Perhaps best known for directing 2004’s The Machinist, Brad Anderson has built up an impressive body of work over the past 15 years on both the small and silver screens. His latest effort is The Call, which stars Halle Berry as a veteran 911 operator who takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has been abducted, and HeyUGuys got a chance to chat to the filmmaker ahead of the film’s UK release this week. In the below interview, Anderson talks about the different iterations of the script and what the atmosphere was like on set, as well as giving us some more info on his next project Eliza Graves.
Watching this film I got an appreciation for what the real operators in these call centres do, and it’s clearly a very stressful job. You’ve been in this business a while now: are there times when you’re watching films and you appreciate the process more simply because of your time as a filmmaker?
Absolutely. The more versed you get in your role as a filmmaker you watch films in different ways. The upside is that you know a little more about how the process works so you can understand how challenging setting up a shot or staging a scene can be. The downside is that you don’t get as immersed in the storytelling because you’re caught up in the technical evaluation of a scene. This is particularly true when it comes to the world of visual effects, because I haven’t done a lot of that in my films. Seeing how directors who do it much more extensively do it is always interesting and also sometimes daunting, to see scenes that are so effects-driven but still work and keep you engaged is hard. There wasn’t a lot of visual effects in The Call, but I started to do more of that in the movie I just did and in television and other things too.
I’m guessing that directing is not without its stresses as well, particularly on a movie like this where the material is so intense. Is there anything you do to make sure that the atmosphere is calm on set?
I’m a pretty laid back person in general. In the more intense scenes there’s always a level of tension that arises. There’s no need to add tension or stress or real drama into your shooting day. In my experience, it’s better to have a controlled and creative environment on set even if you’re doing a crazy, frenzied scene. There’s no correlation between the tenor of the set and the tenor of the scene. With that being said, sometimes it’s good to create situations for actors where you can elicit certain performances. For instance, in this movie with Abigail Breslin (who plays kidnap victim Casey) half of the movie she’s stuck in the car, and we designed the set so it was as claustrophobic as it appears in the movie. She’s stuck in this tiny, cramped little space with very little light. She wanted the shooting of that scene to help motivate her sense of claustrophobia and her fear, and it did. Those scenes were very hard and stressful to shoot and we did them as quickly as we could.
Absolutely. Sometimes you want to keep that intensity level up rather than slow everything down and build it back up again.
In many films such as this one, the villain is just the villain and no real backstory is given to their character but here the screenwriters really take the time to flesh him out. Was that part of the allure for you coming to this project?
When I got on board the movie, there had been two other directors attached to it at one point and different actors as well. There were many iterations of the script, as there always are, and in most of them the killer had different backstories. That was a bit of a challenge to develop the script with the writer, in terms of how much of a life we give this guy vs. keeping him a complete enigma. I came up with the notion that he had a wife and kid. In earlier versions he was the classic white male loner serial killer who doesn’t have any friends and that was it. To me, the fact that he could be your next door neighbour and has this double life was spookier. Michael Eklund (who plays the villain) brought a lot of nuance to that role, and we talked about how he’s addicted to what he does. He doesn’t want to do it, he wants to have a normal life like everyone else where he doesn’t do these violent things but he can’t control that addiction. There are moments where you see him struggling with it but it always wins out. We tried to bring in some of that, but in screening the movie we found audiences typically don’t do nuance very well. They want their bad guys to be pretty black and white, so there are versions of the movie where Michael’s character is even more fleshed out than he is in the final cut.
There will be an extended cut, exactly.
Michael Eklund is really good as the villain here. I seem to recall he did a few episodes of Fringe a while back too.
That’s why I cast him because I did that episode and I thought he was great so I wanted to put him in my movie, he is such a cool actor.
There’s a great moment in the film where Halle’s character says that her Father told her that “when you can’t handle the responsibility of being a 911 operator, that’s the time to get out”. As a filmmaker, is there something similar that may mean it’s time for you to walk away?
With each movie or television show that I make, I feel like I understand more of the process and I understand the language of movies and I get better at it. You want to keep doing that if you want to improve your skill set. I haven’t had that moment where I don’t feel like I can do it anymore. If I feel like I’m not enjoying it and making films becomes the equivalent of putting together widgets and there’s no creative satisfaction then I don’t know why we do it. You do need to make a living and make money but there are other less stressful ways to do it than making movies.
I wanted to ask you about your next film Eliza Graves, which has a great cast. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how you got involved in the project?
It was a really well-written script that got brought to me, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story. Essentially, the premise is that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and a young doctor ultimately learns that the people who he is working with are crazy and the real doctors and nurses are locked down in the basement. I’d never done a period film and this was set in the 1890’s in the Victorian era, so the opportunity to recreate that world – just like The Call was an opportunity to bring to life a 911 call centre – was appealing to me. So I jumped on that, and we were lucky to get these great actors. The original story was set in America, we transposed all the action to England and once we got Kate Beckinsale, Jim [Sturgess], and Ben Kingsley, it kind of built from there. It’s more of a mystery, very different to The Call.
Brad Anderson’s The Call is out in UK cinemas on 20 September, 2013.