Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Kafka in Catalonia

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Kafka in Catalonia

Transcript of an interview with Brad Anderson, director of The Machinist

Edinburgh Film Festival, August 2004

Neil Young : The first question – and I’m sure you get asked this all the time – has got to be… What’s Michael Ironside really like.

Brad Anderson: (laughs) I’m glad you asked that. It’s usually “How did Christian Bale lose the weight?” Michael Ironside… I have to say when he first arrived on the set I was a little intimidated, because you know he plays these gruff, tough, military types or whatever. But – and he’ll hate me for saying this – he’s a total pussycat. He’s the sweetest guy. One of the actors who’s “Is that alright? You want me to do it differently? I’ll do it whatever way…” He’s very accommodating, very generous, nothing like the characters he plays. But when he clicks into a role he is ‘Michael Ironside’ – he becomes that guy.

The role allows him to do both sides… both sides of Ironside, perhaps…

That’s one of the reasons why we cast him – you see him in a movie and he’s immediately ‘the heavy’, the bad-guy. We wanted to play him as that maybe he’s a red herring, maybe he isn’t. Also I think he has it written in his contract that he has to lose a limb in every movie he does (laughs) … He’s a really cool guy, I liked him a lot.

And you also have Anna Massey on board as the landlady.

She’s great… I was psyched about that because obviously there’s a little bit of a Hitchcock thing in the movie, and getting Anna Massey – who was in Frenzy, Peeping Tom – she’s been in some of the best ‘dark films’…

Was Anna Massey your idea or the casting director’s?

We cast a lot of the movie out of London – I never thought we were gonna do that, but when we were there she came to mind because… the character’s written as this little, suspicious, landlady. For some reason there’s something about Anna Massey – even the role she plays in Peeping Tom she’s always kind of looking around, nosey little girl, in that movie.

Even in Frenzy.

Yeah, she plays these ‘nosey’ types. She seemed right for this part – so I did have her in mind, and she thankfully was really into doing it.

Did she have loads of stories about working with Hitchcock, Michael Powell, etc?

I wish I’d had time to ask her more. But she did have some stories about working with “Hitch”, you know. I wish I’d asked her more about Peeping Tom because I’d seen the movie long ago, but I saw it again just a few weeks ago. It’s such an amazing film, and she’s got a huge part in that movie, too. But I didn’t get to talk to her that much as I wish I had.

Maybe on the next movie…

Yeah.

This is going to be your first film that’s going to be distributed in the UK. But it’s obviously not the first film that you’ve made. So how would you introduce yourself to UK audiences.

I did Session 9, which really didn’t get out over here. It didn’t really get out in the States – it’s more a film that’s done well on DVD.

With Peter Mullan.

Peter Mullan – phenomenal, such a great actor. Who knows, maybe if this film does any business it might reignite some interest in Session 9. I’ve done five films, four of which have gotten any kind of release. The first two were romantic comedies – they played well in some places, not so well in others. Romantic comedies, particularly American romantic comedies, sometimes they don’t translate well into other cultures.

And now you’re best known for much different movies.

That’s fine, because the romantic comedy thing from the get-go was kind of a fluke. I don’t particularly like romantic comedies – I don’t really know how I ended up making two of them. They’re not straightforward romantic comedies, anyhow. But I’ve always loved dark… good horror films. Some of my favourite directors tended to work in this ‘darker realm’.

Watching the film made me think of Carnival of Souls, those old movies where you know something is amiss, and you’re puzzling out what it is: is he dead, mad, in hell, what? Were there particular older films that influenced you?

Actually the ones that I was more tapped into were the Val Lewton produced films like I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People.

The Seventh Victim?

It’s funny you should mention The Seventh Victim because several years ago I actually approached RKO about doing a remake, and we actually wrote a script which updated the story.

Still set in Manhattan?

Set in Manhattan, same premise, but much more… expanded. We were gonna make the movie but RKO is a company which is impossible to deal with.

As Orson Welles found to his cost!

Yeah – I mean, they’re insane. But I always found that film to be so creepy and weird…

You never see anything…

All those Val Lewton films… they worked on such a shoestring budget – it was all about implication, and what’s in the shadows… Cat People the same way – just sound effects alone, simple but really spooky.

The Machinist is nearly monochrome. Getting towards that. If you could have done it – and I know it’s more expensive – would you have done it in black and white?

It occurred to me at one point. But that was a choice that we made in post-production. To kind-of drain it, desaturate the look of the movie. At the end it just felt kind-of correct, because it’s almost like the film’s fatigued, in the same way that he’s fatigued. We wanted it to have this “drained of life” quality. And it’s a little bit of a cliche these days – a lot of darker films, I think ever since Se7en, when David Fincher pulled out all the colour… A lot of these sorts of movies do that now. But I think this was the right choice for this film because it’s about a man who’s so exhausted that you can’t imagine… Physically he’s probably not even capable of seeing colour. That’s one of the symptoms of sleep exhaustion – your world becomes monochromatic, and that seemed like the way to go.

I was trying to think who the thinnest person or thing in a film was, and the closest I got was the Sloth victim from Se7en – but that was a special-effect. This was the real Christian Bale.

Yeah, he literally lost the weight, like 60 pounds or something. He was already thin when I first met him – he did it that was because it was written that way in the script. Scott Kosar wrote him as a walking skeleton, a guy who’s quite literally consumed by his own guilt. I think Christian’s definitely one of those actors who, if he sees something on the page, and it’s important for the character and the story, then he’s willing to do whatever he has to do to make it happen. When I met him, when he stepped off the plane in Barcelona, I was like “Wow, man!” He really went to the deepest degree to get this weight off – he had lost so much weight, but he looked great – it looked right for the movie.

Is there a health issue – you surely get to a point where your organs would pack up.

I think there is, yes. He was monitoring the situation, his wife was with him as well, they were monitoring the situation. We were keeping an eye on him. One of the things about losing that much weight is you don’t have any energy, so much of the shoot he was just hanging [out] in his trailer, meditating, trying to store up energy for the next take. But he’s told me that he didn’t sleep much at all when we were making the film, because you’re exhausted but you don’t sleep. He kind of became the character of Trevor Reznik, in a way. He’s also an actor that likes to stay in character anyhow, off set – he keeps the accent, maintains a certain connection with his character.

During American Psycho that might have been problematic.

Luckily we had a guy that wasn’t such a bad-guy – a character that you could hang with off-set. He wasn’t a monster psycho-killer… But he was a really cool guy.

You’re all eating fine Spanish food in Barcelona restaurants, and there’s poor old Christian in his trailer…

That was the insidious thing for poor Christian – he was in the gourmet capital of the world, and he couldn’t eat a single piece of food. But the moment we were out, man, he just made a bee-line for the best restaurant in Barcelona, started chowin’ down. Gained it back. He regained that weight back quickly…

Shades of Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me… Except with Bale it was more Minimize Me.

It seems like the past couple of years there’s been a lot of movies that deal with weight gain – MonsterSuper Size Me. Transforming your body to play a part…

You mentioned Barcelona as the place where The Machinist was filmed, but I think many viewers will presume it’s all Los Angeles. Explain a little about the Filmax setup in Spain. We tried to get the money in the States but we couldn’t make it work. My film Session 9, one of the few places it did quite well was Spain, oddly enough. Filmax is a company in Barcelona which until recently specialised in making straight-to-video gore-type films. Brian Yuzna who did Re-Animator is one of their main guys. But they’re trying to expand into making classier, straighter sorts of films. I think I was – beyond Brian himself, who’s an American – I was the first American director that they worked with.

And the condition is they you have to employ British or American talent, to boost box office appeal?

It’s part of the deals for them to get the kind of subsidies they get to make their films, you’ve gotta have a certain percentage of Spaniards on the crew and in the cast. The crew was entirely Spanish – which was fine, ’cause they were great… The cast – we definitely had some issues with that. A lot of the films prior to The Machinist what they do is just hire Spanish actors – not even very good ones – and then dub them with English or American accents. But I thought that was a cheap way to do it – so we do have some Spanish actors, like Aitana [Sanchez-Guion]… Actually I think the way it works is that it has to be EU talent – Spain ideally, but if not, other European countries.

Like Anna Massey.

Right – and Christian himself qualifies because he’s from Wales. So we were able to squeak by in terms of the requirements.

A lot of critics reckons the Spanish location adds to the film – we feel somehow dislocated in space, Kafkaesque almost…

I agree – that wasn’t the original intent but once we realised we were making the movie in Spain, and we had to transform Barcelona into some kind of quasi-American location, it occurred to us that this could be really… good… if anything, it just enhances his sense of dislocation: he doesn’t know where he is, we don’t know where he is. It’s a generic kind of… limbo zone. I agree – that sort of adds: if we’d shot it in LA, where it was scripted, it would have been too specific. You would have seen the Hollywood sign in the background, or whatever, and suddenly you’re taken out of this… nightmare.

The crew was Spanish – so did you have to speak Spanish?

The key personnel, the DP [Director of Photography] and such, all spoke enough English that we could get by. I don’t speak any Spanish. Not only that, but they speak Catalan, actually. So I didn’t have any ability to speak with them except in English but most spoke English or I did have people who helped me. In some ways I found it to be helpful that I didn’t understand, because it was a stressful shoot, and like any stressful shoot, there’s lots of talk between the people about how stressful it is, and arguments. But because I totally didn’t understand any of this I was kind-of clueless, and I was just, like “Let’s move on to the next take!” As there were these, like vicious battles goin’ on in the background! I didn’t understand a word of it, I was just like “Let’s move on…”

So you were the neutral American director, sort of floating around.

Floating around…

In your own zone of… alienation.

Exactly, it was perfect.

You said it was a troubled shoot, but it’s paid off because it’s doing well in terms of distribution. You will be hailed as an overnight success, but it’s presumably been a very long night.

I wouldn’t say it was a “troubled” shoot. But shooting in Spain, in the thick of the heat in July, is not a place one wants to be… Did you ever see that documentary about Terry Gilliam’s attempt to make the Don Quixote movie – when I watched that I was laughing, because there were so many … we didn’t get hit by a hurricane or anything… but just the dealing with the Spanish work-ethic which is very different. If we had shot this film in the States we’d have shot it in 30 days instead of 40… At first it was very frustrating, things take a little longer… But by the end of it I’d kind-of adapted to their approach, it was slower, more methodical. But still you get the results at the end of the day.

Must have been strange making a film which has so much darkness, visual and thematic, in the middle of the blazing sunlight.

Luckily the guy we had, Xavi, who shot the film, his whole trademark look is very chiaroscuro – dark, contrasty sort of thing. He had shot several other films for Filmax. One was even called Darkness… The same kind of look that were replicating in this film. There’s something about that Spanish light, though – yeah it’s bright but when you’re in the shadows it’s like, dark as night – a real contrast. It’s a different kind of light – a little like an LA light, actually, like a West Coast light, very contrasty. But where I’m from in New York it’s more of a subdued contrast…

How did you get hold of Scott Kosar’s script script?

Very simple – he’s represented by the same agency, he’d written it as a “spec,” it’s actually the first script he wrote out of film-school. It had been floating around, a lot of other directors were intrigued. At one point it was with the Coen brothers, they were interested in doing the film. In the end it kind-of bopped from place to place. No-one could quite figure out how to make it or why to make it. The script – as beautiful and elegant as it was – was even more ambiguous that the current movie. Scott and I did some work on the script to tighten things up. Ambiguity, as you know, is not something that film producers gravitate towards, especially in Hollywood. So it was at point with some other companies, other directors were interested, it had kind-of been making the rounds, but just couldn’t get off the ground. And… I loved it, and said “We try to find a way to make this movie independently.” When Christian read it we just immediately connected over it – his involvement helped, I think, generate more interest in it. But not as much as you’d think – in the end we just couldn’t do it in the States. There was money available, but it wasn’t enough money and the idea of shooting it in Spain at first is strange, and stupid… in the end, I went to Barcelona and realised that you could potentially make this location work… There’s worse things than having to live in Barcelona for a few months to make a movie. I can live with that! In the end we just figured we’d take whatever potentially could be disadvantages and turn them into our advantages for ourselves.

Were there many changes to the ending?

One pivotal moment, in Scott’s original script, was not visualised, not dramatised. It was a very oblique moment where he sees an old blood stain… It was creepy on the page but I knew that it wasn’t going to be a satisfying moment for an audience who’s been following all these clues right to this big ‘reveal’, this big epiphany… you gotta give them something visual to ‘glom’ onto. Those kinds of things we really just expanded from the essence of his story – it’s a director’s job, obviously, to try to visualise things as much as possible.

You co-wrote Session 9 but this is just one credit.

Well, yeah – Scott wrote the script. When I say we worked on it, I mean I just gave him suggestions – like any director you’re trying to fine-tune it. And we had to change things once we were shooting in Spain. In the original script there were actual Los Angeles locations mentioned – we couldn’t do any of that. But he was so excited about it, because it was his first script, and it was finally getting made. Now he’s like Mr Big Shot..! I think he’s got himself into a bit of a rut, making these… big, like, horror remakes – The Amityville Horror. And now he’s doing The Crazies, the old George Romero film.

Would you do any of these remakes?

I haven’t really seen one that I thought worked – Texas Chainsaw Massacre despite Scott having written it was really pretty bad. I think it was more just the execution than the script.

Dawn of the Dead was disappointing.

I heard good things about that too. But… why take these ‘sacred cows’… they’re not even sacred-cows…

Apart from The Seventh Victim.

But that’s different. Because then, you’re taking a totally obscure film – you’re probably one of the five people who’ve seen the thing – and re-inventing it. The original is really just a launching-off point for a whole other project. But taking Dawn of the Dead, or Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which already, by their own right, are these great little films from the seventies… you know you gotta dumb ’em down – that’s the only way to do it is to dumb ’em down. The thing that’s so cynical about those projects is that you know the producers are just totally capitalising off of the ‘brand’.

They do surveys, ask ‘Have you heard of this film’

Probably most of the people said “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” “Have you seen it?” “No.” And that’s exactly what they want, they just want people to know the name, and that’ll get people into the theatres.

Your films are original scripts, not remakes. And you don’t pander to teenage market, there are no ‘young people’ on show. Did you come under pressure to boost the “teen appeal”?

I think that would have happened if I’d made it in the States, for an American company. But the advantage in Spain was that I had pretty much total control over the picture. I made the movie I wanted to make – it was very much also in the script, that’s the way Scott writes. Trevor isn’t a young guy – we didn’t want to make something that pandered to that crowd. Frankly to me the Screams… the so-called ‘American horror genre’ – that’s like, cheap. Horror doesn’t have to be like that. When they made The Seventh Victim, those films were made for adults. It starts with, like a quote from John Donne or something, that movie.

And ends with what’s been called the “bleakest ending in all films” – the double suicide.

I know!

Maybe these days a studio might say “Maybe they could live…”

Sure – like they did when they remade that movie The Vanishing. Those remakes are geared toward a demographic, the young demographic. They just assume that these kids aren’t smart enough to have any nuances in the movies they watch – I just think that’s wrong. You see movies like Donnie Darko, Memento – there are dark films that are also intelligent that can appeal to younger people as well as adults. It’s not like the only horror they can watch is horror in which people are getting eviscerated, heads getting cut off. There’s always a market for that – there always will be but…

So we’ll look forward to your next film – Brad Anderson’s Return of the Zombie Killers (!).

(laughs) Yeah, I shouldn’t tell you about my next project.

Do you have another project lined up – another Filmax film?

I’ve got a project at Warner Bros called Lucid that I’m trying to get off the ground, which is a kind of Eyes of Laura Mars psychic thriller which hopefully we’ll be shooting in the fall. If that doesn’t happen I’ve got another totally different project that I’m working on – a musical. So I’ve got a few…

The Laura Mars project sounds like a good chance to work with Jennifer Jason Leigh again. What’s she like? We started with Ironside, we can end with Jennifer Jason Leigh.

She’s the sweetest… I adore her, she was great. These actors who’ve worked with, like, some of the best directors in the world, and here they are, they’re working with me, and I’m so gratified.

Good for The Seventh Victim.

She’d be great in The Seventh Victim. She’s one of those actresses where, there’s something about her that’s so sweet, and at the same time there’s a really dark streak in her work… That’s why I think I always appreciated her films, because they’re not just these ‘surface’ characters – they’re tormented underneath. She’s great…

transcript 14th October, 2004

by Neil Young