Two Faces of January is a psychological thriller based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name and is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini (Drive, Jude and Wings of the Dove). You can read our review of the film here. After the Australian premiere of the film and ahead of its wide release on June 19, Virat Nehru caught up with Amini, whose wide and heart-warming smile is terribly disarming.
Congratulations on the premiere of Two Faces of January. 15 years it’s taken you to come up with your directorial debut.
More than 15 years! Gosh!
Well, I read the book 25 years ago.
And you had it planned back then that you were going to make it into a film?
I sort of thought I’d be able to leave university and be able to do it, and that didn’t happen. But I guess 15 years was from when I actually was in a position where I tried and failed to get it right; 15 years of being in the film industry.
Was it one of those naïve things that you go out of university thinking – that’s one of the books I really loved and I would definitely make into a film?
And just that naivety of thinking that it’s really easy to do. That life falls into your lap and I’ll be writing and directing within a year. But I was unemployed for 5 years…
How hard was it to be unemployed for 5 years?
It’s really hard. It’s really hard. I was the only one who wasn’t earning money. All my friends were earning money. I was very lucky in that quite rarely for Iranian parents, I had a lot of support. Normally, with Iranian parents, they either want you to be a doctor or a banker or a lawyer or whatever. I was lucky in the sense that my dad was a huge film buff. So he sort of had some faith in me and I managed to kind of, just get by. But it’s more psychologically gruelling, as well as financially, because you just think it’s never gonna happen.
But you were determined with regards to this particular project. Because Anthony Minghella was associated with it and he passed away. It must have been devastating to know that someone like that passed away while you’re trying to make this. But you still stuck on with it, so this must have really meant a lot to you.
I just felt there was something about these three characters (Chester, Colette & Rydal). These are deeply flawed, conflicting, almost contradictory characters. I kept on re-reading the book. I kept on picking it up and starting again and I think that really is a testament. It’s not even her best book, but it’s the one that spoke to me really strongly. So I kept trying. And when Anthony passed away, it was about to happen, but it didn’t happen. We were already 5-6 years into the process of trying to get it made.
Let’s talk about adaptations – changes from the novel to the screen. What elements do you keep in mind when you’re adapting something? Because you do make a lot of changes, but they somehow translate very well on to the screen. For example, Colette. That character is radically different. She is a very, how should I put it, naughty girl in the book…
Yeah, she is in the book isn’t she! Well, Colette changed a lot, partly because of casting of Kirsten Dunst. I just thought that her screen persona: she has an intelligence, a sensitivity and a sweetness that I think it’s almost too much of a stretch for her to play the Colette in the book. So that was partly what inspired the change. But also, I sort of wanted her to be as culpable and conflicted and torn as the two guys. So that was changed there. But I sort of feel, with any adaptation, if you have brilliant characters – and I was lucky enough with Drive and this one and Wings of the Dove – the characters are so richly drawn that you can invent new scenes and to, I think, the book. And, that for me, is what I look for in the books I adapt. It’s these characters that I fall in love with and then go on this journey with adapting the book.
Drive really changed your career. Your career path almost skyrocketed, or at least, just went in a different direction. How’s that been? Basically, one film changing the perception of your life!
It’s strange. I had a similar experience with Wings of the Dove. With Wings of the Dove I got nominated for an Oscar. That had a surge. And then I had a horrible period of failure, with things not getting made and whatever.
So you’re expecting that again…? (laughs)
Oh absolutely! I absolutely am. Drive was like a second chance. I felt like my career – was not over – but certainly, on a kind of downward trajectory. And with Drive, everything kind of suddenly picked up. It made me realise that with the film industry, it is up and down, and in a way, I think it’s really important to behave knowing that it can all go down again. For your sanity, but also in terms of how you treat people.
That’s a very noble conception of integrity, which I don’t think a lot of people in the film industry perhaps share…
I think failure gives you that humility. I’ve noticed it with a lot of young, good directors. These young directors get huge attention put on them. And I struggle to think of a director who’s had more than three hits in a row. It’s just that the fourth one or the fifth one invariably is a flop. And suddenly, you need people to like you to be on your side. So it’s not just noble, it’s also pragmatic. You know, if you’re unpleasant, people are kind of quite happy when you fail.
Fair enough. Let’s talk about your love of literature. There is a lot of Greek mythology in the film The Two Faces of January. Janus, the Roman god with two faces. There’s also Ariadne, who’s left by Theseus after the Minotaur conquest. And the third, more prominent one of Greek heroes needing to overcome their fathers. This love for mythology has always been there in your work. It seems to be an ever-present theme…
I grew up with those myths and used to love those myths. Not just the Greek myths, Hindu myths I loved, the Persian myths I loved. I think in a way, mythology is really psychology. Its psychology before psychologists came around. I just find that so fascinating. So it was great to be able to write something where you could put some of that in.
One thing that really stuck with me was the cinematography. And Marcel Zyskynd is a particular type of cinematographer. Did you have something in mind when choosing him for that role? Because it makes the film completely different in term of how it’s set – it’s framed in a particular manner, reminiscent of a Hitchcockian style.
It’s funny, with regards to Marcel. With Michael Winterbottom’s films, the shooting style was slightly different. It was much more, I guess, from the hip, and Michael’s style is very impressionistic – lots of different angles of the same thing. I wanted a more classical look, so we sat and watched a lot of movies. We had a lot of movie references before we got on to shooting that we discussed. We are both huge fans of Chinatown – just the way Chinatown tells the story through camera and I think its deceptively simple in the way it’s told. Every shot – and Hitchcock does the same – is telling a story. So we watched a lot of films. And for him, it was quite exciting to do something different to what he’d done before.
Touching on the idea of big production houses. You were there to polish 47 Ronin – you were associated with that – even though it’s a bit embarrassing to admit –
Do you have a fear of big production houses? Because you have admitted to the fact that there is a lot riding on the project – there is a lot of money involved, lots of expectations. It’s not just an Indie film that fails and you get another chance. Do you think big budgets are limiting for a director or a writer – that he or she has to pander to certain formulaic stereotypes or do you think that can be a sort of fun thing to do?
It’s probably easier for a writer because whether you’re writing an Indie or a something else, at the writing level you’re still telling a story. I think when it becomes really tough – and this is something I’d be really scared of – is directing. Directors doing those big budget movies. They are under so much pressure financially and there’s so much panic and fear associated with a big budget movie. That can sometimes paralyse them or panic the studio. You know, great studio movies are still made with all those pressures. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong.
So, you would do one in the future, given the chance?
I’d be very nervous about doing it. I just think, the higher the budget, the more risk and fear is involved. Also, I’m interested in character stuff, which is harder and harder to get made in that context.
Finally, this is something that a lot of young screen writers are concerned about. You go to Screenwriting 101, there are a lot of formulas and structures that they teach you, that they almost drill into you – this is what screenwriting is and this is exactly what you should have to build tension. But, you’ve found a balance between inserting your own elements and still having a lot of conventional stuff. How do you find that?
I think a lot of those rules are useful to read because they are natural storytelling rules that we all have anyway. But one of the things that I find with screenwriting is that it’s close to music in the sense that it’s about fast-slow, it’s about rhythm – when to suddenly speed up and when to slow down and stop, pause, or start again. That’s something which is much harder to teach. I think, that for me, is closer to the actual thing than the classic three act structure that people teach.
That’s a really interesting analogy. So it’s something more natural and organic as opposed to something that’s structured?
I think so. You’re feeling it as you go along. Particularly, the editing room is the best place to learn about screenwriting in terms of structure. The great movies – it’s almost the changes of pace – when you breathe, when you run, when you dance. All those things make a difference. I’m sure there are different ways of teaching that through structure.
Thank you. That’s a good place to wrap things up. Lovely to meet you. Thank you for being so jovial and happy. It’s very refreshing –
Oh no, no! Thank you for being so discreet about 47 Ronin!
The Two Faces of January will get a domestic release via StudioCanal on June 19.