Commentary: 'Transsiberian' thriller on Hitchcockian track

Awards buzz for Woody Allen's 'Vicky'

"Transsiberian" thriller: Thrillers were one of Hollywood's basic genres for decades, but in recent years they've all but disappeared.

What Hollywood now calls thrillers are really horror films and the classic suspense thrillers Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making are few and very far between these days.

Happily, there's a gripping new train-set thriller to recommend to those who share my fondness for the genre. "Transsiberian," opening in Los Angeles Friday via First Look Studios, is directed by Brad Anderson ("Session 9," "The Machinist"), written by Anderson and Will Conroy and produced by Julio Fernandez. Starring are Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley and Eduardo Noriega.

After enjoying an early look at "Transsiberian," much of which takes place on the legendary train connecting Moscow with Russia's Far East provinces and China, I was happy to catch up recently with Brad Anderson to discuss the making of the film.

"The first seed was planted about 20 years ago when I took the Transsiberian," Anderson told me. "Just after college I was back-packing through Asia and China and India and ended up in Beijing and bought a ticket on the train. I had studied Russian in college and was interested in going there and meeting real Russian people on this train as I'd read it was a good place to do it. I didn't take the tourist train. I took the one that all the Russians take."

Anderson's journey was the same one his characters now take in the movie from China to Moscow: "I met a lot of interesting characters and had a bit of an adventure. That was always something that stayed in my mind as being a very cool location for some kind of story. Then years later when I collaborated with Will Conroy we came up with a story we could set on that train. I had also always loved those Hitchcock films like 'The Lady Vanishes' and 'Strangers On a Train' and 'North By Northwest' and wanted to do something that was reflective of those early train mysteries. Transsiberian is one of the last epic train journeys on the planet. It felt like a really cool location for a story because it's always moving and always changing."

What is it about a train that makes it such a perfect setting for a thriller? "It's partly because a train journey like a moviegoing experience is a linear process," he replied. "You start, have a middle and an end. It was a little easier to structure the movie because we could literally structure it the way the train journey unfolds. You have a kind of built-in ticking clock. As you get closer and closer to your final destination you know that something's got to happen.

"With a thriller or a movie that deals with notions of paranoia or claustrophobia, what better location than a train? -- particularly one like the Transsiberian which is so claustrophobic. There's not a lot of space. There's not a lot of places one can hide. It's almost like being on a submarine. We tried to capitalize on that as much as possible in our storyline. Our character (Emily Mortimer as an American woman with a terrible secret she can't even confide to her husband, played by Woody Harrelson) is unable to escape the suspicious eyes of the Ben Kingsley character (a Russian detective) and there's nowhere to go."

Moreover, he pointed out, "it's not a train that's going through some beautiful urban landscapes. It's in the middle of nowhere. Even if you were to get off the train, there's still no place to go. You're in the middle of Siberia. To me location is one of the first things that comes to mind (when you plan a movie). The location becomes the inspiration that you draw a lot of your story from. I've always been fascinated by trains in general and had the good fortune on this movie to be given an entire train and 40 kilometers of train track to play with. It was like having your own life-size train set."

Although some shooting took place in China, he explained, "most of the movie was shot in Lithuania. We had scouted Russia itself and other locations, but Lithuania turned out to be the most practical location for us. They actually gave us a Russian Soviet style train of eight cars and a locomotive and 40 kilometers of abandoned track that we could drive our train up and down on. Beyond that, we were told that we would get snow and that was one of the critical elements in our story. Lithuania was a good place because having once been a part of the Soviet Union (there were) a lot of Russian speaking people and a lot of Russian stuff there that we could incorporate into the movie."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Anderson acknowledged, "This was not an easy shoot across the board because of the cold weather and the logistics of shooting around a train. Some of the most difficult scenes for me were the relatively controlled scenes that we shot inside our train set. We shot all the interiors on a set so we could remove walls and we had a little bit of flexibility, but nonetheless you're dealing with a big five page scene and it all takes place in a sleeping cabin the size of a phone booth. It gives you not so much physical difficulty, but creatively (the problem is) how do you shoot those scenes to make them interesting and come alive so it just doesn't feel like two people sitting in a phone booth?"

Another challenge, he pointed out, was creating the feeling of a crowded claustrophobic train with people in its corridors when "you also have a crew of 15 people and a camera trying to move down those corridors. It was definitely really complicated but in a challenging sort of fun way. We shot some of the movie on the actual moving train, but most of it was on set. One of our first decisions was to shoot the whole movie in a very documentary sort of style (with) hand held camera because we knew it would liberate us to just go wherever we needed to and be very open with the camera.

"Also, I wanted as much as possible to try to replicate the experience that I had when I took the train (with) the realism of it, the dank darkness of the train and the grim nature of a lot of the people. It's not like trains we have here in the States where they're smooth as butter. These trains are constantly bumping you around. It's a bit of a Third World experience. So we wanted to try to replicate the feeling of that adventure for our characters and for the audience so they could kind of at least understand what kind of a trip this was for them."

As with any Hitchcockian-style thriller, the plotting of the storyline and the development of the characters was crucially important. I'd better issue a Spoiler
Alert here since in discussing the thriller's plot Anderson got specific about a scene you won't want to know about if you haven't seen the movie yet. So please skip these last two paragraphs until after you've seen -- and, I'll bet -- enjoyed "Transsiberian."

"The first scene that came to mind when we were starting to come up with the story," he said, "was the scene in the middle of (the film) where Jessie (Mortimer) goes to this abandoned church with this guy (she's met on the train) and almost inadvertently ends up looking at a body, having killed him. And then her decision she has to make (is) whether to take the hit or try to get away with it. That created a lot of suspense and her choice to try to essentially lie her way out of her predicament became a juicy kind of premise from that point on to build up a lot of the suspense.

"And then, of course, you throw a Russian inspector into the mix. That part of the story was pretty clear to us. It was mainly character driven in terms of how we plotted it because we wanted all the characters to be harboring some secrete of some sort. They're not exactly who they initially seem to be."

"Vicky" views: There was an awards buzz in the air at The Weinstein Company's premiere Monday of Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona" suggesting it's a likely contender for Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. And needless to say with Harvey Weinstein leading the campaigning, its prospects should be very good, indeed.

The first encouraging sign I noticed Monday at Mann's Village Theater was the fact that stars Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson were all on hand. Sitting two rows behind Bardem and Cruz, it was easy to see they were in the best of spirits, chatting animatedly with friends. Afterwards, another good sign was Johansson happily signing autographs in the crowded lobby. Stars don't do that if they're not feeling great about a movie.

After seeing the film, it was easy to see why they'd all turned out to support it. Woody's gotten terrific performances from everyone -- including co-stars Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn, Rebecca Hall and Chris Messina -- and his critically acclaimed picture plays really well. It drew laughter and strong applause from an industry audience that doesn't hesitate to sit on its hands if it doesn't like something.

At TWC's after-party at the W Hotel in Westwood the Belvedere was flowing swiftly and so were the compliments, particularly for Penelope Cruz's killer performance and for Woody's sharp-as-ever writing and direction. As a longtime fan of Woody's movies, I'd rank "Vicky" with "Match Point" as his best work in the last 10 years -- and it's one of his funniest films ever. In the '80s writing and directing Oscar nominations were routine for Woody and "Vicky" could mark a welcome return to those happy days.

A good indication of how Woody feels about "Vicky" is that he actually was there Monday night, sitting with his wife Soon-Yi and friends in a quiet corner of one of the hotel's party rooms. While wandering around I stopped in my tracks when I spotted Woody because he's known for not showing up for his films' premieres. Well, it makes sense that he was there to support "Vicky" since it's really special.

"Vicky," which screened as an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival last May, opens Aug. 15 via MGM. It's one of the year's strongest contenders for the Globes' best picture - musical or comedy category. Hopefully, it will be able to overcome Academy members' tendency to not give comedies the respect they deserve and will wind up with a best picture Oscar nod, too.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel