Hometown: West Lafayette, Indiana.
Why She’s On Our Radar: Ami Canaan Mann, daughter to Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Public Enemies”), is one of this year’s most highly touted new talents behind the camera. Her feature film debut, “Texas Killing Fields,” starring Sam Worthington, Chloe Moretz and Jessica Chastain, world premieres at the Venice Film Festival and hits theaters October 14.
The thriller, produced by her father, tells a gruesome story inspired by true events: A local Texas homicide detective (Worthington) pairs with a transplanted cop from New York City (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to track a sadistic serial killer dumping his victims’ bodies in a nearby marsh locals dub “The Killing Fields.” Moretz plays a local abused girl who goes missing.
What’s Next: She has two screenplays in the can since wrapping. “Hopefully one of them will come together,” she says.
Congratulations on the film. I was deeply unsettled by it.
Oh, I’m glad.
How did you come on board to direct it?
Well, Michael [Mann] and Don [Ferrarone, the screenwriter] had been developing it for some 10 years. Don had been a drug enforcement agent and he was sent on assignment to Texas City where he met the two detectives played in the film. When he retired and decided to write screenplays, he wrote his first screenplay based on the events that he learned about while there.
The script’s gone through various mutations. The end result was that it ended up with me. I met with Don and told him what I’d like to do, the approach I wanted to take. Don was on board and off we went.
What was it about the script that appealed to you?
Don is such a good writer, so there were a couple things that appealed to me.
The first thing that really struck me was the quality of the dialogue. Being a writer for hire for 10 years, I could tell that there were things in the exposition and certain pieces of dialogue that you could only have written if you had lived those moments. So there were elements of sense memory in the screenplay. Those are like gold, they are so valuable.
The other thing that struck me equally was the research. The script came with a pile of research. In one of the newspaper articlesm there was a map of where the bodies had been found and pictures of the girls. That was the first moment it stopped me in my tracks and I couldn’t stop staring it. It’s the map we replicated for the film that the detectives use. The girls look right at you. It was hard for me not to be compelled.
There’s no ‘Hollywood gloss’ in this tale. You captured an authentic sense of milieu in the film.
Thank you, I’m glad that was your takeaway impression. That was certainly my intent. I had the good fortune of being able to go to Texas City, being able to have access to the cops, being able to have access to real families in crisis, being able to go inside prison facilities and morgues. I just pursued all those avenues.
My objective was to portray these people, this town and these circumstances with as much authenticity as possible. I felt like the way to do that was to dive into these real people and that real town and those real places.
I tried to make it feel real, to sink the audience into that environment by making that environment not seem false. And then I was lucky enough to have a cast and crew who was willing to go on this journey with me. The depths of research that everyone did was astonishing.
As a first-time filmmaker, were you wary of working with such a young actress as Chloe Moretz, given the dark nature of the material?
Chlor Moretz, when she walked into the room and spoke her first couple of lines, I knew she had the part. She approached it in a completely unique way.
I grew up in a small town in Indiana. There were hard times for the people in the town I grew up in. So I felt like asking, “What are the qualities that really strike me about children in difficult circumstances?” If they have nothing to compare their circumstances to. They’re just trying to survive the place that they find themselves in.
What really struck me about Chloe was that she was able to capture that, because she didn’t play the character as having enough self awareness to know she’s in a bad circumstance. We as adults look at her and feel tremendous sympathy. But when you’re child like that, you’re just trying to survive. She was really able to capture that. She didn’t feel sorry for herself.
She was incredible to direct. I feel lucky that she’s in my film.
Before you took on filmmaking, you worked with your dad on film sets, including “Heat,” right?
My main job was “Heat” was I was a second assistant to the line producer, which was the greatest job ever. My assignments were get access to Fulton Prison for Robert DeNiro, go do interviews with girlfriends of the brotherhood guys, go check out infrared camera technology. It eventually culminated to directing second unit. But I was on the film for a year and a half. I wanted the experience of working on a film from the front all the way to the end.
Was filmmaking always on your radar back when you started to work on sets like these?
No, because where I grew up people didn’t have movies as a frame of reference. They weren’t that many movie theaters. It was always books for me. That’s where I got interested in storytelling. And then when I was 16, I worked on one of my dad’s TV shows, “Crime Stories,” and as soon as I stepped on set I fell in love with filmmaking.
How did your father react?
Well, he was encouraging, because I was obviously excited. We just had to figure out which film school to go to. I ended up going to the University of Southern California.
What kind of pressure to you feel now, given your association with your father and the Venice debut?
You know, my primary reaction is I’m honestly just so thrilled that the work that cast and crew did telling this really tough story will be able to be seen by a large audience. Everyone worked so hard with such good intentions. I’m just very pleased and relieved.
What do you have planned next? Are you going to follow it up with something as dark or are you set on lightening up the mood a bit?
I should probably do something with small children and puppies (laughs). You know, for me the decision on what to do next has to do with the world the story lives in. I think we’re so lucky as storytellers to sink ourselves so deeply into a world of characters. That’s the thing that always attracts me, when I was a writer for a hire and now certainly directing.
We’ll see. I definitely don’t have any requirements that the next film I delve into should have serial killers (laughs). It’s more about the people and the place for me.