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The Brad Anderson Sessions: On “Session 9” and “Happy Accidents”

Brad Anderson’s character-driven horror film Session 9 charts the deteriorating mental states of a waste management team as they clear out an abandoned, dilapidated asylum. Shot in and around an actual Victorian-era mental hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, it remains ambivalent whether some supernatural manifestation of evil is taking over these men and forcing them to inflict physical and psychological damage upon each other. It could be all in their minds, the stress of dead-end lives catching up with them. Over the course of a single week, their lines of defense gradually break down.

It’s a paranoid creepshow that takes itself seriously, going for genuine dread rather than the postmodern riffs on the slasher genre we’ve become accustomed to. Anderson’s style may seem revolutionary if you’re only familiar with Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer (not to mention their seemingly endless knock-offs), but it actually recalls spooky classics from the 70’s and early 80’s. Don’t Look Now and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are cited as obvious references, but there are echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I run through this makeshift laundry list only because if you’re a fan of those particular movies, you really ought to check out Session 9. More frightening and mature than The Blair Witch Project, it’s enough to bolster new hope for the horror genre.

Anderson was open to discussing Session 9‘s upcoming release (August 10) with during the press junket held at the Regency Hotel in NYC. Session 9 cast members Josh Lucas and Stephen Gevedon (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson) also shared their thoughts on the film. Anderson also brooked philosophical about Happy Accidents, his long delayed (and quite enjoyable) romantic comedy about a girl who falls for a guy who claims to be from the future. Picked up by IFC Films, Happy Accidents will be in limited release starting August 24. Let’s talk about Session 9.

Brad Anderson: With Session 9, we weren’t going for jolts (things jumping out of closets and stuff) as much as we were creating an atmosphere of dread or menace that lives with you. These faux-horror movies made nowadays are much more ‘teen thrillers’ in my mind. We didn’t want to use kid actors in our movie. Besides Brendan (Sexton III), we used older guys! (claps Gevedon on the shoulder, laughs)

Is it significant that the main characters are all men, or a certain working-class type of man? There are no central women characters.

BA: That was a conscious effort on my part. At least two of my three movies prior to this could be described as women’s pictures. Part of my reason for Session 9 was to break out, to destroy the illusion of me as ‘Mr. Romantic Comedy Guy.’ The idea of making a movie focused on this crew of guys was really appealing.

Josh Lucas: The script had a very classy element of something you very rarely see in this culture, which was a group of working class men. For these struggling guys, the idea about the American Dream (prosperity and wealth) doesn’t necessarily exist. It’s fascinating to see them put into circumstances where some horror elements emerge. I became interested because it was a very different take on the genre, and also because I knew they had Peter Mullan (playing Gordon).

BA: I think the thing that drew Peter to the project was that he saw Gordon’s story as a tragedy. A man from overseas comes to this country to pursue the American dream, is trying to keep his own business afloat, and is struggling with the stress of having a new baby and being a father. All of these things are impinging on him at once and he’s about to snap. Unlike most horror movies in this day and age, the horror is around the edges. It’s largely interior for Gordon.

Session 9 can be interpreted in different ways. You can get the sense that Gordon breathes in an evil spirit, but can also be read as a much more clinical movie that shows a man who becomes unhinged, or may be going mad. An inspiration was Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. That’s a really good horror movie. What we drew from that movie was the place (the back alleys of Venice) being so instrumental in creating the tone. Donald Sutherland’s character is realizing that he has the gift of clairvoyance, trying to figure out a mystery, and at the end of the day figures out that he himself is the center of that mystery. Peter Weir’s The Last Wave ends the same way! It’s the most awful epiphany that you can have!

Josh, your character (Hank) has a monologue midway through the movie about the way these men deal with stress. Did that strike a chord with you as an actor?

JL: Yeah, absolutely. While making the movie, it was a little more intimate than usual. The core group of actors sat around every night to talk about those things. It’s a low-budget movie, not easy to make by any means, made wicked fast with huge chunks of filmmaking (not necessarily dialogue, either) to achieve on a given day. There is the question of how to handle it. I wondered how these characters handled themselves, too, because they come from such a different space. There’s no passion in what they do. It’s pure survival.

Go with me here for a second and let me know what you think. Of the five guys, I thought Hank was most alone in some ways. Pete (David Caruso) is the manager and has his crew, Mike (Gevedon) is the college guy who everyone seems to like and respect, and Jeff (Sexton) and Gordon (Mullan) are family. Hank doesn’t have anything besides his dream of winning the lottery. Even when he’s home, he’s seen watching television not interacting with his girlfriend. Do you think that contributes to his character, or am I entirely off the mark here?

JL: No, you’re right. It’s a fascinating comment and I agree. Hank isn’t even attached to someone like his boss, Pete, who seems to be a really good man. He’s truly at a point where he just doesn’t care and will do anything to get out of his situation. That’s just an amazing place to be in your life. He’s the person who has nothing. When you start to do that, you want to take from other people. ‘I want to make you feel the same way.’ That’s what really happened when he stole Pete’s girlfriend. It has nothing to do with her at all. His loneliness is so acute that he will screw over his friends.

Session 9 was obviously built around this very creepy location (and it seemed like you could point the camera in any direction and get a good shot).

BA: I had been to the Danvers State Hospital before, since I used to live in Boston and always thought it would make a remarkable setting for a horror movie. There’s asbestos everywhere, floors are caving in, ceilings are collapsing, everything’s cold and damp — exactly the way we present it in Session 9.

Stephen Gevedon: Once it starts getting overcast, the place gets dark very quick, even in the upstairs b
uildings where the windows aren’t boarded up. It’s a pretty dangerous place.

BA: Steve and I went up there last spring and had a chance to explore.

SG: Let’s just call a spade a spade. We broke in. It’s lucky we didn’t get caught. We wandered around and discovered many of the movie’s setpieces (like Jeff wandering around in the underground tunnel) from that first visit.

BA: We found all sorts of creepy medical instruments and a straightjacket and stuff. We also got a sense of the asylum’s history. Even if you’re a very skeptical person about the supernatural, that place is so emotionally heavy. Hundreds of thousands of people were wrongfully committed and lived out their lives locked in these tiny little rooms that they call ‘seclusions’. It’s tragic. Even in the pauper’s cemetery [seen in the movie when Gordon wanders off alone to make a desperate phone call to his wife], the patients didn’t even have the courtesy of having their names placed on the numbered headstones. It was like throwing them into a mass grave.

How did you research the taped sessions that Mike discovers (between a doctor and a woman with multiple personality disorder)?

BA: I did some research into multiple personality disorder and found some transcripts online. (I’m telling ya, you can find everything online!) These transcripts were not that different from what you see in the movie. In an instant, the patient would make a switch from one multiple personality to the next. Her voice and entire personality would change while the doctor was listening and asking questions. Even reading about it is creepy.

How did you determine the ‘look’ of Happy Accidents, your other movie coming out this August? Were you going for something otherworldly because of the science fiction angle or did you have something else in mind?

BA: Since the story felt conceptual and had a high-concept sci-fi twist, I wanted the look to be very raw and real. With that in mind, I purposefully shot hand-held with 35mm cameras. I’ve done that with all my other films (except for Session 9, which has a more formal approach.) It’s a little bit documentary-style, which probably evolved out of my early interest in non-fiction film.

What did you see in Vincent D’Onofrio’s audition? It’s a role that seems open to different interpretations.

BA: Part of it was Vince’s ability to transform himself into whatever the role may require. He had to be a guy who might be mentally ill, walking the thin line where he could be insane or potentially dangerous. Vince had those qualities but was also can be incredibly endearing and sweet, with a sort of boyish charm. He’s a chameleon.

It was also fun to cast him against type. Aside from maybe Mystic Pizza or a couple others I don’t think he’s has done much in the way of comedy. He’s not some movie matinee idol. Vince (as Sam) and Marisa Tomei (who plays Ruby) are a goofy couple! He’s this big, lumbering guy and she’s this sweet, petite woman. You don’t see that in movies! Everyone’s always so perfectly paired, so I thought this was a chance to break down some of the more obvious romantic comedy conventions. If this were a studio picture, they would never cast Vince. They would probably cast Josh Hartnett! That doesn’t interest me. If you’re making a smaller movie, you’re almost obligated to do something unexpected and surprising.

Could we talk about your use of specific cities? Next Stop Wonderland was Bahhhston –

BA: Bahhhhston…

Yeah, and Happy Accidents is New York. Do you think shooting in different cities lends a unique character to the movies you work on?

BA: Yeah, up until this point I’ve pretty much written about the things I know or places I know. With Boston, certainly, you could say, as the producer of Next Stop Wonderland likes to describe it, ‘a valentine to Boston.’ (laughs) Whatever that means!

Happy Accidents is somehow imbued more with the chaos of New York — these crazy people you meet on the street who might be time travelers. Or, as in the last scene, it’s about the traffic and noise and madness of this city (which is a wonderful thing but could also drive you nuts.) I had moved here from Boston around the time that I worked on that script and was still a newbie fascinated by New York and all the big buildings.

You do this thing in the movie which is kinda cool — I guess you would call it ‘memory photos’ or something, done with stills —

BA: Yeah.

Am I being pretentious to ask if that was inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetee, or what?

(laughs) I’ve heard that referenced so many times, but I haven’t seen the movie! I know what you’re saying, though. No, those little sequences were described in the script as visions of the future by way of Ruby’s imagination. It’s Sam telling her what the future is like, why he came back, and all that. He’s sharing with her this stuff and she’s looking at him like, ‘You’re insane.’

As Ruby is describing this stuff to her friend, we’re seeing all these strange images. It was kept expressionistic. I didn’t want these ‘glimpses of the future’ to be grounded in realism because we want to keep guessing: is Sam a nut or is he from another time?

Originally, we were gonna play into the stupid sci-fi clichés of time travel, all these green-screen images of Sam sitting on a weird mountaintop against a purple sky. Since I didn’t have the budget, I decided instead to take actual still images from the movie itself to vaguely illustrate what Sam was describing. The other very subtle thing was that all the images in these sequences are actually from later sequences so in some ways they actually are images from the future (of the movie).

I promise not to bring up La Jetee again.

BA: Hey, man, compare the movie to as many classics as you want!

Do you consider Happy Accidents science fiction?

No. I consider it a kitchen sink dramatic romance. The sci-fi angle is really a twist. The initial premise was to do a very simple relationship movie. Then it was trying to think what could be the most absurd monkey-wrench that could screw it all up. What could be something that one of the people reveals about themselves that could throw everything off? I’m from the future, or I’m an alien, or I’m gay, or whatever the revelation might be between the two partners.

The problem actually becomes the very thing that keeps the relationship interesting. You don’t fall in love with someone because they’re perfect and meet your requirements — you fall for the things that are different about them or even problematic. If you’re in love with the perfect person, that’s gonna be over the moment the sex starts becoming routine.

Ruby’s character is against the wall. How’s she gonna react to this? The logical, most obvious response would be to immediately kick this guy out onto the street, but the fact that she holds on to him is an indication of her way to deal with these kinds of relationships. She tries to ‘fix’ men, so she sees it as a challenge. I’ve known some women like that in my life, not that I’m a problem that needs to be fixed! (laughs)

Sam is very articulate about time travel. Did you do any homework or was it all just fancy?

BA: It was a combination of both. Once again, I did a lot of research online! You can find all these wacky internet people who genuinely believe they’re from the future. I read books about time travel theory, just to get into the meat of it. In Happy Accidents, if you go back into time, you don’t simply replicate the exact series of events that lead to your future.
It’s not pre-determined. You go back into time and the moment you arrive wherever you arrive, your actions then begin to bud off and create a new line, which is a parallel universe. There could be an infinite number of parallel universes!

As for all of Sam’s kooky descriptions of the future, those were somehow found deep in the recesses of my imagination.

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