The Big Picture

The two-story punched steel stairway leading up to film director Brad Anderson's loft looks like the set of a low-budget horror movie, with its dim lighting and exposed pipes, and a dark figure standing at the top, calling down a warning from above. “I hate to say it, but the best place to talk around here is Starbucks,” he says.

So much for the independent spirit. The one-time darling of Boston film, who hit paydirt with his 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland, is hard to keep up with as he walks the blocks from his Greenwich Village apartment to the coffee shop. Anderson's long legs propel a physique invariably described as “gangly” — though “giantesque” might be closer the mark.

His appearance has changed little, in fact, since a 1998 profile in this magazine described him as resembling a “prepubescent werewolf.” Facial hair climbs down his neck like fuzzy kudzu, and he seems too small for his own body — almost as if he controls it from inside, like the kid in the cybersuit in the sci-fi movie Star Kid. Later, gripping a black coffee, Anderson stares at the table and fidgets with the cup as he talks about his latest movie, The Machinist, out this month. “I would like [it] to do well,” he says, still jet-lagged after showing the film at the Edinburgh and Copenhagen film festivals. “But I'm not banking everything on it. I keep my expectations fairly low.”

It's not exactly the confident endorsement you'd expect from a director flogging his own project, but given Anderson's history it's not surprising. Although The Machinist has gotten near-universally rave reviews for its dark depiction of an insomniac's slow descent into madness, Anderson has been through the buzzmill enough to know that it can be tough to satisfy audiences if you don't fit their idea of formula.

In the six years since Anderson put Boston on the map as Indietown USA, his films have languished in the limbo between quirky and smash hit. Despite opportunities to direct studio films, Anderson has stubbornly remained independent — even as independent filmmaking has become an endangered art form.

“They have a name for films between commercial and arthouse,” he says, laughing as he finally makes eye contact. “They call them 'tweeners.' I don't know if it's pejorative or just descriptive.”

Every movie Anderson has made has been both a critical success and a commercial flop for the same reason: his tendency to subvert typical genres. Take his 2000 film Happy Accidents, which stars Marisa Tomei as a gun-shy codependent who finally meets the perfect man — until he tells her he comes from the year 2470. The result is more sci-fi than romantic comedy. His first horror film, Session 9 (2001), is a sticky psychological fright-fest about asbestos removal workers sent to clean up a creepy old asylum-set to breathtaking effect at the old Danvers State Insane Asylum — who end up mysteriously dying one by one. Not exactly your usual teen slasher film.

“How would I describe a Brad Anderson movie?” says his Next Stop cowriter Lyn Vaus, with an uncomfortable pause. “You don't know where you are going, but when you get there, there's an inevitability to it that is pleasing somehow.”

Anderson himself sees the common link in his films as one more of process than content. “My interest hinges less on story or plot and more on the characters,” he says. “What drew me into making movies is trying to make characters that step off the screen.”

He has undoubtedly succeeded with The Machinist. At Sundance this year, the audience literally gasped when the title character, played by Christian Bale, first appeared. To simulate a character who has literally not slept in a year, Bale lost a third of his body weight, reducing his 6-foot-2 frame to an emaciated 120 pounds.

“There were absolutely no concessions made for the sake of a wider audience,” Bale told Entertainment Weekly. “We all made the film we wanted to make.”

Anderson describes the film as literally a “waking nightmare,” beginning when Bale's character witnesses an industrial accident caused by someone who may only exist in his own mind. His only solace, as he shambles through a futuristic landscape, comes from a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

“He's literally being eaten alive by his own guilt,” says Anderson. “All you need to know about this character is what you see written on his skin and bones.”

True to his style, Anderson tweaks the horror genre with Kafkaesque visuals and a slow pace, which builds to a suspenseful ending one reviewer called “impossible to predict but flawless in its logic.”

The ad placed in the Boston Phoenix drew the bored, curious, and strange with its call for actors to meet in a parking lot in Revere. No experience necessary. Just “bring your scariest monster mask.” So began Brad Anderson's first foray into film with an ultra-low-budget endeavor called Frankenstein's Planet of Monsters!, which tells the tale of three “astro-vixens” trapped on a sinister galactic world. “That was my first horror movie,” Anderson says now, not without pride. “I've always liked dark, creepy movies, but for some reason I started on the film scene with romantic comedies.”

Anderson studied Russian and ethnographic film at Bowdoin College in Maine and later went to the London International Film School. After school, he spent his time hanging out at smoky rock clubs in Boston's student ghetto of Allston. His first feature film, The Darien Gap, was one of the last in a genre of slacker films, a largely improvised project starring his friend Vaus as a homeless musician who concocts a scheme to travel to Patagonia to film the elusive giant sloth, only to meet a girl in Boston before he does.

The film is a time capsule from an era before dotcoms, cell phones, and terrorism, with a lot of solipsistic twentysomethings avoiding the working world. But it stands out for its raw editing style, one that intersperses home movies of Anderson's own childhood into the plot, tackling the painful topic of his parents' divorce.

“It was a totally independent film,” says Anderson, who produced it for just $40,000. “The reason for making it was a passion for the subject. It wasn't a calling card or an homage to John Wu. I made it as my own little baby.”

The film caught the attention of Boston producer Laura Bernieri, who in turn persuaded a real estate developer named Mitchell Robbins to invest the money to finish it. The Darien Gap was lucky to get one of 18 spots at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, where it became an audience favorite. It was also a triumph of a more personal nature for Brad, who met his future wife, Lauren Mansfield, a rep for Absolut vodka who was attending the festival.

After Sundance, Vaus and Anderson teamed with Bernieri and Robbins to create another film, this time a romantic comedy. But rather than the usual boy-meets-girl tale, they perversely decided to make a love story in which the lovers would never meet. The result is a gem of a movie set to a bossa nova soundtrack, with a nurse (played by a then-unknown Hope Davis) and a working stiff repeatedly crossing paths and only bumping into each other in the final frames on a Blue Line subway car. In the original version, they exchange a single, meaningful glance as the screen fades to black and the credits roll.

Hyped before Sundance 1998, Wonderland caught the attention of Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, who negotiated to buy the film during a 17-hour bargaining session. When Robbins finally emerged into the Park City sunlight, he had his deal — $6 million, including options on two of Anderson's next movies.

Anderson was instantly dubbed “the $6 million man” and he and Vaus were compared to another pair of Boston screenwriters — Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But the attention was a mixed blessing.

“Selling to Miramax seemed the best success story imaginable,” says Anderson, “but a lot of the interest in the film was taken up by interest in the deal.”

Worse was Weinstein's reputation for meddling with the projects he acquired. Sure enough, he had one little problem with the film — the ending.

Having the characters never meet didn't quite fly with Weinstein, who insisted on a new ending in which the characters get off the train and stroll down the beach. “They took something elegant and poetic,” says Anderson, “and made it very bald, obvious, and probably more commercial.”

Anderson's $6 million deal at Sundance in many ways marks a turning point, not only in his career, but in the history of independent film. The Park City festival was quickly becoming a cinematic meat market, where filmmakers sold small films for as much cash as they could in order to bankroll the studio projects they really wanted to make. Anderson peaked in the wave of indie-mania that prized the raw, original voices of regional filmmakers — especially those from Boston.

“We all thought it was part of a trend that was going to build, but it didn't,” says Bernieri, now a producer with Boston-based Fade In films. “It was like building sand castles and seeing the tide come in.” Bernieri blames a lack of investment exacerbated by a tanking economy — though stories of a scandal involving Teamsters allegedly extorting money from film crews didn't help Boston's reputation.

Anderson soon left Boston, settling in the fertile territory of New York to work on projects with Miramax. But Miramax was going through changes, too, financing bigger projects with more emphasis on the bottom line.One after another, the studio rejected his ideas. “They didn't look at him as a guy who could make different kinds of films,” says Vaus. “They just wanted a Next Stop with Julia Roberts so they could make $100 million, and who could blame them?”

Several projects came close, including a remake of the French film When the Cat's Away, set to star Heather Graham, and a film version of the play Proof with Gwyneth Paltrow. That died quickly when Anderson was passed over in favor of Shakespeare in Love director John Madden.

Anderson was having just as much trouble with films outside the Miramax deal. When he screened Happy Accidents — financed through the Independent Film Channel — at Sundance in 2000, Paramount Classics snapped it up for a reported $2 million. But a few weeks later, they backed out without explanation. The movie finally saw daylight in 2001, quietly released by IFC Films just two weeks after Session 9. That film, too, foundered when distributor USA Films released it the same week as the Nicole Kidman horror film The Others. “They were like, I wouldn't worry, your film is about a haunted asylum, theirs is about a haunted house,” Anderson says, laughing, about Session 9, which later went on to enjoy cult status on DVD.

Even as he was earning a “tweener” label with studios, however, actors were lining up to appear in Anderson's films. “I wanted to work with the 'wunderkind of Sundance,'” says David Caruso (CSI: Miami), who starred in Session 9. “Brad is the real thing. He's maintained his vision without pandering or chasing Hollywood. From a talent standpoint, an actor really wants to work with someone like that.”

Anderson kept enough of his improvisational technique to give actors a freedom in interpreting their roles, even while clarifying his own vision. “He likes actors, he likes what they bring to the party, and he's more willing to take suggestions from them,” says actress Holland Taylor, Anderson's aunt, who has appeared in both Next Stop and Happy Accidents.

Christian Bale was equally enthusiastic about The Machinist. A method actor in the extreme, Bale slept only a few hours a night and filmed his own scenes running through raw sewage.

Anderson had the predictable trouble securing financing for The Machinist in the United States, even with soon-to-be-Batman Bale attached. But a Spanish company, Filmax, impressed with Session 9's boffo receipts in that country, offered to put up the money — as long as filming took place in Barcelona.

Overcoming the language barrier and a Spanish work ethic that frequently included three-hour Rioja-soaked lunches, Anderson stayed more or less on schedule for the film-that is, until he ripped a tendon in his foot and had to direct half the scenes on crutches. No sooner had that healed than his back went out and he had to spend two weeks directing from a gurney. “Persistence is half the battle,” says Anderson. “That's what I love about independent movies. They don't have to be made. There's no studio with an agenda to set up a franchise, like Batman, or to make a vehicle for a celebrity actor. My films are made because I love the process.”

When The Machinist screened at Sundance in January, Paramount Classics again offered the high bid for the film. Anderson held a peace talk with the distributor over the debacle with Happy Accidents and decided to go with the company. If there's anything he's learned from his roller coaster few years, it's not to burn any bridges. “Things have a tendency in the film business to fall apart more often than they come together,” he says with a shrug.

Paramount has been steadily promoting The Machinist, which opened the Independent Film Project Market in New York last month and opens in limited release October 15. Anderson is already working on his next project, teaming up with Vaus and Robbins again to make, of all things, a musical. Tentatively called One Note Samba, it's set partially in Rio de Janeiro of 1961.

“I actually don't really like musicals,” Anderson admits, “but it's a challenge to try and make the genre better, to defy the expectations of the audience.”

Despite his tendency to be a maverick, Anderson insists he's not purposely trying to thwart the marketplace. “I'm not in this to try and impress the aesthetes and the critics,” Anderson says, draining the last of his coffee. “I want my films to make money.”

That's even more important to him now, since while he was in Barcelona making The Machinist, Anderson's wife Lauren weathered her first pregnancy back in New York. Anderson rushed home for her due date the day after he finished the final sound mix. “That's by far the biggest production,” he jokes about his eight-month-old daughter, Estelle, warming with the big smile of a new father. “Now that I have a family it's a bigger deal. If someone offered me a great, totally balls-to-the-wall studio movie, I would do it in a second.” His voice trails off unconvincingly as he looks back down at the table. “Totally.” Before the word is out, he quickly adds: “Of course, I'd rather write and direct my own things.”