David Caruso and Brad Anderson on Session 9
Session 9

Warning: This interview contains spoilers that give away the entire film, including the ending.



AboutFilm's Carlo Cavagna sat down with a group of online journalists to talk about Session 9 with David Caruso, star, and Brad Anderson, writer/director, at USA Films' offices in Beverly Hills on July 23rd.

I magine a horror movie with no hip teen actors reciting smug one-liners. Imagine a horror movie with no computer-generated special effects set to a soundtrack of the hottest new bands. Imagine a horror movie that actually takes itself seriously. Is there a place for it in today's post-modern, post-Scream cinema?

Director Brad Anderson and actor David Caruso think so. They believe audiences are starving for a more intelligent kind of horror film, one with the patience to build atmosphere and develop characters. Shooting in a real abandoned insane asylum (Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts) on a miniscule budget and drawing heavily from real-life headlines, Anderson and co-writer Steven Gevedon (who also co-stars) have created a new film called Session 9, a psychological tale of terror whose verisimilitude may be the scariest thing about it.

David Caruso enters the small conference room, shakes hands with everybody, and sits down. In person, there is little hint of the strong screen presence he projects, and, unlike most characters he has played, he seems amiable and relaxed.

Caruso: Let's talk about Traffic. I thought I was particularly good in that.

[Laughter. Traffic posters paper the studio's office walls. All four of the films' Oscars are on display in a case.]

Caruso: I'm working on Traffic 2 right now. More Traffic. And then, Session 10. Have I told you about Session 10? It's very exciting.

[Laugher. Awkward pause.]

Question: So was this as scary to make it as it was to watch?

Caruso: Yeah. Yeah. You can't…. [laughs]Danvers is not a movie location. It really is [a mental hospital]. It was a place we never got comfortable in. It wasn't like it was day three, and you were throwing water balloons because it was so much fun to be there. It was always scary, and you could really feel the pain of the people that were at Danvers. It's a rough environment. But, I mean, it's on the film. You can see. They didn't have to dress any sets or anything, all that stuff was already there. The federal government walked away from it about thirty years ago, and it was a terrifying location.

We couldn't go into most of it. We used a very small percentage of the building. Most of it's pretty unsafe, so it's off limits. I went traveling probably where I shouldn't have. I kind of regretted it immediately. [laughing] It just got worse and worse, you know. You have to remember it's a building that was open for 130 years or so. This is a building that was functioning before electricity, before there was heat. Can you imagine Danvers by candlelight? Can you imagine? It was terrifying in the daytime with the lights on and at least four people were there. At a time when they were basically in the dark, and secondly, at a time when mental illness was not even a curable disease. It was not even--there was no kind of treatment for mental illness. Around the turn of the century, it was perceived as a form of evil. People were there with some kind of disorder, and they would be seen as possessed or whatever. The other side of Danvers is that there's an aspect of punishment to being incarcerated there. You were tossed away forever in Danvers, and weren't allowed field trips and picnics and dances there.

Question: So when you were walking around by yourself there did you find any personal treasures you took with you?

Caruso: Well, there's a lot of stuff lying around that you can take a look at should you choose to. There are a lot of case folders and stuff. Every once in a while you would maybe look through a real case folder. I happened to look at one for somebody who was incarcerated in 1904 for some--what was described as a "spiritual malady." This person had this kind of history of weird behavior and couldn't live in society, and some treatments were prescribed for them.

Question: Do you know what that means, "spiritual malady"?

Caruso: I think that… I think it probably has something to do with… I mean, I can only guess. But, even if you have Tourette's Syndrome, for instance, that would appear to be some multiple personality disorder or something along those lines, some type of psychosis. And we have those terms now, "psychosis" and stuff like that, but they didn't understand that, any of that. This was a place of suffering, pain, and shame. If you had a person with a mental disability in your family… they went to Danvers. They were dropped through a hole, and they were not talked about. Perhaps there was a visit or two every year… It's kind of like the end of the world in Danvers. And it was for most of these people. They had their own graveyard up there, with just numbers on the headstones.
David Caruso in Session 9
David Caruso in Session 9.

Question: So the number of people buried there, is that true? About 700 people?

Caruso: Yeah. I'd be surprised if it was that few. In the movie it says 1800…

Director Brad Anderson enters. Easily over six and a half feet tall, he towers over everyone in the room.

Caruso: Stop being taller than me! I was just talking about you. You're taller, I don't believe that!

Anderson: And you're redder!

Caruso: That's a rinse, though. [laughs] So I was talking about Session 10.

Anderson: Yeah.

Caruso: And also, Brad and I are doing More Traffic. It's called Gridlock. [To Anderson:] I'm softening them up.

Anderson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then I go in for the kill.

Caruso: Let's pretend we didn't rehearse this. [laughs]

AboutFilm: So being in a place that's not a movie set, and having a very limited budget from what I understand--

Caruso: [joking] 40 million.

AboutFilm: [playing along] Sure, 40, 45 million.

Caruso: Well, I got 20.


AboutFilm: Obviously this was a very different kind of shoot. What changes or adjustments did you have to make as an actor?

Caruso: Well, there really weren't-- I mean, in terms of us making the movie. I would have to say… I think the technology was almost much better for us, because it was faster. And why that was good for me was that… it was almost like there were some nice organic things taking place, and it was cool to be able to continue that energy as opposed to breaking down and light something else.

AboutFilm: So you did a lot of improvising, then?

Caruso: Well, I don't about that. But, you know, sometimes you can find the material when you have great actors. Brad cast some great actors, and then me, of course. [laughs] Stuff gets going, you know. Sometimes you can find some energy, find some pace, find a version of the scene that can be working, and it's nice to be able to just continue without technology getting in the way of that.

Question: Did the director do anything to, like, psyche out the actors? I've heard that a lot of actors on the sets of horror films… or was that not necessary?

Caruso: You mean, destroy my self-esteem?
"You don't flag that this is a
genre picture--intense and violent.
But, we gain your trust, and then
double-cross you, of course."

Anderson: Well, yeah, you know, I would on a regular basis.

Question: I don't know, play practical jokes when needed to get people freaked out.

Anderson: We didn't. The nature of the location and the creepy reality of where we were shooting, I mean it really was an abandoned asylum. I think that imbued the performances more than I could, more than any sort of weird, Werner Herzog-type things I could do, like, hypnotize the cast or freak them out in any way. I didn't really need to. I really feel like the place itself was sufficient to create "the vibe," you know what I mean? The shooting schedule was so fast when we were there, just jamming this thing out so quickly that we didn't really have time to play those kinds of games. We just had to do it, and I think everyone went and did it.

Caruso: Yeah, there's no question about it. [We] had a lot to work with just being at the location.

Anderson: I remember Peter Mullan saying something like that--Peter Mullan played Gordon. Sometimes just to get into the spirit of the character, and to get that haunted feeling, he would walk off while we were setting up the lights, and just walk into one of the old patients' rooms that they called "seclusions," and just sort of rest his cheek against the paint-chipped wall and let the spirit of the place kind of fill him.

AboutFilm: Is it true that you had a location before you had a story? How difficult was it to write a story to suit the location?

Anderson: The seed for the film came out of that location. I used to live in Boston, so I would often see this place driving down route 93, looming there on the hill, and it always occurred to me that would be a nice appropriate place to do a good horror movie. I went up there with Steve Gevedon, who's the co-writer and one of the actors in the movie, and we invited ourselves on one of these little urban spelunking missions. We met these kids we found online who go and explore deteriorating, broken-down places like old hospitals, old prisons, old military installations, subway tunnels, and stuff, and they invited us on this little journey. They went up to the Danvers Hospital and just explored the place, went into all the tunnels, wandered around, and went to the old morgue and went to all the patients' rooms and found all these really cool things. They gave us a lot of the history of the place and filled us in on some of the stories about the place. It was from that initial little journey that we kinda got the seed for the--certainly the location.

The actual story itself, the story about Gordon's journey, was kind of inspired by a murder that occurred in Boston in the mid-Nineties, '94 I think it was. This guy Richard Rosenthal, who was an insurance guy, just a regular guy… lived in the suburbs. I guess his wife had just had a miscarriage or something, and he was starting to become somewhat unhinged. He came in one day, and his wife had burned the ziti on the stove--his evening meal--and something in him snapped. He killed his wife, and then he proceeded to cut out her heart and lungs, and stick them in the backyard on a stake. He left it there for a couple days, and he went to work… back to John Hancock in downtown Boston, like it never happened. When he was finally caught, they asked him why he'd done it, and he truly couldn't remember the act or even why he had done it. It was something that had been so buried in him, and then again after he had done [it] he had buried [it] back down there so deep that it was just… It was the monster side of him that had somehow reared its ugly head. And there's something about that--this was a big story back in Boston in the mid-Nineties--and there's something awful about that notion of a seemingly normal everyday young family man who leads a fairly banal normal life and then just cracks, and just becomes, you know, the monster. That is, I think, something that everyone in a 9-to-5 job can relate to potentially, to becoming unhinged. That was a weird little anecdote that fertilized some of our story.

Caruso: The other side of it was that he was so desperate to work with me.


Question: How did you… how did you finally meet?

Caruso: He found me in the recycling bin.

[Big laughter]

Caruso: [laughing] They thought, "Steve, we gotta call this guy! This is pathetic!"

Anderson: He actually came in at the last minute. It was just typical vagaries of casting. We had looked at different people and some fell through. [To Caruso] I think we got you the script sort of toward the end there, and you were really compelled by it, and I called you on the phone.

I told him that [we] had to kind of go, like, tomorrow, and we're gonna shoot in an abandoned lunatic asylum--really!--and it's going to be kind of like fast and furious, you know, and he was just like, [exaggeratedly laid-back voice] "I'm on board." So, it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing, but thank god David appreciated the naturalism that we were going for, and he really liked the script, and he was willing to, uh--

Caruso: --get dirty.

Question: The two stories you have going on… The story about Gordon and the story about the atrocities that happened to patients in the insane asylum. Was it your intention to kind of have the stories just parallel each other or maybe the ones in the past are supposed to be directly related or causing the one in the present?

Anderson: Well, I think we left that somewhat of a mystery. There's definitely a parallel going on between what's happening in Gordon's life, or what's happened in Gordon's life, and what he's beginning to realize… he's starting to realize who he is, and what happened in the past in regard to the Mary Hobbes story, the one that we hear on the session tapes… she's suffering from extreme multiple personality disorder.

So, there is a parallel there. How closely and tightly these things end up merging at the end, we kind of wanted that to be somewhat of a mystery, in regard to whether Gordon is somehow infected by the spirit of the monster side of Mary Hobbes, or whether he, like her, exhibits a kind of multiple personality disorder. We all have aspects of ourselves, we might not even sometimes be aware of--actors in particular, have a sort of multiple personality disorder. They get paid lots of money to exhibit those!

But, no, I think that was part of the idea. One of the things I wanted to do initially with this movie was to tell a story, but with the use of sound as well as just with images. A lot of the sound design in the movie and the stories that we get coming from that scratchy little old tape deck, that idea really appealed to me. How the sound can really create a creepiness, a creepy tone, and also help tell a story. That's often so neglected in movies, good sound, and that's something we really wanted to play on.

AboutFilm: You hear a lot of sounds, like the intermittent sounds of windshield wipers going back and forth or of cars rushing by--even sounds like that--that sounded a little bit deeper in pitch than they should have, that kind of thing?
Peter Mullan and Brad Anderson
Brad Anderson (right) directs Peter Mullan.

Anderson: Yeah, we had a lot of fun with the sound design of the movie. We buried, in each of those car passes… I heard recently that Scorsese, in the fight scenes of Raging Bull, cut in the sounds of lions roaring, elephants screaming, you know what I mean? And so we did a lot of that. When we were cutting in the sound design--and, of course, most of it's subliminal--we cut in a lot of weird animal noises, mechanical noises. In the voice of the woman, Mary Hobbes, in the way she manifests her different personalities, we tried to give each of them its own weird little characterization.

AboutFilm: Is that the same actor who does all those voices?

Anderson: Same actress, yeah. And, we, I remember, used to have one of those little tape-to-tape, reel-to-reel things. It was kind of fucked up, so it had that little, sort of, staggered--it would sort of hiccup every so often, so we added little elements that kinda gave it a reality, but that were also kinda odd and off. The same thing with the music. The music's a very unconventional score. A friend of mine and Steve's (who I wrote the script with), who both of us went to college with, did the score. Rob Miller. He hadn't done a film score before, but he had done a lot of experimental music, like, weird atmospheric ambient stuff, where he did a lot of samples from really weird sources. And that's what we wanted the score to be like. We gave him a lot of sound effects to play with, and just let him create less of a score and more of a sonic background that reflected what was going on in the scene. The sound design certainly was, for me, a key element of the whole process that excited me about doing this. We wanted to play with that.

Question: How did you keep it from turning into a slasher picture? And, David, did you have any indication that it would be so creepy?

Caruso: Well, when you read the script, you knew it wasn't a slasher picture, but a psychological journey. How I describe the material in the movie is that the movie, in a weird way, kinda gains your trust. It almost could be a character piece about these guys. So you don't flag that this is a genre picture, [that it's] intense and violent. But, we gain your trust, and then double-cross you, of course. When you read the material, there's a real magnetized hypnosis/claustrophobic thing going on. It's in your head. I think the reason the picture stays with people for as long as it does is that it appeals to you on a number of levels. It's not just, kind of, "I'm putting it into my entertainment box. This is that horror movie… and I'm disassociated from it emotionally."

I think what Brad did really well was he kind of seeped into your consciousness on a number of levels so that you can't not get involved. In the same way that we can't escape from the story, you can't escape from the picture. And it's because it's on a number of levels, and because you've let us in and we've gained your trust. And, as we've said, kind of, a dirty word in movies right now is "intelligence." But I'm not cynical--I'm not cynical in that way. I feel like you can sell an intelligent picture just as easily as you can sell a picture that doesn't require any intelligence. I think what's successful about this is that it really works on a lot of levels, and not just fear, not just weird, scary, we're gonna kick your ass, jolt you, or give you a heart attack.

Anderson: We definitely set out, consciously, when we were writing the script and making the movie, to subvert the conventions of the so-called horror genre that exists now, which, in my opinion, is less horror than it is teen thriller. I mean, I don't think anyone really could call a movie like I Know What You Did Last Summer a horror movie. It's jolts, like you say, it's a series of jolts followed by a glib one-liner that's just wallpapered with an MTV rock-and-roll soundtrack. And that's not horror to me. It's not like that genre isn't successful in its own right, but true horror, I think, deals with dread and menace, you know? It gets under your skin and sort of infects you. Because it's about… because it should be about characters, I think.

The thing that appealed to Peter Mullan about playing Gordon was less the fact that this was a movie where he ends up killing everybody at the end, but more the fact that it was like an American tragedy. Here's this guy from overseas who's come here to try to make it, make it good in this country, marry, raise a family, start a successful business… and it's starting to unravel around him. For whatever reason, he cracks. And it's that thing which I know drew Peter to the project… because of that quality, he found that really moving… His story, in some respects, has horrific-- It's a horrific story on the surface, but, like David was saying, underneath there's also the fact that there's this tragedy as well. That's really what makes it resonate, at least in my mind, a bit beyond just your run-of-the-mill slasher picture. If you look at the movie, I think, there's very little explicit violence, really. I mean, there's a little towards the end, but most of it's off-camera and implied. That's creepier to me. To me, that leaves a lot more up to the audience's imagination. Whether audiences are going to get that or not remains to be seen, but that might be the intelligence factor, which could be, you know… [sighs] I don't know… I think audiences are itching to be creeped out. I think something like The Blair Witch Project--which I'm not comparing, because I think they're very different movies--but at the same time, I think that movie was appealing because it freaked people out.

Question: But do you think it's harder to scare people, and especially kids these days? I talked to a director recently [who said] their kids laugh at horror. Kids aren't scared as easily.
"I think it is harder to scare kids--
young people--because there is an
ironic hipster stance that you gotta
take now in relationship to pop culture."

Anderson: I saw The Exorcist reissue, while I was making the movie actually, with a young audience, Boston-based audience. I remember seeing that movie and being terrified. Everyone who saw it when it first came out was genuinely terrified. But it hasn't aged well, I think, and kids were laughing--giggling throughout the whole movie, at seemingly inappropriate moments, you know what I mean? There's always a little bit of that nervous laughter that comes with good horror, but at the same time it sort of felt wrong to me, like, they didn't get it. They were so kind of nonplussed in a hipster sort of self-conscious way. I think it is harder to scare kids--young people--because I think there is an ironic hipster stance that you gotta take now in relationship to pop culture. Because you know you're being manipulated. People are so aware of the manipulation, you know what I mean? We're all aware that movies totally toy with us and pull our strings. Of course, there was a time I think when people just didn't acknowledge that as much. Audiences were more susceptible to it; they weren't as aware of it, and now, since we are so self-aware of the entertainment factor, I think, you can't take it that seriously. I do feel like audiences--young audiences, smart, intelligent, very cognizant of how they're being marketed to--[it's] hard to break through that ironic lid, that little sort of smirk.

Question: So is that why you tried to completely avoid that? I mean, it seems like that was completely--

Anderson: There's no kids in the movie. It's like, people David's age, and old folks and stuff.

Caruso: Well, I--


Question: How old is [Brendan] Sexton [III, a young actor in the film] in the movie?

Anderson: Oh, Sexton is like… he's uh… he's like...

Caruso: [simultaneously] Oh, forty-five. He's like, fifty.


Caruso: [muttering] I can't believe you.

Anderson: He's the requisite kid, you're right.

Question: But he's not really a hipster kid.

Caruso: No.

AboutFilm: Not with that haircut.

Anderson: I mean, needless to say, this movie doesn't pander to a lot of the conventions that you see in those kind of movies. Even if we wanted to do that, we couldn't have. I mean, we couldn't have gotten Limp Biskit on the soundtrack if we had wanted to. That being said, we consciously did, as I said, set out to sort of break down some of those conventions. Merely to, in the end, give audiences a taste of something that's different than the average run-of-the-mill horror movie. That's the simplest reason that we made this movie. For ourselves as well. We wanted to freak ourselves out, and we were doing that as we were making the movie. I had a great time as a filmmaker (and I edited the film myself, because I write, co-write, direct and edit my own movies), it was a blast to cut this film together, because up to this point I'd been working with, like, romantic comedy, which is a different genre altogether. It's about timing, but, ironically, I think horror is very much about timing, too. It's about when you're going to have that guy jump out and freak you out, and building up that suspense. As an editing exercise it was a lot of fun, because it's about building atmosphere, like lingering on that close-up of David Caruso looking menacing--

Caruso: It was a very good choice.


Anderson: --looking menacingly at Peter Mullan or something.

Question: What would you say is the thing you're most proud of about this film, and what, if anything, are you dissatisfied with, because of time or budget restraints, or whatever…

Caruso: I'll go for the proud part and let Brad do the complaining…
"A lot of people have success
and no satisfaction. I'm after
satisfaction. If success happens,
great, but I don't care about that. "


Caruso: For me the most important thing is to continue to work with the best people that I can find, and that will have me. [laughs] I've had a really good year this year; I've worked with I think the best people around. The budget factor was not an issue. I mean, look at the people Brad assembled for the movie. To me there's a difference between success and satisfaction. A lot of people have success and no satisfaction. I'm after satisfaction. If success happens, great, but you walk away from an experience like this movie with satisfaction, because you got to explore this situation with this group of people, and I think we connected in a way that I need to connect with people. It's not about going to do a movie. I'm not a movie-based person, in terms of how it affects my career, the industry. I don't care about that. I probably haven't been too smart about that. But, this is a picture that, first and foremost, you know, had really great people, and we had a lot of fun making the movie.

Anderson: I would second that emotion. Certainly working with good actors like David, Peter, and Josh, and Steve Gevedon, was a great experience for me. I like working with good actors. Also, for me, the thing I'm most satisfied with is the sense of the place that we captured. Just capturing and evoking that kind of place, you know? Both in time and in, like, sort of psychically. I think we caught a little bit of the little soul of that place, the sort of tragic, creepy--the haunting, beautiful soul of that place. Because it's a scary place, but it's certainly a beautiful place as well. And I like that aspect of it.

My only complaints are just like any filmmaker. If I only had more time, you know, to do some of the--play around more with the sound design, for instance, or you know, whatever. That would have been a blast. But, you know, as with anything, you've always got to get it back as soon as you can.

Studio Watchdog: One more question, please.

Question: David, what's next for you?

Caruso: I'm waiting for Brad to, uh…


Caruso: No, I did an indie picture called Black Point. It's a nice little piece, good people, good material.

Question: What do you play in that?

Caruso: I play a retired naval officer, who is responsible for the disappearance of his daughter, and this team of drifters comes into this small town where he's living this disassembled life, and he tries to hook them into this thing.

Question: Did you have any advice for Rick Schroeder after you left NYPD Blue?

Caruso: Just get a good moisturizer.


Studio Watchdog: Okay, that's it everybody…


Interview © August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about Session 9 on the boards
  Official Session 9 site
  IMDB page - Session 9
  MRQE page - Session 9
  Rotten Tomatoes page - Session 9
  AboutFilm review of Next Stop Wonderland, dir. by Brad Anderson
  AboutFilm review of Proof of Life, starring David Caruso
  AboutFilm review of Jade, starring David Caruso