Two Faces of January fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. And as I wrote here last week, “This clever, atmospheric, splendidly acted, cat-and-mouse thriller is playing in New York city at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street and AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street. I also wrote: “Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel was adapted by acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, Drive, Killshot, Wings of a Dove) and Amini’s directorial debut is impressive. Viggo Mortensen is Chester, a sophisticated and wealthy American, who has brought his young second wife, Colette, played by Kirsten Dunst, to do some sightseeing in Greece. They meet a likable penny-ante conman, Rydal, a smart, young, Greek-speaking American tour guide, played by Oscar Isaac. The three Americans are drawn to each other in different ways, for obvious and mysterious reasons. Colette doesn’t fully realize Chester made money by defrauding people in America; and she is unaware that he killed a man who tracked him to their hotel on behalf of people Chester swindled. Chester tells Rydal the dead man is just drunk and Rydal helps carry him to his hotel room. The next day, the three of them begin a journey by bus. Soon Rydal and Colette learn that Chester is wanted for murder and they might be arrested as accomplices. She pulls away from Chester and toward Rydal. While on the run, Chester becomes increasingly jealous of Rydal and there is an underlying competition between them, perhaps for Colette. It’s unlikely there will be a happy outcome.” Last week I posted the roundtable interview that I participated in with Amini. That same day, I took part in the following roundtable interview with Mortensen and Dunst. I note my questions.
Q: Did you two know each other before making this movie?
Kirsten Dunst: We once met in an elevator in Toronto. We didn’t know we were going to work together. I don’t think we knew we were making this movie yet because then I would have been like, “Viggo, this is going to be an intense movie.” We met again for the rehearsal period for Two Faces of January, a month before shooting for a few days.
Viggo Mortensen: That was really helpful, because Hoss got Kristen, Oscar Isaac and me together so we could get to know each other a little bit and start having a shorthand between us. That’s important because a lot of times when you’re shooting you’re just thrown together with people you don’t know. You do your best and it usually works out, but it’s much better if you know each other. I love that process before you start shooting because it’s the chance to learn how to see the world from the point of view of a different mind. This allowed Hoss to hear any doubts, questions, and thoughts we had on the script. Then he went back and worked on it some more. And improved it. And he did the same things with his crew members. He worked with everybody.
Q: What do you look for in a script at this point in your career?
Viggo Mortensen: Something I want to see in a movie theater. You gotta please yourself as an artist. And if somebody else likes it, great. You gotta do something for yourself–it sounds selfish, but it’s the best thing.
KD: That’s how you can be your best, too.
VM: It’s really nice when you come across a smart script like this one with a smart story, great dialogue, and great character relationships. That makes it so much more fun to play.
Q: Talk about Hossein Amini, a first-time director who directed his script with you experienced actors.
VM: He used a lot of common sense. Hossein’s a gentleman. He’s intelligent, he’s well-spoken, he’s thoughtful, and he’s patient. You can’t spend twenty years making one movie as he did with this without patience. And he learned as a screenwriter from his experiences on sets watching very different kinds of directors, and watching them work with his script and work with actors. He kept the best of that and was well prepared and, working day to day, practical, which was important because we had to move around a lot on a tight schedule.
Q: Greece is such a magical place that fuels the creative juices of artists. What was that atmosphere like for you when you weren’t shooting?
VM: When I read the script, it described, these wonderful places. The script read like one of those great old movies from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, and you can imagine the kind of color that was described. It felt like an adventure we were going to go on, in terms of knowing what the story is about. We felt we were shooting the kind of movie they don’t make very often anymore–and they don’t make them in this way. We didn’t have to make believe anything about where we were shooting. There was no green screen behind us. It was great.
KD: We walked to work from our hotel where we were staying, everything was in very close proximity to each other. If I got done early from work I’d go swimming in the sea, which was such a luxury. I’d just take a cab to the local beach and it was so nice. They have paddle boats you can take. I hadn’t really shot a movie where it felt I could be on vacation before. This was the only time. Now I understand why Adam Sandler does every movie in a different location. I gotta get on one of those movies!
Q: Is there anything else you immediately think of about making the movie?
VM: Kirsten feeding the monastery’s cats…
KD: I fed a lot of cats [laughter]. I remember a luminous scene with a lighter. Viggo put the lighter down and was holding me, and it was against me and so hot. I was afraid and didn’t want to move my arm. And I came away with something like a scar!
Q: Hossein says he loves Patricia Highsmith’s characters because they have all these contradictions. How do you see them?
VM: I like that they’re messy. Hossein’s script was really expertly written, it’s a great adaptation. It’s one of those rare times that the adatation is probably better in terms of the characters. They’re more layered. In the book, with Colette, there’s not much there. She’s an opportunist…
KD: She’s a little bit of a floozy in the book.
VM: She doesn’t really have any feelings that we can see. [She goes after] anything that moves [Laughter] But even when she does that, it isn’t very interesting in the book. And Chester is kind of a slob, right? Paranoid and crazy, starts at sixty instead of starting at zero, doesn’t get anywhere. The stories that Highsmith writes let you have secrets and your world, you don’t have to make it all up for yourself because it’s there on the page and you just have to live up to it.
Q: Why do you think Colette stays with Chester?
KD: I think that first of all, she has no choice in the film, though you don’t know in the beginning what their whole situation is. They’re already on the lam. She’s kind of stuck with him, what’s she gonna do? She’s been lying about things, too, and turning a blind eye to what he does, but she’s also going along with it. Also the story take place at a time when women didn’t really question their husbands as much. He’s the one making the money. Also, Colette doesn’t really understand what really went down at the hotel because Chester’s keeping the killing secret from her. And as soon as she realizes what he did, she does turn. Still, she doesn’t have the choice to just leave him. She’s already attached to him and that whole thing.
VM: Maybe, she’s been turning a blind eye for a long time but then can’t take it anymore.
Q: Do you think Chester goes a bit crazy?
VM: I don’t think he is crazy. I think he does some things that are crazy or that are disturbing to watch, even embarrassing sometimes. But he’s just very human, as are Colette and Rydal.
KD: The most embarrassing is when you came back from the bathroom and…Did that stay in the movie? No? Oh, too bad…
VM: Chester’s really drunk and there was a stain there on the khaki pants I was wearing. And Hossein was like, “No, no, no, we have to do another take!” And I said, “Why, everything is perfect.” And he points to the front of my pants.
KD: That was so funny.
VM: I think Chester is weak at times and he is almost crazy with jealousy, that’s for sure. And that has the opposite effect from what he wants. His being worried about losing her makes him push her away even more. That’s the classic result that happens sometimes. There are film noir stories where at the end you aren’t even sure of the characters’ names. But one thing you know is true about my character is that he loves his wife. That’s probably the only thing you can be sure of.
Danny Peary: I’m not sure of it. Part of the movie is about their marriage falling apart.
VM: Yes, that’s true.
KD: That doesn’t mean there’s not love there still.
DP: In Contempt, which Hossein was inspired by, Brigitte Bardot’s character is so fickle that she falls out of love with her husband in an instant. Is there a fickleness to Colette and she falls out of love?
KD: Listen, you gotta love the people you play. I don’t look at her and go she’s fickle. Yes, some of the moves she makes are to protect herself, but I do think she loves her husband. I think Chester does start to push her away and reveals ugly things in his character that she hasn’t really come in contact with before.
Q: Colette seems naïve and she primarily latches onto Chester and then Rydal. Did you personally create those dynamics in this character?
KD: Of course, always you have to.
Q: Because it was vague in the book?
KD: No, I went off Hoss’s script for what I needed to do.
Q: Hossein told us that he was surprised to see different characters then he’d written once you added your own personal touches.
VM: It was also him. He wrote Chester to be more elegant and classier than he was in the book, which gave us somewhere to start and surprise the audience.
KD: It’s interesting how he did it, so we aren’t terrible people from the beginning. You just know something bad is going to happen.
VM: We looked at the book and there might have been a couple of turns of a phrase, or some aspect, or some feeling that we wanted to preserve. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the book.
Q: Is there anything that you contributed to Chester that wasn’t in the script?
VM: One thing you don’t see on the screen is that I spoke to people of my dad’s generation, who were in WWII, in the Air Force, the army, the marines. I asked them about some of the technology that we use in the script, and also about what their experiences were like. And I looked at photographs and documentaries of the men and women who grew up in the Depression as little kids, and then went through WWII. They were tough and resilient, they had to be. It still is for women, but it’s different for men now. There was more uniformity of presentation then. Even a working-class guy, if he had one jacket, he’d wear it. You see these pictures of baseball stadiums back then, and, all the guys are wearing suits and ties and fedoras. There was something about presentation that was important. And that’s in my character a bit. Because when he’s really drunk and sloppy if he’s with Colette he kind of makes an effort to put himself together for her, and also for himself. Because his identity is very tied into his presentation.
DP: If Chester came into a lot of money, would they settle down?
VM: Is there enough money when he’d stop doing what he’s doing, so he wouldn’t have to anymore? Hmm.
KD: I think they’d be relaxing somewhere, enjoying the high life. They’d have the best time.
VM: They’ve had the best times in the past. There’s a night Chester references the morning after a hangover, saying, “Ahh, the beachhouse.” So I think they’ll again have some real fun.