Interview: Brad Anderson

I’ve followed the work of director Brad Anderson ever since Session 9. When I was given the chance to interview him for his new film, Vanishing on 7th Street, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was disappointed, though, that our conversation would be reduced to a phone conference. Phone interviews lack the organic banter of being in person. You never know when the other person is going to speak. You stutter over hesitant interruptions. The discussion often becomes like an intersection with a traffic officer directing the cars — one comment at a time.

In addition, the technological dependency to pull the interview off is a bit overwhelming. I have my phone set to speaker, waiting for the call. I have it routed through my MacBook where a Garage Band project is open to record the conversation. I’ve attached a USB microphone to enhance my own voice.

The phone rings. I press talk. I press record.

Rubio: I know you’ve had a long day today, so I hope I’m not going to sound redundant.

Anderson: No problem.

JR: Well, I’m a big fan. I really loved Session 9 as well as The Machinist. Isn’t the asylum in Session 9 one that you had passed in your youth?

BA: Yeah, it’s a big mental hospital just north of Boston that I would often drive by, and it just seemed like the perfect place to stage a creepy story.

JR: How did Vanishing on 7th Street come to you?

BA: I didn’t write it. A friend of mine, Tony Jawinski, wrote it as a spec and sent it to me. As I read it, I just got more and more caught up in the weird mystery of it. I was fascinated by the disaster and how these characters are trying to find explanations for it. But the clincher was at the end when you’re expecting everything to be summed up with a neat little explanation for what’s happening, and he doesn’t give that to you. I was perplexed but also intrigued. I felt that was a daring move dramatically.

JR: The ending had this Adam and Eve ambiguity of things resetting.

BA: Yeah, I think that last shot tends to show that, despite the encroaching shadows and darkness, maybe these two kids will escape safely — maybe find others and continue the species. It has a bit of that hopefulness. I hope. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be completely optimistic. We wanted a bit of an ambiguous ending.

JR: So you can appreciate the film on multiple levels?

BA: Well, what also drew me to the script was the philosophical question. On the surface, it’s an apocalyptic thriller about four characters trying to survive the night in this empty bar. But it’s also a story about these people who are contemplating their own death. And each of them has their own way of dealing with that, whether its faith or science or not bothering with an explanation for one’s imminent demise.

JR: With the roles so distinctly written, did you have actors in mind?

BA: Well, with Hayden [Christensen], I tried to get him involved with another project of mine earlier. So, we had a relationship. He read the script around the same time I read it and was drawn to the material. He was interested in playing a role that was a little different than what he had done before. John was someone that I went after because I like his persona. We wanted someone who could mix up the group and bring some wackiness to it. And Thandie is just so soulful and empathetic; we knew we had someone the audience could sympathize with. The kid, Jacob, we found in Detroit. He really captures a young precociousness that worked well. I wanted each of the four actors to have their own peculiarity and to feel like this group could have come from Detroit.

JR: I wanted to talk to you about lighting. One of the most effective shots in Session 9 is when the lights are chasing a younger character down a hallway with the encroaching darkness. Vanishing takes this to a source of actual menace with the shadows, especially in the scene with John Leguizamo in the tunnel. Are lighting and darkness something thematic that you find audiences respond to?

BA: I think in movies like this that are meant to be eerie, lighting and darkness and shadow [are all tools] you can use to create mystery or threat. Session 9 used light and darkness to create atmosphere. Vanishing on 7th Street] is all about that contrast. We put a lot of effort into finding areas where [the light] really glowed and [the darkness] was really black and scary. We wanted to find that balance between the two. I don’t know if it’s a theme, but because I’ve made these darker films, both literally and figuratively, I think shadow has become integral to creating suspense.

JR: Is there something about the suspense or thriller genre that appeals to you?

BA: Apparently. I just like stories in which characters are struggling with something, whether it’s an external force like in Vanishing, or in Session 9, where it’s more of a monster within the mind. In order to overcome these darker forces, the character often has to resort to even darker means. I find psychological thrillers interesting both dramatically and visually.

JR: Was the location of Detroit built into the script?

BA: It wasn’t in the script. It was a viable place to shoot and Detroit is a city that is already kind of post-apocalyptic. Parts of the city are already pretty devastated.

JR: I’m probably reading into it too much, but I have to ask. The story has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it. I was curious about the shot when Hayden Christensen’s character steps on the glasses. Is that in any way an allusion to the post-apocalyptic episode Time Enough at Last, when Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses at the end?

BA: I know the one you’re talking about, but I never made that connection. [Laughing] I should just lie and say, “Yes, it was.” That’s a great episode. And you’re right, The Twilight Zone reference. [Vanishing on 7th Street] is a contained story, all occurring on one night, and it has the gimmick of this blackout as a motivating factor. And just the weirdness of it [feels like] The Twilight Zone. I love that show. Those kinds of stories are very compelling. I think when Tony was writing [Vanishing on 7th Street], and certainly when I was pondering it, The Twilight Zone was in the back of our minds.

JR: Well, I just have one more question to close up. We’ve been seeing this apocalyptic atmosphere in cinema quite a bit lately. Do you think there’s something in the pulse of society right now that is fascinated with its own demise?

BA: There does seem to be something in the air now. We’re kind of morbidly fascinated with our own destruction. I don’t know if it’s something to do with terrorism or climate change or just the fact that now with all the great digital technology we can literally envision a world [being destroyed] like 2012. We have the technology now to realize awful scenarios. I don’t know if there’s a specific obsession with “end of the world” stories in the here and now. As a species, we’ve always been interested in what happens when we’re no longer around, all the way back to Revelations in The New Testament. But certain movies tend to be dwelling on that theme recently.

JR: It’s an interesting point you make about technology. We had the technology to destroy ourselves back in the ’50s, but now have the technology to simply envision our destruction. Maybe movies are just a safer play.

BA: Well, our lives have become so structured and we spend so much time in front of our computers or tapping away on our iPads. Our lives are so dominated by technology now that we need bigger stories, bigger bangs, bigger explosions to let us escape our routines. Maybe that’s why these big blockbusters have become even bigger blockbusters. It can’t just be an asteroid the size of New York City, it has to be an asteroid the size of the moon. It’s not just the end of the world, it’s the end of the universe. We’re so obsessed with our technology that we need these stories to momentarily escape the droll of being chained to your computer screen.

JR: Brad, thank you so much for your time.

BA: Good talking to you.

I turn off the speakerphone, hang up the call, and push pause on the Garage Band project. I plug in my headphones, open a Word document, and restart the interview. As I begin typing, the computer seems to snicker, You know you need me.

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