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In Her Own Words: Ami Canaan Mann Shares a Scene From Her Debut, “Texas Killing Fields”

In Her Own Words: Ami Canaan Mann Shares a Scene From Her Debut, "Texas Killing Fields"

Texas Killing Fields” is a film inspired by the phenomenon of crime that has occurred just outside Texas City, Texas since 1969 – 50-some bodies have been found dumped in various scrub brush tracts along I-45. Some prostitutes, some children, some mothers, some men. Most of them victims of sexual assault crimes.

There were several different approaches one could take to a story like this. Graphic horror, strict police procedural, doc hand-held. My sense was that, since the objective of telling this story was to have the audience understand a little more about the truth of these series of crimes walking away from the film than they did walking in, the most successful route might be to be as visually evocative as possible. Essentially, to visually treat the story almost like a ghost story and to be almost sensual in shot composition, production design, lighting, etc. To rarely show blood, to let the fields themselves be haunting, let the bodies feel almost alive and present on their own crime scenes. And that, in doing so, we might draw the viewer as much as possible into the world of the story and let them feel that they’d walked a bit among the people that walk through this world.

Jung calls ghosts “the return of the repressed.” And this also fit with the overall approach to the “inspired by true events” aspect of the film. It was important to try to avoid revictimizing the victims by using them only as narrative devices, but instead shoot coverage from the perspective of both past victims (the two bodies we see in the film) and the potential future victims (Little Ann, the girls in the homeless shelter). The camera is never looking down on them. It is always at their eye level or showing their perspective.

This scene is where we see Sam and Jeffrey’s characters as they approach and then work the first crime scene of the film.

At the top of this scene, the idea was to deny the viewer the visual of the body and center on the detectives themselves and their slow, deliberate and observational movement onto the crime scene. As badly as we want to see the body that we hear the woman at the beginning of the scene discussing, we’re with the detectives and they’re not focused on the victim yet. They’re focused on the victim’s surroundings.

This is a quality I’d seen repeatedly while researching with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept. And, prior to filming in Louisiana, Jeffrey, Sam and I had an opportunity to go with the LASD as they were called to two bodies found in an SUV in an industrial park in the City of Commerce. We watched the crime scene investigation unit and the detectives move with such careful slowness. It clicked immediately. There is a finite amount of time to collect everything you will need possibly years later for trial. So you move slowly and carefully and without rushed bravado.

Once the men approach the body, we’re in medium wide two shots and piecemeal POVs. There is a quiet teamwork. Information exchange. The rote familiarity of two men having done this kind of work together for years. Regarding the victim, the blood and the wounds are, hopefully, subtle and almost painterly. The corpse is presenting to the men a series of facts — the ants on her hand, the timing of her rigor, etc. The camera still doesn’t rest on her or dwell graphic elements that might otherwise repel us and dehumanize her.

In the third segment of the scene, the idea was to finally let us into the emotional space of the victim, and to do this via Brian making an emotional connection to her. In contrast to Sam’s character, Jeffrey’s character will allow himself to feel for the victim. To feel grief, to mourn. To see her as the girl she was just a few hours ago before her death. The idea here was to shoot this segment in classic conversational voiceovers, except one of the people in this conversation is dead. The camera is just at her ear so that we may see, literally, see the dead girl’s point of view. When Jeffrey connects with her eyes, the hope was that the viewer might get the sense that, on some level, she’s seeing him back. Asking him, as things that haunt us do, to help right the wrong. The camera stays there in her POV as the plastic tarp drifts over her. And now we know what the detective who will solve the crime looks like to the victim. The return of the repressed.

Sam stands back. Stays in long shots with Jeffrey in the foreground. He cannot go to this emotional space, but he knows his partner well enough to respect his partner’s process. As the story progresses, these differing approaches become a bigger source of tension.

The final shot was meant to pull us, as we did at the top of the scene, into context. Only this time, nothing is denied. We know the connection Jeffrey’s character has to this girl, the connection Sam’s character has to Jeffrey’s character. We’re reminded of the landscape; the beautiful, eerie lights and smoke of a distant refinery. And the body found on the side of a concrete block building. Under the rain.

And then we tell the rest of the story.

“Texas Killing Fields” stars Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain and Chloe Moretz. The film hits select theaters Friday, October 14. Go here to read indieWIRE’s profile of Mann, published when the film premiered in Venice.

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