“Texas Killing Fields,” which premieres in Venice today, is no ordinary police procedural.
While the elements may sound familiar — two cops must track down a serial killer before he strikes again — the filmmaking team was motivated by more than just satisfying an audience’s thirst for thrills.
Before tyro helmer Ami Canaan Mann even read former Drug Enforcement Agency agent Don Ferrarone’s screenplay, she saw a newspaper article with a map of the real killing fields outside Houston with pictures of the many victims and where their bodies had been found.
“That was the first moment — looking at those girls’ faces — that I felt a compulsion to do whatever I could to tell this story,” said Canaan Mann, who is director Michael Mann’s daughter.
“There are still 27 cold cases,” she continued. “And part of the motivation was to get people to know about this phenomenon of crime as a whole.”
Ferrarone said it was his contact with two detectives from Texas City that led him to write the script.
“One detective in particular, Brian Goetschius, opened my eyes to both the suffering of the victims and the mental trauma of a homicide detective placed so close to the edge of chaos,” he said. “I specifically wanted to give voice to the victims who fall under the category known as ‘thrownaways,’ young women whose lifestyle, behavior and unstable family structure placed them in harm’s way.”
Michael Mann first developed the project after working with Ferrarone on the 1990 miniseries “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.” It had been set up with a few directors before, most notably Danny Boyle.
But the film languished until Canaan Mann took a stab at the script, consulting with Ferrarone, emphasizing “the haunted house” aspect of the story and elevating the role of a young farm girl and potential victim (Chloe Moretz).
When Sam Worthington signed on right after making “Avatar,” the film came together quickly, with Bill Block’s QED providing financing.
Canaan Mann said the main challenge of the film was making the material palatable.
“If it was too graphic or literal, it would be a turn-off,” she said, “so the trick was to seduce them (viewers) visually.”
Taking inspiration from the vast landscapes of Texas’ bayou country and the actual crime scenes, Canaan Mann characterizes the settings as this “nowhere middleness that was really terrifying.”
The film was shot in Louisiana, however, and Canaan Mann, along with her production designer half-sister Aran Reo Mann, spent time looking for locations that would evoke the same sense of terror.
“By chance, we stumbled upon a forest of skeletal trees, beautiful and haunting, and they became this perfect visual symbol,” Canaan Mann said.
For further stylistic cues, she also cited Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” as well as the photography of Jeff Brouws and Sally Mann.
While Canaan Mann’s famous father may have helped push her sophomore film forward — her first feature was 2001’s “Morning” — she said she never felt the pressure to live up to him, as she was too focused on finishing the film in 32 days in the 100-plus degree Louisiana summer heat.
“It was a very ambitious production, and we made it on time and on budget,” said Canaan Mann proudly. “Every day was a real victory.”
At one point during the production, nearby residents unhappy with the film crew started shooting off guns; in another incident, Jeffrey Dean Morgan suddenly screamed during a shot because he almost ran into an alligator.
“The terrain was so visually unusual, it was worth it all,” Canaan Mann said.