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Interview: Brad Anderson on “Transsiberian”

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07172008_transsiberian1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

By now, writer/director Brad Anderson (“Session 9”) must be bored to death of people asking him about Christian Bale’s monumental weight loss for “The Machinist,” perhaps the most memorably disturbing image from his still-under-the-radar career. (Could this be the same Brad Anderson who once made quirky rom-coms like “Next Stop Wonderland” and “Happy Accidents”? Indeed, it is.) After taking on episodes of “The Wire” and “Masters of Horror,” Anderson returns to features with the moody, diabolically suspenseful “Transsiberian,” starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as an American couple on a church-sponsored charity mission in China who soon face moral dilemmas and enigmatic strangers on the titular train to Russia. Of course ol’ Hitch came up in my conversation with Anderson, but so did Dostoyevsky, hipster thrillers and the in-the-works adaptation he wishes he could’ve made. [WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!]

Variety‘s review said “The long sidelined subgenre centered on mysterious doings aboard exotic trains is put back on the tracks.” Similarly, The Hollywood Reporter observed that “the thriller-mystery set aboard a train has almost disappeared from movie subgenres.” Did you feel like you were resurrecting a specific story type?

Will Conroy — who I co-wrote the script with — and I didn’t set out to bring any kind of subgenre back, but looking at it from the perspective of audiences and critics, I can see how they’d make that connection. We both love those Hitchcock films like “The Lady Vanishes,” “North by Northwest” or “Strangers on a Train.” When I proposed to Will the idea of doing a movie set on the Trans-Siberian, it just seemed logical to touch on the Hitchcock oeuvre. We wanted to do a thriller that wasn’t all hip and trendy, hence setting it on this train journey, which is a grim and taxing experience. People describe the movie as a thriller, but I also think of it more along the lines of those Hitchcock films, which weren’t thrillers per se, but suspenseful dramas.

What’s the difference between “Transsiberian” and these hipster thrillers you speak of?

I’m talking about the overly stylized graphic novel or Marvel Comics-derived thrillers, which are so much about the surface execution and nothing deeper than that. I was more interested in capturing the experience of what this kind of exotic adventure is like, having done it myself years ago. By putting these characters in the context of a train that doesn’t stop, that’s very claustrophobic. It creates an environment that’s ripe with paranoia and tension. We wanted to pull suspense from the characters in a situation, not from the thriller genre.

07172008_transsiberian2.jpgHave you ever gotten yourself in a pickle while traveling outside the country?

Usually, I have fun, exotic experiences. Never overly life-threatening. [laughs] I did a lot of traveling after college on trains through India, China and Russia. I somehow managed to make it back in one piece, and I actually pulled a lot of the anecdotal experiences into the making of “Transsiberian.” But I’ve never killed anyone, tried to cover it up, or had any run-ins with corrupt Russian police inspectors. When Will and I were conceiving the story, we were talking a lot about Dostoyevsky, given that he’s a Russian writer who dealt with issues of guilt. Grinko, the Ben Kingsley character, was pulled from the inspector in “Crime and Punishment” — you know, a guy on the trail of who he thinks is a guilty murderer.

But what attracts you to guilt? After “Session 9” and “The Machinist,” this is your third consecutive brooder about secretly guilt-ridden protagonists.

Maybe it’s because characters with secrets allow you to add twists and reveals in the third act, which can be dramatically exciting. There’s just something inherently fascinating about guilty characters, the lengths and [schemes] they devise to keep themselves out of trouble. In our story, obviously, Jessie — Emily Mortimer’s character — each time she thinks she’s gotten away scot-free, we throw in some other obstacle, a chance to overcome it. The mere fact she’s on a train and trying to cover up a crime in her past is ironic and funny. I like characters who aren’t typically heroic and come to some sort of epiphany about themselves.

Could you discuss any technical nuances you strove for in creating the film’s ominous mood?

Before shooting the film, we went to Russia and took the train again. It hadn’t changed in the 20 years since I had first taken it. It’s a grueling journey. You’re stuck in these unventilated train cars with all sorts of exotic people carrying everything under the sun. The original intent was to shoot on the actual train, but that would have been impossible logistically, so our production designer and my director of photography, [both of whom] I had worked with on “The Machinist,” were really great at creating that dark, brooding sensibility. We shot it handheld in that pseudo-documentary way to give the film a sense of motion and energy, and as a practical consideration — we were shooting in these tiny sleeping quarters as wide as our shoulders, the size of phone booths. You really couldn’t put the camera in too many places.

It’s also a story that takes place in the middle of the winter, crossing the most desolate, remote landscapes on the planet. The contrast between the white snow and the dark interior of this train was visually interesting, so we put a lot of effort into creating this realism. Shooting in Lithuania was helpful because, even though we weren’t in Russia, all the local extras that we used as the other passengers on the train had a raw quality about them. At one point, we considered shooting the movie in Canada, but I don’t think we would’ve been able to achieve that raw Eastern European realism.

07172008_transsiberian3.jpgMany people are lamenting the deteriorating value of indie film today. Any thoughts?

The novelty has worn off of indie film, in general. I think it wore off a while ago, but the economy being the way it is, maybe it’s more amplified now. I don’t have much of a foothold in the studio world, so I don’t really follow those developments. I don’t think of the “indie film world” as this cohesive kind of world anyhow. It’s so disparate, all these different filmmakers seeking financing from many different sources to make different kinds of movies. It’s hard to pinpoint a trend, really.

I’ve been lucky because the last couple films I’ve made have been financed from European companies. This movie was a co-production of Spain, Germany and the UK, so in that regard, I’ve been insulated a bit. I know we couldn’t have gotten this movie off the ground in the States — there’s no way. This company [Filmax] in Spain, who made “The Machinist,” came on board to finance this one, and it’s been good for me because it’s given me the creative control that I’ve wanted. Again, these aren’t big movies, but there’s enough of a budget to tell the story I want to tell. And I like working over there, frankly. They still respect the notion of the director as the vision behind a project.

When I went to Sundance back in 1998, indie film was all the rage and Miramax was throwing down five or six million dollars for several films each year. Those were the salad days of indie film, and those days are over. I’m not out there worrying too much about it. Right now, I’m looking to get the financing for my next movie, and that’s my focus. I’m looking in Europe, and I’ll continue to look there because I think there are more opportunities for me to direct there then there are in the States.

Besides “Crime and Punishment,” what books are you reading? Or for that matter, what other media have you been absorbing?

It’s funny, I have a new kid, and between two kids, seeing movies is few and far between. Plus, when I’m focused on writing my own projects, I tend to avoid seeing other movies. I just read and loved “The Road,” the Cormac McCarthy book. I thought it was really intense and moving and brutal. I would love to make that movie; unfortunately, someone else already is.

Musically, it’s all about Bossa nova for me. My next project is hopefully going to be a musical, set to great, classic Brazilian songs. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll be in production on “Nonstop to Brazil,” my next project. I’ve always been deep into Brazilian music, and this will be both a total 180-degree turn from “Transsiberian,” and a detour back into a more romantic, melancholy, sweeter type of story.

[Photos: Emily Mortimer; Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega; director Brad Anderson – “Transsiberian,” First Look International, 2008]

“Transsiberian” opens in limited release on July 18th.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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