Director Brad Anderson casts some light on the shadows of ‘Vanishing on 7th Street’
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Director Brad Anderson broke onto the scene back in 1998 with the romantic comedy, ‘Next Stop Wonderland,’ but in the years since, he’s shown that his heart exists in a much darker place with such thrillers and psychological horror films as ‘Session 9,’ ‘The Machinist’ and ‘Transsiberian.’ His latest, ‘Vanishing on 7th Street,’ has stars Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo jumping at shadows, literally, as part of a group of people trapped in a Detroit bar. Shadowy things are lurking on the fringes waiting for people to stray away from light sources so they can be zapped away. What’s happening? What are those shadowy things? Anderson’s film keeps hard solutions off in the shadows, but when the director talked to us, he revealed that was entirely intentional. Be warned, there’s some mildly spoiler-ish discussion about the film’s ending here.
What were your discussions with screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski like when trying to come up with the reasons for the vanishing?
The original script that Tony wrote had a lot of atmospherics and the connective moments between the different characters. It was really well-written. The thing we talked about as we started developing the script was to find the balance between how much explanation we give to the audience versus how much we withhold or simply don’t provide and how mysterious we keep the ultimate story. His story originally ended kind of like the movie ends now -- it just kind of ends. Kind of like the notion that it’s an inexplicable event that occurs and the story ends before you get any full satisfying answer to what caused this event or what’s going to happen now. Not to get too highbrow about it, but we always thought of it as a metaphor for how people deal with loss and death and grief, how they deal with looking their own demise right in the face and what different ways people cope with that sense of mortality. Each character has his or her own way of grappling with that.
In Thandie Newton’s character’s case, it was adhering to her faith. In Hayden’s character’s case, resisting any attempts to figure out what’s going on at all and just attempting to survive. I kind of like the idea the movie deals with at its core, which is how we all deal with how life’s big mystery will never be solved when the lights go out for each of us. We don’t know what’s beyond on the other side. That kind of mystery we wanted to keep alive. We avoided giving a full-fledged concrete explanation as to why everyone simply vanished and what’s causing it. Whether it’s a supernatural event or extraterrestrials or it’s some physics experiment gone bad or whether it really is the second coming and the righteous have been taken to heaven and the sinners are left on earth, we wanted to keep all those pokers in the fire and let the audience arrive at their own conclusions, based on their own predilections toward a faith in science or a faith in God. I’ve been to screenings and it’s like a litmus test where people come up to me and say ‘Oh, that was the Rapture.’ Or, no, ‘It was some kind of black hole that’s sucking people into it.’ What we did in developing it, at least in working it out, was to throw different pokers into that fire and leaving little Easter eggs, little hints and clues, but never settling in on one specific one. It’s a risk. It’s not typical. It’s an approach that’s got to be frustrating to some people in the audience for sure, but we just wanted to do something that bent the rules a little bit. Is it hard to have that sort of ambiguity? Film can be very literal. People can be more demanding of answers in a movie than they would be in say, a novel.
Film is a very concrete, literal way of storytelling. There’s less interpretation in some ways than reading a novel. You can get away with more -- more creative license, maybe. Although people expect different things from a movie than they do from a novel, I think. It’s definitely a precarious line to walk if you’re trying to make a movie that has commercial potential and in that sense has to adhere to rules we’re familiar with. Most of my career has been as an independent filmmaker, writing my own stuff and making my own films my own way, not necessarily wanting to tow the line, wanting to do something different off the beaten path. I know this movie wasn’t a big Hollywood studio movie, but it’s still a movie where we had to satisfy certain concerns of the producers and the financiers. There were a lot of creative -- not battles -- discussions over such things as how much explanation we should give. Particularly the ending. How should it end? Not just the story, but the feeling. Should it have hope to it? Should it end really bleak? And try to find that balance.
Did you go through some rejected endings?
We had a series of endings. Some ended on a down note. There’s one version where the kids are walking off into the sunset and it cuts to black and you know they’re goners. And another version where they’re headed off and the music is swelling and you think ‘They’re gonna make it! They’re alive!’ Some endings where we provided more explanation. One ended with the Croatoan motif. As if that was what happened, as if everything was about that. But that didn’t feel like a strong enough explanation, if it even is the explanation. We opted to keep the threat alive and have these kids seen as the new man ... new girl and new boy. They head off with a little bit of the darkness coming upon them. We wanted to keep alive a little bit of the notion that maybe they would survive. There were other elements. At one point, Hayden says ‘Maybe this is just a passing storm. Maybe it’s all a temporary thing. A weird tidal shift and then things will return to normal?’ You throw it out there. Whether it makes the movie more commercial or not, I don’t know. I’m more interested in appealing to my own fascinations with things. On this particular one, I was interested in stories about the end of the world, apocalyptic ideas, how it’s all going to end.
Location seems very important in your films.
‘Session 9' was inspired by and colored by the abandoned mental hospital where we shot it. In this one, it was Detroit. In Tony’s script it was just a generic American city, it was New York City. We felt that New York had its share of apocalyptic events, so we wanted to take it to someplace else. Detroit turned out to be the best case for us because the production got tax breaks. The look of the city and the fact that it’s already devoid of people, entire city blocks abandoned. It already had a post-apocalyptic feel to part of it, unfortunately. We were able to capitalize on it with our movie. Even with our small budget we were able to get these big, epic wide shots of empty highways and empty city streets because you can do it there. We wanted to create the almost grim but melancholy feel to the place, wind blowing debris down the streets like a ghost town. The city really worked in our favor. We were able to find things like the big church at the end of the movie. It’s a big, empty Polish church among several others that’s completely vacant because everyone has left town. As for the bar, there are countless empty bars in Detroit. Vintage bars. The interior of the bar was an actual bar that we took over to shoot in. It was off the beaten path. It wasn’t a functioning bar. We created an exterior for it to make it more interesting. That city, for my purposes, was a filmmaker’s dream. There’s so many great things that are visually interesting. If you’re into that kind of fading beauty, Detroit has that kind of space. The location where the story takes place is, for me, very important. I get inspired by the places where I make the films.
There’s a shot where Hayden Christensen comes out of an apartment to find the city streets empty. At first I thought the shot was created digitally, but it sounds like you were really able to clear out the streets.
It was pretty much as you saw it. And that was just blocking off a couple of streets and having some cops keep pedestrians from walking into the shot that was literally the center of Detroit. That wasn’t a suburban area. You can really create that kind of look there very easily.
Was it difficult to visualize the creeping shadows effect without ever knowing for sure what they were?
That was part of what interested me in this script. [Tony] didn’t give a lot of direction in how the shadows and darkness worked. It was more about describing darkness as this looming threat getting worse and worse. Part of the challenge was, how do we literalize that? Like you said before, it’s one thing to put it on the page -– it’s spooky when you read it. But how do you make it work? What are the shadows doing? Are they humanoid in shape? Are they moving quickly? Do they grow? We had to come up with a whole look of the shadows. In general we wanted them to feel as organic as possible. We wanted the shadows to emerge out of real shadows. They should work within the dimensions of a scene.
The thing we wanted to stay away from was making them feel like [a] demonic creature. We wanted them to feel like a mold. We watched images of fungus moving across a wall in time lapse. We did a lot of ink-blot tests. When we did the digital tests we worked a lot of that into the movie. We wanted things to feel real and organic, almost like a natural phenomena. Then there were the figurative shadows that were inexplicable. The rule was, these were your shadows. However [the vanishing] is happening, these shadows are there waiting for you to come over and join them. We went with this idea, however you get zapped, all that’s left of you is your shadow self, almost like the way the shadows cast in Hiroshima by the bright blast of the atom bomb was all that was left of you.
One other thing we wanted was a progression throughout the movie. At the beginning we slowly hint at things creeping in darkness, almost stuff happening in your peripheral vision. And then as the story progresses, they become more obvious, more clear-cut, more active. So by the time we get to the church, it’s almost like a beehive. It’s throbbing with darkness. All that was done in post. So we didn’t really know what we were going to do when we were shooting. We had to set up shots that would allow us to show the shadows. It was a long process, but a fun one.
Have you heard any outlandish explanations from viewers of the film for what’s going on?
I don’t think any of them are outlandish. In some ways anything is plausible. If something this crazy happened, then any theory was as valid as the next. To say it was a flesh-eating virus is no less implausible in my mind than Jesus coming down for the Rapture. They’re all equally implausible in some way. I don’t have my own idea. I don’t lean on one explanation or the other. It didn’t really make a difference making the movie, having a specific point of view on that. We wanted to, by the end of it, keep all those avenues of interpretation open. I think that animals survive, a little bird, a little bug, a horse at the end. Whatever it is targeting human beings, if that provides any more explanation.
-- Patrick Kevin Day