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Q&A: Director Brad Anderson Talks His Poe Picture “STONEHEARST ASYLUM”

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Director Brad Anderson is no stranger to the darker side of cinema, having helmed such diverse thrillers as SESSION 9, THE MACHINIST and THE CALL. FANGORIA caught up with him to chat about his latest movie, the genre hybrid STONEHEARST ASYLUM.

Out in theaters this Friday from Millennium Entertainment, ASYLUM (previously known as ELIZA GRAVES) combines horror, romance and Gothic elements. Set in Victorian England, the film (scripted by Joe Gangemi) is a loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” following an earnest young medical student (Jim Sturgess) who treks to an isolated mental hospital to study under a renowned doctor. But upon his arrival, he begins to discover (in a classic Gothic fashion) that things are not as they seem… Here, Anderson discusses working with his topnotch cast (also including Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Kate Beckinsale, Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis), his experiences shooting in Bulgaria and the themes that connect his various filmic works.

FANGORIA: STONEHEARST ASYLUM went through many different phases of development, and was attached to a number of different directors and actors over the span of 15 years. How did you come to take the helm?

BRAD ANDERSON: [Laughs] Good question. I’m not versed on why exactly it didn’t get made at various times—actors’ availabilities and that sort of thing. My agents and a couple of the producers gave it to me; at that stage, it wasn’t like there were actors on board that made it interesting, it was the script. It was a period drama—something I had not done before. And the Poe connection was very important and exciting to me; I’d had a project years earlier, a film that never came together, that explored Poe’s mysterious death, so I’ve read a lot about him and his works, and have an interest in him and his themes. I found a lot of that in the STONEHEARST script; even though it’s a very loose adaptation of Poe’s story, it’s something I really connected with.

And why, in this particular case, did it get off the ground, vs. the prior versions? I think a lot of these things languish for so long until the right people get connected to the project, and try to make the movie because they’re passionate about the material. It was just one of those situations where everyone was on the same page. We also agreed that it should be done on a certain level, not the big movie it might have been conceived as before. Ben Kingsley got on board early on and that helped add momentum, then Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale. It started to move forward once we had a sense of the cast we could get.

FANG: How involved were you with the casting process?

ANDERSON: We had approached a few actors about the lead role, but Jim was really excited about it; you need an actor who gets the material. I’d worked with Ben Kingsley before [on the 2008 thriller TRANSSIBERIAN], so getting him to look at it wasn’t complicated. Kate read the script and was also really gung-ho about it. The actors all responded to the material—they didn’t see it as a payday. It wasn’t a big movie, but it was a cool project, which is what got them all interested in coming on board. Late in the game, we got Michael Caine, which was great—we’d talked to a few other big, eminent British actors to play that role, but hadn’t even considered him because it seemed like a far leap. But he jumped on board because he had worked with Ben Kingsley in the ’80s on WITHOUT A CLUE; Caine played Sherlock Holmes and Kingsley played Dr. Watson. They hadn’t worked together in years, so they got a kick out of being able to do a movie together again.

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FANG: You have a history of getting A-list actors in your movies; what was it like working with this particular group?

ANDERSON: There aren’t any big stories to tell, because everyone was so great and willing to work hard. It was a strong collaboration, and they all really respected each other. We got this high-end British cast; they all knew each other and had worked on other things together and liked each other as people, which always helps. It was fun doing the scenes with Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine because they’re such amazing actors who have done so many great films between the two of them. Initially, we talked about Michael playing the Ben Kingsley role and Ben playing the Michael Caine role, which sort of makes sense based on their past work; generally, Michael Caine is usually the more affable, likable guy, and Ben Kingsley is pretty damn good at villains—there’s even that Jaguar commercial where he’s one of the classic British villains. We turned that on its head a little bit.

It was also important getting the chemistry right between Kate Beckinsale and Jim Sturgess, because as much as the movie is a Gothic mystery, it’s ultimately a love story, and having their connection feel earned by the end was important to us. The good thing is that they really liked each other and they had fun with it; there was no attitude, no one was being a prima donna or anything like that. That tends to be that case with the movies I do—I just approach it like everyone’s doing this great thing together, let’s enjoy it and have fun and not let egos get in the way. Everyone had different commitments and jobs to do, but they rose to the challenge with this film in the short amount of time we had shooting in Bulgaria.

FANG: Can you talk a bit about what it was like filming there?

ANDERSON: It wasn’t the ideal place—it’s so off the beaten path. The financiers have a studio in Bulgaria and make a lot of movies there, so it was just part of their financing plan to shoot where they could get the most bang for their buck. If we wanted to make the movie, we had to do it there, which didn’t make a lot of sense because STONEHEARST ASYLUM is a period film set in Victorian England. Architecturally, there was nothing in Bulgaria that was usable for the story—there were no old asylums or buildings that felt like they would work. Plus, we were shooting in the middle of August; trying to get that windswept, foggy, murky world of northern England was pretty difficult.

It was like THE MACHINIST, which was supposed to take place in some unidentified American city but was made in Barcelona, Spain. The money came from there, so we had to find a way to shoehorn the story into that location. In some ways, that forces you to be more creative with your choices, which is the way I’ve always worked.

FANG: When we interviewed Gangemi about the film (see FANGORIA #337, on sale this month), he mentioned that the majority of the sets were essentially constructed from the ground up.

ANDERSON: We did a lot of research on Victorian asylums and had many visual references to keep it as real and believable as possible. Those places actually had weird rooms where they gave people hydrotherapy and put them in spinning chairs and that kind of stuff, which were thought of as legitimate ways to cure someone of mental illness. We wanted the film to feel like it was based in some kind of reality.

FANG: How does STONEHEARST ASYLUM differ from your other works, besides the fact that it is a period piece?

ANDERSON: My films have each come from different parts of my personality, my brain or my interests at the time. My first films were romantic comedies; then I did SESSION 9, set in an abandoned asylum in Massachusetts—I kind of have an asylum thing. Next I did THE MACHINIST and THE CALL, which are more straightforward thrillers. Thematically, my movies are connected by the idea of “What is madness?” In THE MACHINIST, the lead character is essentially going crazy without knowing it, and SESSION 9 is about a guy who’s lost his mind in a very dangerous way. Even my romantic comedy HAPPY ACCIDENTS is about a guy of questionable sanity who claims he’s from the future. And then of course with STONEHEARST, the question is, who’s the real monster? That idea was part of the original Poe story, and a theme we tried to bring out from the script when making the film.

FANG: Other than Poe, what influences did you look toward for STONEHEARST ASYLUM, particularly in creating the lush, Gothic aesthetic?

ANDERSON: We went for a very classic look and feel for the movie and aimed away from the typical contemporary horror or suspense-thriller tropes. My main intention was to let the story tell itself, and not be overly flashy or ostentatious with how we dramatized and shot the scenes—an older, classic kind of approach. Stanley Kubrick has always been a big influence; the simplicity and elegance of his movies, how they look and move was something that also informed the feeling of the film. Plus, it’s about a place—like THE SHINING is about a hotel, this is about Stonehearst Asylum, where people go crazy. We wanted to make the place as much of a real, physical character as the human personalities.

We also looked at the Hammer films from the ’60s and ’70s; they’re simply shot, but the subject matter is so garish and over-the-top, so we went in that direction a little bit. A lot of those movies were set in the late 19th century timeframe too, in the era of gas lamps. Another franchise set in that period is SHERLOCK HOLMES—we wanted to do something less stylized than that, and more about the emotions of the characters, but the mystery is very important. I like those kinds of movies, where you have an epiphany at the end, a cathartic moment where you learn the truth about a character. There are a lot of great moments in the script, clever little reveals—moments where you learn the reality of a character or a situation. That’s what’s great about the script.

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About the author
Vivienne Vaughn
Vivienne is an undergraduate at New York University studying film and TV production and is also a horror screenwriter and director. Some of her favorite things include EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE X-FILES, SANTA SANGRE, John Hughes movies, 1950s/60s girl groups and J.D. Salinger. She currently resides in Queens.
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