An Interview with 'Two Faces of January' Writer-Director Hossein Amini

by Jose Solis

30 September 2014

"There’s something about identity I think is very fascinating and the idea of people having secrets and I think we all have that in our life."
cover art

Two Faces of January

Director: Hossein Amini
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac

US theatrical: 28 Aug 2014
UK theatrical: 16 Apr 2014

From Helena Bonham Carter plotting in that killer blue feathered hat in The Wings of the Dove, to Ryan Gosling driving silently in a neon urban landscape in Drive, to Kate Winslet falling prey to desire in Jude, the images conjured in Hossein Amini’s screenplays have made a great case to prove that screenwriters can also be auteurs. Amini has always been fascinated by dark seduction, even in a blockbuster like Snow White and the Huntsman we can see Charlize Theron’s wicked queen fall under the spell of her own beauty, proving that this is a writer who is haunted by the same themes over and over.

It makes perfect sense then that he chose to turn Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January into his directorial debut. Set in sunny Greece, the film focuses on the complex relationship between conman Chester Macfarland (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), and a charming tour guide named Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who proves to be both ally and foe. With his precise touch and attention to detail, Amini turns the gorgeous locale into a gothic nightmare out of the darkest film noir which, as Mortensen explained “isn’t some slavish imitation, [or] a retro exercise”.

We see these people’s passions come to surface in a game of betrayal and undeniable love that drew Amini to pursue the film adaptation for more than two decades. Dunst shared that on the very first day of shooting the director said “I haven’t directed before because I haven’t wanted to and this is the only script that I’ve actually wanted to direct, and that’s gonna be it, I just wanna direct this movie and that’s it”. The recurring theme of obsession evident in both the characters and the desire of the director. PopMatters spoke with Amini recently in New York.

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All of your films are about characters who choose to be someone they’re not. Kate pretends to be the dying heiress’ friend in The Wings of the Dove, the driver in Drive is a stuntman, and The Two Faces of January is essentially about people changing their identity to escape the past. What keeps drawing you to tell these stories?

There’s something about identity I think is very fascinating and the idea of people having secrets and I think we all have that in our life. I don’t know where it goes back to…my parents got divorced and I remember the shock of the difference between what you expect from them and who they are, it was sort of traumatic but also fascinated me, and those things stick with you. I do think we all have secrets from each other and we’re in this very public world, but we’re also all incredibly alone. That side of characters has always interested me.

I don’t want to overanalyze you, so apologies in advance, but I felt that this sense of becoming someone else is also essentially the role of a writer….

Yeah, that’s true and I think it’s one of the joys of writing. It’s a combination of inhabiting other people and putting yourself in the part. Even when you do adaptations, I think the trick is finding something of yourself in those characters, it’s the thing that allows you to make them more real and human. If it’s about jealousy, you tap into that, or I don’t know…you try to find something to connect to.

Is this how you choose your projects then? Picking the ones that speak to you about a moment in your life?

Yeah, there are books that appeal to you. The Two Faces of January it was unusual because it appealed to me in a different way in my twenties than it did much later when I was in my 40s. When I was young, it was Rydal’s story that fascinated me and all his problems with his father, but by the time I got to make the film I was closer to Chester, in how you begin to realize that life didn’t go the way you planned it. So I suddenly understood the side of the older guy. Finding a connection with the characters and going “I know how this person feels” is what makes a successful adaptation, not necessarily to identify things they’ve done - so that way you can make movies about murderers and bank robbers - but finding something about them that’s relatable.

This has been your dream project for a while, how did it end up happening?

I read the book in college, after I made Jude I tried to make the film happen and get the rights, I had a deal with Miramax at the time and felt if I made a deal with them they’d help me do it, but they didn’t. Finally when Viggo came on board, in 2011, things finally changed, cause everything gets financing if there’s a movie star involved.

Were you worried someone else might do the film first?

I wasn’t because it’s such a strange book, that I thought no one would be as crazy as me. There are times when you read a book and you say “no one loves this book as much as I do” and it’s quite weird, cause in 20 years no one really brought up wanting to turn this into a film.

Because you know the book so well, was it easy to avoid being too reverential in your adaptation?

I was reverential to the characters that Highsmith had written and I didn’t feel bound to the plot of this book, because it’s one of her lesser known works it was easy to change things. I think in all the books I’ve adapted, I’ve always invented scenes that weren’t in the book, but the characters have always been so lovingly and complicatedly drawn out that it’s easy to invent scenes because you know them so well. Adapting books where the characters aren’t interesting, even if the book’s fantastic, is very hard.

So what would you say that you’ve found the books you adapted were lacking, so to speak, that you had to compensate for?

Something I find with a lot of books when turning them into screenplays, is that there’s a lot of people involved and it’s usually a very long process, so every bit is analyzed. While novelists write a book, a couple of editors look at it and that’s that, then the book is out and published. So I’ve noticed particularly with thrillers, that sometimes the plotting can be very loose and obviously that makes it harder to turn into a screenplay. I think there is something more unforgiving about film, in books you can write two lines that people can skip over and they’re satisfied, but with a film if something throws people—and I’m always amazed how logical audiences are—it can make them really dislike the movie.

I noticed another pattern of sorts in your filmography and it’s that you adapt similar stories back to back, you’ve done period pieces, then did two huge fantasy stories and your next project is Our Kind of Traitor which has a plot very reminiscent to The Two Faces of January.

I guess it is in a way, because it’s about the relationship between the two men…but the thing is when you’re not directing, I had very little involvement with that one, because I was directing The Two Faces of January and I haven’t seen that film yet. I wrote that before directing The Two Faces of January.

So it’s just a coincidence…

Yeah, but I definitely see the similarities you mention. I think it’s just some stories speak to you at specific times in your life. Now with the fantasy ones, it’s just there are times when you get paid to do rewrites. But again, you need to find something you like, and I love samurai movies so what was fun about doing the rewrite in 47 Ronin, to which I came quite late, was that I got to watch hundreds of samurai movies, so regardless of how the movie turns out, the experience is valuable.

Kirsten and Viggo said you loved noir and made them watch lots of genre films; however more than anything else watching The Two Faces of January I saw many shades of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy.

That’s very astute of you, very perceptive, because that’s one of the films I watched a lot. Because even though this is a thriller, what interested me most about this book was the breakup of this marriage, so another movie I watched a lot was The Sheltering Sky and a lot of Antonioni movies about couples breaking up. The Rossellini movie I love, it’s so low key, nothing really happens, but you feel their pain and the incredible joy when they get reunited. One of the big things with The Two Faces of January is that it’s a very quiet film, it’s not particularly flashy and making those movies is tricky.

Now that you say quiet, compared to Drive for example, which is basically a silent movie…

Yeah, but I meant quiet in the sense that Drive is noisier, for example has this big scenes, like the one in the elevator,or the getaway, so it’s not as much in terms of dialogue but the subject matter.

Right, but if we did talk about the dialogues, is it easier to write a more dialogue-driven piece?

I don’t generally like dialogue, I find dialogue really hard to write. My preference in dialogue is the one that feels real and naturalistic, the moment it feels “too written”, it strikes me as false. There are writers who know how to write fantastic opening lines and zingers and lines you can quote, but I don’t feel that sounds real. I kinda like the silences, the pauses and what’s not said are more important than the dialogues. In The Two Faces of January it’s the same as Drive, where it’s important to notice the silences, because people don’t always mean what they say. For example, if we have a scene where someone just spoke on the phone to their lover and then they talk to their spouse, or they wash the dishes or whatever, it can still have so much resonance because you know their secrets. It can be very simple dialogue but they can still be very powerful.

Everything in The Two Faces of January feels very specific, with the way props are placed, everything feels very precise. Do you go into very specific detail about things like this?

Yeah, I probably tend to overwrite. I have to see everything in my head, with this movie, because it was my first one, I was terrified so I storyboarded everything and directed it in my head once when I wrote it, again when I storyboarded it and when we got to the set I didn’t use the storyboard at all, it just felt like I needed to have a plan. It’s about confidence really.

Did you develop some Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde relationship between Hossein the writer and Hossein the director?

Yeah, I was much more disrespectful of the writing than I’ve ever been, cause as a screenwriter I’ve always sat in front of the monitor going “oh my god, they’re changing that line, this is a disaster” and in this one I felt very free. It’s about having control, because as a screenwriter you have no control over what happens to the words you wrote, and this might be a terrible thing for a screenwriter to say, but a good director makes you look great as a writer, while a bad one makes you look bad, even if the quality of the screenplay is the same. A great director can make you look like a genius, so having that control of having the final decision gave me the ability to try different things and I love that fluidity.

Patricia Highsmith wrote stories about men, all of her books are very male-driven and films inspired by her works often add female characters…

Yes, she wanted to get women out of the way so that the men can get it on in some way. She’s definitely more interested in the duels between men and the love stories between men. There’s this other book she wrote called Those Who Walk Away and the very first thing is that a woman kills herself and the father blames the husband, so in that one she literally gets rid of the woman in page one. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Marge gets left behind in Positano and they go all around having their mano a mano (laughs). But I think Highsmith gets male psychology better than male writers. She gets the fact that men can admire each other and also want to beat each other and that they betray each other and feel guilty.

The character of Colette is very different in the book as well and I was curious about your choice of Kirsten, because even though she’s been in many period pieces, she feels very much like a modern actress…

Colette in the book was very different, so initially I didn’t see quite the fit because the Colette in the book is a callous, not very smart nymphomaniac, who doesn’t care who she hurts or what she does and what I thought about Kirsten is that as well as the beauty she brings intelligence and sensitivity, so I couldn’t believe she would not feel guilt and because of that I changed the part for her. I found out that she’s very private, many actors love to talk about the parts, but I found directing that it’s often saying as little as possible, so you don’t interfere with their process. Particularly with her, it was knowing when to stay away, letting her do three takes without saying anything, it was a partnership, she is sensitive and intuitive and I feel she’d be a great director.

In the film we see how Rydal says Chester reminds him of his father, and by the end of the film you’ve actually made Viggo and Oscar look alike. How did you achieve this?

One of the things we did with the camera, I had a very good editor who came up with the idea, was in the last chase, we intercut so that their steps become each other’s and their faces become one. The thing with the two faces comes from the god Janus who has two faces facing opposite directions - and it’s why the film has this title - so we have these two people running away and trying to destroy each other going in different directions, but always ending up together. That was one of the themes I found really interesting, but also in Oscar’s character’s journey we have this thing from Greek mythology which is that in order to become a man, you sorta have to defeat the father and get over the love or hatred of your dad.

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The Two Faces of January is now playing on VOD and in theaters.

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