BRAD ANDERSON: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR OF SESSION 9 AND THE MACHINIST
Yup, that's me again. Except this time I'm standing next to some one from the other side of storytelling spectrum. Brad Anderson is a refreshingly normal kind of genius. But the movies he makes are anything but. His last film, the much-neglected Session 9, offered an unforgettable blend of atmosphere, horror and metaphysics. His new film The Machinist features an astonishing performance from one of film’s most respected actors, Christian Bale who brings his considerable skills and a shocking 63 pound weight loss to a paranoid story about guilt, identity and the power of the conscience to enact payment.
I sat down with Anderson as he was in Chicago to promote his film, which played to 2 sold out screenings at CIFF 2004.
D: I’ve seen the Machinist compared to Fight Club but I’m surprised that noone has compared it to Insomnia or Memento or Vanilla Sky. It seems to me that both films are morality plays in a way that makes the very different from Fight Club.
B: …in the sense that characters in those films are on this inward journey where they learn something very vital about themselves? Well. Scott Kosar wrote the script about four years ago. His main references were the Dostoevsky novels he was reading.
When I make a movie of course I’m influenced by other filmmakers I admire but I try to stay away from doing things as an homage. I certainly borrow stylistically if I think it will help the story. As far as comparisons to other films The Machinist would definitely fit into that sort of sub genre where characters have some sort of epiphany in the last act. In our film we start with a character who is literally dying, for some unknown reason, from a lack of sleep which I hope sets the audience off into asking why?
D: It’s interesting to see the psychological thriller making a comeback but it seems like even the good films in that vein are having a hard time at the box office. And critics have also seemed to go after them as well. The Village, Identity, and The Forgotten, would be examples.
B: Well, I think this film is quite a bit different. First there’s really no supernatural, Twilight Zone twist. In the end what the audience learns is what Trevor Reznick learns about himself. I do think you’re right though, audiences have seemed to have grown tired of watching a movie only to find out that the character is dead, or he’s crazy, or the village is just a trick.
We didn’t treat Trevor’s problem like a gimmick. Sure our movie reveals something important at the end; the story is about recovering a memory, but it’s also about guilt and the way that guilt can eat you alive. We telegraph that pretty clearly from the very first scene, and I think the movie hinges on watching Trevor go through this emotional torment.
D: Guilt is something you’ve really mined well in your last two films. And you also ask your audiences to invest a lot of empathy, even sympathy for difficult characters. Why is it you’re drawn to that kind of story and storytelling?
B: Session 9 was my first foray into that kind of darker territory. I’d done two romantic comedies prior to that. Session 9 was really our attempt to make a very character driven horror movie but by horror I mean something different than what most people think of. People, especially critics, seem to associate horror with cheese ball shock tactics. We wanted to make a movie that slowly got under your skin, that was about building, inescapable dread. Obviously guilt plays a heavy part in that for characters in both Session 9 and The Machinist. They realize something horrible about themselves.
The funny thing is that I didn’t write The Machinist so I didn’t realize the similarity of the two films until we were done filming. But I was definitely drawn to it for the same reasons I was drawn into making Session 9. Let’s face it: stories about guilty people are fascinating. What’s more profound than people wrestling with their conscience? We all have our hidden secrets, our skeletons in the closet, our feelings of guilt; these things weigh on everyone to a degree.
D: That seems to be at the heart of what makes your darker movies tic. You attempt to generate a lot empathy, even sympathy, for characters that do horrible things. You’re not satisfied to cast them as psychotic monsters.
B: That’s why, to me, these movies are hard to leave in that category we think of when we think of the horror film. Because we defy people’s impressions of what a horror movie is supposed to deliver. The films definitely have a lot of the genre’s whistles and bells but ultimately they’re character studies. In Session 9 I deliberately cast Peter Mullen as Gordon because I thought the audience would be able to relate to him as a hard working blue-collar man with a new family. I think if you can’t generate sympathy for the monster then you’re not making something that will resonate. Look at Frankenstein. The power of that film is the empathy and the sympathy it generates for the creature.
D: Of course dread, guilt, sympathy, all of this presupposes loss and the need for some type of base level salvation.
B: In Scott’s original script there was no real redemption at the end and I did go back and ask him to help make Trevor a more sympathetic character. I guess I feel that, especially when working with material this dark, I want there to be some light as well, to not lose sight of that balance. Even at the end of Session 9, which leaves Gordon alone and weeping, maybe there’s a sense that he’s aware of his monstrousness even if he hasn’t paid the price for it yet.
D: But yet we get the almost oddly reassuring voice of Simon telling us how evil works.
B: Yeah, the weak and wounded. That’s what makes these kinds of movies so interesting for me. Getting in the head of the villain is a lot more interesting because so often you find that they’re broken, they can’t just be dismissed as the ‘evil other’,
D: Well, and when you’re creating something it’s often much better to let the characters do whatever seems most honest and true to who they are. Otherwise they stop being real. Our society seems so bent on forming itself around the idea that the police and the courts and the psychiatrists can solve everything but really the problems are much more complex than that and have to do with the universality of evil.
B: It’s intuitive. The best creative decisions I’ve ever made spring from that, not from trying to please some audience demographic. The Machinist was such a good experience because I was given essentially free reign to make the movie that way. Making the movie in Spain helped too. European producers seem more trusting; I really didn’t have any interference at all.
D: Do you see yourself going that financing route again or would you like to work with the larger American studios?
B: I’d be interested in trying my hand at a bigger picture. Whether it’s a studio film or not I would like to have more money because it allows you a broader vision. I mean, I know some directors who work on bigger projects and in the end it means more compromises but every movie is a series of compromises in some way. You never get exactly what you wanted; reality never jibes with what was in your head. But being able to make compromises on your own terms means you can live with them. If you’re being told by the studio marketing department that you have to change the ending because fifty three percent of the test audience doesn’t get it, well… more and more that’s how films are being made and not just studio films but even smaller independent films. The assumption is that you can sell a movie like you sell a stick of gum.
D: Unfortunately… you can.
B: And this is where the audiences are just as culpable as the studios. We buy into this crap. We make movies like, I don’t know…name any movie….
D: Go ahead…make some friends…
B: I’m guilty too. I go to these movies myself because I know they’re gonna suck. I guess in some weird gleeful way it’s satisfying to see something bad sometimes.
D: I’m impressed the words Aliens Vs. Predators did not come out of your mouth once…
B: It was just about to.
D: As far as filmmaking itself how do you deal with the tension between the script and the camera?
B: That’s an interesting question. I mean this is why films need directors. It’s a translation process. The Machinist is the first script I didn’t write or co write. For the scripts I write, I tend to think very visually. They’re almost a blueprint for how to shoot the movie. With Scott’s script the thing that drew me to it was it’s simplicity. It was very uncluttered. There was a lot of beautifully stark, evocative imagery but it was in between the words. I saw the possibility to visually, cinematically translate his story.
It’s not a calculation. The tone is the hardest thing to capture and maintain for any film. It’s intangible; it’s made up of all the different elements that make up the film. A different person would have made an entirely different movie here than I did. I could have seen a hipster, fast cutting graphic novelly thing with some industrial band doing the soundtrack and lots of Matrix style freeze frame… I wanted to consciously do something that had a more languid old-fashioned sense of timelessness about it. By taking out the contemporary gloss, I think the movie becomes more of a parable because, and it starts with Scott’s script, The Machinist isn’t like a story that actually happened, it’s a more of a cautionary sort of fable.
I knew I wanted the film to unspool more like a nightmare, to not be in your face, but those are choices I made as a director that seemed apparent to me the first time I read the script.
D: It’s interesting that we seem to be getting better at adapting works to the screen. More and more people walk out of theaters saying, “That’s exactly what was in my head.”
B: Yeah, we’re thinking cinematically more and more. Not only that but the arbitrary stories of life are being packaged more and more like movies. Look at the current political campaign, it has a first act, and a second act and now we’re moving into the big climactic third act. Of course life doesn’t fit that cinematic structure at all. Life isn’t that….smart.
D: But that’s what you’re movies are about. Finding that indefinable something, in this case, horror in the everyday, vs. finding it in Count Dracula or…
B: That’s why Polanski and Hitchcock is so influential to me. They were masters of paranoia. Polanski would always shoot through doorways and hide part of the action and the entire audience would be trying to look around the doorframe. If I can imbue something as seemingly mundane as a post it note with menace then I’m doing my job as a filmmaker.
D: Even your environments invite paranoia. The white industrial noise of a machine shop or the stark irrational decrepitude of Danvers Asylum…. They’re man-made environments but they’re also man-unmade.
B: When I first saw the building we used for Session 9, I was struck by how beautifully ugly it was. Decrepit building on a hillside covered with overgrown meadows…stuff that’s falling apart is so much more interesting. The locations can do so much to help you tell a story. In The Machinist we wound up shooting in Barcelona Spain so when we took out all those cultural markers I think we created a real sense of dislocation. … we don’t know where Trevor is, and even Trevor himself doesn’t seem to be sure of where he is. I don’t know if you noticed but there are also no laptops, or cellphones or name brands onscreen. That nondescript quality creates a sense of unease but it’s very subtle.
D: Let’s talk about your use of the theremin. It certainly bridges the gap between the characters mental state and the Twilight Zone situations and geographies they find themselves in. But were you ever concerned that a certain level of kitsch would work itself onscreen?
B: The theremin brought a real originality to the mix. It’s grim and haunting but it’s also sort of funny. It’s an instrument that people associate with bad sci-fi and horror films from the fifties and sixties but for me I thought that resonance would actually serve the picture well because there is a lot of perverse humor in the film. I mean essentially The Machinist is the story of a man chasing his own tail. And whatever else you want to say about the instrument, theremin is also highly emotional and after hearing the score from The Day the Earth Stood Still I knew immediately we had to have it in the film. It sets the tone in a way no other instrument could.
D: Speaking of original choices did you and Christian talk ahead of time about losing the enormous amount of weight he did for the role?
B: We never did. The script described Trevor as a walking skeleton, and I knew he would lose some weight because Chris is a dedicated actor. I assumed he’d lose maybe fifteen or twenty pounds, we’d put him in some baggy clothes, but… when he showed for the shoot it was shocking…he literally looked like he’d stepped off the train at Dachau. I think the total weight loss was something like 63 pounds. But of course the minute I saw it I realized it was perfect because Trevor needed to wear his torment, we needed to be able to see it eating him alive. It lent this marvelous weight to the central questions of the film, “Who am I?” “Who are You?” To see our character stripped down to his most basic essentials and still asking that question, wow! I’ve worked with some terrific actors and that’s something they all have in common. The ability to immerse themselves into whatever was required to tell a great story.
D: What’s next?
B: Well I have a dark “Don’t Look Now” type thriller called Lucid that I’m developing at Warner Brothers and that would be my first studio film if I got that going. And then I have a Brazilian Bossanova musical set in Rio during the sixties. It would be another genre hop which I like doing but ultimately I really do love these dark psychological films.
And we love watching them. The Machinist opens nationwide October 22.