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Ami Canaan Mann Visits Texas Killing Fields

Ami Canaan Mann Visits Texas Killing Fields

Articles - Directing

The world outside the camera and the world inside the camera.

On the set of Texas Killing Fields, the world outside the camera is the swamps of Louisiana in July and it is hot. Really, really motherfucking hot. Mosquitoes. Swarms of them. Snakes. Alligators. Grips wearing ghillie suits over their heads to protect themselves from bugs. Mud that sucks the boots off your feet. Can’t drink too much water. Can’t wear too much sunscreen. The talent needs more bug spray but the really good stuff has DDT in it. This isn’t the problem. The problem is that DDT takes off make-up and we don’t have time to be reapplying make-up every time we apply bug spray. No DDT for you.

But the world inside the camera is gorgeous. Red, orange skies. Vast rectangle of water reaching to infinity and marked by a single, skeletal tree. A female figure beside it dressed in yellow to evoke a disconcerting sunniness along the empty stretch of land. Because there was a time I saw a girl in a bad situation wearing a sunny, yellow dress. And the incongruity stuck with me. See it, saw it, put it in the camera. Then the rain. And Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jessica Chastain moving around each other like dancers, their dialogue building, the camera moving with them. Her look and his breath… And we’re out.

Beautiful.

In preparation for writing this article, I read past articles by other directors. What strikes me is the clear definition of each director’s worldview. Director as character. Because we are all of us guilty at times, director or not, of assuming that our worldview is the worldview. These articles show us how wrong we are. We are defined by our ridiculously subjective past. And the world outside the camera defines the world we create inside the camera.

Sam, Jeffrey and I are walking through St. Bernard Parish Prison which, compared to the prisons I’ve been to in California, is fairly relaxed. The intermingling of black and white prisoners is to be noted. It’s lunchtime. Box lunches on orange plastic trays, small containers of milk like in junior high school. Guys moving among open cells and picnic tables, carrying their trays looking for who to sit next to. Weird kid pulling the meat off his chicken; soft-shouldered guy rocking a little too hard on his Walkman, trying hard to transport himself from these walls; frustrated fat kid who can’t open his orange juice without the pointed folded bit getting soggy and folding in on itself. Just like junior high school… Only with meth addiction and pending death sentences. And there are no “After School Specials” and you never get out.

Sam, Jeffrey and I stand in the guard room, about 30 feet above these guys, watching the inmates watch each other. We are silent. We are respectful. We’re moving through and asking questions and taking it in.

Suddenly, I see Jeffrey’s face reflected in the glass window. Only instead of the studious quiet, it’s grinning, it’s unshaven and he’s carrying a cartoon-like sub-machine gun. I turn to find the guard’s TV next to the security monitors and an ad for “The Losers” is flickering loud and proud. The guy rockin’ too hard on his headphones glances up, too. Looks like a cool movie. If he weren’t in this prison right now, he’d probably go see it.

Lenses, television screens, reflections in bulletproof glass. Worldview. The visual shock of the outside in.

Once I got to L.A. and film school, I found myself surrounded by people who’d spent a lot of time in their youth watching films. Spielberg films, Lucas films. An awful lot of Star Wars. A lot of The Godfather. I grew up in Dayton, Indiana, where film was not a frame of reference. Nor were books, except between my mother and myself. Or television. (Our town had one television channel, Channel 18, which played a lot of “Hee Haw.”) The common frame of reference was the town itself and the neighbors and their stories. And the things we saw and heard and knew as only kids can know things. We had those sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying events in silent common.

On every set, each member of the cast and crew has their own worldview, which informs the choices they make, the props, the lighting and the schedule. For the actors, the way their hands move, how they breathe, if they speak from their gut or their throats.

Nearly every day I had Chloë Moretz on set, I asked the camera operators to lower the shot. My camera operators were tall men; they are used to looking at the world from above and down. But particularly for the character played by Chloë, I want the audience to always see her eye to eye. To be literally on her level. There is not a shot in the film in which we look down on Chloë; we are either looking up at her or we are at her level. Her character is slapped, accosted, confused and lost. But she is never diminished. Never by the camera. Not in this story.

Texas Killing Fields was honored to be invited to the Venice Film Festival. They asked for a director’s statement for their catalog. This is what I wrote:

On the outskirts of a small town called Texas City, 30 minutes south of Houston, the bodies of just under 60 murder victims have been found. Some women, some girls. Some prostitutes. Some schoolchildren. All victims of different killers.

In the stacks of preliminary research that came with Don Ferrarone’s brilliant screenplay, I found a map attached to a local newspaper article. It showed the faces of the victims near where their bodies were found. Seventies Marsha Brady straight hair, eighties bangs, nineties streaks. Decades of girls waking up on the mornings of their last days, doing their make up and hair, never knowing that the images they saw in the mirror would remain on a victims map I’d be staring at years later. Many of the photos are school photos—eyes looking directly at the camera the way we’re told to smile during “picture day.” Arranged as they are on that map, they’re a tapestry of beautiful ghosts, their eyes look right through you, asking for a voice. And it’s this reality, I believe, that pushed myself, the cast and crew to try to tell this tough story in the most elegant way possible. How to tell their story? How to try give voice to those whose voice has been taken?

Lucky, right? If we’re lucky, directors get to try to tell stories for people who can’t. If we’re lucky.

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