Two Faces of January fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. This clever, atmospheric, splendidly acted, cat-and-mouse thriller is opening in New York Friday at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street and AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street. Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel was adapted by acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, Drive, Killshot, Wings of a Dove, for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Amini’s directorial debut is impressive. Viggo Mortensen is Chester, a sophisticated and wealthy American, who has brought his young second wife, Colette, played by Kirsten Dunst, to do some sightseeing in Greece. They meet a likable penny-ante conman, Rydal, a smart, young, Greek-speaking American tour guide, played by Oscar Isaac. The three Americans are drawn to each other in different ways, for obvious and mysterious reasons. Colette doesn’t fully realize Chester made money by defrauding people in America; and she is unaware that he kills a man who tracked him to their hotel on behalf of people Chester swindled. Chester tells Rydal the dead man is just drunk and Rydal helps carry him to his hotel room. The next day, the three of them begin a journey in Greece. Soon Rydal and Colette learn that Chester is wanted for murder and they might be arrested as accomplices. She pulls away from Chester and toward Rydal. While on the run, Chester becomes increasingly jealous of Rydal and there is an underlying competition between them, perhaps for Colette. It’s unlikely there will be a happy outcome. The very personable Iranian-born Amini was in New York last week promoting his movie and I took part in the following roundtable. I note my questions.
Q: Was directing always your ambition?
Hossein Amini: No, I just wanted to direct this particular story. It took forever. I read Patricia Highsmith’s book at college way back in 1990. When I first read it, I thought it was very much Rydal’s story. It was about a young guy who had problems with his father and looked up to Chester as a strong father figure. Every time I read it, it changed as I changed and by the time I was in my forties and ready to make the film I thought it was more about Chester and themes such as “life defeats you in the end,” and “no matter how hard you try, your dreams end up differently,” and “you fall in love with people and they fall out of love with you.” So it was a different experience. A sign of a great novel is that it speaks to the reader over different periods of his life and it changes as the reader changes. The Two Faces of January is different for people in their twenties than for people in their forties and fifties.
Q: What was the challenge of adapting a script from Highsmith’s book?
HA: She was always more interested in her characters and their psychology than she was in her plots, which were often loose and went off in strange directions and you didn’t know why some things were happening. But that’s also why I loved the book.
Danny Peary: In your “Director’s Statement” in the press notes, you say that Highsmith’s book was “often illogical.” People act illogically, so did you intentionally keep the three characters from always acting logically in your film?
HA: A little bit, because I think acting illogically is very human. The thing about film writing is that it’s all about clean lines and clean character development. I just don’t believe people are like that. For instance, I don’t believe people come up with amazing opening lines. And I don’t believe they suddenly give speeches who define who they are. I’ve never heard anyone speaking like that in real life. People lurch from being one way to another way very quickly. An argument can begin in a split second. That’s what Highsmith captures and I wanted to keep that. There are these three fascinating characters–Chester, Rydal, and Colette–and there’s ambiguity, where they keep changing, and as I read the book my allegiances toward them kept shifting. One minute I liked Chester, then I thought Rydal was the one doing the right thing. Highsmith gets under your skin because her criminals are human and she holds up a mirror in front of all of us and says we’re not a whole lot different from these people.
DP: There’s a quote by you in the press notes in which you call her criminals “villains,” but Chester, Rydal and Colette, who’s not so innocent, are not villains, are they?
HA: No, they’re not. There’s a quote that I love, and I don’t know who said it, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” They’re human beings, for all their flaws, and I find criminals with very human qualities fascinating. The Two Faces of January really is about people who are not bad but actually hurt and do bad things to other people. Without meaning to, you can hurt the people you love. I’d like to think those themes about human relationships are reflected in all my scripts.
Q: In the press notes, it says that Viggo Mortensen was a huge support in getting your script sold.
HA: Absolutely. I tried for so long and couldn’t get anyone to finance the movie, or even explore that. People thought the film was too dark and the characters were too unlikable and too complicated. Viggo read the script and the minute he said he was interested in doing it, it was amazing how suddenly people became interested in financing it. It was a business decision and people were no longer worried about foreign sales because of Viggo, who is popular in many countries around the world.
Q: Is it true that you wanted Oscar Isaac in your film before he become famous?
HA: He was probably the first person I had in mind for Rydal because he is such an extraordinary actor. But we couldn’t get the film financed with him in it, and he’s the first person to admit that. Then, as soon as the Coen Brothers cast him as the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis, the financiers asked me, “Can you still get him?” He had read the script a year and half before that, but luckily he was still interested.
Q: Were there things in your script that you had to change from Highsmith to make it into a movie?
HA: The biggest change was moving the ending from Paris to Istanbul. I felt these characters should be getting farther and farther away from America, which was their home and place of comfort and where Chester and Colette had built a life for themselves.
Q: Did it ever cross your mind to move the story from the 1960s to the present?
HA: I think it would be impossible, because today it’s so easy to find people who are trying to get away from the law. Thrillers are harder to do now because of the surveillance and the cameras we have everywhere. The characters couldn’t hide for three days in Crete today so I don’t think I could update the story.
Q: Talk about shooting on location in Greece.
HA: It was important for the authenticity of the movie that we shot in the places Highsmith wrote of in the novel. The landscape is part of the psychology of the characters so when they’re in Athens everything is wonderful and beautiful and touristic, and they’re a golden couple emerging from the Acropolis. Suddenly, they’re in Crete and it’s dusty and windy and their clothes get dirty. And when they’re on the run the harshness of the landscape makes it tough for them. It was important to be on location because there is nothing like those mountains in Crete.
Q: Did you use the local people?
HA: Yes, we had open casting in Crete for all the extras. If you’re shooting faces on the bus, it’s hard find faces that are real. If you’re shooing in Turkey or Croatia, which is what the financiers suggested, you’re not going to get the same faces you’d get in Crete.
DP: Highsmith set the story in Greece and her characters are completely entwined, unable to get away from each other as if destiny is at work–so what is the role of fate in what happens to these three people?
HA: There’s a reason she set her story in Greece. Mythology plays a very important part in the story. There’s the idea of the love triangle with Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. [In the press notes, Amini says, "But gradually it became much more about Zeus and Cronos, the idea that the son has to kill the father in order to become a man."] I don’t think it’s an accident that she set the big scene in the labyrinth, where in mythology the Minotaur was supposed to have been. I think there is a mythological underpinning to this story and Highsmith was also interested in it as kind of a Greek tragedy. At the beginning, you have Chester and Colette who are golden, almost like a Fitzgerald couple, looking beautiful and being beautifully dressed. Whether it’s the fates or destiny or the Greek gods, something conspires against them and tries to destroy them. What’s fascinating about the novel is that there aren’t really baddies who want to kill them–there are people chasing them but you never see them–and it’s really about the damage they inflict on each other as characters and the cruel tricks gods play on men. There’s a line at the beginning, “they’re the victims of circumstance.” They’re very unlucky. That’s an element of Greek tragedy.
Q: Was the film different from what you anticipated, considering you’d been thinking about making it since college?
HA: It was very different. As a screenwriter my whole career, it was all about planning and preparation. I had storyboarded the whole movie and had this very, very clear picture of what it would be. Then I got on the set and things changed. I might say to an actor, “Why don’t you stand over there because your character is in a depressed mood?” And he’d say, “Well, what I want to do is pace.” I found what Viggo, Kirsten, and Oscar were bringing to their parts as actors and people was much more interesting than the very limited thing I had in my head. I had been a control freak as a writer and I’d been on set thinking, “Oh, my God, why are they changing my lines? That little inflection is wrong and is going to kill the whole movie!” Suddenly I’m the director and let my actors change everything. Because I felt something more interesting was coming. And then I tried to control it, but I did realize that 250 minds on a film set is better than one.
Q: Your reaction is ironic because you have said you are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, who was the ultimate control freak.
HA: I love that about Hitchcock, but that’s why some of the looser Italian and French “New Wave” films that I watched were of equal influence. I like Hitchcock’s set pieces and how from one moment to another you can go from wanting the villain to be caught to wanting him to get away because of the way Hitchcock is doing his shots. But a lot of the scenes in this movie in which the characters are sitting around a table and talking were influenced by free-flowing, relationship dramas of the sixties made in France and Italy. Michelangelo Antonioni, who is one of my absolute heroes, was a much different director than Hitchcock. In terms of characters falling out of love, he is the all-time master. Nothing is said but characters turn their shoulders and you realize their relationships are disintegrating.
Q: The movie still feels very Hitchcockian to me.
HA: What I have always loved about Hitchcock is the storytelling, how every camera shot has a point. It’s very classical in a way but it’s about filmmaking and storytelling. It was very important for me to make a film that felt like it was made in the sixties, and I watched a lot of Hitchcock films of the period, looking at the costume design and the colors. I also looked at a lot of European filmmakers of the time in terms of camera movement and what they did and didn’t do. I thought if the cinematic grammar was too modern in the film it would take audience out of the story.
Q: Did you watch Purple Noon [directed by René Clement]?
HA: Plein Soleil was the biggest influence. That was the French version of The Talented Mr. Ripley with Alain Delon as Ripley. I watched it not just for the colors and costumes, but because there was a looseness and messiness to how it was made. I loved Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) as well, but that is beautiful the whole way through. Plein Soleil starts off classical and everyone’s having a good time but as the characters disintegrate the camera stuff becomes messier and everything starts to unravel.
That was more in keeping with this film.
DP: The Third Man was also an obvious influence. The last shot is a reference to the final shot of The Third Man, right?
HA: Yeah, there is a lot of The Third Man in the movie. That’s a film I obsessively watch. I like that even though he’s the most despicable person, there’s something about Orson Welles’ character [Harry Lime] that makes you kind of want him to get away with his crimes.
Q: Talk about the relationship of Colette and Chester. Does she love him?
HA: I felt from the backstory that I had come up with for myself while writing the script, that at the beginning of the movie she does really love him. The book doesn’t have a story for her before they met, but in my backstory, Colette was a young woman who came to New York and met this handsome, wealthy guy at a party and they had fallen in love and married. Occasionally, she’d probably seen shady characters going into Chester’s office and he’d close the door. We all try not to look at things that would unsettle our world, so she sort of bargained for the life she had with him. Then she suddenly finds herself on the run from police, on a bus in Crete, and now she wants out. That was her simple storyline. She wanted a beautiful, glamorous life in New York but now it’s about survival. For her survival is going back to America, which is why she keeps talking about New York. I think she stays with Chester partly because of circumstances.
Q: Chester has some jealous rage regarding Colette and Rydal and it’s almost like he’s crazy or possessed. What did you say to Viggo about playing those moments?
HA: What I love about Viggo as an actor is that he’s prepared to go there. He’s not afraid to show weakness, vulnerability, and cruelty. Yet there is a kind, compassionate, gracious side to him as a person and he also put all of that into that character. Those [rages] are from the book. I don’t know if he’d be jealous of Rydal if they’d met at a garden party on Long Island–it’s just the circumstances. The unraveling of Chester is about what happens to you when you’ve spent your whole life building this construct of a perfect life. He wants everything to be perfect for Colette, the woman he is in love with. And then suddenly everything goes wrong. Everything becomes worse and his emotions are heightened because he’s on the run for murder. He feels all that pressure.
Q: Talk about the running scenes toward the end. Was it that hot or was Viggo just out of shape?!?
HA (laughing): He was in terrific shape. He did that deliberately. He runs like his character even if the character isn’t heroic. Chester drinks and sweats and is out of shape and there is something not heroic about how he tries to escape. Viggo’s a brave actor for doing that, rather than running like Bourne does the whole time in those movies. That’s a testament to him.
Q: What about the logistics of those scenes –did you have to block of streets?
HA: We were very lucky. It was a Turkish national holiday and the Grand Bazaar was completely closed. We had about three days to just go in and decorate it like we wanted and to shoot and get out. On working days, shooting there would have been impossible.
Q; Talk about Rydal’s character. Did it change much from the book because of the way Oscar Isaac played him?
HA: I stayed with Chester, Kirsten, and Oscar, one on one, for a time. I stayed two days with Oscar in Williamsburg and we went through the script scene by scene, and I rewrote it. I think rewriting for your actors is such an important part of the process.
DP: We see that Rydal, who lost a father he didn’t like, sees Chester as a father figure. I sense Chester sees Rydal as a son figure, but that would probably mean Chester lost a son, who either died or disappeared from his life.
HA: It’s not in the book but it could have happened. We know Chester was married once before and if they had a son, probably she took him away for good and Chester thinks of him sadly. He now might be Rydal’s age.
Q: Now that you’ve directed, how would you describe the function of the screenplay?
HA: Now that I’ve directed I realize that if you shoot the screenplay exactly as written it will be a disaster. If you don’t allow the fluidity of the process and what everyone else can bring to it and the life that happens on the set–the accidents and all that–it can be stillborn. Now if a director tells me that he will shoot my script exactly as I’ve written it, I’d be terrified. Because it’s so limiting. It’s just one person’s imagination. The great thing about film is that you have so many people who can add to it, chiefly the actors. They can make the two-dimensional characters on the page into three-dimensional characters by bringing so much of themselves to their parts.
Q: Was there anything specific that you remember about working with the actors?
HA: Yeah, the first day with Viggo, when we were shooting in Knossos. I was so surprised by what he was doing, how he was walking, and I felt I was almost meeting his character for the first time. It was as if Viggo had kept him a secret from me. And I was surprised that I saw a human being, not a part on a page.
Q: If you recalled, say, two things from the experience what would they be?
HA: Working with the actors and how collaborative and enjoyable that process is. And also being in those places we shot. Like the Acropolis. I had one extraordinary moment there. We had finished shooting and everyone had left and taken the equipment, and the security guards were gone, and I literally had the Acropolis to myself. That is the kind of privilege you have doing something like this.