The Two Faces of January - Hossein Amini interview
Compiled by Jason Palmer and Rob Carnevale
WRITER-director Hossein Amini talks about why adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Two Faces of January has long been a passion project and how he went about making it more cinematic.
He also talks about being a first-time director and having to wait for his opportunity as well as the importance and privilege of collaborating with his actors. He was speaking at a UK press conference.
Q. You first read this novel when you were a student and it’s been festering with you ever since? Why this novel in particular?
Hossein Amini: I’ve always liked crime thrillers but this was a crime thriller, I thought, about three very ordinary characters who we could have met and who are very much like us. It’s the fact that these people are thrown into this world of crime and it’s the damage that they do to themselves. It wasn’t outside forces like policemen or criminals or whatever. It was really watching this very intimate triangle and the dynamics of it. The characters just stayed with me for 20 years. I kept re-reading it and re-reading it and re-imaginging them differently. When I re-read it, I remember thinking Chester would be handsome and was wearing a white suit. But actually in the book, he’s very different. But that’s what’s greta thing saboutb the time it took to write – it was a combination of what was in my head and what was in the book.
Q. How did you manage to stay so true to the book yet embellish it and make it so cinematic?
Hossein Amini: I don’t think you can do that as a screenwriter unless you have three brilliant characters. I think that’s what Highsmith is so great at. I think she transcends the crime genre. It’s not one of her best but I think she just creates characters… But that’s what’s great about collaborating with actors. I think one of the great privileges on this movie was all the meetings that we had beforehand. It encouraged people to suggest changing things and, for me as a screenwriter, I think the collaboration with actors is so valuable. It’s something I moan about now but some directors, like Nicolas Winding Refn on Drive was fantastic because he completely involved me in that process, but others keep you out. And I think if they’re confident, they give you that freedom to work with the actors and I find they are often the best collaborators in developing a screenplay. I know my writing gets better and, certainly in this case, got better by spending a lot of time talking to the actors.
Q. Were you ever tempted to change the name of the film?
Hossein Amini: No, because the thing I liked about it is that January is the two-headed God and there were things about the fact that the two heads are joined but they’re facing in different directions. I thought that was very much symbolic of Chester and Rydal in that they hate each other and are fighting over Colette but somehow because of Colette they’re drawn to each other and they can’t escape each other, whether it’s through guilt or shared love of her, they’re tied. And I thought the other thing about January, the God, was that it’s the old giving way to the new and the whole notion of the Greek myth that the son needs to kill the father in order to become a man. I thought that rite of passage was very much Rydal’s story. So, despite losing the January aspect of it, which was largely to do with having heat and sun, I felt symbolically it worked. It’s a tough title because you have to explain it but, to me, it says a lot about what the film is about.
Q. Was it always your plan to shift from writing to directing? And how did you come to direct The Two Faces of January as your first movie?
Hossein Amini: When I read it at university I just assumed that I’d be writing it and directing it immediately. It just didn’t happen for years. I just couldn’t get a job and when I finally got hired to write something, it never got made. So, you become a screenwriter and in this industry once you’re one thing, it’s very hard to do both unless you start off being a writer-director. But this was the book that I wanted to do and this was the one that I tried to get done for so many years. But that’s what I started off wanting to do – be a director. And it happened really because Viggo, Oscar and Kirsten said they were happy for me to direct. I’m sure it made a lot of people nervous… a first-time director and stuff. But they never treated me like a first-time director, and neither did the crew, the producers or the financiers. But you need support. If they hadn’t agreed to let me direct, I’d have probably said I was happy to let someone else so long as I could write it.