“I couldn’t do a straightforward formulaic movie,” says writer/director Brad Anderson. “As a filmmaker, I’m always interested in finding ways to break down the formula somehow, whether it’s a comedy or a horror film or a thriller or whatever, because if I’m making a movie, I’ve got to live with it for two, maybe three years. I want to make sure it’s interesting enough and multilayered enough that I can always find something interesting and fresh about it.”
Anderson has a penchant for breathing new life into modern romantic comedies and suspense dramas. He does so by making the kind of smart, character-driven films that attract discerning actors, including Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Next Stop Wonderland, Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio in Happy Accidents, Peter Mullen and Josh Lucas in Session 9, and now Christian Bale and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the current release, The Machinist. He says he chooses actors who have a love for the craft, as well as enthusiasm, commitment, and the adventurous spirit to play roles against their usual type. He admits he can do so primarily because none of his films has had a studio, investors, or meddling producers pressuring him to cast the next hot thing.
“The films I’ve done are small enough that you wouldn’t do a Brad Anderson movie at this point to make a lot of money. That’d be stupid, because they’re not big movies,” he says. “People like Christian Bale, who went to such extremes to immerse himself in this part, physically transforming himself to become this character–that’s a level of commitment that is so rare among people in this business. What’s so exciting about making movies is getting to know actors and seeing them take what you’ve written, and turn it into something so much better than you could’ve ever imagined.”
Anderson’s fresh, down-to-earth style no doubt stems from his roots in New England, where he was set on becoming an ethnographic documentarian, ready to show us the way the rest of the world lives. He studied anthropology at Bowdoin College, in Maine, and learned his filmmaking basics at London International Film School, but he switched to narrative filmmaking as soon as he got a taste for storytelling through his editing gigs in Boston public television. That led to his first film, the credit card guerrilla production The Darien Gap, which premiered at Sundance in 1996.
The Machinist, written by Scott Kosar, happens to be the first film that Anderson has not also penned. “I didn’t want to wear all the hats for a change,” he explains. “It was a good experience. I got to work with a little distance from the script and have more objectivity in terms of trying to realize the vision of the project, because it wasn’t my baby, you know?” He is also beginning to leave some of those documentary methods–improvisation and a lot of hand-held camera–behind in favor of a more stylized, scripted approach, although he still prefers shooting another take to rehearsing, so the actors can save their creative juices and do their exploring in front of the camera.
In The Machinist, Anderson cast Jennifer Jason Leigh and Spanish star Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as Bale’s love interests, and he played with audience’s expectations by casting Michael Ironside–who’s generally known for villainous roles–in a part that serves as a red herring in the psychological thriller. But the most interesting casting story behind the film may be that of John Sharian, who plays Ivan, a mysterious figure who seems to haunt and taunt Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik. The character was originally written to be thin–almost as a reflection of Trevor, and Anderson was seeing a lot of emaciated actors in London until Sharian showed up.
“He’s this big, bald lug of a guy, who looks like Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now,” Anderson recalls. “It was such a striking difference than what I had in my head that I kind of liked it. It was totally unexpected, and I started to change my impression and feelings about what that character should look like. In some ways he is the manifestation of Trevor’s guilty conscience. As Trevor disappears, this guy grows. That was a case where the actor changed my impression of the character. I guess the scenario is, even if you don’t feel that you’re right for the part at an audition–because I met him during these auditions–sometimes you can surprise a director and change his/her mind.”
Anderson’s next project will either be a thriller for Warner Bros., which would be his first studio picture, or a Brazilian musical about the roots of bossa nova. “Characters will be breaking into song, so I need to find actors who can sing or at least can carry a tune,” he says. “We’ll probably begin casting [this month], depending on which one should sort of take off at this point. We’re still in development, but I guess we want to get an actress onboard to help launch it,” he says