Director Ami Caanan Mann’s second directorial effort, Texas Killing Fields is an elegant crime thriller inspired from a real life crime phenomenon known as the Killing Fields, an area outside a small Texas town where nearly 60 bodies were dumped.
Some 27 of the crimes remain unsolved.
Caanan Mann chose to tell the story - from the POV of the detectives Mike (Sam Worthington) and Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the real life detectives dedicated to cracking the many Killing Fields cases. She employed a ghost story mystique to the Killing Fields - as if they were a haunted house. “It’s a place you are curious about,” she says, “but you also don’t want to know what happened there.”
While Canaan Mann has directed several pieces for television, and an independent feature Morning, she’s made her career as a writer for ten years, and apparently doesn’t suffer from writer’s block: since wrapping principle photography on The Killing Fields last autumn she’s written two screenplays and a television pilot and is in development on her next film.
But she didn’t write The Killing Fields, having taken the script written and researched by ex Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Don Ferrarone.
In addition to the script’s authenticity, the film has great production and acting pedigrees: Michael Mann produces and Sam Worthington hopped on while Avatar was in theatres. Caanan Mann says, “I will be forever grateful to him for joining our tiny film.” Co-protagonist Jeffrey Dean Morgan is impressive in his role as a dedicated detective and, commented many on the Lido, bares a physical similarity to Javier Bardem. The director saw Jessica Chastain in Jolene, and together they constructed her character Pam, a Rodeo-Queen-esque cop character. “She’s tough but of course its Texas so she’s got her hair and nails perfect.” Of Chloe Grace Moretz, Canaan Mann says she “I knew she was the one” after the first few lines of the audition.
Canaan Mann spoke to Screen in Venice the day after her film’s Sala Grande screening.
After Venice, she takes her film onto San Sebastian where it opens the retrospective entitled American Way Of Death: American Film noir 1990-2010, where films will be shown by her father, director Michael Mann, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Sean Penn, Kathryn Bigelow, Walter Hill and others.
This is a much bigger project than your first film, what was different about it?
Weirdly the logistical circumstances were not at all that different than TV shows I’ve directed and my independent film: We had 32 days and a relatively low budget. From Friday Night Lights I was used to shooting 10.5 pages per day and for some reason everything I have done has tough production logistics. Everyone said, ‘32 days is not enough time’ but I don’t know any difference and I made it work.
What were the road-blocks along the way?
With the exception to the last three days there wasn’t a day in production that didn’t involve a stabbing in the chest or car chase - it isn’t a domestic drama with people standing around talking - the third to last day we shot in the Louisiana convention center and that was the first time we had air-conditioning and a Starbucks nearby. All the rest (of the shoot) was 110 degrees and in the swamps.
This is a film inspired by true events. How were the victims involved in the story?
Don (Ferrarone, screenwriter) did a very clever thing because there are unfortunately a lot of cases, and instead of focusing on one, he shows different elements of different cases over the past 40 years and the result is an amalgamation, so the movie could be about the phenomena of those crimes as opposed to one crime. The horrible truth is that various men have felt they can commit these crimes and get away with it. And it is also to tell the story from the perspective of detectives and to elevate Chloe’s character, so it’s between the two detectives and this girl which metaphorically represent the other victims.
How did you establish the mood?
When I read the script what struck me was this is an incredibly tough story and it is a true story so you can’t dismiss it. The objective was to somehow draw the audience into this world, but not be graphic (about the killings). There is no reason to see a severed limb, you can gain a diff kind of emotional impact. On one hand, I wanted to be more evocative and sensual and had a classic genre as a narrative platform and shift ever so slightly in terms of production design, almost to have a ghost story. There is a certain sensuality in ghost stories …in order for that to work the people had to feel authentic.
How did you approach the visual aspect of the film?
The idea was to be visually sensual and seductive and so that informed choices about the skeletal trees that I thought were beautiful and terrifying at the same time and really trying to capture the landscapes of Texas as well as the interior lives with the characters houses. Lighting was important, (DOP) Stuart (Dryburgh) and me said, “it needs to be gorgeous.” All the shots of Chole were at eye level, we don’t look down at her and we let the camera tell you the POV of the film and where you were meant to identify. Even with the corpse, except for one (detective) POV we are right at the water, or under the tarp with the victim.
What work did your cast do to prepare?
My cast is astonishing - they studied mock crime scenes and serial sexual assaults and graphic crime scene images. They were so incredibly dedicated and brave. Sam - was one of first people to get it, then we got Jeffrey Dean and he embodies the real Brian - he is so generous and has this gravitas and warmth. They don’t know this - but they both said almost exactly the same thing (about the project), so when we discussed the film so there is a core unity about why we tell the story. Jessica was fantastic and I knew Chloe was the one, she had no self pity and no self awareness.
How has writing helped you as a director?
I think having been a writer for so long is crucial - for character development and narrative structure. I love the editing process, hitting the delete button, making it like haiku - nothing extraneous and that helped me - those notions helped me with directing making it easier to understand here is the objective of the scene and here is what we have to achieve and through all the elements - not just words.
How has your father Michael Mann influenced your work? What was it like to work with him, what did he bring to the project?
The unique advantage of having him as producer, he is also a director but can approach logistical production from position and emphasis on the creative, which is a huge advantage. In terms of general influence, if you look at his films he has a sense of authorship and consistency of vision so I knew that the nature of the job is you must have authorship and consistency of vision.
Away from this film, what projects are you working on?
I am working on a contemporary set story of a Midwest train hopper and musician and inspired by a real person.