Blood on the Tracks: Brad Anderson & ‘Transsiberian’

Film is a medium of light. Brad Anderson’s films are anything but. He’s followed up the bleak thrillers Session 9 and The Machinist, with the nihilistic Transsiberian all but erasing the memories of his earlier romantic whimsies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents. (Also see our interview with Transsiberian’s Emily Mortimer.) Session 9 may be known for resurrecting David Caruso’s career, and The Machinist for Christian Bale exposing his ribcage, but both films put the psycho in psychological, and proved Anderson a master of his craft.

One of the first things I noticed was the faces of the locals, and your close-ups of all these interesting Russian faces and Eastern European faces. Who were these people, and where did you find them?

We definitely wanted to create the feeling of being in Russia. We shot the movie in Lithuania, which is as close as we could get to Russia and still do the movie. I think one of the advantages of doing it there is that we were able to get really interesting, classic-looking Russian faces, which is important. Just as much as seeing the vast Russian tundra out the window, the thing that makes it so exotic is also the people on the train. And you’re stuck on this train for seven days, and it’s your encounters with all these exotic faces that make it so memorable. So when we were casting extras, it was very much looking for those specific faces that each of them tells a little story, particular the old Russian grandmothers.

Did these old Russian grandmothers have agents?

It turns out a lot of them were homeless people who came to the casting call because they saw a chance to make a little bit of extra money. So we had a lot of rough and tumble types on the train, which makes it that much more interesting

In your films, you have this incredible way of subtly building the menace up to a point that’s almost unbearable, until the real horror starts happening.

That’s the thing about it. On one level it’s exciting, because you’re in this exotic locale, one of the last true train adventures you can take. But you’re also going into the great unknown. When I took the train back in 1988, there were so many things they warned you about. Never get off the train, don’t talk to certain types of people, because there are a lot of shady characters on that train.

So you went on the train in ’88, and I assume you went again?

We went a few months before we started shooting the movie.

And are the women who work on the train actually as cruel as they appear in the film?

It’s funny, they’re called the providers. And they’re all women, and they’re these big, stocky, pissed-off Russian women. They wear far too much makeup, and they’re scary! They keep an eye on you. And back in the Soviet days they were not just attending your needs on the train, but some of them were working for the KGB. I took that train twenty years ago and then we took it in 2006, same deal, man, it hadn’t changed at all. And technically, the train itself is the same exact train I took twenty years ago, more or less. The environments, the towns, the cities along the track haven’t changed at all.

Most of the characters have a moral ambiguity about them, except for Roy (Woody Harrelson). Did you feel the need to have at least one straight man in the film?

He’s sort of our standard for the stereotypical, naïve American abroad. He’s like George Bush. You want to sit down and have a beer with him, he’s not maybe the most intelligent guy in the world, but he’s a good natured guy. And he loves his wife dearly and it’s a true, honest love. Everyone else is harboring these dark secrets, so we wanted someone in the movie to be exactly what they appeared. He’s just sort of just good ol’ Roy.
image Anderson directs a gaunt Christian Bale in ‘The Machinist’.

Whenever Roy gets roughed around, he keeps using the fact that he’s American as an excuse not to be.

That’s the whole idea, sometimes that’s all you need to say and you get away with it. And not to put too much of a point on it, but the idea of Americans going off to foreign countries and killing people and getting away with it is pretty topical right now.

What kind of projects do you have in the works?

I’m trying to get a musical off the ground. It’s called Nonstop to Brazil. It’s a musical set in Rio in the early 60s, when Bossa Nova was all the rage. So, you know, the characters sing these great Bossa Nova songs. It’s a very different thing.

Your films are all smaller, more personal stories. Have you ever considered working within the confines of the studio system and a bigger budget?

I would love to work with a bigger budget, have a bigger palate to work with. To work under the studio system, with the restrictions that entails, is not something that appeals to me. I’ve made the conscious choice of doing smaller movies because it gives me the creative leeway to make the movies I want to make. Not only that, but the last two movies have been financed by European companies. I’m happy doing my own thing. But if something bigger comes down the pipe that feels like the right fit and it works out, that’d be great. I just haven’t really been able to find that project. And then, something like Batman, I like what Chris Nolan has done, but— like watching them, I thought Iron Man was great, but they’re not my cup of tea.

Do a lot of scripts come your way?

I get sent stuff. If you’re hooked in ten pages, you keep going, but a lot of it, frankly, is pretty bad. There are some good projects, but they’re few and far between as far as I’m concerned.

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