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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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
“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
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