How “Texas Killing Fields” Director Ami Canaan Mann Got From Her Tiny Hometown To Venice Film Fest

by Lauren C. Byrd

Like Sofia Coppola, Ami Canaan Mann has a family connection to the film industry. But Mann didn’t grow up watching her father, director Michael Mann, on set. Her parents divorced in the early ’70s, shortly after Ami was born, and Mann grew up with her mother in small town Dayton, Indiana, which had a population of less than 1,000 and no movie theater.

Growing up, Mann played viola and had an interest in photography. Wandering through her living room one day, she saw Apocalypse Now on television. “I don’t know what it was but there was that moment where I realized, everything I am seeing is a series of decisions made by somebody and this was their vision, and it was all being cobbled together to have this collective effect on me,” Mann said.

At 16, she was an art department production assistant on her father’s television series, Crime Story. Mann said she had to be talked into returning to high school after the experience, but once she finished high school, she attended USC film school.

“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,” Mann said of her childhood. She said she tries to remember that everyone on a film set brings in their own worldview and their own frame of reference to the work they do.

Ami canaan mann

While working on developing her directorial debut, Morning, Mann wrote for NYPD Blue and penned a Nancy Drew movie.

Her father had been researching and developing the idea for a film about the Texas killing fields for nearly a decade. Since 1969, the fields and swampland outside Texas City have become a dumping ground for more than 50 female victims of sexual assault and murder. The detectives who worked the cases believe several killers are involved, possibly several different serial killers.

Mann commissioned former DEA agent Don Ferrarone to write the script. He met with the real-life detectives and at one point, Danny Boyle was considering the project, but turned it down, saying it was too dark and would never get made. But Ami Mann tuned into the idea when she found a map pinpointing where the victims were found, illustrated with headshots.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a photograph and you can’t take your eyes off it, but there was something about seeing these girls. What struck me is they all had hair-dos that were indicative of their decade — be it eighties bangs, nineties streaks, whatever. They were looking at us, me, and there was a feeling that struck me. I felt like they were people who had literally had their voices taken,” Mann said.

Shot in 32 days, Texas Killing Fields (2011) focuses on the two detectives, Mike (Sam Worthington) and Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) assigned to investigate the murder of an unidentified teenage girl. Their work crosses over into a neighboring jurisdiction where Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain) is investigating the disappearance of another girl. Stall is Mike’s ex-wife and Brian, in addition to his police duties, has to work to keep peace between the two.

While Mann’s intentions are good, wanting to give voices to these girls who have been silenced, the missing girls become confusing. I love films based on real events, but focusing on multiple cases is a tricky plot point to handle well, and since the girls are already missing and we know little to nothing about them, it’s hard to evoke sympathy from the audience for these ghostly girls. Perhaps if we saw grieving parents or a worried sister, it would make the stories of these girls a bit more human. The real life cases are intriguing and heartbreaking, but that emotional impact doesn’t make its way to the screen.

The film’s cinematography is strong and no doubt that Mann has inherited her father’s eye. The locations are gritty, real, and dark, and if you didn’t know better, you would think Mann was a Texas native. While the acting by Worthington, Morgan, and Chastain is strong, the backstories of the detectives are hurried and feel a bit cliched. I wanted to spend more time with the detectives before jumping into the action. There’s also a great cameo by Jason Clarke, almost unrecognizable, as a potential suspect.

The film was part of competition at the Venice Film Festival but received mixed reviews from critics. Mann has gone on to direct an episode of Friday Night Lights and more recently, she directed her third feature, Jackie and Ryan, starring Katherine Heigl as a singer who meets a mysterious modern day train hopper.

Top image: Texas Killing Fields

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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