Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful "Camp X-Ray"

Playing in Theaters

Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful Camp X-Ray

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/16/14)

By Danny Peary
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi in "Camp X-Ray."
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi in “Camp X-Ray.”
Camp X-Ray fits my category “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.”  This Friday Peter Sattler’s beautifully acted, troubling,  touching, and important debut feature–which makes it clear why America must close Guantanamo–opens theatrically in New York City and on VOD.  The synopsis in the press notes: “A young woman (Kristen Stewart, giving her most mature performance, excels as Amy Cole) joins the military to be part of something bigger than herself and her small town roots, but ends up as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay.  Her mission is far from black and white, as she is surrounded by hostile jihadists and aggressive male squad mates.  When she strikes up an unusual friendship with one of the detainees (Iranian actor Payman Maadi, who follows the Oscar-winning A Separationwith another extraordinary performance), both of their worlds are forever shifted.  Written and directed by Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray is a deeply human story of two people, on opposite sides of war, trapped and struggling to find a way to live together.”  I met Payman Maadi when I interviewed him and director Asghar Farhadi about the terrific About Elly several years ago. We have stayed in touch and last week I spoke to him in the city about his first American film. As we were having breakfast at Sarabeth’s, a couple passing by recognized the budding international star.
Danny Peary: Do you get recognized a lot in America?
Payman Maadi: Yes, from A Separation.  In Los Angeles more than New York.  Each time it happens, it surprises me.
DP: Is there a community of Iranian actors and filmmakers in America?
PM: Yes.  Actors, filmmakers, artists, singers.  If I don’t know them personally, I do know who they are.  Most of those I know are banned from working in or going back to Iran because they did or said something against the government.  Which is not me.   I now live with my wife and daughter in L.A. and in Iran.  I’d like to manage my career where I can go back and forth.
DP: Which you couldn’t do if you criticized the government there.  So do you get support from the Iranian government when you make movies in Iran?
Payman Maadi. Photo by Danny Peary.
Payman Maadi. Photo by Danny Peary.
PM: I don’t do anything for or against the government. I’ve tried not to ask for its financial support, even when I directed my film Snow in the Pines two years ago in Iran and had no money.
DP: Did you direct Snow in the Pines before or after A Separation?
PM: I was ready to direct my own movie but I got the script for A Separation and it was brilliant, so I stopped and made the film with Asghar Farhadi.  We had worked together before on About Elly. 
DP:  Of course, it won an Oscar in America., but was A Separation received differently outside of Iran than in Iran?
PM: Asghar told me, “I doubt if it will have the success of About Elly.”
DP: About Elly had Hitchcockian elements so you two recognized it had universal appeal.
PM: Right, it could have taken place in Denmark or Mexico, anywhere.  But A Separation wasn’t like that and we weren’t sure it would be liked outside of Iran. We thought it was more an Iranian film that was very much about society there.  It turned out that it was really well received first by the Iranian people and then out of the country. What we learned is that if you make films outside of America and want to get known internationally, you must first become successful locally.  The people of your own country must agree with you that it’s a true, authentic portrait of your country. Asghar did a great job and I owe him a lot.  It was successful because people everywhere left the theater thinking about their wives or husbands, their daughters, their relationships, their marriages.  What we learned from showing the film in New York, Los Angeles, Germany, China, France, Abu dhabi is that we’re not that different.
DP: In interviews you’ve said you want the films you act in or write or direct to show that people are alike everywhere.
Payman Maadi and Kristen Stewart in "Camp X-Ray."
Payman Maadi and Kristen Stewart in “Camp X-Ray.”
PM: To be honest with you, this belief came to me only after I experienced watching A Separation with people from around the world.   It wasn’t before that.  As Asghar says, it’s to the benefit of the media to show differences between nations not similarities.  They profit from that.  But when you have a character like mine in A Separation whose father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s the same for everybody around the world who has that experience.  Whether you’re Iranian or an American, it’s sad watching your father deteriorate like that or watching a couple with a child separating.
DP: Was A Separation instrumental in your getting cast in Camp X-Ray?
PM: Peter Sattler was a big fan of A Separation and it was a big reason I got this film.
I was in Iran making Melbourne when my agent sent me the script.  When I read a script, the first thing I focus on is the story.  Maybe it’s the writer in the me, but it’s the experience I have had since A Separation.  The film must be a good film.  If the only award a movie gets at a film festival is Best Actor, it doesn’t matter, no one will see me. If it gets a Best Picture award it will seen by a wider audience and will open more doors for the actors.  So for me the story must be good, then the character must be good, and the third thing is the director. I didn’t know Peter at the time.  This was his first movie.  I liked his script right away.  But  I had to read it again. The second time I went through it I focused on the characters.   English isn’t my first language so I had to focus on every word.  Then Peter called me.  He wanted to see me so we spoke for about ten minutes on Skype.
DP: It seems so odd to me that someone in Hollywood can Skype with an actor in Iran about being in his film.
PM: There are a lot of things that are filtered in Iran but not Skype. The Internet can be slow and you often get disconnected but it’s not something that can be controlled by the government.  A lot of my friends are in America and they Skype or Face Time with their families back in Iran.  I did that when I was here and my wife and daughter were there.
DP: In the press notes it says Peter was reluctant to contact you because he wasn’t sure you were right for the part.  Did he tell you that?
PM: After he confirmed that I was in the film and we became really close friends he told me,  “I loved A Separationand I loved your performance but I felt I needed somebody louder, who expressed himself and didn’t keep things inside.”  He wanted somebody who would shout and laugh loudly…
DP: But in A Separation you weren’t particularly quiet or withdrawn. There was anger and shouting.
PM: I know.  But what happened was very funny.  When Peter Skyped me, I don’t know what kind of mood I was in that day but I had a very loud greeting, “Hello, Peter!”  I later told him, “Peter, don’t worry about the loudness because I am very loud.  In fact, whenever I’m talking to my wife in public, she has to tell me to lower my voice.”
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi promoting "Camp X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Payman Maadi.
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi promoting “Camp X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Payman Maadi.
DP: Also in the press notes, he says he cast you because he saw the chemistry between you and Kristen Stewart when the two of you Skyped.
PM: The next night the three of us met on Skype for about forty-five minutes because Kristen wanted to meet me.  Then she said she wanted to see A Separation.  She got a DVD and watched it and said she loved it.
DP: So she hadn’t seen your films yet?
PM: No, but to be honest, I had never seen Twilight or any of her movies before, either.   So I had no prejudgments about her.  I saw her the first time at Peter’s home in Los Angeles and she was more than friendly.  She came to me and said, “I’m very happy to work with you.”  I asked Peter if Cole’s hair color will be blond or dark because in the movie, Ali always calls her “Blondie.”  He said dark, like Kristen’s natural color.  He asked me what I thought about that.  I said I loved it.  To Ali, all American girls are “Blondie.”  That’s funny
DP: What’s great is that Cole accepts being called “Blondie.” You and Kristen come from two different parts of the world, you have made different kinds of movies, her acting is very low-key while you are expressive and verbal. I do think it paid off for creating two different characters that you were so different as actors.
PM: Kristen said, “Let’s rehearse and talk.  Tell me about your style of working or let’s create something together.”  People come to me and ask, “How is she on the set?  Is she friendly at all?”  And she is. She was very thoughtful, very hard-working, full of energy, very eager to do something great.  She was never satisfied with whatever she did, she was always asking for another take, saying “Let’s do it the other way.”  I liked that very much.  It was very, very important to me because most of my performance was dependent on my partner.  It was all dialogue between Kristen and me, it was like ping pong.  I couldn’t be a good actor unless I had a good partner in this film.  So I was glad we rehearsed a lot trying different versions.
DP: Did you talk to Kristen about what her character’s reactions were supposed to be in response to Ali’s imprisonment at Guantanamo and all the different ways he communicates with Cole?
PM: I asked her what she was thinking about.  She was thinking a lot about these issues and about her character every day and she would tell Peter and me if she thought her character should react differently from what we had planned.  And Peter would say, “That’s true.”  And I’d say, “Kristen, can you do it for me because I need to know what I must do if you change your reaction like that.”  I’d say, “If you change something here, then we have to also change that other action.”  Peter would say, “Payman is a screenwriter and he remembers everything.”
DP: So was Peter accepting changes from each of you?
PM: More than other directors I’ve worked with here, he’s like Ashar Farhadi in that he leaves you to do whatever you want to do, minimize it or maximize it, and observes you to see what worked and what didn’t work. He didn’t talk to us and say for us to do this or that, which happens a lot in America. For him, performance comes first, then the camera.
DP: Did you rehearse in the same place you shot the film?
PM: We rehearsed and filmed at a former juvenile detention center [in Whittier, Ca.] that looked almost exactly like Guantanamo. We did this because sometimes you get surprised when you move from one location to another.  At the prison we rehearsed for two or three days with closed doors.  We wanted to determine what we could hear if the doors were closed between us.  I didn’t have much space and Kristen didn’t have much space so there weren’t so many things we could do.
DP: Even during, I imagine you sat close to each other?
PM: We found some rooms and we tried to stay very close, to get used to the small space.  I wanted to watch Kristen very closely to make sure nothing was exaggerated. When you are close, you use your eyes to see all parts of a face.  There’s big meaning in how the eyes go up or down or to the sides. We asked Peter to watch these things through the camera lens during the final days of rehearsal.
DP: Were you told you would watch dailies?
PM: I never developed the habit of seeing dailies, but for this film we had to do it because of the close shots.  We needed to see when we moved our eyes how big the movement was.   When I made my own film I didn’t let any of the actors watch dailies. And the result was good.  But after this experience, when I make another film I will definitely show some dailies and rushes to my actors.
DP: What were those last days of preproduction like?
PM:  In the mornings we rehearsed or did a table reading and then we were through as actors.  Peter was going to the set to make sure everything was ready and I would go with him whenever I had a chance. He was working on other things and I had nothing else to do, so I asked him, “Can I stay in the prison by myself.”  One cell was ready and I decided to go inside and stay there for hours.  He said, “Yes, but do you want me to leave the door open?’  I said, “No, close the door.”  Peter said, “We’ll be working over there, so whenever you want to come out let us know.” I stayed in there over a few days and it was very helpful.  Peter also asked Kristen to walk around the hallway outside the cells and she would do it for hours, as Cole would.  It helped me a lot, knowing she was outside.  I was in a very small room, all Ali has in this world.  There were no other tools I had as an actor, but no matter how small the room was you find a variety of things around you.
There was just a small window looking out into the hall, so if I moved my head to the left or right while filming, I was out of the frame. So I’m in there thinking, what can I do?  If I go to the back of the cell and shout it sounds low but if I walk toward the door shouting it’s totally different.
DP: But while you were trying to get into Ali’s character are you thinking always that he’s someone who can’t leave? Are you asking how does he exist? and how does he not go crazy other than by refusing to do so?  And are you also thinking how heartbreaking his life is?
PM: Yes, yes!  I was thinking of that and many other things.  Ali is surely thinking, Where is my country?  Where is my family? Where are my friends?   He’s thinking of his mom: they grabbed me and took me away and she hasn’t heard of her son for eight years.  They’re probably searching for me.  What is in the news about me?  Does everyone in my neighborhood now think I’m a terrorist?  Sometimes you get suspicious about yourself–what if I was a terrorist and did something I don’t remember?  If I admit I did something and said, “I did it, hang me please,” it would be end of story.  Those are things I thought he’d be thinking.
DP: Ali tells Cole he is from Germany.
PM: Ali is Tunisian, but was raised in Germany.
DP: In the opening, Ali is taken prisoner in his apartment.  He had just emptied a bag of what looks to be cellphones, not weapons.
PM: That’s what they are.  Perhaps he was regarded as suspicious because of that.  I read how Americans pay money for leads to terrorists, so that means somebody can accuse anyone of being a terrorist and the Americans will pay him $5,000. So the situation is risky when you are, for example, buying cellphones.
DP: This movie makes us think that it doesn’t matter if he did anything or not, but that he should receive due process and be treated humanely.
PM: Exactly. We are not saying whether he’s guilty or not.  There are guilty people in Guantanomo who were caught doing terrorist acts and they deserve punishment–but punish them already, don’t just keep them there without judgment or being subject to the Geneva Convention [just because they're called detainees, rather than prisoners].  Give them life in prison, even hang them but keeping them there is bad for not just the “detainees” but for the US government.  The people of America don’t want this!  They just can’t close it.
DP: It will surprise many people to see Kristen Stewart starring in a low-budget film against the inhumane treatment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay. Do you think it is important that Cole is a female, to contrast her even more with Ali?
PM: It makes it more interesting.  I think it separates them more.  Cole could be a male and I think Peter wrote that character as a male.  I like that it’s a female and man and their relationship isn’t sexual.  It’s not about opposites attracting.  Before we were shooting we received a book two-inches thick, DVDs, photos, and links for Internet research.  I saw documentaries on Guatanamo and trials with lawyers talking about the prison and the issues.  I spent hours doing research and saw that the movie is very precise and correct about everything.  Everything in the movie is similar to how it really is in Guantanamo Bay.  And there are female guards.
DP: A lot of this film has to do with how Americans, the guards in this case, are naive about politics and who the detainees really are.  All these soldiers are young and Ali is more educated than any of them.  The danger Peter surely wanted to avoid was having it seem to viewers that Cole is just a naive prison guard who is attracted to a smarter, more worldly prisoner, whether it’s in Guantanamo or any prison, and he manipulates her.  But we don’t think that because Cole gets closer to Ali as she becomes less naive about the situation.  There’s a learning process with her, while none of the other soldiers want to learn anything and stay naive about the detainees.
PM: We are watching only American soldiers, not American citizens.  They are young and maybe that’s why they are so naive.  They aren’t interested in books.  Soldiers have a lot of things to do so maybe they don’t have time to read.  Ali has nothing to do but read.  He says, “Each time the new guards arrive, they treat us like bad guys.” She says a good thing to him, that the other guards “will learn.” Like she has. That is not a small thing for him.  Earlier he asked her, “What did you learn?”
DP: When he says that to her he’s skeptical that she’s learned anything.
PM: Very skeptical. He asks her what she learned from such things as the hunger strikes?
DP: She does learn and opens up to him.  I would think you shot this film chronologically because of how they both change and their relationship evolves.
PM: We had to. It was very helpful for Ali and Cole to gradually become connected to each other.  Indoor and outdoor scenes could be filmed chronologically because everything was shot at the juvenile facility. The outdoor shower scene and the scene where I kick the soccer ball were dependent on how the weather was. Doing it chronologically was very beneficial.
DP: Do you think your two characters start reacting positively toward each other at the same time?
PM: I can’t say that.  From the beginning, Ali is studying her.  I don’t know when exactly he realizes she is not a bad person. After she says, “I’ll try,” and he says, “I’ll try, too,” he tries not to be bad toward her.  In the first days Peter and I were talking about my character, and he said that what is very important for you to understand is that this guy can be the nicest character on the earth, with a soft voice, and ten seconds later he can be acting like an animal.  They treat him like an animal there, making him act like a mad man.  They want to dehumanize him.  In some scenes, you can see that he’s trying to make a connection to Cole and tries to be nice but when she doesn’t respond, he starts shouting and cursing.
DP: Is he really that mad at her or is he just trying to get a reaction from her?
PM: No, he’s not trying to get a reaction.  He is disappointed that she is the same as the other guards, like the other Americans.  He is mad at her.  He says, “You think we’re the terrorists but you are the bad people.  You are trying to show yourself to the world as good people by putting us here, torturing us, and doing all these things to us.  But you know what?  You are the bad people.”
DP: In such scenes Ali is extremely frustrated and angry, and Cole is trying not to lose him and trying to make him understand, without saying it, that she cares and is listening.  They seem like hard scenes to play.
PM: Again, Peter cared about our performances and trusted us completely but he knew what he didn’t want. He’d explain to us what wasn’t right because of this or that. He’d say, “Don’t use that word,” or “Don’t shout when you want to say this.”  I remember his reluctance when we filmed a very intense scene in which Ali says that the detainees are being treated like animals. I started shouting and making sounds of tigers and dogs.  Peter came to me the second day and said, “You know what? Do it a little bit lower.”  I thought back to when we first Skyped and said, “I told you I’m loud!”
DP: Ali shouts a lot in the film, but some of the moments that have the most impact are when he isn’t talking at all.
PM: The first thing that caught my attention when I read the script is that Ali has a second layer to him where he just observes and says everything he needs to say with his eyes.  I would later ask Peter to please let me use silence as a tool between my lines.  So I may say a line and then stop and watch her, then say something else.  I said if everyone stops speaking it will be terrifying.
DP: When I think about that now, it’s not so much his loudness that is important, it’s that Ali is university educated and verbal and he is in a situation where he can’t talk to anybody. That’s the shame.
PM: Yes, yes, what you say is totally true.  He’s very talkative and nobody will talk back to him.  He always tries to engage new guards in conversation.  He isn’t manipulating them, he just wants so much to communicate with someone else. What he needs is someone to listen to him.  It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t express a political opinion; he’d be happy just to talk about Harry Potter or Nebraska or Alfred Hitchcock or Hannibal Lechter.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever comes up, it’s a conversation.  Did you know it’s actually true that Harry Potter is the most popular book in Guantanamo Bay? They have different translations for it.
DP: Why do you think that’s true?
PM: It’s magical, it’s entertaining.
DP: Also it’s escape.  And it’s long, the same length as the Koran.
PM: It’s not a short story, each book takes a long time to read.  And as you say it takes people beyond reality.
DP: Does Ali read the Koran?
PM: He has read it a thousand times.  I think he becomes a little doubtful to everything, he’s losing his beliefs because he thinks too much.  He’s not getting in the prayer lines with other detainees.  The worst part is you don’t know what to hang on to when you’re suspicious of everything around you.  That’s what happens to a lot of prisoners who don’t have anything to do.  They doubt everything. But I think that after this Ali will go back to normal and go back to believing what he did.  The best thing for him is to become more stable.
DP: In movies set in American prisons, the hero often spends his time studying law books, trying to figure out a legal way to get out.  But those imprisoned at Guantanamo have no due process.
PM: Yeah, they have no legal rights.
DP: I think it’s important when Ali explains why detainees shouldn’t follow the rules because that would mean the rules are legitimate.
PM: That’s one of his principles.  He doesn’t believe in a lot of things, but that he believes in strongly.  If he was a terrorist he wouldn’t say something like that. I think.  As a terrorist, you understand why they would have rules saying you can’t do certain things.  But if you’re not a terrorist, you don’t see it like that.  I’m not a terrorist so you don’t have the right to tell me what to do and treat me like a terrorist.  It is not something trivial that he is saying.  It is coming from the inside.  If they say, “Do this and that or you can’t watch TV,” he says,  ”Fuck TV, I don’t need permission from you to watch TV.  I haven’t done anything.”  I think the rules line is very important.
DP: Ali is less belligerent than the large detainee who follows no rules, but they’re both being treated badly.  It’s much more likely that he was a terrorist, but the film asks that they both to be treated humanely and released.
PM: I don’t know if the others are real terrorists and Ali doesn’t know either.  He knows he’s not guilty of being a terrorist but not of the others’ guilt or innocence.  When she asks Ali why the big detainee doesn’t use the elliptical machine that they demanded, Ali says that it might be because he’s an asshole. It’s assumed that the detainees are all together and that they’re all brothers, but it’s not like that.  Still none of the detainees deserve to stay at Guantanamo, guilty or not, and be treated like that. That is a theme of the movie.
DP: Talk about the emotions you were having as filming was coming to an end.
PM: The ending scenes were the last scenes we shot.  It was very hard and very dependent on the situation that they prepared for us on the set.  I was very happy with the situation but I asked something from Peter as well. I asked for two minutes before every scene was shot, to just be by myself.  When they said, “We’re ready,” I needed two or three minutes in total silence in the cell to focus.  I even told Peter before one or two scenes not to ask me if I was ready but to see through the lens if I looked ready.   The circumstances on the set were very important for such emotional scenes.
DP: Did you or Kristen cry during the making of this movie?
PM: A lot.  That’s a good thing that you ask. The final days I cried for 48 hours.  In every take I was crying.  Kristen was standing behind the camera and she was crying every time.  That’s why I can tell you that she was a lovely partner.  She was helping me a lot.  Whenever I was standing behind the camera watching her, I was crying for her, too.
DP: Were you both crying for the same reasons?
PM: Yes. We didn’t talk about it with each other.  When the shot was done, each of us found our corners.  We didn’t go to each other say, “That was good, that was great.” Never.
DP: That’s interesting because I would have thought that when playing roles that take such a toll on you that you’d want your costar to come over and comfort you.
PM: No, no, we didn’t do that at all.  Sometimes I’d see Peter from afar and his facial expressions told me his reaction.  Sometimes I want to see reactions, but I usually don’t want to watch people after takes, I don’t want to see the reaction of the crew.   I don’t want to see the camera, I don’t want to see anybody.  I just want to be the lone person on the planet.  If you want to play a detainee at Guantanamo you have to delete everyone else around from your mind.  You can’t go to anyone and ask, “How was it?  How did I do?”  Kristen was like that too.
DP: At one point, Cole starts being punished by her superiors for associating with Ali, just as Ali is being punished by them as well for being insubordinate.  Did you, Kristen, and Peter talk about the parallels?
PM: We were aware what was happening but we didn’t talk about it that much.  Kristen and I tried to stay as close as we could to the characters we were playing and they don’t speak to each other about such issues.  Amy Cole and Ali don’t talk about what is happening with Amy.  She doesn’t tell him.  We tried to avoid talking about what was happening in the scenes we weren’t in.  I do remember asking Kristen, “How did it go yesterday when you shot the scene with Cole’s superior officer?”  She told me that John Carroll Lynch was brilliant in that scene.  That’s about the level we went to, talking about those scenes.  We didn’t go through them and discuss their meanings. We didn’t have to.
DP: There are usually not a lot of words being said between Cole and Ali, so was there telepathy?
PM: What comes to mind is when he says, “I just want to know how all these things end,” and she asks, “The book?”  And he says, “Yes, the book.”  Then he says, “You know what I mean.”  They were definitely talking about something else.  In the rehearsal, we did a lot of improvisations for some scenes.  And for that scene we talked for about five minutes about the book, but both Kristen and I, like our characters, were talking about something else.  It would be impossible for Ali to say all that is in his mind, so there are metaphors.
DP: In an interview about Melbourne, you were asked about what happens after the movie ends.  And you answered that you didn’t think about what happens, that you wanted to play in the moment.  But in Camp X-Ray, your character wants to know how things will end.  Is it healthy for your character to think about endings, or does he have to go day by day so he won’t go crazy?
PM: No, he doesn’t.   All these years he has been going day by day but also thinking what’s going to happen at the end.  That’s very logical and reasonable thing for a detainee there.
DP: He even wants to know the ending of the last Harry Potter book, which he can’t get a copy of.
PM: That’s a beautiful metaphor for that.  It’s funny and meaningful.  I say funny because the whole situation is funny.  It’s not only that he reads the final book and knows how it ends, it’s also that he becomes hopeful for his future.  He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, I think.  He’s now happy to know that there are good people in this world, not all Americans are bad guys and they don’t consider them bad guys.  The best thing in the world for him is what she says, not the freedom.  She’s an American and probably the last person on the planet who would say that he’s a good guy.  But she says, “You’re a good guy.”
DP: You may not have thought of this but the reason he wants to read the end of the book is to find out if Snape is a good guy or bad guy.
PM: Yeah, the twist of the character.  I didn’t see any of the “Harry Potter” movies but I was told that Snape turns from a bad guy to a good guy.
DP: Your character and Snape are seen wrongly until the end.  Peter snuck in that clever idea.
PM: I believe that.  One reason Peter and I get along and communicate so well is that we are both film buffs.  I’m sure he has seen all the Harry Potter movies.
DP: I get teary-eyed thinking about when he opens the newly-arrived library book, the final Harry Potter book that he has waited two years to read, and there is an inscription from Cole ending with “Love, Blondie.”  The shot of the book is an insert, but when you looked at that in your hand, what was your reaction?
PM: I cried. When I saw Camp X-Ray at Sundance I expected to see me crying.  Because we did about ten shots and in eight of them I was crying.  Each time we did that scene, it was like a emotional faucet being turned on and off.  If there were twenty more takes it would have been the same, crying at the very same moment.  But I like the version Peter used.
DP: When you first read the script, did you have a big reaction to reading, “Love, Blondie?”
PM: Yes, I did.  I was surprised.  That was one of those moments when I thought I’d like to share the movie with people.  That was a very lovely thing.  She tells him her real first name but still signs the book that way.  “I don’t know if Snape is a good guy, but I know you are.  Love, Blondie.”  Amazing.
DP: It’s a movie moment I won’t forget. I get choked up talking about it.
PM: The same here.  Peter is very kind, thoughtful, giving, supportive, and emotional.  He cares a lot about these issues, he loves people, he cares about the relationships between people.  A line like that would have to come out of a person such as Peter.
DP: Another huge scene late in the movie is when Ali considers suicide.  In the conversations you had with Peter and Kristen, I would think you had to convince yourself that Ali shouldn’t kill himself.
PM: Yeah. We knew about it from the script but we didn’t talk about the suicide scene more than a day before we shot it.  We did a lot of rehearsing for the movie but we didn’t rehearse that scene and did it in the moment.  We didn’t want to be self-conscious of what we were doing, we wanted it to be natural.  There’s a scene in A Separation, when my character is showering his father who has Alzheimer’s and he starts crying. We didn’t rehearse or talk about that scene either.  We were filming another scene but lost the light so we figured out what scene we could without light.  The shower scene.  Everyone expected me to say hell no because I didn’t have any preparation.  I said to give it a try.  And we did it on the first take.
DP: So you think it was a good idea not to prepare for the suicide scene?
PM: Very much. I told Peter, “Just tell me what you want and where the camera will be.”  We did several takes and each time we changed something.  We didn’t rehearse or talk about the way he’d do it that much.  The first time I saw the tool was when they gave it to me during the scene.  The knife came out of the Koran and I said, “Oh, my god.”
DP: He’s been in Guantanamo for eight years.  Do you think he’d done this before?
PM: Trying to kill himself, no.  I don’t think so.  There was a line in the script that isn’t in the film.  I’m happy it’s not in the film but it was very interesting.  He tells Cole that if she calls the medics with her radio it will take them three minutes to arrive.  Because he went to the university and is smart, he can calculate that it will take him two minutes to die. So don’t even think of making the call. That’s why she puts the radio down.  That was logical.
DP: Talk about when she puts her hand through the window in his door, takes the blade, and touches his arm.  It’s not just two people touching.  It’s an American woman touching a Muslim from the Mideast.  It’s a major thing for Ali to allow himself to be touched by her.
PM: We did it in totally different ways.  Peter, who is a very talented director, decided to do something minimal, not showing my face or Kristen’s face that much. I’m not in the shot.  Only my hand is in the shot, and I love that shot.  He didn’t want to do it this way but this was a shot that was supposed to be mixed with other shots.  But he looked at dailies and just used that.  That’s the magic of movies.
DP: Were you staying in character?
PM: Very much.
DP: What was Ali thinking of at that moment?
PM: Trust.  That’s extreme trust.  She puts her hand through the hole in the door and the knife is in his hand, it’s a really big thing.  He puts the tool in her hand, then she grabs his hand.  It’s a really beautiful scene and it’s the ultimate way of showing that two people can connect and trust each other by communicating and listening to each other.
DP: That’s the reason for the movie.
PM: That’s true.
DP: You shot that scene a long time ago, but when you think of it now, do you get watery-eyed?
PM: I do. Everything starts with throwing out prejudgments that this is a bad guy and Americans are bad guys and that Americans and Middle Easterners have nothing in common to talk about.  When you start talking you see that you’re that different and can learn from each other.  That’s what happens at the end of the movie. It’s very beautiful when she brings up the story of her seeing a lion in the zoo.  The result was that she thought the zoo people must let the lion decide whether to stay or be let loose in the unfamiliar wild.  If you want to kill yourself I will give you the space to do it.  At the beginning of the film, the chief guard tells the new guards that they are not there to prevent the detainees from living, the walls do that.  They are there to prevent the detainees from dying because that would cause a big scandal.  So they want to prevent them from killing themselves.  When she leaves, she gives the right to Ali to decide to kill himself or not.
DP: I agree with that.  But is there something more?  Because he talks about how no country will take him if he were released.
PM: Yes, because he was in Guantanamo as a terrorist.
DP: I’m thinking that she is saying release Ali even if he doesn’t have ideal options on the outside.
PM: I don’t know.  In her own way, she tries to stop him.  She proves she isn’t naive when she asks him he wants to kill himself to become a martyr and go to heaven.  She asks smart questions.  She hopes she has had enough impact on him that he won’t kill himself.  And she did.
DP: The reason that it is better that he doesn’t kill himself is that she truly believes things will change and he’ll get out.  If she believed that he’d forever be imprisoned I’m not sure she’d be so motivated to keep him alive.
PM: That’s true.  When you think about it, that makes sense.
DP: So the shooting ends, the movie wraps, and it’s all over.
PM: Those last few days were very tough and amazing. Then Peter spent a couple of days on extra shots without the actors.  And two or three days after the crew had finished, there was a wrap party.  I came shaved and in a suit.  I wasn’t aware that I looked different because that was myself. Every person was, “Oh, my good, look at you.  You don’t look like a detainee anymore!”  I surprised everyone.
DP: You filmed this a year ago, so what’s it like getting together with everyone now to promote the film?
PM: Great, butI avoid talking about the film.  I believe that whatever I wanted to say I said in the film.   And the worst part, especially for a director, is to attach explanation to what you did.  If fans ask for explanations I don’t get irritated because we made the film for an audience.  Once the film is done, it’s not in your hands anymore.
DP: I know you want people to ask you, as I ask you, Do you still think of Ali sitting in that cell?
PM: Nobody has asked that yet.  As the credits run at the end of the film, you see the guards walking in the small hall between the cells for about five minutes.  It’s telling you that the prisoners are still there and life goes on there.
DP: In the production notes, Peter Sattler says, “It’s not a political film; it’s a deeply human one.”  I don’t agree.  Often filmmakers will say their very political films aren’t political because they don’t want to scare away American moviegoers. But if we look at the human element and we start identifying with the people who are imprisoned at Guantanamo, then we start asking what can be done for them, including closing the facility–and at that point it becomes political.
PM: That’s 100% true.  That’s good to hear.  I agree with you. You cannot say it’s not a political film.  When you say “Guantanamo Bay,” you’re talking about politics.  When you say “terrorist” or “suspected terrorist,” you’re talking about politics.  The focus is not on the political issues and that’s what Peter was trying to get across.  But we can’t escape from the fact that there are political things in the movie and after you leave the theater you will think about the situation in the United States that has kept Guantanamo from closing.
DP: Tell me about other projects that are out there already?
PM: Melbourne was at the Venice and Zurich Film Festivals and it will be at the Cairo and Tokyo Film Festivals.  I’ll try go but it depends on the schedule for the Criminal Justice series I’m doing for HBO.  It hasn’t been on the air yet because James Galdofini was in it, and he died.  We were in limbo for two years and now John Turturro is in it.  He’s absolutely great.
DP: The premise of Melbourne is A census taker arrives at the home of a middle-class couple as they are about to go to Melbourne and things change.
PM: That’s all you need to know. The other film I’ve done that’s out is Tales, which I made with a great director, Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, the “First Lady of Iranian Filmmaking.”  It’s a beautiful film that won the Best Screenplay award at Venice a month ago.
DP: How often do you go back and forth between Iran and America?
PM: It depends.  We just moved actually, to Los Angeles.  There’s no law about my having to return to Iran, so I could stay here for ten years if I wanted.  I’m still observing the situation, and finding out if it’s possible to make films in both America and Iran. I’ll see what happens. I’m trying to do this because I love to work in Iran, too.  A Separation was made in Iran, About Elly was made in Iran.  I made my own film, Snow in the Pines, in Iran. I’m here in New York until mid-February, in an apartment on the upper East Side. I’m writing seven or eight hours a day and am very productive. I’ve finished one screenplay after two years, and am working on three others. All have parts for me.  There’s one set in Los Angeles that I’ll direct.  There is a dramedy set in New York. The other two will be made in Iran, including one I’m writing with Rakhshan Bani-E’temad that she’ll direct.  I can’t make those kinds of films, my films, in the United States.
DP: Were you surprised that in the United States you could make Camp X-Ray?
PM: I was surprised.  You couldn’t make such a film in Iran.  I’m very happy to see that’s it’s possible to make films like Camp X-Ray today.
DP: Finally, for fans of A Separation, please talk about the ending.
PM: People always ask me about the end of A Separation, about whether the daughter will choose to live with her father or mother when the judge asks her.
DP: Do you know?
PM: Yes, we talked about it a lot.  But we talked about something else–more important than which parent she chooses is which way of living she chooses.  There are two different ways of thinking.  She is living in a country where there is something wrong.  She has the choice of leaving with her mother to live in a better place, or to stay with her father to fix it. His wife tells him that he can’t even manage the house issues without her there “but you want to fix the country?”  He says, “You want to leave, go.  I’m not like you that when there’s something wrong with the country, I just leave.”
DP: From what you just said, I would think the daughter would make the more difficult choice and stay with her father, who needs her help more than her mother does.  But I don’t want to know what she does!
PM: Me, neither!  That’s the beauty of the film.  We can change it in our minds every time we see it.
DP: The one thing we know is that she, like the slightly older Cole in Camp X-Ray, is smart enough and knows enough to make the right decision.
PM: Exactly.

The Two Stars on The Two Faces of January

Playing in Theaters

The Two Stars on The Two Faces of January

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/1/14)


Chester and Collette at the Acropolis.
Chester and Collette at the Acropolis.
Two Faces of January fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. And as I wrote here last week, “This clever, atmospheric, splendidly acted, cat-and-mouse thriller is playing in New York city at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street and AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street. I also wrote: “Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel was adapted by acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (JudeDrive, Killshot, Wings of a Dove) 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 killed 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 by bus.  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.” Last week I posted the roundtable interview that I participated in with Amini.  That same day, I took part in the following roundtable interview with Mortensen and Dunst.  I note my questions.
Q: Did you two know each other before making this movie?
Kirsten Dunst: We once met in an elevator in Toronto. We didn’t know we were going to work together.  I don’t think we knew we were making this movie yet because then I would have been like, “Viggo, this is going to be an intense movie.” We met again for the rehearsal period for Two Faces of January, a month before shooting for a few days.
Viggo Mortensen: That was really helpful, because Hoss got Kristen, Oscar Isaac and me together so we could get to know each other a little bit and start having a shorthand between us. That’s important because a lot of times when you’re shooting you’re just thrown together with people you don’t know.  You do your best and it usually works out, but it’s much better if you know each other. I love that process before you start shooting because it’s the chance to learn how to see the world from the point of view of a different mind.  This allowed Hoss to hear any doubts, questions, and thoughts we had on the script. Then he went back and worked on it some more. And improved it. And he did the same things with his crew members.  He worked with everybody.
Q: What do you look for in a script at this point in your career?
Viggo Mortensen: Something I want to see in a movie theater. You gotta please yourself as an artist. And if somebody else likes it, great. You gotta do something for yourself–it sounds selfish, but it’s the best thing.
KD: That’s how you can be your best, too.
VM: It’s really nice when you come across a smart script like this one with a smart story, great dialogue, and great character relationships. That makes it so much more fun to play.
Q: Talk about Hossein Amini, a first-time director who directed his script with you experienced actors.
VM: He used a lot of common sense.  Hossein’s a gentleman.  He’s intelligent, he’s well-spoken, he’s thoughtful, and he’s patient. You can’t spend twenty years making one movie as he did with this without patience. And he learned as a screenwriter from his experiences on sets watching very different kinds of directors, and watching them work with his script and work with actors. He kept the best of that and was well prepared and, working day to day, practical, which was important because we had to move around a lot on a tight schedule.
Q: Greece is such a magical place that fuels the creative juices of artists.  What was that atmosphere like for you when you weren’t shooting?
VM: When I read the script, it described, these wonderful places.  The script read like one of those great old movies from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, and you can imagine the kind of color that was described. It felt like an adventure we were going to go on, in terms of knowing what the story is about.  We felt we were shooting the kind of movie they don’t make very often anymore–and they don’t make them in this way. We didn’t have to make believe anything about where we were shooting.  There was no green screen behind us.  It was great.
KD: We walked to work from our hotel where we were staying, everything was in very close proximity to each other. If I got done early from work I’d go swimming in the sea, which was such a luxury.  I’d just take a cab to the local beach and it was so nice. They have paddle boats you can take.  I hadn’t really shot a movie where it felt I could be on vacation before.  This was the only time.  Now I understand why Adam Sandler does every movie in a different location. I gotta get on one of those movies!
Q: Is there anything else you immediately think of about making the movie?
VM: Kirsten feeding the monastery’s cats…
KD: I fed a lot of cats [laughter].  I remember a luminous scene with a lighter. Viggo put the lighter down and was holding me, and it was against me and so hot.  I was afraid and didn’t want to move my arm.  And I came away with something like a scar!
Q: Hossein says he loves Patricia Highsmith’s characters because they have all these contradictions. How do you see them?
VM: I like that they’re messy.  Hossein’s script was really expertly written, it’s a great adaptation. It’s one of those rare times that the adatation is probably better in terms of the characters. They’re more layered.  In the book, with Colette, there’s not much there. She’s an opportunist…
KD: She’s a little bit of a floozy in the book.
VM: She doesn’t really have any feelings that we can see. [She goes after] anything that moves [Laughter] But even when she does that, it isn’t very interesting in the book. And Chester is kind of a slob, right?  Paranoid and crazy,  starts at sixty instead of starting at zero, doesn’t get anywhere. The stories that Highsmith writes let you have secrets and your world, you don’t have to make it all up for yourself because it’s there on the page and you just have to live up to it.
Q: Why do you think Colette stays with Chester?
KD: I think that first of all, she has no choice in the film, though you don’t know in the beginning what their whole situation is.  They’re already on the lam. She’s kind of stuck with him, what’s she gonna do? She’s been lying about things, too, and turning a blind eye to what he does, but she’s also going along with it. Also the story take place at a time when women didn’t really question their husbands as much. He’s the one making the money.  Also, Colette doesn’t really understand what really went down at the hotel because Chester’s keeping the killing secret from her. And as soon as she realizes what he did, she does turn.  Still, she doesn’t have the choice to just leave him. She’s already attached to him and that whole thing.
VM: Maybe, she’s been turning a blind eye for a long time but then can’t take it anymore.
Q: Do you think Chester goes a bit crazy?
VM: I don’t think he is crazy. I think he does some things that are crazy or that are disturbing to watch, even embarrassing sometimes. But he’s just very human, as are Colette and Rydal.
KD: The most embarrassing is when you came back from the bathroom and…Did that stay in the movie? No?  Oh, too bad…
VM: Chester’s really drunk and there was a stain there on the khaki pants I was wearing. And Hossein was like, “No, no, no, we have to do another take!”  And I said, “Why, everything is perfect.” And he points to the front of my pants.
KD: That was so funny.
VM: I think Chester is weak at times and he is almost crazy with jealousy, that’s for sure. And that has the opposite effect from what he wants. His being worried about losing her makes him push her away even more. That’s the classic result that happens sometimes. There are film noir stories where at the end you aren’t even sure of the characters’ names.  But one thing you know is true about my character is that he loves his wife. That’s probably the only thing you can be sure of.
Danny Peary: I’m not sure of it.  Part of the movie is about their marriage falling apart.
VM: Yes, that’s true.
KD: That doesn’t mean there’s not love there still.
DP: In Contempt, which Hossein was inspired by, Brigitte Bardot’s character is so fickle that she falls out of love with her husband in an instant.  Is there a fickleness to Colette and she falls out of love?
KD: Listen, you gotta love the people you play.  I don’t look at her and go she’s fickle. Yes, some of the moves she makes are to protect herself, but I do think she loves her husband.  I think Chester does start to push her away and reveals ugly things in his character that she hasn’t really come in contact with before.
Q: Colette seems naïve and she primarily latches onto Chester and then Rydal.  Did you personally create those dynamics in this character?
KD: Of course, always you have to.
Q: Because it was vague in the book?
KD: No, I went off Hoss’s script for what I needed to do.
Q: Hossein told us that he was surprised to see different characters then he’d written once you added your own personal touches.
VM: It was also him.  He wrote Chester to be more elegant and classier than he was in the book, which gave us somewhere to start and surprise the audience.
KD: It’s interesting how he did it, so we aren’t terrible people from the beginning.  You just know something bad is going to happen.
VM: We looked at the book and there might have been a couple of turns of a phrase, or some aspect, or some feeling that we wanted to preserve. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the book.
Q: Is there anything that you contributed to Chester that wasn’t in the script?
VM: One thing you don’t see on the screen is that I spoke to people of my dad’s generation, who were in WWII, in the Air Force, the army, the marines. I asked them about some of the technology that we use in the script, and also about what their experiences were like. And I looked at photographs and documentaries of the men and women who grew up in the Depression as little kids, and then went through WWII. They were tough and resilient, they had to be. It still is for women, but it’s different for men now.  There was more uniformity of presentation then. Even a working-class guy, if he had one jacket, he’d wear it. You see these pictures of baseball stadiums back then, and, all the guys are wearing suits and ties and fedoras. There was something about presentation that was important. And that’s in my character a bit.  Because when he’s really drunk and sloppy if he’s with Colette he kind of makes an effort to put himself together for her, and also for himself.  Because his identity is very tied into his presentation.
DP: If Chester came into a lot of money, would they settle down?
VM: Is there enough money when he’d stop doing what he’s doing, so he wouldn’t have to anymore? Hmm.
KD: I think they’d be relaxing somewhere, enjoying the high life. They’d have the best time.
VM: They’ve had the best times in the past. There’s a night Chester references the morning after a hangover, saying, “Ahh, the beachhouse.”  So I think they’ll again have some real fun.

Hossein Amini Takes on The Two Faces of January

Playing in Theaters

Hossein Amini Takes on The Two Faces of January

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 9/25/14)


Hossein Amini
Hossein Amini Photo: DP
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 (JudeDrive, 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.