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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.