IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Ami Canaan Mann Talks 'Texas Killing Fields' Blu-ray and DVD

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 17:52 Written by  Rocio Anica
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Ami Canaan Mann Talks 'Texas Killing Fields' Blu-ray and DVD

Crime movies are a captivating genre because they are the perfect holdall; a crime thriller can be altogether suspenseful and grotesque and profound, a reflection of our dual humanity. It is in this spirit that Ami Canaan Mann (Morning, Friday Night Lights) helmed Texas Killing Fields, which is available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning January 31st, and is the director's follow-up feature film after more than a decade of writing and directing for TV.

The seedling for the script is found in Texas City, the outskirts of which harbor a massive, haunting field with a macabre history. Over sixty murders were dumped within this region, known by locals as the Killing Fields and it was from this that director/producer Michael Mann (Thief, Heat) was inspired to commission a script. Like a lot of movies in Hollywood, it took years for all the right particles to come together and greenlight a story into creation but when it finally did, the story succeeded in its director’s aim to do three important things: do right by the families of the real victims, put a face to the victims of sexual assault murders, and to evoke the horror of the story in a sophisticated, non-procedural manner.

To achieve all that, Texas Killing Fields makes use of the genre’s elasticity. On the one hand, you have the high-stakes plot: the story focuses on two detectives, committed to finding the culprit of a murder that had been dumped in the field, who end up having to race the clock in order to save the life of another potential Killing Field victim, played by Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass). Sam Worthington (Avatar) plays Detective Mike Souder, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) plays his partner, Brian Heigh, and Jessica Chastain (The Help) plays the former-Mrs.-Souder, Detective Pam Stall.

That’s the story. Yet, on the other hand, you get an evocative crime movie. It’s the kind of story that shows you more by showing less, making the story’s ultimate villainy ambiguous and not black and white, the likes of which are rare. That was Ami Canaan Mann’s vision, and in celebration of the movie’s Blu-ray and DVD release this week, I was lucky enough to get to speak to her on behalf of IAR. She shared her thoughts about reading the research, working with such a talented cast, and how, in achieving her vision, she approached it like a ghost story.

Here is what she had to say:

IAR: To begin with, since the movie is based on over sixty murders of women, committed by different suspects throughout several decades, the underlying implication is that women are grossly mistreated because of their physical vulnerabilities; that’s really where the horror begins. In what ways, if at all, did that implication influence you or affect your approach to the story as a director?

Ami Canaan Mann: It definitely affected my approach, because, at the outset, it’s what attracted me to the material. During the research and reading the research even before I read the screenplay, I don’t know why I picked up the research before I picked up the screenplay, the thing that really struck me was that it wasn’t one man. What really struck me was that there was a series of men; the phenomena of these crimes had been going on since 1969. So, if you do that math, that means that there were guys in the ‘70s who committed these crimes and dumped the bodies, and later more who also dumped the bodies. So to me the story kind of pointed a finger at the systemic nature of serial sexual assault crime. That there was something ubiquitous about it, that there’s something societal, that’s bigger than one bad apple. You know, it’s phenomena. So if there was any way I could help tell or shed a little bit of light on that, within a crime genre story, then, I felt that would be a good thing to do.

What are you most proud of about this movie? I know that you had directed an episode of Friday Night Lights right before shooting Texas Killing Fields, but directing features is so very different, so what about Texas Killing Fields’ final cut are you most proud of, or was special for you?

Mann: I’m really proud of the work of the cast and the crew, because it was inspired by real events. There was, unfortunately, a lot of information to take in; families, and the real detectives, and crime scene photos, and going to locations where some bodies were found, going to the morgue and talking to real detectives. The crew, the cast and myself, we all immersed ourselves in that really tough world. Some of the things that we saw, the things I asked everyone to look at and which they did, are the kind of things, the kinds of crime scenes, that are the kind of things that literally never leave your brain. They’re just tattooed in your brain. I’m just very proud and honored that for the sake of trying to help tell this story, I had a cast and crew willing to go down that very tough road. I think that in the end, we were all on the same page about how we wanted to approach the material, and at the end of the day that’s the story we told.

It sounds like you were blessed with a really wonderful cast and crew, Sam Worthington, in particular, was very committed. He worked with a dialect coach to nail his accent, right? How long did he prepare for his role?

Mann: He actually started right away in prep. It’s funny because Texas is huge. There are a lot of different accents within the state of Texas. And Texas City, which is where the story takes place, is thirty minutes south of Houston and a Texas-City accent is really different than an Austin accent, which is different than a Houston accent. He actually spent a lot of time with the guy who his character’s based on. I think he did a really good job of replicating the tone and the cadence and the pacing of how the real Mike speaks.

The film was shot in thirty-two days, correct? Can you talk a little bit about how you prepare yourself for a shoot, any rituals that you engage in?

Mann: Well it all starts with making sure that you understand the characters and their narratives, making sure that you have a clear grasp of every character’s motivation and the inherent tensions and conflicts between the characters and then the story itself. Then it’s the research. In terms of literal preparing, I actually don’t do storyboards, I do photo storyboards. I do a lot of pre-scouting, so I take a lot of photos. I’ve been doing photography since I was about thirteen. So then when I come on set, I’ve got my shot list and usually the shots are backed up by pictures that I’ve taken, sort of to say this is what we’re shooting, this is the order we’re shooting it in, and if we have to, I designate which are the priority shots, and which we can lose. I also prepare that way for TV shows, as well.

Finally, I know Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) was attached to the project before you, and he was quoted once as saying that the script was “too dark to get made,” did you encounter any difficulty in securing financing because of that?

Mann: The script had been in development for a long time; Michael (Mann) and (writer) Donald (Ferrarone) had been doing it for a long time. Michael commissioned the script about ten-eleven years ago. So it had gone through a lot of different versions. I’m not sure what version Danny Boyle had. When I read the script, it was definitely dark. When I first sat down with Don, one of the things I told him was that I wanted to elevate the Chloe Moretz character and let her be a real focus. To let her sort of be the face of victims past and, unfortunately, potential victims in the future, then the other thing I mentioned to him was that aesthetically I wanted to make sure that I was never graphic. I felt with this story it would be inappropriate to be literal and graphic, but rather the approach should be to kind of treat it like a ghost story and be almost seductive. It’s a very hard place to go to, the place itself, and the story is a very tough story. It’s a tough place and the characters in there are in a tough position and so I thought that if you were graphic, you’d just turn people off. I felt that approach should be visually kind of beautiful so the viewer has that inherent tension of both wanting to be there and not wanting to be there. The way that you feel when you’re watching a ghost story or like when you were a kid and there was that haunted house down the street; you both wanted to know and didn’t want to know what was in that house. Don’s notion was similar as well, and so we were off and running at that point.

To watch our exclusive video interview with Sam Worthington and director Ami Canaan Mann about Texas Killing Fields, please click here.

Texas Killing Fields is available on Blu-ray and DVD now!

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