Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Brad Anderson

Getting the Skinny on 'The Machinist'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lightweight Christian Bale (minus 64
pounds, left) with director Brad Anderson
on the set of The Machinist.
With his shaggy hair and casual demeanor, writer/director Brad Anderson looks like he'd be more comfortable talking over a few beers instead of in a hotel room. Doodling on a notepad while he talks, Anderson reveals the open-minded personality that could have conceivably created a warm romantic comedy (Next Stop Wonderland), a sci-fi time travel movie with a romantic twist (Happy Accidents), an all-out horror movie (Session 9) and his new film The Machinist, which is much harder to describe. In the new film Christian Bale stars as Trevor Reznik, a solitary man who works in a machine shop. Weighing only about 100 pounds, Trevor is skin and bones; the hooker he visits regularly (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells him that he's almost ready to disappear. Trevor also has acute insomnia. He claims he hasn't slept in a year. On top of this mass of confusion, paranoia sets in as an accident in the plant points to a mysterious employee that no one else seems to notice. Anderson paints the film with a steel gray monochromatic look, but even more striking is the fact that Bale actually lost one-third of his body weight to play the part.

Combustible Celluloid: I'm afraid I have to start off with the obvious question...

Brad Anderson: Sixty-four pounds.

CC: Actually, not that obvious. Did you go on a sympathy diet to give Christian a boost?

BA: I think if I had, I had my own physical travails that had nothing to do with losing weight. I ripped a tendon, so I directed part of the movie on crutches, and then my back went out so I directed part of the movie from a gurney. While he was suffering in the corner because he'd lost a third of his body mass, I was just trying to get around. Directing a movie from a gurney as much of a hassle as it was, it was actually quite relaxing. What you do as a director is just sort of walking over and telling people what to do, but I could just sort of issue orders. I had my assistant roll me over.

But I always lose weight when I make a film, because it's so stressful. You never really eat a full meal; you're just grabbing [stuff] off the catering table. Plus, we shot the movie in Barcelona, so the food's great, but it's not burgers and fries.

CC: How did Christian Bale get involved?

BA: I was attached to the film for a while as we tried to get the financing. We had a list of actors and he was on that list. Then he read it. He read it and he called me up and described his reaction to it. I'd never heard anyone so enthusiastic about something before. He was so wild about it. I was like, "alright, man." I knew I needed an actor who was willing to go out on a limb, to a degree, just in terms of losing some weight. It wasn't a condition of getting the part, but since the guy was described as a walking skeleton, it was pretty clear that whoever took the part was going to have to lose a little weight. I don't think a lot of actors would have gone to the lengths that he went. But I also knew that he was one of those actors that does that. He totally immerses himself in a part. Once he called me up and he was so psyched about it, I didn't want to waste any time looking for anyone else.

CC: How did you get the unique look of the film?

BA: We decided to do what most people are doing now, which is to do a digital intermediate. You shoot on 35, bump it up to HD, and then you do your color correction digitally. That's how we were able to drain the color and give it that metallic look. That was the thought behind it, having the movie be a color scheme the gunmetal of a machine, that kind of purple/gray/blue sheen. Later I read that people who are severely sleep-deprived lose the ability to see bright colors. I felt like, that'd be cool. Maybe we're seeing the world the way he sees it. It's all monochromatic. He's not able to enjoy the beautiful Technicolor world around him.

It all goes to creating a tone or an atmosphere. That's not always a calculated decision. Sometimes it's just a feeling; this is how it should be. The same with the music -- you can't figure it out logically. On that note, I had other ideas for the score. I was originally thinking about a generic industrial sound, which seemed appropriate for a movie about a machine shop, clanging and drones and stuff, kind of like in Session 9. I tried laying that down, but it just didn't evoke the drama or the emotions of the story. So later I was listening to some Bernard Herrmann, and it just seemed like, 'this could work.' It's a throwback to a different kind of sound. It's emotional, but spooky. It caught the tone that I was after. It just arrived intuitively.

CC: How did you decide to use a Theremin in your score?

BA: The Bernard Herrmann score I heard that kind of set up the little light bulb was The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's all over. That was when the Theremin was in so many scores, so many sci-fi movies. I just felt like there's something about that sound. It's funny too. It has a comical quality that touches upon the dark humor in the movie. So I didn't want to lose that. Plus, when was the last time there was a score with a Theremin in it? Actually the woman who did the Theremin, Lidia Kavina, her last movie was Ed Wood. You can probably do a synthetic Theremin, but she was really playing it with her hands.

October 1, 2004

Movies Unlimtied