Interview: Hossein Amini, writer of Drive and director of The Two Faces of January
The Patricia Highsmith adaptation, starring Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortenson, is the writer's directorial debut
His name may not immediately ring a bell but Hossein Amini has penned some very recognisable films. James Mottram speaks to him about making the leap to directing with his debut The Two Faces of January
Hossein Amini bustles into a Berlin hotel, mildly flustered after a demanding day of interviews. This, after all, is largely new to him. For the past two decades, he’s been letting others do the talking, at least to journalists, as he gradually cultivated a reputation as one of Britain’s most respected screenwriters. Beginning with period dramas – Jude, The Wings of the Dove (for which he gained an Oscar nod) and The Four Feathers – more recently he gained kudos for Nicolas Winding Refn’s cult noir Drive. It was enough to get him a shot at directing his first feature.
Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, it’s actually something he’s wanted to do since he was at university. ‘It was the first thing I read that I really wanted to direct,’ he says. Re-reading it every five or so years, he never lost his love for the story – about an American couple (here played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) and their increasingly deadly relationship with a tour guide (Oscar Isaac) they meet while holidaying in Athens. ‘It was those three characters. They just got under my skin.’
When it came to dictating the style, he was largely influenced by Plein Soleil, the 1960 adaptation of Highsmith’s book The Talented Mr Ripley, rather than Anthony Minghella’s more famous 1999 film of the same name. ‘I loved The Talented Mr Ripley, but I thought one of the things Anthony Minghella did in that was try to understand the characters and one of the things I love about Highsmith is that she doesn’t really explain why people do things. There are these lurches of irrationality and they suddenly do these inexplicable things.’
Born in Iran, where he lived until his family moved to England when he was 11, it’s not hard to see why Amini – or ‘Hoss’ as everyone calls him – was taken by Highsmith. Like her characters, he’s well-spoken, highly educated and carries an air of mystery – though in truth his path into film was far from exotic. He penned spec scripts, won an agent and then spent a year bombarding the industry with his work, until a commissioning editor at the BBC read one of his screenplays and took him on.
Still, the 48-year-old Amini revelled in his new-found role as director. ‘The idea that I’d got up and didn’t have to go to a computer and write was such a pleasure! I find writing really hard. Just very difficult. I need to get a good night’s sleep.’ The unexpected problem, he said, was cutting it all together. ‘I struggled – with a lot of snow-blindness. My own insecurities, you start projecting that onto the film. It’s hard to find the good things when you’re hating it so much!’
With his first directing gig now under his belt, it’s back to the day job – with Amini adapting John le Carré’s book, Our Kind of Traitor, for director Susanna White. ‘I love watching movies. That’s as close as I can claim to being a director,’ he says, modestly. ‘I love telling things in pictures. But I feel like a writer. I still feel like a writer because I think I’ve been doing it so long. Writers are very different, personality-wise. But I love the directing experience and I’d love to direct again.’
The Two Faces of January is on general release from Fri 16 May.