On His Own Terms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

T he only thing predictable about independent filmmaker Brad Anderson is his unpredictability. For his first big indie hit, 1998's "Next Stop Wonderland," he presented a twist to the romantic comedy genre by keeping audiences in the dark about whether the film's two protagonists would ever meet, let alone fall in love.

The 36-year-old Anderson offered a fresh take on horror films with his recent "Session 9," a deliberately ambiguous psychological thriller set in an abandoned mental hospital. And in his newest film, "Happy Accidents," he offers yet another unique spin on a romantic comedy.

Oscar-winner Ma-risa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio star in "Happy Accidents," opening in limited release Sept. 14, about a single young New Yorker, Ruby, who, after finding several Mr. Wrongs, believes she has found Mr. Right in the form of the sweet Sam Deed, a newcomer from Dubuque, Iowa. The two fall quickly in love, but then their relationship takes a bizarre turn when Sam tells Ruby he's actually a time traveler from the year 2470.

Turning to her therapist (Holland Taylor, Anderson's aunt) and her best friend (Nadia Dajani) for help, Ruby must decide if she and Sam have a future together or if he is a basket case with an overripe imagination.

Anderson studied ethnographic film at Bowdoin College and film production in London. After moving to Boston in the early '90s, he made his first film, 1995's "The Darien Gap," a humorous take on Generation X, which was screened at Sundance in 1996 and at several other festivals. "Next Stop Wonderland" won the Grand Prix and Audience Award at the Deauville Film Festival in France and an Excellence in Filmmaking Award from the National Board of Review.

The lanky director, who lives in New York City, was in town recently to talk about "Happy Accidents" and his offbeat approach to filmmaking.

Question: Did you get a lot of offers from Hollywood after the critical acclaim and art house success of "Next Stop Wonderland"?

Answer: I did. I set out to do something with Miramax, and frankly I'm glad [it didn't happen] because I didn't want to get on this course where I was going to be doing just big, goofy romantic comedies with the latest cast of "Dawson's Creek." I was getting a lot of scripts that were about a lonely girl living in Manhattan.

One of the reasons I did "Happy Accidents" was to do [a comedy] in my own way. I wouldn't be able to get that done at a studio, it's too weird. Similarly, with "Session 9," I wanted to do a horror movie on my terms. If I had done that with a studio, first of all you would have to make everyone 18 to 25 and you would have to have a monster of some sort, a physical CG [computer-generated] monster. I think I have done these movies because I have had the ability to do it my way.

Q: How did you come up with the idea that the protagonist was a time traveler?

A: The initial premise was what would be the most absurd thing that in the course of a relationship between two people would throw the whole relationship into a tailspin or freak it out and how that relationship would proceed from that time.

I don't remember exactly how the time travel element entered into it. But once I had that revelation, it became the seed for the story. In "Next Stop Wonderland," it was sort of about a lonely, intelligent woman looking for the right guy. But I wanted to do a movie about a woman who was really seriously flawed in a sense that she means well and she wants to meet someone who works but she is continuously drawn to men who have big problems. She can't seem to get out of that rut.

Of course, I thought it would be funny if she meets a guy who is somewhat normal and sweet and charming, and all of a sudden he drops the biggest revelation of all. He is a total nut case, and how is she going to deal with that fact? Instead of tossing him out immediately, she somehow finds herself incapable of getting rid of him.

Q: Was it difficult to get financing for "Happy Accidents" because it is so unusual?

A: I was lucky. I was in touch with IFC Films. They financed the movie. I met with [executive producer] Jonathan Sehring, who liked my other films. I told him about the project, and they said show [the script] to us when you are done. It was like within a week [when] they said, "Let's make it." They just go with the courage of their convictions. We didn't have anyone attached at that point. But then Marisa got on board very quickly, and then I got Vince.

Q: Because "Happy Accidents" is a romantic comedy with serious overtones and has a sci-fi theme running throughout, was it difficult to find the right tone?

A: It was tricky.... We didn't have a lot of time to do a lot of rehearsals because it happened very quickly, and it wouldn't have been the kind of movie you would want to overrehearse anyhow. But I just said let's just play it as straight as possible. That's one of the reasons we shot it in a hand-held, free-form documentary way as well, and the cutting is very much like that. I wanted it to keep kind of imbued with a sense of realism because the premise is so absurd. I thought it would be funny to play it straight and let the comedy come out of the crazy things he's saying and not ham it up or do a "Mork & Mindy" thing.

Q: What was your schedule?

A: We shot the whole movie in 31/2 weeks and shot it in the hottest August on record [in New York City]. I think every day it didn't get below 100 degrees. It was brutal. The budget was like a million and a half [dollars].

"Next Stop" was a million and a half. "Session 9" was like $2 million.

Q: Why did you shoot "Session 9" in high-definition video?

A: Because the cameras were hitting the market literally like around the time we started shooting, so we were one of the first film productions to get ahold of the cameras. I think our movie and ... "Jackpot" were the first theatrically released that were shot on this new camera. George Lucas is doing it with his new "Star Wars" movie, so it will open the floodgates.

Plus, the way we were shooting that movie, it was totally quick, under the gun, get-it-done kind of shoot, and shooting it with the [high-definition] cameras made it a lot easier. You could shoot quickly under really low light conditions. We couldn't afford to bring in tons of light.

Q: What was it like shooting "Session 9" in an abandoned mental hospital?

A: It was a big abandoned mental hospital 30 minutes north of Boston. We took the place over. It was freaky [being in there].The kind of creepiness wore off and it became our second home, which was weird because it still has a pall of tragedy over the place. Ultimately, we didn't have as many scary, spooky stories as I wanted to actually relate. It was very matter of fact.

Q: Do you want to keep doing indie films?

A: I want ideally to do films on my own terms. I am not like beholden to the industry in terms of needing to pay some huge mortgage or live the lifestyle I have been accustomed to because I haven't. I live in my little place in [Greenwich] Village with my girlfriend and my cat. Because of that, I feel like I don't need to make some huge movie because I need to make a lot of money. But I would like to work with a bigger budget--and have good catering.

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