Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment
October 4, 2004
In the surreal thriller The Machinist, actor Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) completely dedicates himself to his craft by losing over sixty pounds to portray Trevor Reznik, a blue collar worker whose one year bout with insomnia belies a haunted past. Methodically wasting away, Reznik lives in a distorted world where reality overlaps onto unreliable memory.
Filmed in Barcelona, Spain, The Machinist is written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson, whose 2001 film Session 9 has been praised by fans and critics alike as a brilliant piece of psychological horror. Christian Bale heads up a cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian, and Michael Ironside.
In this interview, we joined the rest of the media to field questions to Brad Anderson, who discusses the making of the film.
MEDIA: Did you know from the beginning that Christian Bale would go to the lengths that he did to create the physical look of his character?
BRAD: No, that was a surprise to me. I mean, the character in the script was described as kind of a walking skeleton, so whoever played the part, it was clear that they were going to have to lose a little weight. When Christian got on board, he was so jazzed about the script and the character that we never had any clear cut discussions about him losing weight, it was just sort of implied he would have to lose something. And as is evident, he went well beyond the call of duty. When he stepped off the plane in Barcelona where we shot film, my jaw kind of dropped a little as it does when you see him in the movie. At the same time, I was really gratified because I knew that he had done what was necessary for this particular role. You needed to really see the torment this guy has put himself through to have it pay off at the end. And it was his choice to kind of go to the lengths that he went. But I always knew in casting him that this was a guy who is so committed to his craft, committed to the roles that he plays. He immerses himself in his characters. He becomes the character.
Did you ever think that he was in physical jeopardy by being this thin?
No, I don't think I was concerned to that extent. His wife was with him throughout, and I always kind of looked to her, and if she looked worried, then I would get worried. But she always seemed fairly kind of okay with it. And Christian himself told me he wasn't going to push himself over his limits. We didn't have a doctor on the set. It was a Spanish production, a little different than if we had shot here in the States. There are some scenes where I was a little more concerned, like the scenes where he's running through the sewage tunnels and such. [laughs] Any scene that needed him to be physical was difficult for him because he didn't have a lot of energy. But he would sit there on the sidelines, and we kind of thought of him as the on-set zen master because he would sit there in his chair, storing up his reserves of energy for the next take. But like I said, I think it was really key that he did that. I think he said he even kind of went further than he was expecting to go. But I'm glad he did, I think it would have been a whole different type of film if you hadn't seen the degree of physical torment that this guy is putting himself through.
How would this film have turned out differently had he not undergone such a drastic physical transformation?
Well, I think he could better tell you that, but he's told me that in losing that weight, it put him into that head space of that character. I don't think he did get a lot of sleep. I think he was a bit of an insomniac, because you don't sleep much when you're so thin, you're so wired. And I think that's just his method. His approach for a performance is to put himself as close as you can to the actual physical qualities of the character. Like I said, I didn't expect him to lose that much weight. I was assuming he'd lose ten, fifteen, twenty pounds maybe, and we'd put him in baggy clothes and we'd fake it a little like you do in a movie. But I don't know how we would have done it if that had been the case. It probably wouldn't have had the impact. If you don't see that transformation at the end, you don't realize that this guy is really victimizing himself, or he's punishing himself. And that's what he's been doing over the course of this year. It's his own form of self-martyrization. He's making himself disappear. And when you see him at the end, in the flashback, it all kind of sinks in, holy moly.
Was it frightening that Christian was so committed to the role that he would put himself through this physical ordeal?
No, I love that, man. I want an actor who's able to make that level of commitment. Because I get obsessed about these things too. You live with a movie for a couple of years, and when you're making it, it's all consuming, and I hope that the actors I'm working with are equally obsessed with it. Not in a way that's like detrimental to their health. You can see Christian and he looks like he could be on death's door, but much of that is a performance as well. He wasn't like staggering around the set about to pass out. He was amenable and totally nice. He didn't have a lot of energy, but that was understandable. But I do think he's one of those actors, as far as I can tell from his work, his prior work as well, who literally transforms himself. Even off camera, he sort of stays in character. He keeps the American accent even off camera, he doesn't go back and forth. And I think that's his way of just fully becoming the guy.
In one of the early scenes, you can literally see the bones protruding from Christian's body. Did you add more of those types of shots after you saw how shockingly thin he had become?
To a degree, yeah. Like any director, you have to exploit your actors. [laughs] That one shot, for instance, of him bending over the sink where you see his vertebrae popping out like fins on a fish. I saw him doing that. I was like, "Wow, that's so bizarre. I want to open with that shot because it's like it doesn't even look human." Someone described how it's almost like a machine. You can see the pulleys and the gears in his body, and that was sort of an interesting revelation.
In a film like this that mixes moments of reality with moments of delusion, do you have to constantly remind your actors what's real and what's not?
Well yeah, of course, you're always making sure the people are aware of where we stand in the realm of the imagination versus things that are actually happening to this man. We'd always talk about that quite a bit before we shot the film. But I didn't want those scenes which in the end we learn are delusions to pop out so drastically in the course of telling the story. That's what I really loved about Scott's script--when you read it, you're not aware of what's delusional or hallucination, what's real, and the way it almost kind of blends together gives the whole story this sort of unsettling feeling to it. And I kind of wanted to capture that in the movie as well and not mark the delusional scenes. But of course, as we move towards the end of the story, things become more crazy and more implausible, but there was a slow build up until that point. But the scenes like, for instance in the airport where he's talking to the woman there, he's a little bit different, he's a little bit more laid back, he's a little bit more charming, he seems a little healthier. It's like in his head, he's imagined himself as being a little bit more of a guy who can relate to people and he wants to like this woman, and so the tenor of his performance was slightly skewed in those scenes. But it was all on the page, what needed to be done, so it was just a question of being really clear cut with it.
Do you consider The Machinist one of those films that's all about the "twist ending"?
It's a puzzle movie in some regards. I hope it's not one of those movies like The Sixth Sense or The Others as much, as interesting as those films are, that totally pull the rug out from you in the end, because it's not about him learning that he's dead, or he's a ghost, or he's been abducted by aliens. It's really just him waking up to who he really is as a person. If audiences are thinking it's going down the direction of having one of those more supernatural type explanations, then great. It's tough to make these types of stories now, I think, because audiences are very savvy. We've seen all the different explanations, The Forgotten being maybe the most recent example.
Is it a problem that audiences may be able to predict elements of the story before they completely unfold?
I think it's fine if they're a little bit ahead of Trevor in this particular story because to me, it's not so much about that big rug pull at the end, it's more about watching this character slowly come to grips with what's happening to him, and then in the end, realizing who he really is. It's less a story about some plot twist than it is about a character having this kind of existential crisis and finally realizing, as it's posed at the very beginning of the story, "Who are you?" At the end, he finally is able to answer that question. In some ways to his horror, he realizes who he really is. That's interesting. The character in the story was what drew me to the script, not so much the plot elements of it. It's that character's trajectory as well as the really kind of spooky, surreal vibe that Scott managed to create in the writing of the script that I felt would be really a bit of a challenge and exciting to try to replicate in the film. To create a consistent kind of disconcerting tone like that was something that was really interesting to me.
How did you end up shooting in Spain?
The script had been making the rounds for some time, and there was various levels of interest in it. I got onboard and still didn't have the financing in place. And then Christian came onboard and we still were looking here in America for a home for the movie. And it was difficult because I think a lot of American producers were put off by the dark story. It's pretty bleak, and they were put off by the ambiguity, which in my mind is important to the mystery of the story. So ultimately, we couldn't find the right money here in America. So we ended up going to Spain because my film before this, Session 9, had done well over there and they were aware of who I was and wanted to work with me. So they said, "We'll make your movie, but the condition is you've got to shoot in Barcelona."
Was the story able to easily fit with the shooting location?
Scott's script was quite specifically set in LA, at least at the time, and I was like, "Well, how are we going to replicate LA in Barcelona?" But I went over there, and the irony nowadays is you can go anywhere in the world and you can find a little piece of America. We went to the industrial zones, we realized we can probably make this work, we can make it feel like LA. And in the end, it doesn't really feel like LA, nor does it feel like Spain. It's sort of this strange, unreal kind of environment he lives in, and I think that ultimately worked to our advantage because you're not really sure of where you are or when you are. And like the character, you're not really sure that your feet are planted on the ground. He's a little bit dislocated. So I think by shooting over there in Barcelona, it worked for us because we had to create a generic American reality. We stripped out all the stuff we're so used to seeing in films that are set in LA, and it creates, in my mind, sort of a strange sensation.
Was it difficult to convince everyone involved to do those scenes shot in the sewers?
Well, luckily, that was only the second day, so people didn't know how crazy we would push them. Like Christian, another testament to his commitment--we offered him, "You want to wear some rubber boots? We'll grease you up so that you don't get any of that raw sewage on you." But he was like, "No, I want to do it the real way." And he refused all attempts to make it easier for him. I was also on crutches down there. [laughs] So for me, it was a bit of problem because I ripped the tendon a couple weeks before, so here I am down in crutches trying to navigate through the sewers, and Christian's running through the raw sewage. It was a little chaotic. But when I was scouting out locations in Barcelona, I saw that tunnel and I was like, "This is the perfect place to take our guy, he's got to literally go into the pit." It wasn't an easy shoot, but then again, what shoot is?
Speaking of your injuries, Christian had said you were in a gurney at one point.
[laughs] Yes, right after I got off my crutches, my back flipped out on me. So I was flat out horizontal on a gurney directing the film, which I have to say is a way I would like to do the rest of my films. It's very, very pleasant to just lay there, and people bring you things. It might have affected the compositions of the film somewhat because I was laying like this. But anytime I felt like I was going to complain about the physical pain, I'd look over and see him and I'd be like, "I really can't top the sacrifice that he's put into this."
Is getting into accidents fairly common for you?
No, I think this was one of the most accident prone shoots. Usually in the other films, other people are...like in Session 9, my DP practically lost her eye. And there were other accidents. But I was the one who suffered in this one pretty much.
How was it directing someone else's script, as opposed to directing your own script as you have done in the past?
Oh, it was very gratifying and refreshing for me. It gives you the distance to sort of step back and look at the piece objectively. Whereas if you had written it, you're so caught up in it, it's your brainchild, it's your baby, it's hard to be so self-critical. But Scott and I had a very good relationship in terms of him re-working things based on my ideas. So it was great to just wear one hat for a change. I mean, not only have I written or co-written my other films, but I've also edited them, and this one I was really just playing the gun for hire director. Although like any film that I do, I want to make it my own, but it was very nice to be able to just be the director for a change. I could focus more just on the visual look I was going for. I find that in trying to interpret someone else's vision to your own vision, that process often makes for a better movie--better than what that guy would have envisioned, or what I would have envisioned, to create like some kind of amalgam.
Christian had mentioned that he had to tune into what you were visualizing somewhat more than what you might actually be saying. Can you comment on that?
[laughs] Well, I think we pretty much saw eye to eye on the tenor of his performance and who this guy was, this character he was playing. I didn't feel I had to direct Christian much in that regard because he got it. We had lengthy discussions before we started shooting about who this guy was and how to play the insomnia thing. A guy who hasn't slept, like he says, in a year. And a guy whose physical state is deteriorating. And all those things we discussed, but in actually shooting, since it's so kind of visual, even with his body and everything, it was more about showing as opposed to telling. But I think that that's usually the best kind of direction anyhow, if you can show an actor. Not act it out, but sort of give them directions based on doing stuff as opposed to simply giving them a verbal direction. It was a pleasure to work with Christian. I mean, you have a suggestion, he'll do it. And he's very precise and very disciplined and focused. A lot of British actors seem to be that way, in my mind. Like Peter Mullan, who I've worked with in Session 9, the same way. Totally focused. And it was great. It makes your life so much easier as a director.
Some people have (pointlessly) debated the necessity of showing Jennifer Jason Leigh's breasts in this film. Any thoughts on the issue?
I don't know why people find that off-putting. It wasn't even a decision. It was just like, she's a prostitute, they're in bed. It wasn't something we even discussed with Jennifer. It's just, she did it. And it didn't strike me as being anything unusual at the time. I mean, Christian...we don't see him fully naked, but my God, talking about exposing yourself. If anything is more shocking or unsettling, it's that. It's not Jennifer Jason Leigh's breasts. That's my opinion.
Can you talk about the mysterious character of Ivan, and his evolution from the page to the screen?
In Scott's script, Ivan was described as a thin, feral looking, emaciated guy not unlike Trevor, because he was sort of like his double. That was Scott's idea. But then when John Sharian auditioned for the part, he was so strikingly different than everything I had had in my head that I started to think, "Well, if he is sort of Trevor's guilty conscience, then he should be growing as Trevor's disappearing." It's like the opposite idea. And he had this weird Brando look, too, that was weirdly appealing. I don't know why.
How do you interpret The Machinist's title?
I always thought it was interesting. When Scott was writing the script, he was reading a lot of Kafka and Dostoyevsky. I think that's pretty apparent in the story. It has similarities to, say, Crime and Punishment or The Trial. And the just simple kind of title like The Machinist felt to me like it harkened back to a short story that, say, Kafka would have written, or Dostoyevsky would have written: The Machinist. But the process of that machine shop itself--the obvious metaphor is this is kind of like his own purgatory or something. He's paying for his sin by doing this monotonous, horrible, uncomfortable work.
Can you elaborate on the significance of Trevor's line of work?
When I read the script, Scott's descriptions of the machine shop were like this sort of infernal and purgatory type place, and that really got me because I thought that just visually, that would be really cool to try to capture. So his job, what he does, I think is important to the story. It's not just an incidental type thing. It's part of who he is. Plus, he doesn't really fit in at that machine shop. He seems to be educated. The guy reads The Idiot and Dostoyevsky. He's an educated guy who's in a real blue collar, working class environment. And that also is intriguing, that contrast. And I've done it with my other film, too. For some reason, the past two films have dealt with a more working class, blue collar environment, and I find it interesting. You don't often see those kind of stories told as much.
Is there a certain significance to the machines themselves?
Yeah. I don't think it comes across so much in the movie, but the idea of these big machines and these guys doing this physical work, but they're creating these tiny little gears that are so precise down to the millimeter...there's something really perverse about that. It's almost like a kind of torture in a way. But that routine and the precision are a way that Trevor loses himself in his work in order to simply forget the past, or to somehow deal with his growing paranoia.
What was your own vocational background growing up?
I never worked in a machine shop. [laughs] I'm a New England WASP through and through. I've worked, I've done physical labor, sure. My father was a homebuilder so I know a little about that world. But I just find those kinds of realities more intriguing than ad agencies or legal firms. There's only so many ways you can shoot a law firm, you know.
You've directed episodes for acclaimed TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. Do you have anything else coming up for television?
No. The TV I've done really just fills in the gaps between the features, pays the bills. I mean, TV is not a very director-driven medium. It's not as satisfying, really. I mean, it's okay, but I'd much rather be doing my own films.
But the shows you've worked on seem to play out a bit more like features than what is typically on television.
Yeah. Well, they're really well-written, particularly The Wire. I mean, that show is brilliantly written, and yeah, if I'm going to do TV, I want to do shows like that as opposed to...well, you name it, anything else out there pretty much besides those shows. But yeah, TV's fun, but I'm more geared towards the feature thing, certainly.
What are you doing next?
I've got two projects. One is a dark thriller not unlike The Machinist called Lucid which I'm developing at Warner Bros. It's a script I wrote. It's kind of like an Eyes of Laura Mars type thing. It's sort of a psychic thriller. And then I got a musical. [laughs] A totally different thing. I've genre hopped quite a bit in the past few films. I've gone from romantic comedies to brooding, dark horror movies. But I guess I just have those two sides of my bipolar personality.
Has the musical already been written?
Yeah, we just finished the script. It's a bossa nova musical set in Rio de Janeiro in 1961. It's all about the emergence of that great music in the early '60s like Jobim and Gilberto, and characters walk down the streets, break into song. It's crazy. But I've always loved that music, and I wanted to do something that was about the music but didn't just have the music as sort of background.
What is it specifically that you love about bossa nova?
It's purely sensation. I think it's sexy, it's romantic, but there's also this undercurrent of melancholy to it. I used it in my second film Next Stop Wonderland. It was really the soundtrack for that film. And since then, I've grown more and more obsessed with it. And it's just an escapist kind of music, but it's also deeply emotional. And to me, it just seemed like the perfect kind of music to lay into a musical. The music is very understated bossa nova. You don't croon it. It's more jazz vocals. I thought that would be an interesting approach for a musical. It's not like a Busby Berkeley type thing, it's more like understated characters sitting at a bar quietly singing as they drink their beer or something.
So is this a good time or a bad time to pitch a musical?
I don't know, I guess it depends on what you're talking about. Chicago and Moulin Rouge, fairly successful, and this latest one, the Cole Porter one, wasn't so much. But I think there's starting to be some interest in musicals. And not traditional MGM type musicals, but a little bit more unusual type musicals.