Making an independent movie on a modest budget with some big name actors working well below their pay scale would be hard for anyone. One would think that being related to a huge name in filmmaking like Michael Mann would help out quite a bit, but Ami Canaan Mann had to make her second feature film (and first in the director’s chair since 2001) with the same struggles, production woes, and butterflies as everyone else.
For her latest film Texas Killing Fields (now available in Canada as a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack), Mann, screenwriter Don Ferrarone, and an all star cast including Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, and Chloe Grace Moretz tell the story of a pair of cops in Texas City, Texas investigating a series of murders all leading to a notorious plot of land where all locals fear to tread.
Mann talked to Dork Shelf recently about the challenges of making a true crime thriller based on a story that’s still evolving, getting together a cast of heavy hitters, and what it’s like working with family.
The film is based on a real life series of cases. How did you come across the story and how did the script come to you?
Yeah, it’s a series of over fifty cases. Some of them were solved, some of them were not, some of them the bodies haven’t even been identified. These are cases that have happened since 1969 in the same area and the last crime was the murder of two prostitutes in 2006 or 2007.
How did you come to focus on the one particular time period in the case instead of trying to include everything going back to the beginning?
Yeah, I think that was a really smart decision made by Don (Ferrarone) to tell the story. This is something he wrote ten or eleven years ago, and unless you’re doing a really in-depth documentary of everything that’s happened, there’s no real way to do any of these stories true justice. The solution was to pick and choose elements from certain cases and then focus on giving an impression of the phenomena of crime that’s occurred over the past 40 years. That was a really smart way to approach. There are certain parts of certain crime scenes where it’s an amalgamation of the real life events.
You worked on this film with a couple of family members. Your father produced and your sister Aran worked even more closely with you as a production designer.
My sister is brilliant. She did such an incredible job because all our locations were practical. We were never on a stage, and many of them were completely gutted out houses that had barely any floors, animals living in the ceiling, and insulation coming down, and she built the kitchens, the bathrooms, the living room, and made every little tchotchke that you see in the house. She’s just got an incredible eye for detail and an amazing ability to do research and then pull it all together with very little money and very little time because it was very much an independent film. She’s terrific.
You’ve assembled quite the cast for the film and it seems like you caught everyone at just the right time in their careers. How did the cast come together?
I feel very lucky to have this cast. It’s just full of incredible, incredible talents. You know Don had spent quite a bit of time on the script and when we were happy with what we had, we sent it out, and the first person to read it was Sam (Worthington). So I sat down and met with him two weeks after Avatar had come out, so he was literally in what was about to become the highest grossing film in the history of cinema and he agreed to do this tiny little movie with a completely unknown director, for which I will be forever grateful.
Everyone else came through really interesting ways. Chloe Moretz auditioned for me and I knew immediately within fifteen seconds that she was the one. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was someone I wasn’t really familiar with his work, but just from meeting him he had this warmth and gravitas that I thought was a perfect ancillary component to Sam who has kind of this brusqueness. Jessica (Chastain) had done a lot of work, but none of her movies had come out yet. The only film of hers that I had of her’s to watch was this little film called Jolene and I thought she was perfect, so we talked on the phone and she agreed to do the film, but I had no idea. Tree of Life hadn’t even happened yet. All of them, I got very lucky to get them.
This is actually quite a different role for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and he does a really excellent job in the film.
Yeah, I mean, he’s got a lot of charm, and a lot of his other work shows that, but what I like about what he did here is that he lets himself be quiet, and strong, and angry. For me I think his character was incredibly powerful, but without a lot of bravado. He did a great job letting that come across.
Did you have Sam or Jeffrey do anything in particular to prepare for their roles in the film?
(laughs) Oh my God, we did so much it would be, like, hours to talk about it all. The brief recap is that I took them to the LA morgue and had them spend some time with LA homicide detectives, particularly retired sheriffs and people who specialized in paedophilia. We did go to actual crime scenes, and we got lucky one day when two bodies were discovered in an SUV. I think it was in either City of Commerce or in LA, and we got to watch them work the crime scene, which was fascinating and incredibly helpful. Then Sam got to spend some time in Texas City, and eventually we all did, and we got to spend some time with the two real detectives we were basing the film around and we even talked to some Texas City ex-cons. Then we spent some time in Louisiana, because crime in the South and crime in Los Angeles are totally different, as are the detectives. It’s about getting the real subtle differences in these cultural techniques. I think we went to three different facilities to talk to different wardens, cops, and inmates. We did a lot.
Even Chloe, James (Herbert), Sheryl (Lee), and I all went to a safe house for people that used to cook meth. Not that it’s ever really mentioned in the film, but that was sort of their back story and to get to know it and how it pertains to the South and Louisiana because that’s a specific kind of animal there. We did a lot of research and I was really happy to have the kind of cast and crew that was willing to do this kind of research that doesn’t exactly show up on the screen, but it does give a sense of accuracy of tone. We really just wanted to pay respect to the reality of the world we were trying to create. We were very aware that we were telling a story of real people that had suffered through real tragedy. We just wanted to respect that as much as we could.
I have to bring this up, since you directed my favourite episode of one of my favourite television shows of the past twenty years, Friday Night Lights. (She directed season four’s tenth episode titled “I Can’t.”) What are the differences for you between working on television and working on film, particularly since with this one you find yourself telling a very different story taking place in Texas?
Thanks for the compliment, by the way. It was great doing that episode and I felt lucky I got that story. You know, it’s strange, for some reason on television I tend to have shorter time frames. On that episode, we had to shoot it in five days, which is a real testament to that whole Friday Night Lights crew that I never once felt pressed for time. As you know, there’s some really big scenes in that episode and we got them all. That was just an amazing crew.
In terms of production, I feel lucky that I had that experience because that was exactly the kind of pace we had to have on Texas Killing Fields. On this film, the mood is hopefully something that sneaks up on you. It sort of starts slow and hopefully in the first third you get caught into the flow of the film, but when you break it all down and go to shoot it, there wasn’t a day where we didn’t have a car chase, or someone getting stabbed in the chest or being set on fire, or a small child being assaulted, and there are all these production logistics that made for some really tight days. And again, it’s a testament to that crew that we were able to bring it all in on budget. But the pacing in terms of shooting for television and doing this film was really similar. It was an easy transition.
You have worked with your father quite closely on some of his productions in the past. Was there every anything that you took away from him or took to heart when you started making films of your own?
You know, weirdly enough, I think the biggest advice I ever got from him was just actually coming through just being so close to him and just watching him work. It was less what he said and more watching what he did. You know, it’s funny. There’s some professions where you see other people do your job, but with directing and writing you rarely get such an opportunity to see other people do it when you’re just starting out. I’ve been lucky. I got to work with Robert Redford, who’s a very different kind of director, on A River Runs Through It when I was in college, and then I got to work a year and a half on Heat, and I got to watch Michael make that movie from the beginning and all the way to the end and through the release. I feel really fortunate where I had those experience to be close enough to observe their methodology and their techniques and their attitudes towards storytelling and their persistence of vision. That was really the best learning experience I could ever have.