Screenwriter of Drive, McMafia and Writer & Director of Two Faces of January
"The a film by credit is the one I find the most egregious and the credit, even on the film that I wrote and directed, that I didn’t want. I just felt it wasn’t fair to anybody - editors, costume designers etc… You really have to earn that, but right now pretty much every director gets it. There’s a difference between the idea of the auteur and the credit a film by credit - I think it devalues not only the writer’s work but everybody else’s work, too."
"You have to love writing. It has to be an obsession or an addiction or whatever. Because if it’s about success or fame or whatever, it’s not the right profession"
Forced out of Iran as a refugee following the revolution in 1979, Hossein Amini, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Wings of a Dove and 2011’s insta-cool-flick Drive, writer-director of The Two Faces of January, and co-creator of crime series McMafia, has forged himself a spot as an industry staple with a honed ability to adapt his craft to all types of stories, across genres. This was the opening I was going to go with. But when I read Amini the paragraph he laughed politely and said, “It’s been fairly up and down. I had an Oscar nomination at 32, and then didn’t get anything made for six years. It’s been really up and down.”
And so began our conversation during which I spoke not with a writer winding down and spouting false modesty, but with an ambitious writer in the midst of the mist of his own career, trying to make sense of how he got there and what may be ahead of him. Somebody who, while privileged in many ways, was choked by other factors completely out of his control, but never ceased to keep writing. Yet, most of what I could say about Amini in this opening statement is better communicated in the words of the writer himself.
By George Louis Bartlett
Why didn’t you get anything made for six years?
I did a deal with Miramax. I was basically their rewrite. But it happens. It’s always that struggle between finance and doing your own work and it’s a really hard balance because you…you know…they throw lots of money at you. And it’s really easy to do rewrites on studio films that are in trouble, or things like that. And then neglect the things you really want to do. I’ve always struggled with that. But some people don’t. There are some people that I really admire who just haven’t been tempted by that side. Who just concentrate on what they want to make. But I’d say that most UK screenwriters are tempted at one stage or another by Hollywood and the studios.
Have you always wanted to direct?
Well I started out wanting to direct. Then did a couple of short films at university and the writing sort of happened. And people want to categorise you as one or the other. So unless you start off being a writer-director and really stick to your guns then they ideally want to separate that. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing. But once you become established as one thing it’s very hard to shake it off. That’s why it took be about fifteen or twenty years to direct a feature film.
The reason I did my deal with Miramax was that they promised me that if I wrote two scripts for them, I’d get to write and direct the third. But the moment I signed, that was all out the window.
It wasn’t on paper?
Yes, it was. It was all on paper. But they could say no to a lot of the practicalities. Then I ended up doing rewrites to try and get out of the deal.
How do you deal with, as a screenwriter, getting screwed over by everybody in the food chain?
Well. Yes, you do. And that doesn’t really stop. But I think it’s learning…you need a bit of luck, too. The people that fuck you over at the beginning you’re going to meet on the way up, and meet them on their way down. And that does happen. But I’d say it’s really tough because as the writer, you’re the beginning of the process and everybody’s really nice to you at first but then at some stage a director comes in and the director becomes everybody’s favourite person. And I think it’s accepting that toughness and knowing who you’re dealing with is really important. Find something out about the production company, because there aren’t that many who can get things made. I remember when I first started out I wrote lots of letters and got lots of rejection letters. But then found out subsequently that half of the people I got rejection letters from were in no position do actually do anything themselves - one person outfits in the middle of nowhere. And it’s just that you have to know which companies are actually worth going after - and those companies tend to not mess you around. So people who ask you to write for free tend to be people who don’t have money to pay you which means, on the whole, they’re not really serious companies. Any real company will have some system of paying you. So writing for free is generally not a great idea. And there are a lot of producers who are trying to break in themselves and they will often say they know so and so and we can get this made in order to get you to write for free. If you write for free, you have to write for yourself on spec. I think that’s the only way to do it. Don’t give any rights over to somebody that’s not paying you. Write it, but retain the rights. You need the choice to walk away.
Do you think the overvaluation of The Director as auteur is to blame for producers the underappreciation of screenwriters?
I think so. I think that’s been the case. And I think it has shifted slightly. I think it’s been the case more in European cinema because of the tendency to write and direct. But there are very few auteurs. There are a bunch of them whose careers are a brand, so I can understand it. But the ridiculous thing is when you spend three years writing a script and then a director comes on and it’s announced a film by, then the director’s name - but they haven’t done anything. The a film by credit is the one I find the most egregious and the credit, even on the film that I wrote and directed, that I didn’t want. I just felt it wasn’t fair to anybody - editors, costume designers etc… You really have to earn that, but right now pretty much every director gets it. There’s a difference between the idea of the auteur and the credit a film by credit - I think it devalues not only the writer’s work but everybody else’s work, too.
How did you navigate going from being a screenwriter to writing and directing your first feature The Two Faces of January?
I’d been around a lot of film sets. And it was something I’d always wanted to do. And I was very very meticulous in preparing, maybe too much so. I storyboarded the whole thing. And watched hundreds of films in the same area. And I’d say, if anything, it’s good to prepare but I’d be careful not to prepare too much so that accidents don’t happen. I think you just have to trust your instincts and go with those and your preparation - it’s a balance of the two.
I spoke with Kate Leys about control and the screenwriter’s desire to control the work all the way down the line - and how can be detrimental to the process, to the final film. How do you manage to let go of the screenplay?
It’s a combination I think. I mean, as a screenwriter you have it so clear in your head…but then you hit a series of obstacles. For one, you’re never going to find the right location, or a person or an actor, that fits the image in your head. So there’s that initial dissatisfaction that stems from the fact that nothing quite matches. So you have to first let go of this stuff. And then you have to let go with you collaborators, too. The real joy of directing for me really came from the actors. I remember I had it my head that Oscar Isaac would be standing in a window, brooding, and he said something to the effect of I don’t brood like that, I walk and I stress and I don’t stay still. So they bring their own reality and specificity to a performance. In the same way a costume designer will do that and a director of photography will do that. The thing I learned and if I could do it again I’d use more - is to try and tap into each person’s creativity but also their personality and find a way to make that part of the process. And the trick is to keep your own vision in your head.
Do you consider yourself a writer in the sense that writing is your art, your way of expression?
I do. It is. But again, the frustrating thing is…screenwriting is such a tiny part of what is finally up on the screen. And that’s why a magazine that publishes screenwriting is such a good idea. I’ve certainly written screenplays that, if you read them, would make much better screenplays than films, and vice-versa. So I think you’re very much in the hands of the director, the casting, the circumstances of the shoot. And most importantly what happens in the edit. Because that’s where the film is made or broken. And there are scripts I’ve written that I was incredibly proud of that have just turned into absolute disasters. And the grain of that may have been in the screenplay, it’s hard to tell. But sometimes a screenplay can get crushed along the way.
Do you write prose at all?
No. I wrote a play once. But I’ve always been interested in film, really. TV is something interesting. The long form. But haven’t worked on a couple of shows now, I miss movies. I want to go back. There’s something about seeing it on the big screen. I think TV has different demands, the storytelling form is really interesting, but it’s really different. I quite like silence. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved. I think silent storytelling is storytelling at its purest. And I think in TV that’s hard because people are watching it on their phone; it just seems to have different rules and I’m just getting my head around them.
What was that process like for you on McMafia?
It’s a lot of work. I don’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. But I took a film-writing approach to McMafia. You know, I was writing with other people and rewriting lots of that so, I sort of saw it as one story, broken up into eight bits. But upon reflection I sort of wonder if actually there needs to be more focus on each individual episode, even if it throws the whole. For example, reviews tend to review the first episode and audiences tend to switch off after a first episode. Which means you have to throw tonnes into your first episode.
It’s like reviewing the first ten minutes of a film.
Exactly. And suddenly you’re being killed for those first ten minutes. In a movie people give you those first ten minutes. So I think if I do it again I’d be more mindful of the attention spans of audiences. Even reviewers aren’t going to sit down and watch all eight episodes - that was something I was quite taken aback by. I assumed they would reach a judgment after seeing every episode - but it’s really quick. One episode, or two or three. I suppose it reflects an audience that will switch off. But very few people walk out of a film after the first ten minutes.
The ending is everything.
Yeah, and I think the strongest thing with McMafia were episodes 7 and 8. I spent a lot of time into and got a lot of satisfaction from building towards a powerful emotional ending. But you realise in TV that the first is as, or if not more, important than the last episode. And I guess beginnings in movies too are always very key; it’s what allows audiences to settle. In Drive, that car chase is sort of doing what a first episode does in TV. This is a taster of what to come. And that allows you twenty five minutes of character building stuff.
Read our print journal for the whole interview. Available to purchase at www.scenesjournal.com/buy