroic" may be a bit strong. What I meant was I think when you’re directing, and I'm assuming it's the same with acting, you sort of have to... I had to love all three characters, or, I had to like them at the very least. They always have like one moment of being incredibly dignified, I think every character has that. They all feel guilty and, they all, even when they're even at their worst, they switch. That's one of the things I love about Highsmith's writing, is, I think like we all do, they behave badly and irrationally but will suddenly... Well, there's a scene where Oscar is sort of flirting with Kirsten's character, and then catches Viggo's eye and feels very guilty and apologetic and brings him into the conversation.
That's something that I see happening all the time at dinners and things I've been to. There are these tiny moments of very recognizable human things that, for me, made them very human and I liked them. I rooted for all of them as I was certainly writing it and directing it. I didn't want her to die, I didn't want him to get caught, I wanted Oscar to get away, and all those things. That for me made it more fun and interesting to direct as well.
And Viggo, I think you called him an opportunist rather than amoral. Is that how you described them?
Yeah. And Chester, like many of Highsmith's characters, they do things that are sometimes inexplicable. Even when they seem like they are on a course and you get to know them you think, "Okay, this person is not... is duplicitous, is dishonest, sort of, not a very nice person." All of a sudden they'll do something for some reason, maybe you don't even get a good explanation for it, that's not in their best interest, their personal self-interest. That's irrational, that's contradictory, that's going to put them in a bad place, or that makes them look stupid or is embarrassing to watch.
I love that, because that's they way people really are, that's the way life is. It has these turns, these moment's where you go, "Why did I say that? I guess I was nervous, I should of just kept my mouth shut." You know what I mean?
Her characters do that, they're flawed in that sense. They're the kind of characters that you see in really good film noir thrillers, that, no matter how many bad things they do, you want them to get away with it. You want them to have the money, have the girl, get away, be happy. Even though they've done terrible things and they're not very nice people. There's many examples of that, when it's done well, this is maybe not the best example, but Orson Welles and The Third Man, or something. He's not a good person, but you want him to get away.
I think it's the same for Chester. I think all three of these characters, what gets to you is their flaws. I think what gets to you is that all three of them in some way are not content with just being happy, or more or less happy. They want more than what they have. Fine. In some way they want to be happier than other people. I mean, or maybe I should just speak for Chester, I don't know. But, the problem with wanting that is its hard to get there, because we tend to think that other people are happier than they really are. They have their own problems. It's a messed up thing, you know?
Those aspects keep her characters, except for the ones that are really psychopaths, Like you have in Talented and the Ripley series... They never quite... there are villainous acts. Like, there are heroic moments or dignified moments. I wouldn't say that any of the characters are completely dignified or completely villainous, you know? It's a mixed bag, an unpredictable one. That's great as an actor. It's great to have layers and secrets. Most of the time you have to make it up, you have to create those secrets for yourself as an actor. With this kind of story it's right there, it's just... make the most of it.
What about you Oscar? Because there's a line where Chester says that in a few years time you're going to be him. Do you see yourself as opportunistic, immoral. Where does Rydal happen?
That was very interesting, because in the book he's not a small-time crook, he's just a kid living in a hotel in Athens, running away from his family and trying to be a poet. For literature that makes sense, because he's the window in for the reader, and he's very passive and he gets caught up in their story. But for a film that's not enough. Or, at least, it's not enough for an actor because you don't just want to be passive, you actually want to be an active part of the story. So, he ingeniously came up with the idea that Rydal is also a bit of a swindler. It really dramatises this conflict that he has between who he doesn't want to become, or what he despises, and what he is also completely attracted to. He's a father figure in the fullest sense. I think that it was a really smart way of dramatising that. That he is attracted to the darkness. In the book there is a great line that says he would scan everyone that passed by and look in their eyes to see if there was an adventure there. If there wasn't one he would move along. But if there was something, then he would attack it.
Sounds like Highsmith, the best thing was how she looked at people.
Right, she was constantly seeing what was there, yeah. Scanning.
What about Colette? Because there's the line that Chester says that that's not even her real name.
Which was invented...
Yeah. We made that up, right? That wasn't always a sure thing.
In the book she has a different name, but we sort of just expressed it like that.
In the film we just sort of insinuated that maybe it wasn't my name.
Yeah, and that was illegal. You were like, "I wonder if there's two pictures and we don't know..." And again it was another way of dramatising this.
Well it came out of thing that the passports were constantly...
... when they would get new passports. It's interesting to think of them in the story. You'll never know what Chester and Colette's names are. Which is kind of one of those Highsmith loose-ends, in keeping with her.
Also the fact that we're fighting over ownership of her, after she's gone away. That's another bit of... you'll never own her, you don't even know what her name was.
Right, that's true.
Hoss, Viggo mentioned it's a film noir. And, this is a film noir, but in sunshine, which is quite remarkable. It's very kind of old-fashioned. Can you talk a little bit about the Hitchcock influence? Because it reminded - I know there's other influences that you have, it reminded me a bit of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Well, the first book I ever read that made me want to go into films was the Truffaut Hitchcock book, where Truffaut did a series of interviews with Hitchcock. What I loved about it was the way, I think, with Hitchcock every kind of camera move had a sort of story idea behind it. But I think the biggest influence on this was, I felt, there were two things.
One is, I didn't want to break the illusion of the '60s. I thought that was very important. So, we didn't use that many lenses. We we're very kind of contained in the way which we shot the film, with no really tricksy camera shots. Part of it was to keep people in that world of the 60s. But then also I felt, even though it's set against these big epic landscapes and moving countries, it's really a very, very intimate story between these three people, that the rest of the world doesn't really exist.
Quite often, even with the sound, when we were doing the sound design, it was about, you can start off with the noise of the world, but actually, really then, they become the only two or three people in the world. That was really important. I sort of felt it needed to be shot in a way that allowed the performances to stand out, as opposed to drawing attention to the camera too much. That's classical. That was the reason for doing that.
So, you and Marcel, you watched a lot of period film?
We watched a lot of... God, I watch films all the time. So I went through all of my 60s collection. But we also watched things like Chinatown, which was a huge influence in terms of a lot of the camera stuff. And then The Sheltering Sky, was another film that wasn't particularly well reviewed, or seen really, when it came out, the Bertolucci movie. It was about these three Americans in this exotic country, and about how the landscape and the heat and everything and the psychology, this strange thing descends on them and destroys the love between these two characters. I felt that this was similar.
Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
More about The Two Faces of January
The Two Faces of January
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Born: 20th October 1958, Manhattan, New York
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Born: 30th April 1982, Point Pleasant, N.J.
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