Hossein Amini is a name you should be very familiar with if you truly know your way around modern film. swl13ha-sb006tweet-22812

The Iranian-British screenwriter has writing credits on films like The Wings of the Dove, Jude, The Four Feathers and others, as well as major Hollywood productions such as Snow White and the Huntsman, 47 Ronin and, perhaps most notably, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir thriller Drive.

Next month, however, sees him finally sit on the director’s chair for his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, starring Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis). The film, produced by Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner as well as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy producer Robyn Slovo, is officially described as follows:

1962. A glamorous American couple, the charismatic Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Colette (Dunst), arrive in Athens by boat via the Corinthian Canal. While sightseeing at the Acropolis they encounter Rydal (Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American who is working as a tour guide, scamming tourists on the side. Drawn to Colette’s beauty and impressed by Chester’s wealth and sophistication, Rydal gladly accepts their invitation to dinner.

However, all is not as it seems with the MacFarlands and Chester’s affable exterior hides darker secrets. When Rydal visits the couple at their exclusive hotel, Chester presses him to help move the body of a seemingly unconscious man who he claims attacked him. In the moment, Rydal agrees but as events take a more sinister turn he finds himself compromised and unable to pull himself free. His increasing infatuation with the vulnerable and responsive Colette gives rise to Chester’s jealousy and paranoia, leading to a tense and dangerous battle of wits between the two men. Their journey takes them from Greece to Turkey, and to a dramatic finale played out in the back alleys of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Below is the official UK trailer for you to watch and get excited over:

To help promote the release of The Two Faces of January, we are beyond fortunate to have had Hossein Amini himself take time out and briefly talk to us about the making of the film, as well as a little bit about his illustrious career thus far…

The Two Faces of January is your feature directorial debut, after a long and prosperous screenwriting career. What was it about Patricia Highsmith’s source material that convinced you to take the helm for this project?

Well, it was a book I had read at university before I got started in the business at all. I sort of had this ridiculous notion that I’d leave university and that this would be the first film I’d sort of write and direct, and then I got out and obviously I didn’t get anywhere for the first few years when I finally got something made, which was Jude. I approached them and they weren’t interested. I wasn’t well known and stuff like that. Then I worked for Harvey Weinstein for a while and the idea was that I’d write and direct this one, but he wasn’t interested so it didn’t happen. And then, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack were going to produce it and sadly they passed away. It just kept on getting pushed and pushed, but the book stayed with me mainly because of these three characters and particularly the character that Viggo Mortensen plays. They just got completely under my skin because they were the first time I had sort of seen and read characters who weren’t just unheroic but they were quite weak and fragile and human, especially in a crime novel where characters tend to be more black-and-white. I really fell in love with her writing and her books generally because they’re so ambiguous and not particularly well-plotted or logical even, sometimes, but she just had these extraordinary characters who also kind of make you think a little bit about your own weaknesses and vulnerability and cruelty to others.

Was the challenge much greater this time round in telling the story on screen, and what would you say has been the most rewarding part of the process?

The most rewarding part for me was something you probably only get on a first film. Because of my own lack of experience, everyone from cast to crew were incredibly willing to help, and as a first-time director if you leave yourself open to that help then people really, really work incredibly hard for you and they make up for your shortcomings, and in some ways you can get the best out of them. I sort of wonder if that happens on a second or third film, because I think then people expect you to know what you’re doing more and they’re holding back a little. But what I found most rewarding was how generous all of my collaborators were, be it cast or crew. That what I’d miss if I didn’t get to direct again, just that ability to just watch other people do what they do brilliantly, and I rather use that to make a movie.

Did you have any particular influences from past sources for how you wanted the film to look and feel?

Absolutely, because I’m a real film buff so sometimes I’d watch films from the Sixties. I watched Plein Soleil [aka Purple Moon, the 1960 French adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley] which was probably the most influential, and I watched a lot of the French New Wave films, not so much the shooting style but really for the costumes, colour palettes and stuff like that. In terms of the relationships between the characters there were some films I watched by [Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni] because I love him as a filmmaker but also because I think he’s incredibly good at showing marriages breaking down. Another film like that was Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, which wasn’t particularly well-reviewed but it was a film I’d always loved because, again, it showed Americans abroad and the marriage between the two central characters gradually failing. And I had this idea of visually starting off with a much more “postcard” version of Athens, so I looked at a lot of Chroma code photographs and movies with bright colours. As the characters in Two Faces gradually start to fall apart I wanted the landscape to reflect the psychology, so I used paler colours and much more dust with harsher landscapes. By the time we got to Istanbul, I’m a huge film noir buff so that was a great opportunity because a lot of my favourite American film noirs of the Forties and Fifties were made there and it was a great excuse to make my own in the same place.

As a screenwriter, your name has been attached to major Hollywood projects such as Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin while this film in positive contrast is much smaller. Do you feel there is something bigger to be gained from writing on a smaller scale in comparison to a big-budget studio film?

The studio films I’ve done really as rewrites. I came in for a couple of months either towards the end or at the end and worked on last-minute tweaks, but I put myself completely into those rewrites when I do them. The Snow White rewrite, for example, allowed me to go away and work on that while developing this film. The smaller films are where my heart is, but I also love the challenge of working on those bigger Hollywood ones. However I don’t really ever get the opportunity to write them from scratch, I’m usually brought in to rewrite them at some stage, usually quite late on. I learned so much from doing them and being on those sets rewriting the script, but it’s different when you start something from the beginning. The ones I feel proudest of are ones where no other writers have been brought on first, so films like Drive, Two Faces and the John le Carré one that just started shooting [Our Kind of Traitor, adapted from le Carré’s book of the same name, directed by Susanna Wright and starring Ewan McGregor]. There’s a big difference when you’re the only writer on something as opposed to when there are three or four other people within the machine.

It’s fascinating how most of your works, including Drive, The Wings of the Dove and Jude, have also been adaptations of previously-published material. Would you say there is more to be gained from an adapted screenplay as opposed to an original screenplay?

I think it mostly comes down to the screenwriter but for me, I’ve always loved reading and that’s usually been my response to books. The adaptations I like the most are the ones where the books are either un-cinematic or leave enough space for the reader and adaptor to come in and make it personal, so I feel with all of the ones I’ve done they’re almost half-adaptations and half-originals. A lot of books, I feel, write themselves as screenplays which is interesting because you’re just transcribing, but The Wings of the Dove doesn’t have any scenes, it’s all told in off-screen scenes as it were, and Drive didn’t have of those character relationships but it had that fantastic central character and atmosphere which I fell in love with, but I almost had to invent a story around that. The one thing I’d say is common to all the books I’ve adapted was that all those brilliant novelists had created really strong characters, and when you have great characters you can invent new scenes as a screenwriter and still be true to the book. One of the great things about adapting a book is capturing that first experience I had as a reader which is something a lot of people have when you read it and you think that nobody else quite understands this book like you do or have such an emotional response to it. Lots of people do experience that, but the privilege of adapting is that you get to transpose your feelings as a first-time reader into the film you’re making. It’s an emotional response to something you love that makes you want to desperately be a part of it.

Regarding the film’s three leads, what do you feel each of them brought to their individual characters that you, as a director, felt helped make the film with you?

One of the things that all three have is that their screen personas are very likable. Viggo’s obviously played very heroic parts, Kirsten has a massive fan base and is a brilliant actress so we’re on her side very quickly, and Oscar has this sort of wide-eyed innocence which again, in something like Inside Llewyn Davis, we’re on his side almost instantly. It was very important to choose actors who the audience would naturally sympathise with because Patricia Highsmith’s characters are very difficult and pretty unlikable with some of the stuff they do, and the film isn’t going to endear them to audiences. It helps with this notion that people aren’t what they seem, so the audience would be thinking that Viggo’s the hero and Kirsten is different from what she ends up being. I think the audience has certain expectations for whoever you cast and you have to use that to your advantage in order to surprise them. So much of the characters comes from the book but I was very fortunate to have these three actors on board to give what I feel to be absolutely stunning performances.

Was there a collaborative process between you and the actors, in building not just characters but story and style that made it into the final film?

Very much so, because one of the things I was very lucky to have had happen on Drive was that Nicolas Refn was incredibly inclusive. I went and lived with him for a few weeks in LA, and the actors would come round and there would be discussions and I’d go away and rewrite over and over without the pressure of the shoot going on. I tried to do the same thing with Two Faces, and we’d have rehearsals a month before shooting which is quite rare because normally they’d happen closer to the start of production but to me, as a writer, I felt it didn’t give me enough time to respond to their notes. We had a week of intense discussions about their characters while I went and rewrote with a month of relative pre-production pressure as opposed to the week before where it gets so manic that I don’t think I can do the best writing. I also went and visited them all individually and got their notes, which again was very useful. To me, actors are the best collaborators because you can obtain more than you realise from them, and it’s all down to Nicolas’ openness on Drive that you don’t see a lot of in writer-director relationships. He was completely confident and happy about working with everyone to better the film, which I thought was great for someone like him.

The film is a very European affair, featuring locations in Crete, Athens and Istanbul to name a few. What did these particular places mean to you and your vision of the story?

I had been to lots of those places and because the film took so long before it actually happened – like if I was on holiday in Crete and thought to myself that I’d like to film Two Faces here if possible – I had a chance to walk around and check it out. Then there’s the realities of filmmaking, like when we first started to do it around the same time of the troubles in Greece we were told there was nowhere we’d be able to shoot so we went location hunting in Croatia or Turkey for Greece, but eventually I managed to get a lot of the places I had originally scouted whilst on holiday and then again whilst in pre-production. For me, the landscapes and particularly the ones in Crete I thought were so strong in reflecting the psychology of the characters and in a way it almost strips them of their illusions. Like, for instance, Viggo’s white suit gets dirty and Kirsten’s dress gets dusty, and I felt there was something about the savagery of those mountains and this harsh landscape I felt was so important for the telling of this story which is when you get pretty people coming from wealth and civilisation, and how they also become not just victims of each other but also victims of this harsh world that’s been established. So yeah, I did feel that scouting for these locations was extremely important in that regard to develop the psychology of the situation.

Once again, a huge thanks to Hossein Amini  whom we are indebted to for taking the time to answer our questions, and we hope you had as much fun reading as we did chatting to him.

The Two Faces of January opens in UK cinemas on Friday 16th May 2014.