Based on true events, the Texas Killing Fields follows two homicide detectives, Mike Sounder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as they attempt to track down a sadistic serial killer who is dumping his victims in a nearby marsh known as ‘The Killing Fields.’
Don Ferrarone, who used to be a federal agent, first heard of these cases when he was sent to Texas with a task force investigating trafficking issues. Fascinated by the crimes he was directed to two Texas detectives who’d investigated several of the cases, Brian Goetschius and Mike Land.
Having worked with producer/director Michael Mann [as an advisor] on several projects, Ferrarone expressed his interest in writing a screenplay for Texas Killing Fields, and ten years later the movie was shot, directed by Mann’s daughter, Ami Canaan Mann.
Ami and Don spoke with us about their movie, which they hope will shed light on the victims of this very disturbing chapter in US history.
How much of the true story do you cover in this?
Ami: The facts of it are that since 1969 there have been fifty bodies that have been found in three areas outside Texas City that are collectively known as ‘The Killing Fields.’
To date some twenty-seven of these crimes are still unsolved. Since [it began in] 1969, it’s various killers who are committing serial sexual assault crimes and literally throwing these bodies away.
One of the things I thought was so brilliant about Don’s writing is that his approach to this really complicated phenomena of crime was to tell the story from the perspective of two detectives, and use an amalgamation of different facts from different cases.
Don: I was a federal agent at the time I discovered this. I went down [to Texas] with a team to work on something else and on my way there [I saw a] a poster in the area. It was basically two girls that nobody knew who they were.
They had found their bones and had reconstructed what they thought they looked like. And even to this day they haven’t identified them.
There is a lot of territory if you talk about the actual killing fields. I wanted to make sure that we told the story of the girls who nobody knew who they were. In sociological terms they call them ‘thrown aways.’
I interviewed a couple of girls that had escaped from these killers. I did a lot of reading, but the interviews are what really paid off, because I interviewed their families, and the mother that you see in [the movie] is based on real life.
I was shocked by how these girls were in harm’s way based on a very weak family structure.
What were you trying to avoid as you made this?
Ami: I didn’t want to re-victimize the victims. I didn’t want them to be a narrative tool or plot point. When we’re in the fields, I wanted you to hopefully feel them, feel their voices, feel their presence.
What kind of research did the actors do for this?
Ami: We were lucky enough to have a cast that was willing do the research, some of which was very difficult. I asked them to look at crimes scene photos, the kind of photos that you never get out of your head. And you go to a morgue and you never forget that smell.
I think that even though many of those elements of research are not literally present in the film, hopefully, collectively they created a sense of authenticity where you feel sunk into this world and have an understanding of these characters beyond the police procedural aspects of the story.
Are the two detectives in this based on the real detectives, and did Sam and Jeffrey get to talk with them?
Ami: Absolutely. I spent a lot of time with Mike and Brian and then Sam, Jeffrey and I went down to Texas and spent a lot of time with them.
Did you see in their performances any aspects of the real detectives’ characteristics?
Ami: [Yes,] I had the kind of cast that was willing to go down there to do practical research, but also to really understand the depths of what makes these two very different men tick. The real Mike is as Sam portrays him, a Texas cowboy hard-ass, and the real Brian is in fact how Jeffrey portrays him, he’s this priest-like person with this very calm, generous, warmth and gravitas.
Did Brian really pray over the bodies, like Jeffrey does in the film?
Don: Yeah, he said some prayers. Those two detectives were not stereotypical. You see so many cop shows where one’s good and one’s bad. Those two detectives don’t get along to this day.
Ami: They don’t. If you have lunch with them they fight the entire time.
Is the predator in this an amalgam of different people or is it just to represent that this kind of evil is still out there?
Don: Everybody in this movie is based on real events and real people. Some of them are hybrids, some aren’t, and the real circumstances are that a lot of these cases go unsolved until later.
Ami: And it was absolutely by story design that it was important to me to have there be a ‘bad guy’ who gets away, because that’s life. You have twenty-seven of these cases where some of the women aren’t even identified.
I didn’t want to tell the TV episodic version where we have a bad guy, and we have good guys catch the bad guy and we feel good at the endThat’s not real. The reality is that sometimes you get the bad guy, and sometimes the bad guy walks away.