Interview: ‘Vanishing on 7th Street’ Director Brad Anderson!

Now playing On Demand and screening in limited theaters on March 18th, Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street (review) tells the story of a small group of individuals who hole up in a Detroit tavern after the rest of the population seemingly vanishes overnight, leaving only their clothes and other personal items behind. When the daylight begins to wane and soon vanishes completely, they realize that the darkness itself is out to consume them. Recently B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen got on the phone with Anderson, who has previously helmed such creep-fests as Session 9 and The Machinist, to discuss his latest creation. In the process he talked about his reasoning behind keeping the cause of the apocalyptic phenomenon in the story a mystery, creating the eerie “voices” of the shadow creatures, and how shooting in the city of Detroit in some ways mirrored the fictional situation created for the film.

Interestingly, Brad Anderson first received major industry attention not for directing a horror film but rather a romantic comedy entitled Next Stop Wonderland, which debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Miramax Films following an intense bidding war. His next film, the time-travel romance Happy Accidents starring Marisa Tomei, added a little genre flavor to his resume, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he would enter the horror arena in a big way with Session 9, a deeply unsettling film about an asbestos removal crew plagued by bizarre occurrences while working in an abandoned mental hospital. He followed up that low-key chiller with 2004’s The Machinist, starring Christian Bale as an insomniac literally wasting away to nothing, and later the Hitchcockian thriller Transsiberian, starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer.

His latest film, the apocalyptic horror Vanishing on 7th Street (now playing On Demand and debuting in limited theaters March 18th) goes perhaps darker (in a visual sense, anyway) than any of his previous movies, in its story of a small group of individuals attempting to survive a malignant darkness that’s threatening to consume every human being on the planet.
Bloody-Disgusting: How did you get involved with the project?

Brad Anderson: It was pretty simple. The script was slipped to me by a producer here in New York. I had worked on another project with Tony [Jaswinski], the writer, years before. We were familiar with each other a little bit. But you know, [I was] reading the script and kind of kept turning the pages and getting deeper and more immersed in this big mystery and waiting for the explanation and then never really getting it! That kind of interesting period of ambiguity in Tony’s script really appealed to me.

The movie and the story is really about characters who are confronted with this huge mystery and they’re sort of grasping at straws looking for some kind of explanation and ultimately realize that maybe it’s beyond our understanding, that there isn’t an explanation. Like death itself. The movie’s really a meditation on characters pondering their own existence in a way. So it’s appropriate in my mind that the story not have any clean…explanation.

BD: I like that element because everything is so over-explained in horror movies and thrillers and stuff. They always try to come up with complex explanations, and it takes the mystery out of it.

BA: Yeah, I agree. I like the fact that this movie keeps the mystery alive all the way through the end and kind of lets the audience debate among themselves what might be possible explanations. Of course we put little clues in there as to possible explanations, I suppose, but we never really settle on one or the other. So the movie becomes more of a point of debate…

BD: If you were to explain it, do you have an idea in your own head of which of the possible explanations it would be?

BA: Not really. I’m kind of an agnostic about it. I don’t really believe…I don’t really think there is any real clear-cut explanation. It might be a combination of different explanations, you know? Maybe part of it is the Rapture combined with the [Large] Hadron Collider having gone bad or something and let loose some kind of fourth dimension or something. I don’t know, I kind of like to think that there is no real explanation. That’s to me the more terrifying fact. If there isn’t any real simple explanation, it makes it that much more unsettling. Who knows why this is happening?

Like I said, to me the metaphor is the way we look upon our own deaths. You don’t have any clear explanation as to why we die or what happens after we die. That mystery…is sort of terrifying…we don’t even know when it’s gonna happen or why it’s gonna happen…this movie is kind of in some ways structured in that way. Characters don’t know why this is happening to them or when they’re gonna vanish, you know? Keeping that mystery alive was very important.

BD: That sort of mystery seems like something you’re interested in as a filmmaker. I sort of came out of this movie feeling the same way as I did coming out of ‘Session 9’, for example.

BA: I think I’m drawn to those sort of dark extremes, stories where characters are confronted with some impossibility and they’re trying to crack the mystery of it, trying to solve it, and sometimes they themselves are the solution, or sometimes they themselves are the problem, you know? Maybe they are the monster, say in the case of ‘Session 9’. In this case it’s a more straightforward external threat. But each of the characters has to confront it in their own way.

BD: Speaking of the external threat, it definitely seems to me like this is your most commercial project conceptually. I’m wondering if that’s something you were thinking about going into it and if this is a gateway to you taking on bigger films?

BA: Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t really approach it that way…each of [my movies] are their own thing, and I don’t really…maybe I’m a little too caught up in the process when I’m making a movie. I don’t really think of movies as stepping stones. They’re each their own sort of thing. But I think the movie’s got the bones of a more commercial thriller. But I think given that it doesn’t have that resolution at the end, I think it’s gonna be a bit of a tough sell for [mainstream] audiences.

But the movies I make, I first need to make them to please myself and keep myself entertained or intrigued, you know? So I kind of make films that I’d watch. If this movie should lead to other, bigger films that’s great, or at least help me get some other projects I’ve got in the works off the ground, even better. It’s funny, I think of every movie as its own sort of entity, and not as a progression.

But I don’t know, it’s definitely different than what I’ve done in the past, though it has certain similarities. Say ‘Session 9’, a small, ensemble cast, a limited amount of locations. But we shot it in the same way. We shot the thing in 20 days, and very quickly. The difference with this one say versus ‘Session 9’ was we did a lot of digital effects in this film, to capture the shadows and such. I guess that’s a step in a different direction for me, I haven’t really done that a lot in my other movies. That’s sort of the name of the game now.

BD: I was interested to learn that you shot in Detroit. I was actually there last year, and I noticed that the city itself has a bit of ghost town vibe in some ways. I remember being in the downtown area on a Monday afternoon at lunchtime and seeing hardly anyone out. Was that the setting originally, or was that something you changed it to later?

BA: It was originally set in New York City, but just for practical purposes it just wasn’t gonna happen. And secondly, New York has had its share of apocalyptic stories. I don’t think we need any more here. So we looked for other places to do it and set it. It’s the kind of story that could really be any…it doesn’t really matter what city it’s in. It’s not really specific to any one city. But Detroit ultimately worked out, number one because they provided a really nice package [in] Michigan, so they’re luring in a lot of production that way. Number two, like you said, the city has a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe to it. So shooting areas of the city that are devoid of people and any activity were pretty easy to find, and they really helped us create that look.

And you know, there was also the irony of…the story of about a city where everyone sort of leaves or vanishes. Detroit, that’s the story of that city, I mean everyone left in the ’60s and ’70s, and the few that remain are barely hanging on. So I kind of liked the fact that the fictional story kind of mirrored in some ways the real story of Detroit.

BD: Yeah, it’s pretty spooky in a way. You guys also allude to the Lost Colony at Roanoke in the movie as well, which I thought was interesting. Did Anthony base it at all on that story?

BA: I don’t think he based it on that. We kind of added that element in later as we were weaving into the story various possible explanations. That story, the Roanoke story, just seemed like a cool reference point for this movie, this weird phenomenon that happened before. And maybe that’s part of the explanation, you know, some kind of like phenomenon that occurs every 200 years or 300 years or something…every 300 years there’s like some event where everyone just vanishes. So we kind of used it as a reference point. But I don’t know what inspired him to write the script…I don’t know. I know…he was looking to write a very contained, kind of brainy thriller. That’s sort of what he did.

BD: I also noticed that the sound design is really effective. It definitely helps create a scary vibe. How did you come up with how the shadow creatures would sound like?

BA: That’s a fun part of the process, is the sound design. Particularly in these kinds of movies. People underestimate the effectiveness of sound design in scary movies to help enhance the creepy atmosphere and all of that. So we spent a lot of time creating all the different kinds of sounds and the various tones that you hear in the movie…just even the atmosphere, the sound of the empty city, with the dogs barking in the distance or like the sound of crows, these sort of natural, empty, desolate sounds.

And the shadows, we wanted them to have some sound because we thought it would help people sort of recognize the shadows and see them, if they actually made a noise. You know, also in the story perhaps you might want to think of the shadows [as] the shadows of vanishing souls or something. So maybe there’s still a residual human sounds in the shadows. So we took a lot of baby noises, like baby cries, baby giggling, and we slowed them, pitched them way, way down, and play them backwards and do some weird shit to them. Take human sounds and distort them, and make them almost sound organic or something.

I think that’s what we ended up using to kind of become the sort of voice of the shadows, and then mixed it in with other things too, like weird crunching noises, and whispering…we had dozens of different tracks we messed around with. But yeah, to me I think that when you do that kind of thing, the more incongruous kind of noises you can create, the weirder it is. Like the sort of stuff you expect to hear is often the least effective. Instead of the shadows having this deep, demonic kind of sound, we gave them more of a child[like] voice.