Despite a 22-year track record, director Brad Anderson has had what some might consider a stealth career. Outside of indie film circles—where he’s carved out an impressive body of work—he’s better known by his peers than audiences. And yet, if you’re a fan of shows like Boardwalk Empire, Fringe, The Wire, The Killing, or The Sinner, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work.
For those in-the-known however, movies like Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9, Transsiberian and The Machinist stand out as high water marks, films that not only boast style and execution well-beyond their modest budgets, but also first-rate performances from actors who would go on to join the A-list. Anderson is the consummate genre-hopper, a director who can both serve and elevate the materials, leaving just enough of his artistic fingerprint to let you know he was involved.
His latest film is Beruit, a political thriller set in the 1980s penned by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne trilogy) nearly 27 years ago. Jon Hamm stars as a U.S. diplomat who experiences a terrible tragedy while stationed in Lebanon in the ’70s. Ten years later, he’s called back into service to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped friend, but the country he once loved has become a war-torn snake pit of violence and intrigue, with players enacting their own shadowy agendas. Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris round out the cast in the John le Carré-styled story. And once again, Anderson effortlessly slides into yet another cinematic sandbox showcasing his formidable talents.
MovieMaker caught up with Anderson right after the premiere of Beruit at Sundance, and he was more than happy to explain his process, the virtues of cutting his teeth in the indie world, and why slapstick comedy isn’t his professional cup of tea.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Coming out of a long career in indie film world, is there a mental calculus you do in pre-production with regard to budget and how you want to proceed?
Brad Anderson (BA): In other words, can I accomplish what I want to accomplish? I’ve done enough relatively small movies to gauge if I’ve got five, eight, 12 million dollars, and what the script needs to make it work. I always aim high. I feel like, set the bar as high as you can.
With this movie, the budget was quite low—Tony [Gilroy] can speak to that too. He was like, “I don’t know how were going to pull this off for the amount of money we have.” But I didn’t let that deter us from starting the process. I always feel like once you get into it, get your crew together, you find a way to do it. As long as it’s not a movie that requires something like a ton of CGI—which is out of your hands in terms of what that’s going to cost—or needs to be shot in multiple locations around the world. Mostly, you look for a way to isolate things. In this movie this meant keeping things in one area: one city, one place, and one time—except for the flashbacks in the beginning. We knew we could design it so we could land in one place, Tangier, and make the movie from beginning to end. After that, it was just a single day in Rhode Island. I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to gauge what’s possible with a small budget.
MM: When you look at the script are there efficiencies you know you can impose, and things you know you can’t change?
BA: With Beirut, you’re locked into period—wardrobe, cars, there’s certain realities you have to stay true to. But the way we shoot or cover a scene, or the way we design a sequence, can be worked in an economical manner. We shot Beirut in a dirty, handheld way. Part of that was to lend it a certain energy, but it also allowed us to move through days very quickly. My DP Björn [Charpentier] and his B-Cam operator were always going, designing shots on the fly, trying to get cover scenes, so we weren’t imposing too much choreography on them. We let them breathe a little bit. We got a lot of coverage quickly and didn’t have a lot of equipment to haul around. We only had 33 days. If we had done it another way, with more traditional set ups and shooting, it probably would have taken 45 to 50 days to shoot and several more million.
MM: What do you keep in mind when you’re blocking a scene?
BA: First, we look at what makes sense for the scene dramatically. I’ll come in with a framework of an idea, “You’ll come in here. You’ll go over there…” but then the actors will rework it based on what makes sense for them. Then we tackle how to make it work visually—how are we going to frame it so we’re telling the story with the cameras? It’s not like everything happens in succession, it’s all happening in tandem. Jon [Hamm] may want to play his line front of the TV, but we realize if he walks in front of the window he’s back-lit, and we have a nicer shot. So, we start to design things that way. The process of designing a scene becomes second nature the more you work. But the very first question is always: how do we make it work so the actors get into the scene and get into character and do what needs to be done?
MM: It’s always interesting the way different directors handle cinematic geography. There’s a lot of precision to your scenes, and yet you’re working with handheld, which typically has kind of a loosey-goosey style.
BA: Yeah! Well even within that loosey-goosiness you design where you want it to go. Even if its handheld you’ve rehearsed it, and there are occasionally marks. I like to work both ways. A pilot I just completed was straight, classic, not much movement, beautiful frames, wide shots. This movie was very different. It was very present, in Jon’s face a lot, playing with perspective. We love that look and feel. In trying to create a textured palette for the movie, Bjorn really went to town. We looked at David Fincher movies and other films, tried to capture a gritty, sun-baked reality. That meant not being afraid to push the envelope with contrast and how dark we could take it.
MM: Were there any moments where you encountered a completely unexpected filmmaking challenge where you had to completely re-calibrate?
BA: The biggest challenge was that we shot the movie during Ramadan. Our local Muslim crew couldn’t eat, drink, or smoke from sunrise to sunset. It was tricky to balance out, making sure they could get the work done but also not fall down and die. We needed to make sure they felt respected. It took a couple days to find the right balance. Every evening, at sunset, we’d put out a big feast for them. It became something to look forward to at the end of each day. I try to do this in all of my films—particularly if you’re shooting in a foreign country. You’ve got to connect with the crew, go out with them on the weekends, make sure they don’t feel like we’re just interlopers coming into their countries to make movies. You’re all living in the same hotel in Tangier, so you really get to know each other; you’re not just wandering off at the end of the day as if you were shooting in L.A. or New York.
MM: Stephen Frears once told me, and I’m totally paraphrasing here—but he said his job is not to know the most or have the best ideas, but to have the best taste. And to work with the actors. That’s it. How do you respond to that?
BA: That makes sense. The general tenor of the set and the final results come from the director—hopefully. There is a brain trust driving it forward, but you want to have a point of view—a vision—and that’s usually the director. You can call it taste, or point of view. I come in with one set of ideas but I’ll take ideas from actors—I’m open to anyone. I’ll listen to a boom operator if he has a good idea. You have to be open to that side of the process. You can gauge how a scene is going through the crew while shooting. In many ways they are your first audience, and you can feel them responding to a scene if it’s right. Or if it’s not, and they’re just not engaged. They’re a good initial litmus test.
MM: Is there something you look for in a take that lets you know that it’s the one?
BA: It’s really a feeling. You can’t often say why a scene works or how it works, you just know you got it. I started as an editor, edit a lot of my films, or work closely with the editor. So, when I’m shooting I’m thinking as an editor. I see scenes in a way maybe other directors don’t. Editors mostly match up scenes or cuts of scenes. I think of the pieces I see within a take and know I can dig those out. Not everything is perfect, and with actors they sometimes want another take because they think “I didn’t get that beat” but in my head it’s like, “You got it in take three, and that’s how we’re going to cut it.”
MM: Are there approaches you’ve developed working in film versus working in television.
BA: TV can teach you some bad habits, especially if you’re working in network television. I’ve developed some of those… like the slow push in during every emotional moment. That’s TV. I know when I’m doing it and I try and stay away, but sometimes it just works. Television is such a cutty medium. There are cinematic shows, but generally TV is a cut-up way of storytelling. When you can get those big master oners, that play the whole scene out, it’s so thrilling to pull that off, because it’s hard. Beirut wasn’t that kind of movie, we were going for a montage vibe, so we kind of shot the hell out of it. A lot of the scenes were sculpted in the editing room. The good thing about television is because you have to work quickly, you learn to think on your feet. It’s the same with independent film, you don’t have a lot of time and you don’t have a lot of money. Maybe that’s why I go back and forth between TV and film. I’m used to the speed at which TV operates. I’m not precious, I can jump right in and start going.
MM: What is the point in the process you get most excited about?
BA: The prepping—the early location scouting is always exciting. Like when we went to Morocco and Tangiers. You think “Oh, this is where we could shoot this scene…” I love location scouting. Plus you’re off in some exotic place exploring and learning about another culture. The actual production is good, but it’s so varied. Some days are good and some days can suck. It’a a lot of work. Editing is what I really love the most. When I’m finished with the grueling part, when I have the raw material and I can shape it, play with it, really make the film. I can mess with music and sound design. I can toy with all the toys in the toy box.The editing part of it is the most gratifying. The very least gratifying part is when it’s finished. You know people are out there and they have to watch it, and you get possessive. It’s like I don’t want people to watch it.
MM: Is there a type of moviemaking that intimidates you? Genre, documentary, do you ever think: ”I don’t want to do that”?
BA: I’ve genre-hopped before… I guess doing Titans, because I’ve never done a superhero show. All the fights and guys in their suits… but I just said “Fuck it, lets try it.” Maybe I’d be scared to do a straight-out comedy. Early in my career I did a couple of romantic comedies—or “soulful” comedies. But to do a full on Will Ferrell-style comedy, I don’t know if I could pull that off. Even though I love those movies. I think it’s because they’re not about the visuals, they’re about the jokes. And what drew me to this business was trying to create a certain level of beauty, or ugliness, something that visually grabs you. I don’t think people see Anchorman as a visual masterpiece. Then again, I don’t know, maybe they do!
MM: So with Beirut you’ve got genre expectations, you’ve got political subtext, and I’m sure you were slave to various creative and economic masters. How do you establish your voice? You’ve got limited time, and it has to fulfill some commercial beats to be marketed and sold. How do you navigate all those expectations?
BA: In this one, fortunately, Tony and the producers said, “Go for it.” They were very hands off. Most of the projects I’ve done have been that way. For whatever it’s worth the producers often say, “we trust you to do what you need to do.” And their confidence makes you confident. It enables you to deliver a vision. Any commercial aspect, those elements are inherent to the film from the get-go. I don’t shoot scenes thinking, “how can I make this more commercial?” Instead, it’s “this is the script we’re shooting. These are the actors.” It’s my job to take all those elements and make it work in a story.
MM: Do you worry that with a movie like this—one that’s tied to contemporary history—the critics will the need to weigh in on the politics rather than the movie itself?
BA: It’s a tough world to delve into without raising hackles somewhere. If you go too far in one direction, these people will get pissed off. If you go too far in the other direction, these other people will get pissed off. Thats how it is in that region of the world. You’re potentially walking over land mines any time you set a movie in the Middle East. At the same time, we didn’t set out to make a documentary. These are fictional characters set against the backdrop of that real time, in 1982. And Tony did his research. Most of what we depict of the ’82 cease fire is accurate—except of course the characters, which we made up.
We’ll see how people respond to it to the political aspect of the movie. I don’t think thats the main draw of the movie; I don’t think people will be watching it to gain a political point of view about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It’s more about Jon’s character. There are no real heroes in the story, the Israelis, the Americans, the PLO— they’re all kind of treacherous. He’s the only hero. The least likely hero is the one who rises to the occasion and saves his friend. That simple act of loyalty is what is interesting to me. It happens in this espionage world of double crosses and betrayal, but he is the centerpiece for me. MM
Beirut opened in theaters on April 11, 2018, courtesy of Bleecker Street. All images courtesy of Bleecker Street.