The Iranian-born, London-based screenwriter Hossein Amini (his credits include Snow White and the Huntsman and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive) adds “director” to his resume with The Two Faces of January, a ’50s-era psychological thriller based on one of the lesser-known thrillers penned by Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley among others). The movie, which is currently available on VOD and opens in theaters on Friday, stars Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst as a married couple who get in hot water while vacationing in Greece and Oscar Isaac as the low-level street criminal who lends them a hand…mainly so that he can cozy up to Dunst. I spoke with Amini before sitting down to talk with Mortensen for a Q&A that’s posted over on Yahoo Movies and you can read some excerpts from our conversation below.

On casting Viggo Mortensen
I didn’t pick him. We were at the same agency and I didn’t know he was reading [my script]. To be honest I didn’t think we could aim that high. I got this phone call out of the blue from my agent saying that Viggo was interested in doing the part, so I went out and met with him and he was gracious and charming. He was drawn to that combination of gentleness and cruelty in the character. He’s the kind of actor who welcomes the challenge of showing an ugly side as well as handsome, beautiful side.

On Highsmith’s Flair for Depicting Male Dynamics
Her books are almost these love stories between two men. Even though they’re trying to destroy each other, she captures the competitive side all men have where they can admire someone, but also want to beat them. She gets that so much better than a lot of male writers. I recognize so much of myself in the relationships [in her books]. In this case, there’s a father/son element to the central male relationship that functions as another way to get two men into combat. When you’re young, you look up to fathers; when you’re a teenager, they irritate you; and then you end up looking after them when they get old.

On Shooting a Chamber Piece Against the Picturesque Backdrop of the Mediterranean
As a first time filmmaker, I thought I could make this movie because it’s really just about three people. Even though there are these exotic landscapes and lots of extras around them, the focus is really just these three and the damage they do to each other. That appealed to me—doing a small intimate thing on a huge, epic scale. And I’d say that the landscape is very reflective of the psychology of the characters. We start out in Athens where it’s postcard beautiful and then you go to locations that are grim and rugged.

On Making the Movie on a Tight Budget
The foreign sales are often how these movies get made. And it’s really on Viggo’s name, because he’s a big star in other countries thanks to Lord of the Rings. We had US distribution in place already, because that’s the way [production company] Studio Canal works—they wanted to get US distribution before anything so it covers their risks. It’s interesting because they showed rough cuts [to distributors], which I would never do now, because I see just how much the film changes by the time you do the music and sound design. I think we were quite lucky to get distribution based on the rough cuts!

On What He Learned From Watching Directors Like Nicolas Winding Refn at Work
What I learned from Nic more than anyone was not so much shooting style, but more his ability to use everyone and work with everyone. It’s funny, when he publicizes a movie, he’s an auteur, but he’s actually one of the most collaborative people I’ve ever worked with. I mean, when you’ve got 200 brilliant people all in their different roles and they all know more about what they do than you, so why not listen to them? I also learned about the fluidity of the shooting process, that on every shooting day there’s a lot of magic you can capture if you’re alert to it and you listen. For someone who is a screenwriter, it was a great lesson to learn. And now having made this movie, I realize the worse thing you can do with a script is shoot it as written. If the movie doesn’t evolve, it stays as one person’s imagination as opposed to the great advantage of a filmmaking, where you have a lot of other people who can provide input.

On His First Time in the Editing Room
Editing was so hard. I thought that would be the easiest bit because it’s about storytelling, but I didn’t realize to what extent you watch it two or three times and then you just an see the movie anymore. You’re sitting there and not really watching; you can’t tell the pace or anything like that. I changed editors very reluctantly, because both of us had gotten snowblind. The new editor came in and suddenly I could see again. I just jumped in too early; I watched too much and didn’t keep my distance. The other big responsibility was shaping the performances of the actors. The thing I’m proudest of about the film is the performances, because that’s what drew me to the book. There are bits I wish I had shot differently, but I do feel the acting is [what I hoped for].

On His Filmmaking Influences
One sequence in the movie is pure Hitchcock, a scene that’s constructed around looks and moments. But I also was inspired by a lot of ’60s European filmmakers, particularly Michelangelo Antonioni. There’s something about the way he captures human beings falling out of love with each other. He’s such a master. Those are two of my Movie Gods in terms of directing. As for the final chase sequence, everyone says it’s the chase from The Third Man, but it’s actually the chase from the Jules Dassin film, Night and the City, with Richard Widmark running through London.

On Wanting to Make to the Definitive London Crime Movie
I live in London and [I’m fascinated] with the idea of how it’s become a more international city. It’s become globalized. The tradition of London crime movies is East End gangsters and local stuff and I thought, “I’m an immigrant in England—there’s something I can do involving people who have come to this country for the first time and how their world is evolving.” And I want to tell a story about betrayal, because I think that’s interesting. What I love about film noir isn’t the black-and-white and camera angles or whatever, it’s the doomed love stories and the way people betray each other. I think there’s a way to make a London-based crime movie that’s internationally accessible, one that’s not about class and society, which is usually what those British crime movies are about. There’s something grand and epic about American crime movies that I haven’t really seen as much in England. For example, Michael Mann’s Heat is one of my favorite movies and I want to figure out how to get the equivalent of that in England.