Ever since his directorial debut Next Stop Wonderland, Brad Anderson has demonstrated a unique ability to deliver entertaining, character-driven stories that, while independent in spirit, have also crossed over to gain acceptance amongst mainstream audiences. His dark thrillers Session 9 and The Machinist, for which Christian Bale famously shed approximately 63-pounds, have garnered critical praise and a growing cult fanbase.
Anderson’s latest centers around the infamous Transsiberian railway connecting Moscow and European Russia with the Russian Far East Provinces. The railway has changed very little over the years and has often been linked to drug running and assorted activities of the shadier variety. Of course, there’s also the locals using the railway as a means of transportation and the odd tourist or backpacker.
In Brad Anderon’s latest, titled simply Transsiberian, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a married couple taking the Transsiberian express from China to Moscow. They befriend a young backpacker couple and the voyage is going along swimmingly until Roy (Harrelson) misses the train at one of the stopoffs. Jessie (Mortimer) soon finds their new compatriots may be hiding something. Meanwhile, the innocent Roy befriends two Russian cops (Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann) who are on the lookout for drug runners aboard the Transsiberian.
Transsiberian opens in limited release in New York on July 18th and will be expanding from there. Dark Horizons recently conducted an exclusive interview with Anderson about his experiences on the project. The director also dropped a tidbit about two future projects – a second collaboration with Christian Bale for the J.G. Ballard adaptation Concrete Island and a musical called Non-stop to Brazil.
Question: What was the starting point for Transsiberian?
Anderson: The seed for what became the script was the trip that I took on the Transsiberian after college. I was kind of like that backpacker in the story. I was kind of wandering through Asia, a bit of a vagabond. I ended up on a train in China and took it across to Moscow and in the course of that journey met lots of interesting characters. This was twenty years ago, but I think that inspired the idea, like wouldn’t this be a cool place to set a story? On one hand, it’s very claustrophobic. You can’t go anywhere. It’s almost like you’re on a submarine. But on the other hand you’re going through these vast, limitless environments of the Siberian Tundra. It just seemed like a cool, exotic location and one of the few long train journies that still exists. So, twenty-odd years later, Will Conroy (co-writer) and myself just took that idea for a premise…
Instead of making this into some comedy or romance, it seemed like the best genre would be something dark and thrilling. A lot of the best movies from the ’30s and ’40s, particularly the Hitchcock train movies like Lady Vanishes always involved a murder and then someone trying to figure out the murder… We took that idea and decided we’d have a murder at the core of the story and build around that. What better place to try to dispose of a body than the middle of Siberia?
Both Will and I read a lot of Russian literature, at least in college. Dostoyevsky’s book, Crime and Punishment, about a guy who kills a woman and tries to get away with it was kind of at the heart of what we were thinking about. Particularly with Ben Kingsley’s character who plays this suspicious Russian inspector – that was very much part of the inspiration.
Question: Did you go for a ride on the Transsiberian again while you were writing the story?
Anderson: We did take it [again]. I had taken the train in 1988 and I took it almost 20 years later and the strange thing was that it hadn’t changed at all. The trains hadn’t been upgraded or modernized. It was the exact experience I had back then, which was very rough and difficult. The food sucked and the people were mostly local peasants or oil workers who were getting from place to place. And there was the occasional kind of shady backpacker who might be struggling drugs, you never know. It was kind of cool, the fact that it had remained the same. It wasn’t some kind of bullet train.
Before we went into production on the movie, we were looking for a place to shoot the film. At one point, I was thinking ‘Why don’t we just shoot it on the actual Transsiberian?’ It was a little ambitious and crazy. We realized, when we went back to take the train on an actual [location] scout, it wouldn’t be feasible. There’s no way.
Question: Were there specific stories from your own experiences on the Transsiberian or stories you’d read that wound up making it into the script?
Anderson: The only encounters I had on the train were with those nasty female train attendants. They don’t suffer fools. They’re very difficult and they’re constantly watching you and scolding you for one thing or another.
In terms of characters, I don’t know if there were any specific characters, but in researching the movie we read a lot about drug smuggling and the Russian police and the corruption, which still exists in Russia. In the eastern part of the country, the police corruption is rampant and the train is used as a means to traffic drugs back and forth. In fact, we found some people using those [babushka] dolls as a way to traffic the drugs.
Question: It was amusing to see Woody Harrelson play the kind of nieve character we really haven’t seen him do since Cheers. Was he reticent to play that kind of role again?
Anderson: He was initially a little reluctant to do it. I met him and I [told him that] this guy, he might seem kind of nieve, but at the same time there’s probably a lot more going on there then you think. By the end of our story, he rises to the occasion and attempts to be heroic. Ultimately, he saw that this was a chance to do something very different and maybe tap into that Cheers character a little bit and play more of a character that doesn’t have any real agenda and have fun with it. Once we put him in a wig and glasses and made him the goofy American gone abroad, he started to get into it.
Question: Mortimer and Harrelson have a very unique chemistry in the movie. Their relationship is somewhat stilted in the start and, as we learn more of her character later in the story and she gets mixed up with all the trouble, it almost seems like her affection for him is reignited.
Anderson: Her and Woody, as you said, they just had a natural [chemistry]. They had a great time working together and became good friends. I was thankful that it worked out the way it did.
We cast Woody early on. Samantha Morton was going to do [the Mortimer role], but about five days before we were going to shoot the movie, she had an accident [and] her doctor said she wasn’t able to fly because of head injuries. So ultimately she couldn’t come to Lithuania where we shot. So, we scrambled and went to another person who was high on our list and that was Emily Mortimer. It was one of these situations where we were desperate to get someone in our movie, but also to get someone good. We got her the script in the morning, she read it that afternoon and literally that night she was getting on a train to Lithuania for two months to be in a movie she had just heard about. The first scene she ended up doing was an aborted lovemaking scene with Woody Harrelson – it was insane. But that being said, I couldn’t have been happier with what she did.
Like any movie, some of it’s thought out and planned and sometimes it’s pure serendipity. I didn’t know how it was going to work out with Woody and Emily, but I think it worked out good. A lot of it’s just, once you’ve got everyone there and you’re starting to make the film, I try to create an environment that they’re going to thrive in and play and have fun and take chances.
Question: Working with an actor of Ben Kingsley’s stature, does he stick closely to the script or does he take the character in different directions from what you might have first pictured?
Anderson: As he says, he’s very much about what’s on the page. He’s a trained Shakespearean actor. It’s all about the words. If the words are there and there’s intent behind them, he’s going to stick to that. That’s what he does. He’s not one of these guys who plays around with what’s there. He learns his dialogue; he makes a choice and sticks to it. He always likes to say there’s no magic to it or alchemy. It’s just knowing your role and sticking to it.
Once we got him on board, he kind of helped get the movie off the ground. He drew in a lot of the actors who wanted to work with him. He’s a great guy. Of course, you’re initially a little intimidated. He’s a knight and he’s Ben Kingsley and he was that guy from Sexy Beast, you know what I mean? (Laughs) But he’s also Mohatma Ghandi. He’s a sweet guy and very giving and he really supports the project. He really likes to work with a director who has a point of view. He likes direction and that’s something I feel like I can do.
Question: You’ve primarily stuck to smaller, more independent-minded fare, yet you’ve also managed to land an impressive array of Hollywood stars like Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei and now Ben Kingsley. Would you ever be interested in working on a larger scale studio projects or would it be hard for you to relinquish the level of control you have over the smaller fare?
Anderson: I think I prefer to stick to the smaller projects because I do like to have that control. I’ve flirted with some big studio projects and none of them have really panned out for a variety of reasons. I guess I would say I’m an independent filmmaker in the sense that I like the whole process – writing the script, directing, editing. I get really involved in all parts of it. I don’t like getting lots of directions from associate producers and the like.
The last few films, I got the financing overseas. They’re not huge movies, but they’re big enough that I can realize what I want to realize and there’s not a lot of strings attached. European producers are more inclined to let the director get his vision on the screen and not interfere too much. That being said, if some great script crossed my desk and it was a big studio movie that was ready to go and they hired me, I’d be interested. I just haven’t found that one yet.
Question: Tell me about your two upcoming projects, Concrete Island and Non-stop to Brazil, which I understand is a musical.
Anderson: Concrete Island is based on a J.G. Ballard book and it’s a great, hallucinatory kind of weird, trippy kind of movie. Scott Kosar (The Machinist) is writing and Christian Bale is sort of vaguely attached as well – he wants to play the lead. I’m hoping that can get off the ground next year. Non-stop to Brazil is kind of a labor of love for me. It’s a musical with great Brazillian music in it and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s totally different than the last few films definitely, but a bit of a throwback to my first film, Next Stop Wonderland, which is more of a romantic film. I’m curious to try out one of those again having made three darker, sort of scary movies. I wanted to do something a little lighter and more comfortable. Like any independent director, you’ve got to have a few pokers in the fire and see which one gets financed first.