It’s easy to forget that director Brad Anderson began his career with romantic comedies. After making his mark at Sundance with “The Darien Gap,” “Next Stop Wonderland” and “Happy Accidents,” Anderson switched gears completely and made psychological thrillers “Session 9” and “The Machinist,” starring Christian Bale. His latest, “Vanishing on 7th Street,” finds the director on similar terrain.
A post-apocalyptic horror film steeped in darkness, “Vanishing on 7th Street” opens with a mysterious global blackout that causes most of the world’s population to simply vanish. In Detroit, a small group of survivors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and newcomer Jacob Latimore) band together in the dark to stay alive, unsure of where to turn.
indieWIRE met Anderson at the New York premiere of “Vanishing” to discuss the film, which made its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Among the topics covered: working within the horror genre as an independent filmmaker, shooting in Detroit and what’s next on the docket.
You’re best known for tackling dark material as a director (“The Machinist,” “Session 9” and now “Vanishing on 7th Street”). What attracts you to these types of films?
I’ve always been interested in darker movies. My first few films were more romantic comedies. The darker stories give you the chance as a filmmaker to tell stories in a more cinematic way. They give you a chance to create an atmosphere and a tone in a movie that will create a feeling for the audience that is disconcerting or uneasy. To create that feeling is a challenge in a way. Having cut my teeth and continuing to cut my teeth on smaller independent films, what interested me about this was that it didn’t fit neatly into the horror film genre. It has hallmarks, but at the same time it takes chances in other areas, not giving answers to the big ultimate mystery of the story. Audiences are so desensitized to scarier, darker subject matter. The scary aspects of this film are never fully explained.
“Vanishing” does a good job of maintaining a sense of dread throughout. How did you maintain that feeling on set with your actors, day by day?
I know, that was very difficult. First of all we shot it very quickly for twenty odd says. When you’re working that quickly, you don’t have time to sit down and talk with the actors to hash things out. You’re really on the go the whole time. Secondly, the whole premise of the movie is that the darkness is where the danger is. The characters become increasingly more terrified of the dark and it starts to encroach on their situation. The problem, of course, when making a film like this is that every scene is very well lit despite looking dark ultimately. Trying to get the actors to react to something that isn’t there for them to react to — a dark room, shadows creeping up the wall — you have to convey the picture to them. These days most actors are fairly versed in that. Hayden’s shot with George Lucas. They understood it for the most part. A lot of filmmakers have that same challenge these days. To me, like 50 percent of the challenge in this story was worked out in the post-production phase of it.
Did you approach working with the child actor Jacob Latimore, who plays James, the same way?
The young guy, Jacob, is just a naturally gifted guy we met in Detroit actually. He took a lot of his cues off the other actors. Hayden, John and Thandie really helped him get him into the moments and assisted on the process.
How did you create the illusion of a post apocalyptic landscape while shooting in Detroit?
To be honest, finding deserted streets in Detroit wasn’t a big challenge. Shooting in Detroit allowed us the chance to get more production value, even within our limited budget. In Detroit there are entire blocks of neighborhoods that are completely abandoned. We were able to capitalize on that. It’s sort of sad to say — if you’re doing an apocalyptic movie, Detroit’s the place to go.
You seem to be a rare commodity — an independent director with an affinity for genre pictures.
I’ve always found that independent film doesn’t have to be limited. All independent film means to me is, you get your financing independently, thereby as the filmmaker you have hopefully the ability to really create the story you want to create and direct it in your way without a lot of cooks in the kitchen. All of my films have been like that; I’ve always had creative control.
I like working within a genre. Right off the bat, you have a certain kind of structure in place already. Audiences have certain expectations going in. As an independent filmmaker you take the cliches or the conventions of the genre and you sort of turn them a little bit to make them your own. So this isn’t some big Hollywood horror movie. It’s something that is a combination of genre conventions and my own idiosyncratic interests. That’s what any good independent film ought to be.
SPOILER ALERT! You managed to land some big names for the film. Were any of them apprehensive about getting offed before the end?
That was part of the draw. It’s not often that you’re in a movie you commit to and you’re just eliminated. It’s a movie about people vanishing inexplicably, so you have to expect that some of the characters are going to get that treatment. Part of it’s a ploy, you know. You set the audience up with certain expectations of the genre. If this were a more straightforward studio movie, then Hayden’s character would succeed and he would be the hero. But of course, I have the luxury in doing a smaller film like this — I don’t have to stick to the rules.
What do you have next on the docket?
I have a musical I’ve been trying to get off the ground for a few years. It’s a musical set in Brazil in the 1960s. It’s a bit of a passion project for me. Musicals have made a bit of comeback in the past few years, but it’s still really tough to get financing. I’ve also got some more straightforward horror movies as well. But I’ve always been interested in not doing the same thing again and again.