Brad Anderson talks Vanishing on 7th Street

Brad Anderson whose previous films The Machinist and Transsiberian riveted movie goers is back with another thriller, Vanishing on 7th Street.  It’s the story of a malevolent shroud of darkness that envelopes Detroit killing and evaporating the entire populace, except for a few stragglers holed up in a bar. 

Somehow they have escaped the fate of the rest of the humans, but how long can their good luck last?   Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo star in this super creepy and dark tale of the end of days. 

Anderson spoke with Monsters and Critics about achieving the required dread.

M&C: You have an amazing cast –Thandie Newton, Hayden Christenson and John Leguizamo.  Were they always at the top of your list?

Anderson: When I got attached to the project, we looked at a number of people, a few others but financing didn’t come through, and there was the usual process and the evolution of getting movie off the ground.  The cast is usually in flux until finally things click with financiers.
I get into a project open minded, based on availability and negotiations about who you want. When Hayden read it, he liked it. I usually get jazzed when they tell me how excited about the role and I get excited back. There is a mutual sense of pulling it off. I liked him and wanted to work with him.  He seemed different. I really wanted to work with Thandie and John too.

We sat and had long conversations about what is going on what ideas about what could be going on and these interesting conversations about existence and death and themes that were apparent in the story.  It’s great when a cast can be excited about the questions a story raises.

M&C: You did a great job inducing claustrophobia. Many people are uncomfortable in big multi-plexes.  What a perfect place to start.

Anderson: When the writer and I realized we’d be doing it in Detroit, not Manhattan for financial reasons, we changed the scenarios to adapt to hat locations.  Originally, John Leguizamo was a subway car driver and the movie opens in a New York subway car. Instead we opened in a movie theatre. 

It’s a bit of a way to immediately have the audience identify with the dark place. You, yourself are potentially vulnerable.  We put it in the theatre with a single beam of light for dramatic effect.

M&C: Just how tough was it working in almost total darkness?

Anderson: The irony is of course when you shoot a film, you have to light it to make it look dark, creating shadows and pools of darkness.  I had to be able to build shadows and movements and throw the shadows, using lighting design creatively to make things dark, but not so dark so that you could believe you could see darker things living in the shadows.  

We shot this movie on digital video Red camera, which is in vogue now.  This camera is not light sensitive so we had the director of photography put a lot of light into the scene to get exposure, so the actors were working in a brightly lit environment and had to do a lot to convey the sense of darkness. 

Plus we did a lot in post-production.  We played with the look of the movie, and digitally darkened shadow effects to cast the sense of dread.  And that was all after the fact.  Like all actors today, they were all versed in working against green screen and reacting to digital characters and creatures that aren’t there yet. They had to use their imagination.

M&C: Help the actors emote to say a broom, in place of a monster?

Anderson: That’s the collaboration I have with them.  I describe for them what they are reacting to.  When we were making the movie we had vague notions of what the shadows would look like and the darkness would be.

But it wasn’t 100% locked down, so we kind of made it up as we went along, knowing that once we got in to editing, we would find a way to create the dark shadows that this story needs.

M&C: At some point the audience gets used to the darkness – and perhaps the fright level goes down.   How did you keep it jarring?

Anderson: It’s not a movie that intended a slow burn, slow gradual ramping up of that sense of unease and fear and there were a few places classic horror films out of your seat at certain moments but that’s not really the movie.  We created a more atmospheric story that becomes more suffocating as it progresses and the darkness converges on them and the light gets further away. 

The sense of doom grows, it’s a slow build.  As the movie progresses, it gets darker.  We staged the action so it builds to become more desperate. And that’s due to the storytelling aspects.

M&C: And you give no easy outs.

Anderson: The key for us was to build to an ultimate finality, no neat explanation scene at the end of the movie, just an end, like turning off a light.  There are lots of possible explanations but nothing completely solid in order to keep the ending ambiguous.

It’s always more terrifying, the thing you can’t intellectualize or get a handle on.  What happens when we die based on faith or the lack of it. The simplest way to describe it is these four characters grapple with their demise, figure out what that means and come up with someway to accept or fight it. 

They’re all presented with their own deaths, how do we just become vanished meat, where do we go and where afterwards?  That’s the mystery you can’t answer.  Is it the Second Coming of Jesus? Who knows?  To give an answer would be to sap it of its interest.

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