The Talented Mr. Amini: Oscar-nominated screenwriter helms Patricia Highsmith's devious 'Two Faces of January'

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Brazen bitchery occurs in the movie version of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d when two old screen divas brush up against each other. Says one (Elizabeth Taylor) to the other (Kim Novak): “There are only two things I dislike about you. Your face.”

When males of the species—ones who aren’t quite what they seem—collide in the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, it’s another story.

It’s an almost-murder story, as adapted by Hossein Amini in his movie-directing debut—almost because a murder really isn’t technically committed here, but that doesn’t prevent the principals from behaving as if it had, and it’s the devil to pay.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) looks very much the picture of prosperity and sophistication, ambling around the Acropolis in his white suit with his young trophy wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), in the summer of ’62. At least he looks that way from the scraping-by level of Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a clean-cut American abroad who serves as the local tour guide who alternately charms and scams his clientele. On closer inspection—like, when he helps Chester stash the corpse of a gun-wielding hood who has come to recover the money Chester has swindled and has been accidentally killed in the ensuing struggle—Rydal realizes he’s greatly outclassed as a thief and decides to throw in with the MacFarlands, especially with Colette.

Basically, that’s the set-up, and it holds in the way that an old-fashioned suspenser holds—just three people, constantly changing faces, trying to gain the advantage.

“My attraction to the property was really these three characters and how they devolved,” admits Amini, a London-raised Iranian who wrote the screenplays for Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman, the BAFTA-nominated The Dying of the Light, the Oscar-nominated The Wings of the Dove, The (2002) Four Feathers and 47 Ronin.

“One moment you’re rooting for one character, then your allegiance shifts very quickly to another. That made them very human to me, and that’s one of the things I love about Highsmith’s writing. She sort of looks for the criminal in all of us and, at the same time, finds the human in our criminals. That’s pretty unique to her. I think Dostoyevsky is her big hero, and Crime and Punishment is her favorite book. There is something about the way that she uses the crime genre to explore human behavior that just drew me to her. I love thrillers, but I also love character dramas.”

Highsmith has a history of creating maximum tension among a minimum of characters—notably with Strangers on a Train (which Hitchcock filmed, famously, in 1951) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (which Anthony Minghella filmed in 1999 and René Clément in 1960 as Purple Noon). Two more Highsmiths are now en route to the screen: Carol (from The Price of Salt) with Cate Blanchett and The Blunderer.

Since movies rise or fall on their storytelling skills, Amini believes a writer has an edge on other film professions in turning director. “I’m always, when I’m writing, kind of directing it in my head. Here, I storyboarded the whole thing—even the intimate dialogue scenes. I directed it once in my head, once storyboarding, then I did the real directing when everything changed, but I at least felt confident going in.”

All but two of Amini’s screenplays have been adaptations of (usually classic) novels. The two originals that he wrote, ironically, were totally rewritten. “One was a murder mystery set in Shanghai, called Shanghai, and it got changed during the shooting. I never saw it, but I was the sole person credited with the script. The other one was for the last Jack Ryan movie, and they threw out my script completely.”

Unlike most adapters, Amini factors himself and his feelings into his writing. “My adaptations aren’t about transposing a book into a screenplay. It’s almost about my reaction when I’m reading it. The bits that move me I’ll use in the script. Sometimes I’m flipping through pages, speed-reading, because I’m finding it a bit slow. That, too, is part of the experience. It’s me as the lover of the book—plus the book and all the other influences that go into screenwriting. I’m interested in delivering my experience of reading the book more than just delivering the book to the screen. That whole experience, which I think every reader has—feeling incredibly moved or suddenly reading really quickly because they want to know what happens next—is more important in the adaptation than necessarily putting down everything.”

It didn’t bother him a whit that The Two Faces of January got away with no-murder. In point of fact, he actually preferred it that way. “I never wanted Chester to be a murderer. There was something about him in the book. Even though he does some terrible things, one of the reasons I never lost sympathy for him—or at least it came back whenever I lost it—was that he wasn’t a truly bad man. He was more an unlucky man. It’s almost as if the gods had it in for him. That’s probably punishment for him defaulting before. He’s a crook and he’s a criminal, but he’s like all those great American con men who burgeoned through the ’50s. Their code was that they didn’t hurt people, and I thought that was very important to his character. He can defend himself in a fight, but he’s not a killer. He feels anguish over what he’s done.

“When I first read the book, Chester was the character who stuck with me—a bit like Harry Lime in The Third Man—one of those villains who is the hero of his own life.”

Chester is even chased like Harry Lime toward the end of the picture in a deliberate homage to Carol Reed’s classic thriller. “The Third Man is a film I’ve adored all my life. The idea of the chase is that—the same with Harry Lime—he was always being chased by the ghosts of his victims rather than the police—the echoing footsteps, the water splashing. I liked the idea they’re running away from something they did.”

Following Two Faces’ Sept. 26 debut from Magnolia Pictures, you’ll next encounter Amini unhyphenated strictly as a screenwriter rather than as a writer-director. He adapted John le Carré’s novel Our Kind of Traitor for director Susanna White and actors Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård. The deal was done before Two Faces.

“Because I’ve just done one and I’ve got the bug, I’d be willing to do another writing-directing job. In fact, I’m trying to figure out something with Working Title, the company that produced Two Faces. I’d love to do a heist story and a love story.

“I’m a big fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French director [Bob the Gambler, Army of Shadows]. His movies have tough, hardened criminals whose Achilles’ heel is that they all fall madly in love. It’s a film noir trait. That’s a genre I’ve always loved. It’s the romantic side of that genre that I love more than the shadows and the lighting.

“But I do love writing for a director as well. In an ideal world, I’d love to do both, but there are certain scales of projects and subjects that I don’t feel comfortable directing. For me, the stuff I find exciting is the more intimate material. I’ll probably be a bit more choosey about the directors now. There are some amazing directors out there who can elevate what you write, and it would be great to work with them."