The Texas Killing Fields opens in the US tomorrow fresh off its debut at the Venice Film Festival. It tells the true story of the investigation of women who have gone missing in Texas. Ami Canaan Mann directs the film and answered some questions by email about it.
Women and Hollywood: This is quite a dark film what drew you to this script and this type of story?
Ami Canaan Mann: (DEA Agent) Don Ferrarone and (producer) Michael (Mann) had worked together on some of Michael’s projects when Don was in the DEA. When Don retired and wanted to embark on screenwriting, Michael commissioned this script. That was some eleven years ago. Having paid my rent writing for film and TV for about ten years, I felt that the visceral quality of Don’s script was gold. I saw shots right away. But before I’d read the script, I came across a map that was part of the attached research. It had been drawn up by a newspaper and showed where some of the bodies had been found and pictures of the victims faces. It really struck me. I found myself standing in my living room for a long time staring at the faces of those girls. There was no financing, no cast. The slimmest hope that we’d get to actually shoot the film. But I felt that if there was anything I could do to help move this story forward, I had to do it.
WaH: You were able to assemble such an amazing cast for this film. How did that happen?
Sheer good fortune. I’d seen Sam years ago in an Australian indie called ‘Somersault’ and thought he was just a great actor. He read the script and we met. And then, on the heels of appearing in the highest grossing film in the history of cinema, ‘Avatar’, he signed on to do ours - a small indie with a completely unknown director. Astonishing of him. And for which I’ll be forever grateful. Bonnie Timmermann was our casting director and led us right to Jeffrey soon after. Jeffrey’s so generous in his presence. He has a kind of warm gravitas that was perfect for ‘Brian’. Jessica I saw in ‘Jolene’. None of her other work was available at the time. I thought she was amazing. She had the qualities of toughness and femininity that were necessary to pull off ‘Pam’.
Chloe came in to audition and I knew within minutes she was the one. Her approach to ‘Little Anne’ was to have her be totally without self-pity, which, to me, seemed exactly right. Children in those circumstances don’t have self-pity, that would be a luxury. They’re just trying to move through the gauntlet of their life. Chloe got that immediately. Then the beautiful, tough Sheryl Lee. Stephen Graham who completely transformed himself. It’s almost all visual; he chose the boots his character wears and they altered his walk perfectly, the glasses we borrowed from the costumer, the pseudo-military haircut. All those choices telling his character’s story. Jason Clarke who spent time with an Aryan Brotherhood ex-con I met with Jessica in Texas City and came back with his character fully nuanced. Down to the local cast. All, to a member, terrific. Very lucky to have worked with such talented people.
WaH: Why do you think Heigh become so obsessed with saving Annie?
ACM: ‘Brian’ becomes obsessed with saving ‘Anne’ because his philosophical approach to walking through the world compels him to allow himself to feel for kids like her. It’s funny, while the ‘mismatched cops’ trope is so prevalent in this genre, the detectives that inspired this story are, in fact, exactly that paradigm. I’ve sat over pulled pork sandwiches with the real Brian and Mike back in Texas City and seen them go at each other discussing their differing approaches to crime, homicide investigation, life. The real Brian possesses this astonishingly warm presence that allows the people in his community to trust him. It stems, I think, from his faith, his family. We were lucky to get to spend the time we did with them. Sam and Jeffrey did a brilliant job of bringing the real Mike and Brian to the screen.
WaH: This feels like a town that time forgot yet I'm sure there are plenty of them across the country especially in this economic climate. Does the town have any larger significance to you?
ACM: Texas City, in some ways, remind me of the small towns I grew up in in Indiana. Company towns, businesses that are seasonally dependent. Certainly a population effected by economic crisis in subtle, yet severe ways. And it’s own, distinct world with a kind of ‘everybody knows everybody’ connectivity. Maybe it’s because of that background that capturing the world of ‘Texas Killing Fields’ in the most respectful, authentic way possible was important.
WaH: This is very much a family affair for you - your sister was the production designer, your dad the producer - what difference did it make for you to have this type of support structure on the film?
ACM: It was great having the support of my family. The unique advantage of having Michael as a producer on the film is that he’s also a director. So while in making the usual producorial decisions regarding budget, etc. he would also step outside that box and analyze the issues from the perspective of what might be best to protect and facilitate the creative. It was fascinating to watch. And a real asset.
My sister, Aran, is a terrific production designer. Her attention to detail, her ability to capture the nuances of a space and allow it to have it’s own character and also make it feel lived among. I’m very fortunate to have such a talented family.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
ACM: Hard to say. There were the usual logistical concerns you have on any film regardless of it’s circumstances; not enough time, not enough money. But I don’t know that I’d change any of that. I think the biggest challenges often beget the biggest rewards. Certainly that was the case on this film.
WaH: What did you learn most about yourself that you did not expect?
The thing I didn’t expect to learn was how difficult it is to act. I took acting classes to help prepare myself for the shoot and, though I’d certainly had an intellectual understanding of that craft, studying as an actor gave me a deeper insight into just how damn tough actors need to be. I have boundless respect for the work that actors do. The levels of vulnerability they allow themselves to tap into. It’s sheer, naked bravery.
WaH: You've directed TV episodes and features. Is there any difference for you?
ACM: For some bizarre reason, both television episodes I’ve directed have had shortened schedules. On ‘Friday Night Lights’ we had five and a half days and shot an average of 10 pages per day. (It’s a testament to the fantastic cast and crew of that show that I never felt our tight schedule negatively affected shots or performance.) This film also went from a forty to a thirty two day shoot just before the start of principle with almost no day that didn’t involve a car chase, someone on fire, a child under the age of four, etc. So there really wasn’t much difference logistically, no. I felt well-prepared by television. And, again, must give many thanks to my terrific cast and crew for us pulling off the seemingly impossible.
WaH: Do you have any advice for female directors?
ACM: Go, tell your stories. We want to hear them.
WaH: What's next for you?
ACM: Couple few things. Just finished writing a piece inspired by a train hopper/musician friend of mine. It’s set in my home state, Indiana. Aiming to shoot that one next summer.