From The Vault: Ami Canaan Mann on Texas Killing Fields

For her latest film, Ami Canaan Mann undertook some harrowing research so she could show true horror without resorting to gore, writes Stephen Applebaum

Roman Coppola delayed directing his first feature, CQ, because of the inevitable comparisons with his father, Francis. Likewise, Jim Loach recently told me how he had initially tiptoed around his directorial debut, Oranges and Sunshine, because of Dad Ken’s reputation. However, if Ami Canaan Mann had ever had any hang-ups about following in her famous father’s footsteps, then she isn’t telling.

Sitting at a table in Venice discussing her second feature, Texas Killing Fields, the intense director insists that she has never felt any pressure from being the daughter of Heat director Michael Mann. “I’m going to give this answer that you’re going to hate,” she says, swatting my question dead, “but I don’t know what it is not to be in that position.”

But what about when she is actually working on a film? Does the prospect of being compared to him bother her? Apparently not. There are so many pressures involved in film-making already – “At the end of the day, will I have got from my actors and from my crew that I need to make the scene work, to make the story work?” – that Mann becomes so “wonderfully myopic” on set, nothing else matters. “I love it,” she says, with little joy.

Such questions are probably moot in the face of the fact that Texas Killing Fields fearlessly positions her in the heart of crime territory frequently explored by Mann senior. It was he who commissioned the screenplay ten years ago (he is also the film’s producer), from Don Ferrarone, a former DEA special agent who’d advised him on the TV drama Drug Wars: The Camerena Story and, later, on the Pacino/De Niro double-header, Heat.

Over the years, the likes of Danny Boyle and John Hillcoat were approached to direct it. Ferrarone was therefore frustrated when Mann asked him to meet his daughter, whose comparatively small body of (albeit award-winning) work included one low-budget feature film, Morning, and an episode of the TV sports series, Friday Night Lights.

“Michael said to me, ‘I want you to meet her,’” he says. “And because Danny Boyle had shown real strong interest, I went in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Before I could say anything, though, she told me her view of the movie and it was exactly what I thought. There was nothing I could do. I was dog meat.”

Ferrarone’s desire to do it right is understandable, as the troubling real-life story behind the script haunts him to this day. While working in Texas City, on his last assignment for the government, he had seen a billboard by the highway displaying faces reconstructed from the skeletal remains of three unidentified young girls. When he asked detectives what was going on, he discovered that since 1969, more than 50 bodies of murder victims who had been sexually assaulted had been found dumped in several areas outside the city limits, known locally as the Texas Killing Fields.

“They told me the story and it was haunting because the girls, they were dying and nobody knew anything about them. They couldn’t even tell the parents, because the DNA techniques were not good enough at the time.”

He lifted wholesale the characters of two detectives he met in Texas City who had worked on a number of the cases (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Sam Worthington play them in the film), and constructed a story about a murder investigation which, says Mann, “became about the phenomenon of crime outside Texas City and not a specific crime itself. I think that was really wise, because it allowed us to discuss things like its ubiquitiousness and whether it is systemic.”

As a writer herself, Mann says she could sense in the “authenticity of Don’s dialogue and the exposition that they were obviously written not by a writer sitting at a computer, but were the memory of a man who had seen some things.”

However, it was not the script that drew her in first, it was a map of the Texas Killing Fields that came with it, as part of Ferrarone’s extensive research, showing the locations where the bodies had been found, with each site marked by a photograph of the victim taken, very often, from a high- school yearbook.

“I spent some time before I read the script looking at this map and feeling all these eyes looking back at me,” Mann says. “The feeling that I got has stayed with me to today, and it was this bit of research that made me feel compelled to do this.”

She felt a need to give the dead women – more than 20 of whose murders are still unsolved – a voice, and was prepared to go to all the “dark places that you need to go to as a director, even though most of them don’t show up in the film” to do it. She visited morgues, looked at decomposed bodies, and talked to killers in prison.

“All that stuff that’s inside my brain needed to be there so that I could visually get a sense of authenticity in the film. And I am happy to do that for the sake of telling a story.”

Mann also visited the site where the first killing fields victims were found in 1969, and pored over crime scene photographs from a double murder of two prostitutes in 2006.

“They were pretty terrible,” she says, grimacing, “because they were badly mutilated.”

Although she would later use a bayou in Louisiana dotted with dead trees that she found at once beautiful and disturbing as the killers’ dumping ground in the movie, visiting the real location gave her a sense of the hopelessness that someone taken there would have felt, if they had still been alive.

“What’s interesting is that it’s not a spooky wood. It’s just a salt marsh. But if you were to scream, no-one would hear you. If you were to try to run, there is no place to run to. You can see the freeway. You can see the town of Texas City. But if you were there and something’s happening to you, there is nothing you can do.”

For all the horror that she’d absorbed before the cameras turned, Mann was determined not to make the film too graphic, concerned that she would lose her audience on the one hand, and risk victimising the victims all over again on the other – something both she and Ferrarone wanted to avoid.

“I have seen a severed limb up close,” she says, “and nobody needs to see that. And you don’t actually need to see the severed limb to get the impact of the severed limb, if the impact you are trying to get is to feel empathy for the person who had their limb severed.”

Instead of serving up gruesomeness, then, the film creates a pervasive atmosphere of malevolence and sadness that gets under the skin. So by the end we, like the cops in the story and the film-makers, also feel haunted by the young women whose lives were violently snuffed out.

Getting us there wasn’t easy. The grim subject was emotionally and psychologically demanding (Ferrarone “wouldn’t want to revisit it”), while the film had to be shot independently, on a small budget, in 32 days. Hazards during the actual shoot included alligators, snakes, and people firing shotguns at them for refusing to use their location.

“It was crazy,” says Mann. “But it was worth it, because, as a director and a storyteller, you can look at something that’s been going on since 1969, and you can say, in the most modest, best way I know how, ‘I’m going to try to draw some attention to this.’”

Published in The Scotsman, October 18, 2011

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