By Ali Moosavi.
What drew me to Blood was that I could play the family drama aspect of it, the torment that this mother is going through, her struggle to keep her kids healthy and safe, along with the darker supernatural subtext.”
Director Brad Anderson may not be as well known and highly regarded by critics as the other Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas but he has been making quality films for over two decades. His films like Session 9 (2001), The Machinist (2004), Transsiberian (2008) and Beirut (2018) are well made, with a strong narrative, visually inventive and largely eschewing the traditional genre formats and cliches. They all also have a dark undertone. His latest film is Blood in which Jess (Michelle Monaghan), is a divorced mother living with her two children in what seems to be the middle of Nowhere-USA. One day when her son and her older daughter are playing outside near a swamp with an imposing old tree in middle of it, the boy gets bitten by a dog. Though the hospital tests show no sign of rabies or any other infection, Jess notices something strange in her son’s behaviour. He starts drinking the bag of the blood that is being transmitted to him and if he doesn’t get a constant supply of blood, he becomes dangerously sick. Jess, being a nurse, has access to the hospital’s blood bank but soon the hospital notices bags of blood going missing and restrict access to the blood supplies thus forcing Jess to have to choose between her son’s survival or very sinister ways of obtaining blood.
Though this storyline may suggest a vampire movie, Blood is not a typical film of that genre and in fact the word “vampire” is never uttered in the film. It really is a suspense movie about how far a mother would sacrifice for her children and the vampire angle is just a vehicle to drive the narrative.
In the conversation below, Brad Anderson discusses his new film, family in the horror film, his treatment of the supernatural, and his expansion into television work.
Blood seems to me a fusion of family drama and horror, more about the sacrifice a mother makes for her child rather than the supernatural element. What attracted you to this script?
Just exactly what you said, I couldn’t have said it better; the combination of genre horror but with a more emotional journey for these characters particularly for this family. I love dark stories as you know but I always like to find a way into the story that’s not the usual way. So one way to look at Blood is that it’s a horror film about a kid becoming a vampire but the other way to look at it is a medical drama about a kid who has a some sort of viral condition and is dying and his mother is going to do whatever she needs to do to keep her son alive, as any parent would. So what drew me to it was that I could play the family drama aspect of it, the torment that this mother is going through, her struggle to keep her kids healthy and safe, along with the darker supernatural subtext. That combination of themes to me was really interesting and allowed us to at one hand nod to the genre of vampire movies but at the same time do something that was more like a dark drama. I found that really interesting.
You’ve avoided the usual cliches of horror and vampire movies and added new twists to the story. Though you didn’t write the script, did you have any input to it?
You’re right, I didn’t write the script but when I read it I knew it was something that could be quite interesting. My past several films have been scripts that I haven’t written but I’ve been involved in shaping them to be a little bit more in line with what my vision for the film is. I think most film makers have a little bit of that input and so in this one there were certain changes one had to make to accommodate for the fact that it’s shot on a low budget and limited amount of time and you have to make adjustments accordingly. But the script was so good from the beginning that it didn’t need much change. I think in the original script Jess had two sons and we changed that because it just felt like the mother’s connection with her young daughter was so profound and that kind of moment at the end of the movie between the two of them to me was this kind of shared secret that they have and was so interesting. So little things like that get changed and adapted to things that interest me as the person who’s trying to bring that to life.
You have also made interesting use of nature, bringing a horror element to an old tree next to a swamp. I’m guessing that would have been more your touch than written in the script.
That’s a good observation. In the original script there was a cave that the kids found as opposed to a dry lake with a tree and the tree was something I brought into it partly because we shot the movie in Winnipeg Canada where there are no caves but I also just like the idea of an old tree being somehow representative of whatever the potentially supernatural element is. There’s a moment when she looks and sees bats going into the tree and you could think that maybe there’s something in there, in the same way that bats were apparently the reason that COVID-19 kicked in. There are little references like that but image of a single tree in this sort of muddy little swamp to me was really creepy and intriguing and asks a lot of questions. There are little subtle things like there’s a moment in the beginning when you see a picture from the people who lived in this house like a hundred years ago and it’s the same tree but that tree is in blossom and alive, so it’s died over the years and maybe it’s become this kind of place where bad stuff lives. I would like to keep a little mystery in the story. I think the best kind of horror lives in between spots and it’s not overly explained because if you over explain the monster then the monster loses its power to scare you. We did at one point flirted with the idea of seeing something in there like seeing a humanoid shape but I just felt in the end it’s more interesting to let the audience ask that question whether they have an answer to it or not. There had to be a kind of reason why this kid gets infected, some sort of explanation, but you don’t want to go too far with that, at least in my mind. I think it’s better to have a little ambiguity in the story.
Even though there are supernatural elements, not just in Blood but also in some of your other films, you seem to want to keep it within the realms of believability.
Yes I want to keep it plausible so that one could believe that it could really happen. Session 9 was a movie about a haunting but there is also a plausible explanation for what’s happening in that movie. Though you can also find a supernatural element, it could just be that the guy just went crazy and it might not be a supernatural element at all. It could also be that in this movie the kid just gets some weird disease that’s causing him to do this thing and there might not be a totally supernatural component to it. I mean he never has any fangs or flies through the air or is afraid of the cross and garlic! But he does sleep during the day or at least the implication is that he is more like a predator than he is a kid. When I watch a movie I always try to find the explanation like why is this happening but you want to have a little bit of leeway around the edges.
Session 9 very much reminded me of The Shining. Has Kubrick been an influence?
I would say definitely. I kind of came of age cinematically when Kubrick was like the master. I studied his films and I love his movies. He didn’t make a ton of films but I think there’s always layers of meaning in his films. In a movie like The Shining there’s multiple interpretations as to what’s happening; whether the whole thing is a flashback or hallucination or whether Jack is a ghost. The beauty of his movies is that they created all those layers because they’re so loaded with all the imagery and storytelling and I just find that interesting as a filmmaker to make a movie that can work on not just one level but on different levels. Obviously Session 9 was deeply influenced by The Shining. For Blood I don’t know if the influences were necessarily Kubrick but we were looking more towards good dark dramas.
You seem to be more interested in suspense rather than pure horror and jump scares. Your films are often slow burners and you ratchet up the tension as it goes along. Is that one of your filmmaking philosophies?
It might just be the kind of movies that I like. You mentioned Kubrick. Some of his movies start out slow burn and they build the suspense, like The Shining and I just like movies like that. I like to just be slowly ushered into a world and looking for clues and things and when you get deeper into it, it gets creepier or whatever. I also like the jump scare sort of movies, like I saw the movie Smile recently and I thought it was really great. I don’t look for movies that are all about jump scares, to me it’s more the psychological or of the mind. If you watch The Machinist, you’ll see that’s very much about that. It’s not a horror film but what this character goes through is so horrific. So I like that psychological horror more than jump scares or monster. That’s more interesting to me.
When you do television you have to work quickly and efficiently because you don’t have as much time as if you’re doing a movie…. but then sometimes you have to learn to slow down a little bit when you are making a movie and not rush it.”
You also do a lot of TV work and I wondered whether your experience in the movies helps you in the in your TV work and vice versa?
I think it definitely has an influence, sometimes good sometimes bad. When you do television you have to work quickly and efficiently because you don’t have as much time as if you’re doing a movie and that could be good when you go to do a film because you have the skill set to work quickly, but then sometimes you have to learn to slow down a little bit when you are making a movie and not rush it. Good television these days is on par with good films and a lot of good film makers now are doing TV series and that didn’t always used to be the case. I enjoy doing television. I haven’t had the chance to do a film one after the other. Usually I do a little television in between movies and that kind of keeps you engaged so I like mixing it up. There are certain things I’ve done in my television career that I never would have never as a movie. It’s good to work in different genres and different styles and television experience has been helpful for me.
Do you feel that juggling between TV and movie has had an adverse effect on how your work has been valued because there is a bit of an attitude with some critics who don’t look at somebody who works on both films and TV as favourably as somebody who’s mainly working in movies?
It could be the case. It’s also that I don’t make big movies; they are small independent films they often have small releases. I like that because it gives me the chance to do the film I want, the way I want to do it. I started doing this in the 90s when indie film was very much in fashion and small movies were making big debuts at Sundance. That’s how I’ve kept doing it but I think that nowadays the switch between television and movies isn’t such a big deal and some people would argue that there’s better television than there are films. I don’t necessarily say that but I think a lot of people just don’t go to movies as much because it’s easier to just click on to Netflix or Amazon and watch a new series. The cinema going habit has dropped but I still like to go to the movie theater and see a film as it’s meant to be seen. Now after COVID it’s starting to come back a little bit but it’s been tricky. In terms of my career I just like keep working and I’m content with that. The people who have seen my films and liked them, for whatever reason, those are the kind of movies I’ll hopefully just keep making. I’m also involved with some television projects that are more like limited series which is the thing now, like doing eight episodes of the show and it’s basically like doing a long format movie and that’s an exciting prospect as well. There’s often a little more money on the table to do that. So I like both worlds and have no regrets at all doing television. It helped me survive in this business. Doing the movies I do isn’t always maybe the most lucrative thing but it does allow me to be creative and tell the stories that I want to tell.
You went to the London Film School and you have often worked with highly respected British actors: Peter Mullan, David Thewils, Ben Kingsley, Christian Bale. Do you find it easier to work with British actors and is there a connection between studying in London and working with these actors?
I don’t know if I seek out British actors because of that but I have found in my experience working with these people that a lot of the Brits tend to be very disciplined and so good and they’re doing it for the love of the craft. They show up on time, they do it well, they take notes. I’m not saying that American actors are the opposite but in general I don’t know whether it’s because the British actors are more trained or they a different work ethic; but every experience working with a Brit has been really good and in the movie I’m doing now I’m working with another excellent British actor, Mark Strong. I just had a conversation with him today and he was so nice and he really wants to do a good job. It’s not because of London Film School. I love London but I think you gravitate towards people that you know are going to be as excited about doing it as you are. You don’t want people doing it just because it’s a paycheck or for whatever reason. In Blood there were no Brits but Michelle Monaghan and the kids and Skeet Ulrich were all like so into it.
I’m a big fan of Michelle Monaghan, and I think this is one of her best performances that I’ve seen.
I agree, I think she did an amazing job. It’s like a real journey that she takes. Michelle really committed herself to the role. It was not an easy role to play, a mother who loses a child. It is heartbreaking but she did it because she really liked the project and the character.
In the end credit credits for Blood there’s an insert of a mini scene that seems to hint that might be Blood 2!
(Laughs) There’s a little bit of an Easter egg. That was the original ending but I felt it just didn’t have the punch and I thought the movie should end on a lot more dramatic moment. So we just found a way to kind of combine the two. But could there be a Blood 2? Why not! Whatever was there in that tree could still very well be out there and come for someone else! It’s always good to keep it alive.
These days every horror movie that is made, it seems the first thing that the studios think is franchise.
There have been so many vampire movies that it feels like it’s started to run its course but then they keep making them. People seem to be fascinated by that theme, in movies and television shows like True Blood and now they did Interview with the Vampire. I don’t think it’ll ever become tired, and like in this movie people will try to find a new spin on it. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).