I spent quite a few years in Boston, and in the mid ‘90s Brad Anderson kept cropping up as the name to watch, largely because of films like Next Stop Wonderland. But that sort of romantic escapism, grim as it sometimes was, didn’t do much to prepare anyone for Session 9, Anderson’s flawed but intriguing film set in an old mental hospital. Atmosphere was the name of the game, and the film seemed to indicate a new path, at the end of which Anderson would come up with a killer story to go along with his decaying images and characters. But with distribution bungled thanks to the dissolution of USA Films, he returned to skewed romantic fare, also dabbling in episodic TV with shots helming “The Wire” and “The Shield”. But with The Machinist, the director returns squarely to the ground he walked with that lone genre picture, and he’s got Christian Bale along for the ride.
Q: Last night you got to see The Machinist in front of a riled-up festival audience – how’d that feel?
A: The screening and response were great. But midnights just don’t agree with me. My favorite time to go to a movie is like ten in the morning. You’re all pumped up on caffeine, and you can really focus. Late at night it’s tough to really focus.
Q: Let’s start, then, with Christian Bale. Was he your idea?
A: I got attached to the script first, which had been making its way around Hollywood. People had flirted with it, but nothing had happened. I loved it, and wanted to find a way to get it made. So we sent it to a few actors, including Christian, and his enthusiasm was so immediate and obvious. Not only is he a great actor, but he had enough enthusiasm that he would do what he had to do to make it work. He would have to physically transform himself, and that was always kind of an issue. Otherwise, what, are we going to use CGI, or just find a really thin guy and shoot him with a certain kind of lens? No. Or we could not have dealt with the physical aspect so much, but that wouldn’t have been as compelling. You need him to look like he’s literally on his last legs to understand what he’s been through. And so Christian came on board. We never talked about the weight – I never said, if you don’t lose 60 pounds, you’re out. He just took it upon himself. So I went to Spain first to prep, and he arrived already having lost the weight. I just said wow, since I hadn’t expected him to go to the lengths he did. But it was good, because everyone could see what he did, and if he was that committed, they had to be, too. So he rallied the troops, in a way.
Q: And you can’t fake that look. There’s one reveal where he turns and we really see how thin he’s become.
A: No, you can’t fake that. What he’d do is, the day before a scene without his shirt, is he’d not drink any liquid, so he’d dehydrate. All his skin would conform to his muscles, so he’d look really sinewy, which was his way of pushing the look even further. He likes to push it, and I think he’s drawn to parts like this where he has to reinvent himself or physically transform.
Q: I know the script had been out there, but you write as well, and there are some elements that seem very much like your own trademarks. We’ve got men talking to each other in cars, the flashlights, things like that. Is that yours, or was it all there?
A: Most of it was in the script. Scott and I worked quite a bit on changing the script, partially because we had to adapt it for shooting in Barcelona. For example, originally, when Trevor is chasing Ivan in the red car, they go over some big bridges, and things like that. But they don’t have any big bridges – they’ve got tunnels instead. So we switched it, and suddenly the tunnel became like a theme in the movie. That kind of thing, almost by virtue of the location, evolved the script. But most of it was on the page. I just found as many ways to tell the story visually as possible, like any filmmaker, so Scott and I worked to do that.
Q: There are a few big references to other films – The Tenant and La Jetee, and what many people will think of as the [blanked for your protection] moment.
A: Well, that last one is by virtue of the fact that there’s a moment when Trevor realizes something about another person in the film. But that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid, in a way. Those comparisons…it’s not that I don’t like [blank], but I didn’t want to make some kind of hip, trendy movie with this. I wanted it to be less like a thriller and more of a nightmare. There are similarities to lots of movies, you’re right, but I don’t think any of it was intentional on my end. Polanski, Kubrick, Hitchcock – these are all filmmakers I love and I know that they might have been in me when I was making the film.
Q: Are there influences you could pinpoint more explicitly?
A: Well, Scott’s influences are more literary – Kafka and Dostoyevsky. He was reading all that when he wrote the script, or so he says. I used to love all that Russian literature, and dark tales about guilt and paranoia. When I read the script, it felt like the product if one of those guys had been a screenwriter in Hollywood. So that’s what I appreciated about it, that there was a literary feeling to it. The story felt like a parable, and that’s why we wanted the feel and the tone to be a little more timeless. It’s not contemporary, and it’s not period, exactly.
Q: Did shooting in Barcelona help with that?
A: I think so. If we were shooting in Burbank or something, it wouldn’t have gotten the same sense of alienation, because there would have been an In’N’Out burger on every corner, and a Starbucks in the background. It would have felt too congested with American symbols and stuff. By shooting in Barcelona, we could only make it look so much like America, since we couldn’t import McDonald’s signs or anything. It started to become very generic looking, and once I realized that’s where it was headed, I wanted to take advantage of it and make it more generic, and not clutter the frame up with stuff. I wanted it to be simple and iconic. Like the pickup truck. One way to convey American values is a good old Chevy pickup. You can’t get more American than that. And there were only two American pickups in all of Barcelona – that one, and another that didn’t even work.
Q: And that’s why the car chases work the way they do – you couldn’t wreck the truck.
A: Yeah! It was a piece of shit, but we had to treat it so delicately. It was always breaking down. But I wanted the look to be as generic as possible, and in that respect it kinda feels like a graphic novel or something. Someone else could have taken Scott’s script and made a very amped up, hip version of the same story with wild production design, more like a cartoon. But I wanted to veer away from that as much as possible.
Q: So that’s where the lack of temporal context comes from, too.
A: Yeah, and it’s nice. I realized there’s not a single cell phone in the movie, and I don’t think there’s even a computer anywhere. It’s almost an old-fashioned feel, and the music helps cement that, since it’s reminiscent in many ways of stuff from the ‘40s and ‘50s. And I think you’re right – it has an element of timelessness to it, again like a parable.
Q: Was that musical style intentional, or did that develop like the rest of the film?
A: It wasn’t an initial intention – at first when I was cutting the movie I was laying in more droning, atmospheric scores, like the kinda stuff you’d see in contemporary dark movies. Industrial soundtracks seemed appropriate, since it was a movie about a machine shop. You’d have these clanky sampled sounds, and that worked to the extent that it made things atmospheric and creepy to some extent.
Q: But you hear that stuff in every movie now.
A: That’s it. All of it felt so familiar, and it also made the film feel more contemporary and didn’t capture the perverse sense of humor that the film has. It’s such an absurd portrait – this guy’s like a dog chasing his own tail. I thought that by having this other music we associate with cheesy horror and sci-fi film, it brings both a spookiness and tongue in cheek thing. And I wanted the music to have that, and by having it be more lush, it brings to the fore the emotional values in the story. Its tragedy, as well as being an absurd, paranoid thriller. In the end, it’s a highly tragic story.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned the tongue in cheek aspect, because there are a lot of weird, low-key laughs in the film. How much of the humor, again, was intentional, or did the audience reactions surprise you at all?
A: There have been some, but most of the comic moments, those bits of uncomfortable humor…this isn’t exactly a rip-roaring funny movie. But those moments are intentional breaks for the audience. But even just Christian with the rolled-up carpet at the beginning. It’s such an image from a bad film noir or something, and it was in the script, and it’s absurd.
Q: And those bits could easily go over the top into foolishness, so do you rely on Christian there to carry the moment? Where do place your trust?
A: I think you’ve got to put it in the actor. But for any of the moments that could be construed as funny, this isn’t the kind of movie where you want the actor to go for the comedy. You want to play against it and let the situation come across as being ridiculous. So I never told him to play it up. It was more like, don’t make this into anything. On that note, cutting comedy is about performance, editing, timing, all that. The first two films I did were romantic comedies, and comedy in my mind is all about timing. Isn’t that what they always say?
Q: Again talking about timing, there are a couple of reveals in the film where the film and the audience have to be in sync. How do you make that work?
A: Well, that’s the trick with this kind of movie. You want to lay out the clues, but you don’t want the audience too far ahead or behind, and that’s the trick. I screened the movie to audiences before locking picture, and tailored a few things accordingly. But you never know in the end, and that’s the problem. Some people think one shot lingers too long and other people say the same thing went right over their head. You’ve gotta trust your own instincts about what feels right.
Q: Tell me about the character name – Trevor Reznik.
A: Trent Reznor?
Q: OK, that’s settled. So you’ve got Trent Reznor, and then since Michael Ironside is in here, you’ve got Daryl Revok as well, from Scanners.
A: Oh, really? Huh. I’d totally glossed over that. Talk to Scott Kosar. The original script had a quote from some Trent Reznor song at the beginning. I think Scott always envisioned the film as more industrial, and maybe Nine Inch Nails would actually do the soundtrack, and in obvious ways the name is a play on that. But in my mind it’s also a name that calls back to those Kafka novels, like a Polish or Eastern European name. It’s got that vibe.
Q: And speaking of Ironside, he was awesome!
A: I love Ironside, man.
Q: So do I. But people never know what the fuck to do with him, and they hire him as generic Genre Actor Guy, and you didn’t.
A: And we’re playing him against type a bit, since he usually plays the heavy or the villain. We wanted to misdirect people a little bit with that. He was Scott’s idea, and I love his stuff, but he didn’t come to mind immediately. Scott knew him, they were friends in LA, and to be honest I was a little put off when he agreed to do it. I though he was going to be this totally intimidating, scary guy. But he’s a really sweet guy. And he’s very giving, and I liked what he did.
Q: Did you have to pull any crazy shit with unions to get that machine shop running?
A: Dude, we shot this movie in Barcelona! There are no unions. I don’t even know if there was insurance. There wasn’t a doctor on set, it was all totally different. They have a different work ethic. There are actors and extras working at these big fucking dangerous machines, and I couldn’t believe it. And the car stuff – any time in America you do anything with a car, there’s safety guys giving lectures on where to go, and do not touch this and it’s so by the book. And here we’re driving down the streets with actual people and pedestrians. It was fucking crazy. It was actually very liberating. We didn’t have any firearms, thank god.
Q: Any accidents?
A: None except for me. I ripped my tendon a week before shooting the movie, and was on crutches for the first few weeks. And the moment I got off those my back got fucked up, and I was on a gurney, totally horizontal. There are shots of me laying on my back, looking at the monitor. It was kinda cool, though, since it was so relaxing. Normally you’re running around all nervous, and I was just lying there, like, eh. Nothing I can do. That’s going to be my style for every movie now. Directed from a gurney!
And there you have it. A long, sit-down with a very tired Brad Anderson. Thanks for Brad for sticking around, and to Paramount Classics for organizing it all.