Transsiberian, the latest film from The Machinist and Session 9 director Brad Anderson, is set on the titular railroad that cuts through Russia’s snowy wastes. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are an American couple riding the train who get caught up with a shady and mysterious younger couple. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley is a Russian narcotics officer looking to bust a drug operation. Their paths slowly begin to converge on that train.
I’ve been struggling for the last week or so to transcribe an interview
I did over the phone with Anderson. I’ve been struggling because the recording is
riddled with feedback from my phone, and the squealing and hissing
makes Anderson’s replies almost completely inaudible, especially for
the first two minutes. I’ve transcribed the interview to the best of my
ability, but I just couldn’t get those first few minutes, where
Anderson talks about why he set the film on that train – he took a trip
on it some years ago, and the experience stuck with him. I bring you Brad Anderson, mid-thought about why he chose this location.
It was an exciting adventure for me. I always felt that once I became a
filmmaker and started pondering what kinds of films I wanted to make,
that setting would make for a great story. My co-writer Will Conroy had
the idea to do a train story, like they did in the 30s and 40s, those
Hitchcock films, Murder on the Orient Express. An old-fashioned train
movie. It was then like what would the story be, and we wanted to do
something that was kind of forbidding, and the idea of being stuck in
this claustrophobic environment for a long period of time with no way
to get off seemed like a good setting for a story about paranoia, and
for suspense. Once we settled on that, we started to establish what
happens in the story. You start with the location and build the story
around the location instead of coming up with an idea and then finding
the location. This way you have a much more visual way to tell the
story. With Session 9 we wrote the script based on that specific
location. This movie was different in that we wrote it around the
experience [of taking the train].
You have a terrific cast. With a film like this you have a thriller
story, but when you have a cast like this how much freedom do you give
them to find their characters and to improvise?
It depends on the story and the actors. With these guys, Ben Kingsley
and Woody wanted to do it because they liked the script and they liked
working with me. When I direct a movie I try to give the actors as much
free space to work as possible so they can feel comfortable to toss an
idea in there if they want. But with this one, especially with Ben
Kingsley, they were very much about what was on the page. He said that
he learns his lines and he says those lines. He doesn’t try to recreate
the wheel. For him it was about the character in the script, and that
was what he did. We didn’t have a lot of room to play, but when people
could add a fun bit we did a little of that. It was a pretty difficult
shoot and we didn’t have a lot of time to do it, so you have to get it
down as it is in the script because you have to move on to the next
You were shooting on location in Eastern Europe -
We shot this in Lithuania.
When you’re on location in a foreign country… the early part of the
film is all about the paranoia of not being able to understand what
people are saying, not fitting in. How does that work for you as a
filmmaker, working with a foreign crew?
It’s complicated and it can be frustrating, but I love the experience
and I like to travel. There’s always difficulty in communication and
when you’re directing a movie it’s all about communication – if you
can’t communicate your vision, you can’t do it. Fortunately, my crew
was international. The crew was a combination of people from all over
Europe, and sometimes it would be difficult but these days the lingua
franca is English. In Lithuania almost everyone speaks English, so you
can communicate. But there are cultural differences. Things take
longer. When you make a movie in the States things happen like
clockwork it seems, but when you go to Eastern Europe it feels like it
takes weeks to get things ironed out. We were lucky we shot in
Lithuania, though. We looked at a bunch of different places to shoot
it, even Russia. But Russia would have been difficult with the
bureacracy, and it’s very corrupt, so we eventually settled on
Lithuania, where we could match the look of Russia. There are a lot of
Russian-speaking people, there are a lot of Russina-looking buildings,
and the climate isn’t that different. It’s cold. The main thing is that
they gave us a train, they gave us a Russian train and forty kilometers
of train track to use at our discretion. It was like having your own
life size train set. We could stop it and start it, we could stage a
crash sequence, we could do stunts. We couldn’t have done that if they
had tried to do the movie in Canada. We needed to be in a location that
wasn’t that different from the real thing.
You did Masters of Horror, and now you’re doing Fear Itself. Do you find it more difficult to do Fear Itself with the restrictions that come from being on network TV?
Not the violence, because mine is more psychological. There’s not a lot of gore, so I didn’t have to dial back on that. I’m more interested in the psychological horror than the horror horror. Most of the restrictions at the network are about that. Masters of the Horror had more freedom, but again my episode, they didn’t find a lot of things in the script problematic. The only problem with a show like that is that every ten minutes there’s a commercial break. One of the things with psychological horror is building up a mood and a tone and making the audience start to get anxious. When you’re doing that and all of a sudden you cut to a McDonald’s commercial, it eats away everything you’ve been trying to do! That’s the biggest problem.