Sometimes it's nice to meet a champion. Especially in Hollywood, a town in which it's all but virtuous to compromise one's passions for the sake of a buck. Fortunately, genre fans have themselves a champ in producer Brad Fischer, whose Phoenix Pictures is responsible for what (in this writer's opinion) was the best thriller of the last decade – Zodiac. On February 19th, Fischer and his partner Mike Medavoy are bringing Dennis Lehane's suspense novel Shutter Island to the screen in an adaptation by filmmaking legend Martin Scorsese; and they've got a number of other genre projects in the pipeline, including Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. I caught up with Fischer at the recent Shutter Island press junket in Manhattan, where he told me how he shepherded the film, and produced one of Scorsese's darkest, most unorthodox visions.
Shutter Island, the film, really starts with you, and your affinity for genre movies.
Yeah, I picked up the book. I think I was at an airport, and I picked it up off of a shelf at one of those book kiosks. It just caught my attention… Going back to the genre thing, I've always loved genre movies. I grew up on them. It's, in a lot of ways, why I got into the business to begin with. So I'm always just drawn to these dark twisted stories, for whatever reason. I don't know why – you have to ask my shrink. [Laughs.] But when I read the book it had been set up at another studio. And I just thought it was an absolutely incredible journey that you took through this thing. I thought the ending – I never saw it coming, but I thought it made perfect sense in retrospect. It just took you into the mind of this guy, and took you through a journey I had never really seen before in a film, at least not on this level. It was just so visual and there were so many great iconic moments. I just thought it was incredible. We had to wait it out a little while, because it was sitting at another studio. Eventually the rights lapsed, and then I picked them up.
You've spoken in past interviews about the appreciation you and Scorsese share for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Were there other genre films on which the two of you connected?
I had seen some of the Val Lewton films before, but I hadn't really seen the Val Lewton films until Marty screened them. I think the first one that he showed us was Cat People. I think a lot of those movies inspired him, and I think he connected to them when he read the script – visually and just in terms of the themes and what lies behind these doors, and what's actually going on in these people's minds. So I think that was a big inspiration for him also.
The titular island and the hospital in particular become a sort of character in the film. Did you guys approach these elements as such? And how did you augment or enhance any existing locations for the film?
Yeah. It was really challenging from a production standpoint, because we only spent about two days shooting on an island (Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor), to kind of get the arrival of the boat in the dock when they first walk in. The rest of the movie, a big portion of it, was shot at Medfield State Hospital, which was a closed-down mental institution. Then we were in South Boston for part of it. We went up to Ipswich for the Tudor Mansion. So it was really kind of putting these pieces of geography together, and creating that illusion that they're all part of this one piece of geography. The island itself, which is purely Marty's vision, which I just think is amazing, is kind of this gothic nightmare of a place that you just see yourself arriving toward in that opening shot. It stuck me actually – and I asked him about this – because when I first saw that image I thought back to another Val Lewton movie, called Isle of the Dead. Isle of the Dead got its title from a painting by Bocklin; if you look at that painting and you look at that island in the movie, you can see where some of those inspirations came from. It's pretty cool. It definitely looks like a gothic nightmare. And of course – I don't want to talk too much about the ending – but the point of view from how we're seeing it, and maybe what it really looks like if you're seeing it through different eyes, I think could be interesting to think about as well.
In working on the film with Scorsese, did you see any of his passions made manifest beyond his interest in the Val Lewton films?
When I first sent him the script, I thought, "Martin Scorsese, personal director hero of mine, master of cinema – will he respond to something like this?" Because he really hadn't done anything like this before. Other than Cape Fear, which I think came kind of close.
It was perhaps a more direct thriller.
It was. It wasn't as stylized. It had some of those elements, but you're right in the way you describe it. What was surprising to me, pleasantly surprising, was how much a fan of the genre he is. He has this huge – in his office, in the DGA builing – he has this huge Cat People original insert poster; that's right over the chair where he sits. If you watch some of the Journeys, through the history of cinema, when he talks about movies and his love of film, he talks a lot about genre films. I think he's always wanted to do a movie like this. I think that's why he responded to it and really jumped on it. You can see it in the film itself; you can see the passion and you can see the fun that he had in making it. I think he had a really good time. It's masterful. I think DiCaprio said it in the speech when he presented him with the Golden Globes Award – I think a thousand years from now people will look back on cinema and look at Martin Scorsese, and he'll define master filmmaking. So I kind of pinch myself that I was involved in it in any capacity. It's pretty cool.
In real life, what's your greatest fear?
Hmmm… I've always had – and I think it started with that movie Return to Paradise, with Vince Vaughn – I have this unbelievable terror of being locked up in a foreign country. I don't know if that's strange or not. I went to Asia not long ago, and I was like, "They're gonna find out. Not that I've done anything wrong, but they're gonna find out something." I have this irrational fear of that. There's gonna be some guy wearing a green uniform with a red star on his hat, and he's gonna say, "Follow me." Then I'll completely lose it. Because what are you gonna do? I mean, God forbid – not that I'd ever end up in North Korea or something – but that's the end of it. Throw the key away, you're done! [Laughs.]