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The Two Faces Of January’s Hossein Amini, Viggo Mortensen, and Kirsten Dunst

On Adapting Patricia Highsmith

Sep 26, 2014 Web Exclusive
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Hossein Amini bided his time before stepping behind a movie camera. The Iranian-born writer has been at work in film for 20 years, penning screenplays for lavish period pictures (The Four Feathers, Jude), big-budget fantasies (Snow White and The Huntsman, 47 Ronin), and Nicolas Winding Refn’s arthouse thriller, Drive. His script for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove earned him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay; literary adaptations seem to be his specialty.

“I feel like I’m in this very private place with a book that I’m reading,” Amini explained at a New York press junket. “That, for me, is the joy of adapting. You’re trying to recapture the experience of reading something for the very first time.”

After two decades of screenwriting – and watching and learning from Nic Refn on the set of Drive in 2011 – Amini has made his debut as a director. His first feature is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 thriller, The Two Faces of January. Highsmith’s novels have been a treasure trove for filmmakers for almost seven decades: Alfred Hitchcock took on her Strangers on a Train in 1951; Matt Damon starred as The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999, while the same character had been played by Alain Delon (in Purple Noon) in 1960 and by Dennis Hopper (in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend) in 1977. Her works often centered on con-men, crooks, or otherwise unsavory characters.

“For me, Highsmith’s great ability is to find the tiny, human details in her criminals,” said Amini. “What that means as a reader, and as a viewer – that’s how she puts you in their shoes, because you see so much you recognize in yourself.”

Actor Viggo Mortensen famously hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings before he took on what would become the biggest role of his career in Peter Jackson’s series of adaptations. When it came to Patricia Highsmith, though, it was clear Mortensen had done his reading, and was able to go on at length about the writer’s style.

“The characters are complicated, and sometimes weak,” said Mortensen. “There is a certain vulnerability that Highsmith’s really good at, showing the ugly side; the embarrassing-to-look-at moments in terms of behavior, and even appearance in some cases.”

In the film, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is a scam artist on the lam in Greece with his younger wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst.) They cross paths with another American abroad: smalltime crook Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who they form a quick friendship with. When Chester accidentally kills a private investigator sent to capture him, Rydal becomes an accomplice and the three flee to the Greek islands to avoid authorities. There, Colette becomes the apex of a love triangle that turns the two men against each other.

When speaking about the project, Mortensen praised Amini’s ability to bring out the strengths of Highsmith’s writing, but also his willingness to expand on areas where the source material had lacked detail. One example he provided was the film’s early scenes: in Amini’s adaptation, we open on Chester and Colette in happier times, while the novel begins with the couple already in turmoil.

“Chester was already sort of what he becomes in the movie,” explained Mortensen. “You already see him sweaty, and desperate, and paranoid. It’s just not as interesting; it doesn’t give you somewhere to go, as an actor … But when you first see us [in the film], we look happy. You think, what a great life they have!”

Another place where Amini was able to color in his own details was Kirsten Dunst’s character, Colette, who in the novel wasn’t as complex or multi-faceted as she was portrayed in the film.

“The females in [Highsmith’s] stories are not typically as well-written or layered as the male characters,” said Mortensen. “Colette, in the novel, is a typical Highsmith female, almost objectified, really. Not real deep. In the movie, we made her much more interesting.”

“I wanted to be a part of this because I loved the script so much,” said Dunst. “I wanted to make Colette as much a character as I could … the hardest thing, for me, [was] making her as full as possible when she could have easily been a throwaway kind of role, if portrayed differently.”

“In the book there’s not a lot to her,” Mortensen agreed. “There aren’t many dimensions to her, and she doesn’t have much class or elegance or intelligence, or thoughtfulness or sensitivity. [Hossein Amini] wrote it better, and then [Kirsten] took it further.”

In the end, the liberties Amini took with his source material paid off in the film. While he allowed himself to make changes, he didn’t lose the qualities that make Highsmith’s work intriguing in the first place; in particular, the moral ambiguity of her characters.

“[Hossein] didn’t shy away from that,” Mortensen said. “And it’s interesting to play, as actors. You’re not just playing a bad person or a good person.”

***

The Two Faces of January is now in theaters and available on demand. For more information about the film, check out its website.



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