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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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