Highsmith’s Greece

Shooting on location for “The Two Faces of January,” based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the mistress of mystery.

Only Patricia Highsmith could’ve found something sinister in Crete’s crystal waters. She went there in 1959, fleeing one destructive affair, and obsessing over another, to traipse around sun-soaked Greece with her ex-lover Doris. Out of it all came 1964’s The Two Faces of January, a fraught psychological thriller about doomed love. Fifty years later, writer-director Hossein Amini followed in her footsteps to film her story of three deeply flawed Americans (played by Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac) who get into serious trouble abroad. I tagged along as an associate producer.

It was a critical decision to shoot on location. These days producers are quick to use Eastern European countries as international stand-ins out of economic necessity. But while you might be able to fake Ionic architecture with foam and plywood, we knew we couldn’t get that palpable sense of place so necessary to the film’s story anywhere else, whatever the challenges. (Walking home from a shoot at the Acropolis in Athens, I’d smell lingering tear gas that had been used to clear anti-austerity protesters.)

But the wisdom of that choice became especially clear when we filmed in Crete. Beyond the sunny tourists traps of Chania harbor, the island simmers with ancient tensions. Because of a national strike, the palatial ruins at Knossos were empty of travelers when we shot, creating a desolate, primordial atmosphere. That mythical angst only deepened as we filmed atop Samariá Gorge, in the heart of Sfakia, where shepherds use street signs for target practice. Lugging camera gear up rugged terrain isn’t easy, but in the end the harder road gave the film, which comes out this summer, a harsh beauty and a mythic undertone that couldn’t be had anywhere else.