Director Ami Canaan Mann discusses Texas Killing Fields

Director Ami Canaan Mann discusses Texas Killing Fields, her approach to this true-story crime drama, the incredible cast, future projects, and more.

Director Ami Canaan Mann made her feature debut with Morning in 2000, but she grew up around the business as the daughter of filmmaker Michael Mann. After directing episodes of Robbery Homicide Division and Friday Night Lights, Ami Canaan Mann returns to the big screen with Texas Killing Fields, which hits New York and Los Angeles theaters on October 14. Texas Killing Fields is based on the true story of several unsolved murder cases in a rural Texas area, and stars Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, and Chloe Moretz. I recently had the chance to speak with Ami Canaan Mann over the phone about this unique new crime drama. Here's what she had to say below.

This is kind of a famous story, but it isn't exactly nationally known. I was curious what drew you into this tale after reading Don Ferrarone's script?

Ami Canaan Mann: I don't know if you know the history of the screenplay, but Don and (producer) Michael (Mann) had actually known each other when Don was in the DEA. When Don retired, and decided to embark on screenwriting, this was his first screenplay, which Michael had commissioned. That was 11 years ago, actually. It went through various permutations, which I wasn't familiar with, and, different people had been attached. Eventually, it fell in my lap, thank goodness. It came with some research. One piece of the research was an article which had a map, which pinpointed where some of the bodies had been found and had some images of the victims at those points. Even before I read the script, that was the thing that really drew me to the material. I felt really compelled to, in any way I could, try and tell this story.

Was that what became the map in the movie?

Ami Canaan Mann: Exactly, yeah. Those are not actual victims' photos on the map in the film, of course, but it's a replica of what I saw in this newspaper article, yeah.

Did you ever talk to any of the victims' families at all? What other kinds of things did you do to embrace the realism of these cases?

Ami Canaan Mann: Well, I said 'thank goodness the script came to me,' I want to clarify. I was lucky, thank goodness for me that I was so lucky to have this script come to me. Actually, it segues into your next question. One of the things that I found so fortunate about getting an opportunity to help tell the story was that, because it was inspired by real events, there was really this whole world, a whole world of people that, as a storyteller, you could try to sink yourself into and pull the movie out from. For me, I was a writer for television and film for 10 years before Texas Killing Fields, and there was always an attraction to these particular worlds, and the people in the worlds. Could I do research? Could I investigate, study, and try to understand these worlds? That was definitely the case with Texas Killing Fields.

I really enjoyed your visual style in this. This is a movie which could easily become any kind of cop movie or procedural, but it had a very cool and unique visual style to it. Was that something that drew you to this as well, the opportunity to put your own visual stamp on this?

Ami Canaan Mann: Oh, thank you. As you said, there is a multitude of ways that you could approach a story like this, and a crime drama in the police procedural genre. I think because the story was inspired by real events, it felt to me that it was a story you couldn't dismiss, like you could an episode of television or a horror movie. There are real people who have suffered, there are voices who have been taken, 50 some odd voices that had been taken. 27 of these crimes are still unsolved, some of these bodies are still unidentified. Because of that, and my respect for that, I felt the way to approach the story was to almost treat it as a ghost story, almost treat the killing fields like a haunted house. I wanted the visuals and the music to be evocative and seductive, to try and draw the audience into the world, in the way that you feel when you're reading a ghost story or watching a ghost movie. You both want to know and don't want to know what happened in that scary house down the street. There's an innate tension there. For example, the trees in the killing fields. We randomly found them, actually. We turned down this strange road and we found what looked like a petrified forest. I had never seen anything like that before. They were so beautiful and haunting at the same time, I knew that had to be the location for the killing fields. They were disturbing, but I couldn't stop looking at them. That was the objective, in terms of the production design and costume design and the shot selections, compositions, and music, to always have a sense of haunted-ness to it. I didn't want to be graphic, because I felt like, in this case, it would have been repellent. That might not be the case in other genres, or even in other crime stories, but for this crime story, it wouldn't be appropriate.

You get a hint of that as well, because whenever they bring up the fields, it's almost as if it's a taboo subject. These guys are cops, and they don't even want to look into it at all. It's kind of bizarre to watch that.

Ami Canaan Mann: Well, what I thought was so interesting about the screenplay too, was that the crime genre is great because it can be used as interesting metaphors for other things. In the case of Texas Killing Fields, on a whole other level, the movie is talking about what happens when we are faced with situations where we feel we have no control, or situations that seem really chaotic. All of us have experienced that, and how do we react to that and move through that. By the way, Sam (Worthington) and Jeffrey (Dean Morgan) are completely true to the real Mike and Brian. It's funny because the good cop/bad cop trope is a trope, but, in this case, the real Mike and Brian are exactly this way (Laughs). Sam and Jeffrey Dean spent some time with them and did a terrific job capturing these detectives' real personalities. Sam's character, Mike, his reaction to situations he can't control, is to draw a very clear line. This is the area I have control over, this is the area I don't, and I don't go into the area I don't have control over. Brian, Jeffrey Dean's character, his response is totally antithetical. He wants to emotionally avail himself to that chaos, he wants to avail himself to the character of Little Anne (Chloe Moretz), and the victims' families, and that's how he copes with chaos. I love how malleable the crime genre is, because you can touch on other levels of human experience.

I have met Sam before, and Sam does not talk like that. I was really impressed by his accent. How much work went into that? Did he have a coach on the set a lot, or did he pick it up rather quickly?

Ami Canaan Mann: On Sam's behalf, I thank you for that. He did a terrific job with his accent. Texas is a big state, so Texas City is about 30 minutes south of Houston. As you may know, Austin has a different accent than Houston, which is different from Dallas. Yeah, he had a dialect coach, and he also spent a lot of time with the real Mike. He actually did a really good job of capturing the accent and certainly the whole character of Mike.

I loved all the performances here, with Sam, Jeffrey Dean, Chloe Moretz, and Jessica Chastain. Can you talk about assembling a cast like this?

Ami Canaan Mann: I just have to say, I'm so lucky to have gotten this incredible cast. Sam was the first one on board. He read the script and responded to it, we met and he signed on. I actually hadn't known him from anything except this little film he did in Australia called Somersault. I saw it a long time ago and thought he was just great in it. I was thrilled that he came on board. Jeffrey Dean was just completely the bullseye because he's very generous with his presence, as an actor, and that's exactly the quality Brian needed. Jessica, none of the movies she's in right now were available. I had seen her in this movie called Jolene, and thought she was great. Chloe auditioned, and within two seconds, I knew she was the one. Just insticntually, she had the right approach for the character of Little Anne, this complete lack of self-pity and a child-like tenacity which was exactly what Little Anne needed. All the way down, Stephen Graham is brilliant, Jason Clarke, Sheryl Lee, I think, is an incredible actress, totally underused. James Hébert, who plays Sheryl Lee's son, is a local actor. He's an up and comer. I love my cast. I feel very, very, lucky. They're all brilliant.

Have you screened the film in Texas yet, and I was curious what the reaction has been?

Ami Canaan Mann: It's going to be released, towards the end of October, in Houston and I think possibly Dallas, that's the plan. We did screen it, though, several weeks ago, for Mike and Brian, and their families. I have to say, they very much liked the film, and the way that they liked the film was incredibly moving to me. It was a huge, huge compliment to me. I felt very touched that they took from the film what they took away from it. It's tricky to try to capture someone else's world. You have to do it with modesty, so I was very moved that they responded so positively.

Is there anything you're currently developing that you can talk about? You talked about working in TV before, so will you be going back into that world at all?

Ami Canaan Mann: Well, I was a writer for television and film for 10 years before I did Texas Killing Fields, so I kind of write habitually. Since January, I've actually written two screenplays and a pilot. I grew up in Indiana with my mom, and this last screenplay is the one I hope to shoot next. It takes place in Indiana, in my hometown, and it's inspired by a friend of mine, who's a musician and a freight-train hopper. He's a traveling musician. I think it's a really fascinating world.

Do you have anyone in mind to play him yet?

Ami Canaan Mann: Yes, but I can't talk about it yet (Laughs).

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone curious about Texas Killing Fields about why they should check it out in theaters October 14?

Ami Canaan Mann: Oh, I would say it's a tough story, and it's an independent film, so it had its elements of toughness in the shoot. I would have to say that I'm so terribly proud of the work of the cast and crew in this movie. They did excellent, excellent work, and it's really worth checking out.

Excellent. That's all I have. Thanks for talking to me. It was a real pleasure.

Ami Canaan Mann: Thank you. Take care.

Ami Canaan Mann's Texas Killing Fields hits theaters nationwide on October 14.