Director Hussein Amini on The Story Behind The Two Faces of January

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Production for The Two Faces of January began in Athens in August of 2012 and the first day was a major event. Director Hussein Amini planned to stage the first shot at Athens’ Acropolis, a gathering spot of ancient buildings and one of Europe’s biggest tourist traps; closing it off for filming was more than a challenge. Amini has written over a dozen scripts, many of them adaptations of classics (he earned an Oscar nom for for his adaptation of Henry James’ “Wings of the Dove”), but Two Face of January is his directorial debut, and inaugurating production at one of the most complicated, over-populated destinations in the world was an ambitious for many reasons.

“We almost didn’t get to film because of all the troubles going on,” Hussein said, referring to the economic and social revolutions afoot in Greece in the summer of 2012. Location managers considered other countries to stand in for the shooting locations of Turkey and Greece, but Hussein, who’d had a 15-year love affair with Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Two Faces of January,” hoped too deeply to adapt that story through his lens. “The novel ends in Paris, which feels like a return home. I wanted the film to end in Crete because of how underrepresented the streets there are; they’re nondescript and unfamiliar to moviegoers.” Yet the riddle-like title and the complicated relationship between the handsome young Rydal (Oscar Isaac) and the older, eerily patrician Chester (Viggo Mortensen) lends the landscape a sense of familiarity. Crete was the place Hussein wanted to end the film’s conflict for many reasons. “There are undercurrents in the dialogue about the Greeks and the Turks, but this is also a story about disappointed sons.”

Rydal (Isaacs) is a little like an immoral Will Hunting—a Yale drop from a complicated East Coast family, Rydal's strongest skill is convincing wealthy women he’s not conning them. You can imagine Chester (Mortensen) was just like him once. Handsome and successful, Chester and his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) have taken a trip to the Mediterranean and while she seems to live out the vision of a stable and glamorous life he wants, Chester ultimately reveals this vacation is really a mad plan to outrun businessmen he’s swindled. It seems when Patricia Highsmith puts Americans in Europe, their intentions are never wholesome.

The first film made of a Highsmith book was Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train—a great film and one Hussein referred to as a big stylistic influence; but the bigger stylistic influence was the French adapation of her most popular book, “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” With a shining Alain Delon in a sleek white suit, René Clément’s Purple Noon (aka Plein Soleil) didn’t cast Tom Ripley as a tragic, closeted, social climber, instead Delon’s Tom was a sociopath—but wow was he a glamorous criminal!

Hussein said Purple Noon had special relevance to him because his love for film begins with film noir (he specifically cherishes Kiss Me Deadly). “The 60s was such a novel period, with the French New Wave and late eras of noir… In recreating that period, it was important not to be too flashy or contemporary, though still I needed a modern feel because Highsmiths’ characters are modern. They change so quickly from being kind to cruel or vicious to suddenly remorseful. It doesn’t happen in scenes; it happens in moments. She captures a modern psychology.”

Hussein reported that in test screenings of Two Faces of January, audiences said they didn’t know who to root for. “Highsmith has this gift for stripping characters and saying: “look at what they are.” She’s not trying to make them lovable. In a way those characters are so fragile; [representing that] is the challenge of the movie." Hussein speaks as if to himself: "I like Chester, I don’t, I like him, he’s fascinating, but he’s not fascinating the way villains are because he’s got these moments of dignity.”

Typically, the world of Highsmith’s complicated Americans is dappled with afternoon sun, lounged alongside villas, drowsy in half moored boats. The shady spots they choose to hide in are the epitome of glamour—which Hussein surprisingly thought “almost works against the darkness of the characters. I wanted to start of with Athens as a cliché picture postcard of tourism, but gradually, as these characters unravel and disintegrate, I wanted to find them landscapes that reflected their descent; growing more minimal, rugged, savage, punishing with heat. By the time they get to Istanbul, the landscape is more psychological landscape than glamour.”

Ultimately, Hussein’s attachment to the location was rooted in memories of childhood holidays in Greece (Hussein is from England) and a respect for the weight of the land’s legends. “When I read the novel I wondered what the two faces of January was on about. On the one hand, the iconic “Faces of Janus” are represented with two faces pointing away from each other. The god January is about the new replacing the old. There’s this very mythical thing that in order to become a man you have to kill your father. Competition and admiration are inside the father and son relationship—and Highsmith is more interested in relationships between men.” As with Ripley, Highsmith dispenses with women quite quickly. (We'll see an exception to this story in 2015, when an adaptation of Highsmith's Single White Female styled "The Price of Salt" hits theaters, under the title Carol, directed by Todd Haynes.)

Yet Hussein clearly identifies with Highsmith’s mercurial men—at one point confessing "this such might be too personal," but in the end of the film, after the stress and threats of a life of bad dealings are finally bearing down, Hussein gave the characters a cathartic resolution, the sort borne of myth. “I wanted him to feel like he was punished for what he’s done. When I’ve been to Turkey, there are so many mosques and they never call for prayer at the same time; it’s always different times and the sound of the crowds outside are constant and haunting. In Turkey, he’s just a defeated man.” When I ask which character Hussein is describing, he shrugs.

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