Exclusive Interview: Director Brad Anderson Talks The Call

Last Friday saw the UK release of the cautionary tale/thriller The Call which follows an emergency service phone operator, who gets over-emotionally involved with a call. Directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Vanishing on 7th Street) the films boast a brutal and unorthodox script.

Having already lost the life of one PR (person reporting) Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is determined to not let lightning strike twice when Casey (Abigail Breslin) is abducted from a shopping mall by murderous psychopath Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) and calls 911. The Call is certainly an unpredictable thriller and is sure to keep you tethered to your seat.

Having spoken to Eklund all about playing aforementioned psycho killer we decided to speak with another prominent name in moulding the film, director Brad Anderson.

One of your earlier and most renowned films is The Machinist. Can you tell me a little about your intent making the film?

Erm, thinking back to the movie, I think we were really interested in making a really dark psychological, suspense thriller a la Hitchcock, Polanski. Both of those film-makers were in mind when I made the film. I tried to make a really intense psychological profile of a guilty, guilty mind. So the inspirations were many, like any movie. Movies that take you into a place of dread and menace. That was the intent with The Machinist.

Christian Bale’s probably one of the industry’s best method actors, what was it like working with him?

He was great. He was a great consummate professional, a real great guy, and actor. He just submits himself to the role completely. He brought a lot to the character, like losing all the weight, something that I wouldn’t be able to ask him to do. He’s just one of those guys that you’d really want to work with, that really bring commitment and professionalism to each part of the play.

Talking about your most recent release The Call, Michael Eklund told me that you and him had quite a rapport as actor and director before The Call. How did Michael catch your eye as an actor when you worked together on Fringe?

Yeah we worked on Fringe, that he was great in. It was clear we wanted to work on something else. It was clear we wanted him to be the bad guy in the call. He was willing to do it. He’s a great guy.

As I also brushed over with Michael, was it a challenge getting across the character of Michael Foster? Obviously you only have about 15 minutes of screen time to establish him as this brooding villain, and that’s quite tough. How did you go about doing that?

THE CALLYeah, well I mean he’s one of those guys who immediately resonates on screen, and he’s just fascinating to watch, all these weird little nuances. He can just do these little actory things that just mean so much ultimately. In the script you didn’t know anything about the character, so we needed an actor able to characterise Michael Foster through the very little things. In Fringe he played a mentally imbalanced character, and like Christian Bale in his ethic, he’s very committed: he writes a little diary, he’s very caught in the details, in the role. He doesn’t have much screen time, but he very much pops on the screen. He’s a despicable character, but there’s still an element of empathy, guilt, and he’s aware of the consequences of what he’s doing. He has a family, two kids, and a wife. He lends a seemingly kind of normality to the role, yet he’s so twisted. He’s one of those actors that with everything he does, he’s just so fascinating to watch, like Christian Bale in many respects. Particularly when you’re playing characters that have so much emotional, or psychological baggage. They can really chew on that a lot in different scenes.

What was your initial reaction to the The Call‘s script, and taking on the project?

The original script had been around and had had quite a few directors attached to it at that point. I just really liked the script. And a 911 call centre hadn’t really been depicted on film. I liked the idea of a non-stop thriller that kind of keeps going. That notion of doing a kind of genre movie, just the agonizing suspense of finding a way to keep the suspense and drama alive and intense, even though much of the story is set in the back of a trunk of a car, and in a call centre, finding ways to visually show that and the challenge of doing that. In that sense I said let’s do it and then Halle Berry came on board and it just came together very quickly after that.

The ending is quite an atypical one isn’t it? In this era we’re seeing a lot more good guys with moral ambiguity, and there’s definitely some of that in Halle Berry’s character as the film concludes.

We wanted to keep that, you’re right. I guess the ending in the movie – the ending’s always part of a film – you’re always battling out to find a balance. Our sense was that you could kind of go either way: is she taking this into her own hands as a vigilante or just letting him stew down there for a while?

As a movie, as a character, there are not a lot of shades of grey. She knows what’s right and what’s wrong, she’s out to get the bad guy and save the girl. She may do certain things that are against the rule book to save the girl, but that’s part of what makes her good at what she does. In some ways, it’s not a very complicated story. There may be some complicated motivations in what Halle Berry’s character is doing, but there’s a fairly straightforward journey that she takes. She feels she needs to redeem herself for messing up before. This is her chance to prove to herself, to let her make up for her failing. This was her second chance, so she was really gun-ho about not letting this girl down. Beyond playing a 911 call operator, that was interesting. Halle was able to understand the ins and outs of dealing with this kind of crisis on a daily basis, she was driven to save this girl, and give her a second chance. I think the movie turned out well. We shot the film in twenty days and didn’t have a big budget. In that measure, it worked out pretty well.

How hard was shooting The Call, and what challenges did you have to face?

Like any movie, this was a particularly gruelling shot, oddly enough. It wasn’t a particularly big movie but it was a hard shot. At one point we had an accident on set and Halle was injured and we had to call 911 on the day we were shooting this scene with Halle taken to hospital. We were on the phone to 911 ironically, when Halle bumped her head but it turned out to be fine of course. It was a life imitating art, art imitating life situation.

Shooting in the trunk of a car was the hardest part. Shooting in a tiny set and trying to make that feeling of claustrophobia work. How do we shoot in the trunk of a car? Could Abigail Breslin really make it feel like she couldn’t get out? These were questions I asked myself. Beyond that, it was a fairly straightforward shot. It was fun learning about how the 911 centres operate. We listened to some of the 911 calls on the day, real situations. Just figuring out how these operators deal with the intensity of the job, you’ll go from this call about a cat stuck in a tree to this woman who’s child has stopped breathing. How do you carry this incredible intensity of an everyday job, and put it behind you so you don’t die of stress. It’s such a stressful job yet they’re so calm and collected. That’s their job, to talk you down from your crisis and help you takes a certain type. The same is true for any first responder, where they aren’t physically with the people, and they still have to figure out how to negotiate crisis, and figure out that situation. It’s a really interesting world.

eliza-graves-posterOf all the projects you worked on, do you have one that you’re particularly fond of in retrospective?

They all bring a certain level of creative interest. Of course, each one is not the same. Eliza Graves is a period piece, something I’ve never done before, and that was so satisfying. Creating this world in Medieval England with the costumes and creating this whole world.

In The Machinist it was just seeing Christian and how he operates. Of course they all satisfy me in different ways. I mean, they’re your children. You can’t say “I like my daughter more than my son,” Y’know? You love them equally in different ways. But the ones I’ve written, I tend to have a greater connection with because their ‘my’ films, all the way through.

You’ve worked in both TV and Film, and while they’re constantly compared, obviously they both have their ups and downs. Which do you feel most suits you?

I think films are probably more satisfying because you’re more involved in a movie. It could be 6 months, a year out of your life developing it, writing it, casting it. Television is more of a gun for hire situation, working on The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, taking a couple of weeks directing it and my job is done. For that very reason, you’re kind of like getting the chance to practise your craft without the huge level of commitment, without as big of an investment. There’s more at stake with film. More of your time but you’ve grown it from the ground up with a film. But it is good to do TV shows between movies. I hope to do some more TV stuff, maybe a pilot between films to mix things up a bit. Another thing television has given me a chance to do is different stuff, like episodes of Fringe, Boardwalk Empire… Just to do stuff in a world I’m not familiar with myself. The great thing about Fringe is that every episode you’re doingthe most outlandish crazy stuff. In one episode you’re working with a crazy human mole man…every episode is a fun challenge to see if you can make it work. But movies are a bigger thing altogether. But they’re both very challenging. With TV you have a very tight schedule whilst with film you have more to work with. But with TV you have to work more efficiently.

So how did you actually break into the business?

It’s not like I grew up wanting to make movies. I always loved films. For me it was a process of knowing how to do it, learning how to do it, and getting more invested. I went to London International Film School for a while but my process mainly came from editing films, from other people’s projects. That was the best training for learning how to take a story apart; learning what fits as a puzzle and what doesn’t. That’s how I started, and then I started writing my own scripts. I never intended to work my way up the hierarchy. I always intended to do it independent film making style. I didn’t want to join the corporate ladder. My first project was a privately funded feature, with friends and family that went to Sundance film festival. That was the moment, and the movie, that helped me understand that I could do it. Maybe I could find people to give me money to continue to do it.

And then Next Stop Wonderland was sold to Miramax and then I had a real bankable movie out there and everything else fell into place. Then you’ve got your agents and people approaching you with projects. From then I’ve just been making my own films along with finding projects you want to direct together with my own pet projects.

My career’s just been a tale of incremental gain, getting more and more into the business. From an angle, I do this because it gives me creative satisfaction, not because it gives me a pay check. There’s always a financial consideration, but it’s got to get my creative juices flowing, to get me pumped creatively. I think of my self as a filmmaker, not a director. I like the process of making a movie, writing a script, funding the movie, casting it, filming it, editing it, composing it – the whole soup to nuts process. Directing it is just one part of the puzzle. I mean, I’m still an indie director. I’m not working on studio financed films. It makes the process enjoyable. I’ve passed on certain movies that were studio based and I passed because I would have been giving up creative control and that was not something that interested me.

And can you let us in on a few of your future projects?

There’s a couple things brewing. There’s a historical epic drama which I’m trying to get off the ground called The Mapmaker’s Wife. It’s about trying to go down to the Amazon river in the 18th century. I find myself drawn to things outside of my wheelhouse. Eliza Graves is a Victorian drama based on an Allan Edgar Poe story in a Victorian asylum. Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine… It doesn’t have much of a connection to The Call, or The Machinist, but that’s what I wanted to do.

I don’t have anything set in stone for my next movie. The process is you finish one movie, you start to see the next one. I don’t currently have any long term projects set in stone.

And are there any actors you’d love to work with, or any whose styles would really mesh well with your own?

It’s hard to narrow down. I’d love to work with some epic legend like Pacino, or De Niro. Just being in the same room as those guys. But I don’t know, I’m not like one of those star struck people, that I have to work with a certain person. Some of these guys I’d love to work with are character actors like Paul Giamatti and Michael Eklund. He’s not well known but he’s so interesting and fantastic. It’d be great to work with Harrison Ford…but these character actors give it their all and aren’t ‘just’ about doing their job. I worked with Michael Caine on Eliza Graves and just listening to his stories like working with John Huston, you realise so many of these guys are just total legends.

We’d like to thank Brad for his time and urge you to head over and see The Call which is out now in the UK.

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Sam Thorne

The author Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne is a freelance film journalist, critic, feature writer, and news writer. His speciality is primarily anything psychological, edgy, or dark. Sam writes for a variety of internet publications. Also a Film and TV Studies BA Student..