Ami Canaan Mann


by Joanna Orland

Director Ami Canaan Mann is no stranger to the Venice Film Festival as her 2011 debut feature film Texas Killing Fields starring Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Chloë Grace Moretz played at the 68th festival.  In 2014 she has returned to Venice with Jackie & Ryan.  The film stars Katherine Heigl and Ben Barnes as the title characters in a warm, compelling, modest film about two characters who meet and strongly impact each others’ lives.

Ami, who is the daughter of renowned director Michael Mann, first conceived the idea for Jackie & Ryan when in Austin, Texas for a SXSW panel for Texas Killing Fields.  She met busker / train hopper Nick Hans and the idea for Jackie & Ryan flashed before her.  She introduced herself to Nick with the words “I’m going to make a story about you”, she says. “And then of course he thought I was crazy, but now a couple of years later he became the consultant, he’s one of my best friends, and he became the composer.”

The story is about day to day life and struggle, set to the backdrop of rural Utah to a soundtrack of Americana which is as central a character as either Jackie or Ryan.  Ben Barnes plays Ryan, a train-hopping drifter who owns nothing more than his guitar and his backpack.  He meets Jackie (Katherine Heigl) and they form a very naturalistic relationship which develops based on both mutual support and their shared love of music.

Originally entitled Your Right Mind, Ami changed the film’s title to Jackie & Ryan in search of something with as much simplicity as the story itself.  “Your Right Mind was almost just a placeholder.  I’m usually pretty good about my titles, but I literally just threw that title on before I sent it out, and so I was never really in love with it.  It wasn’t something I was really attached to.  I wanted a title that was really simple.  I didn’t want a title that was about trains or about love or about past. I wanted a title that evoked what the movie was in the simplest way possible and to me the movie was just about these two people, so let’s just call it these two people.”

Ami Canaan Mann chose to cast Katherine Heigl to fulfill a missed opportunity of working together when their previous film fell through.  “It’s a tricky role because you also have to believe that Jackie had the Manhattan lifestyle we’re supposed to want – the rich husband, and the condo and all that, the success.  But then you also have to be able to believe and feel the kind of confusion and almost sadness about the state of affairs she finds her life in when we meet her in the movie which is actually terrifically awful.  You know, she’s got no money, no credit cards, no insurance and she’s about to lose her daughter.”

Ben Barnes, a British actor, is a more controversial casting choice for such an American film.  But he flawlessly embodies Ryan, accent and all, even going as far as learning the guitar to play this part.  “He’s amazingly versatile.  You know, he can go from being New Jersey mobster guy to Prince Caspian”, Amy gushes of Ben’s diverse talent.  “It was crucial that you believed that when you looked at Ryan that you could see in him what her character sees in him which is that he’s genuinely a good person and has a heart of gold.  If there was anything about Ryan that felt like he was on the hustle or on the make, you would never believe the rest of the story.  And with Ben, you have that in spades – you put a camera on his face and it’s right there.”

The music being the third character in the film was also very important to get right. Nick Hans and Ami both played a huge role in sourcing and scoring the music for Jackie & Ryan.  Ami, a classically trained musician herself, admitted that Ben learned to play the guitar specifically for the role of Ryan. “He didn’t know how to play the guitar when I cast him, so he had 3 months.  I studied classical viola when as a kid so I’m pretty picky and I wanted it to be really authentic.  When you see someone doing vibrato, they’re really doing vibrato.  When you see someone play a note on a guitar, it’s the note  you’re hearing.  The challenge was this very complicated finger-picking style of the era.  So he had 3 months to get good enough.  Our plan was for him to mime a simpler version and then we track in the more complicated version.  And he became so good at it that some of the simpler songs he’s actually just playing himself.  It’s quite impressive.”


Read our review of Jackie & Ryan.

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