Empire (April 2005)

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

Paranoia, death and a body like a skeleton. Before he becomes the Dark Knight, Christian Bale must exorcise his demons in macabre psychological thriller, The Machinist…

A dull grey winter morning, the charmless luxury of a central London hotel, and Empire is currently in the standard celebrity interview final holding pattern (perched on a chair in an empty corridor clutching a cup of cold coffee and a tape recorder). However, there is an upside. Empire, it transpires, is blessed with a rare slice of luck.

“Christian is talking with an English accent!” beams a publicist.

“What accent does he normally talk with?” we enquire, somewhat bemused.

“Oh, all sorts,” the publicist says airily. “I think it depends who he’s playing at the time.”

And, indeed, dredging its befuddled memory, Empire can distinctly remember Bale intoning with an East Coast, vaguely Boston-ish accent the last time we met. But that was on the set of The Film That We’ve Solemnly Promised Not To Mention and thus is a topic strictly off limits. We are here to talk about the one before The Film That We’ve Solemnly Promised Not To Mention; that is, the one without any capes, caves or codpieces.

Which isn’t, as it turns out, such a bad thing. The Machinist, directed by Brad Anderson (who turned out niftily atmospheric horror/thriller Session 9 in 2000) is an efficient, thoroughly compelling psychological chiller, with Bale as the titular machine-shop worker: a man afflicted by grotesque anorexia and incurable insomnia, the causes of which are anything but apparent.

As well as being distinctly protean accent-wise (he’s affecting an American accent in The Machinist too), there’s another aspect of Christian Bale that is becoming increasingly difficult to predict: namely, what exactly he’s going to look like. No actor since De Niro has put as much effort into physically transforming himself; moulding not only his psyche but also his body into the contorted shapes of his roles. For the part of murderous narcissist Patrick Bateman in American Psycho he bulked up, expanding his average frame into a living temple to muscular self-love. Now for The Machinist he’s performed the opposite metamorphosis, shrivelling down what I’d like to stay at for the rest of my life, I think.” It’s odd to begin an interview with a weight check, but given Bale’s recently yo-yoing physique it’s hardly surprising he’s aware of his precise poundage. While it is of course true that stones have been lost and gained by actors before, it has never, as far as anyone can tell, been done to this extent.When, for example, in 1996 a pretty much unknown actor called Matt Damon decided to lose 30-odd pounds for his role in Courage Under Fire, he did so entirely unsupervised. The result was that, in his words, “1 fucked my body up.” An alarming prospect, then. And it is why, when Christian Bale decided that he was going to lose in the region of 55 pounds for The Machinist, he solicited the advice of a professional nutritionist. And then promptly ignored it.

“I asked her primarily for information in terms of blood count and so on,” he remembers. “Really it was about the things that 1 would need to give myself — you know, pills, just to make sure that I wasn’t going to do anything permanently stupid. She said, ‘You know what, I think you can go down to 145. You’ll be okay.’ And at 145 I was still fine. I was still running. I ran slowly, but I could run for miles. It’s the way to run a marathon.”

All fair enough. But Bale had set himself a target. He had blown up a picture of Hank Williams, just after his release from jail and months before his death, and stuck it to the cover of his script. That, he decided, was the cadaverous, death-haunted look he was after. And at 145 pounds, he was nowhere near it. “So I kept going,” continues the 31 year-old star. “I knew the nutritionist would say, ‘Ooooh, no. Stop right there.’ My legs got too skinny to be able to run. I really started to move like a sloth. Hauling myself out of chairs. For that last 20-odd pounds I was being told, ‘Don’t be going there at all.’ But I just said to myself, ‘If I’m feeling okay, then it’s got to be cool.'”

His strategy was to deflect his hunger to other activities. He would tell his body outrageous lies. “I would feel hungry, then say to myself, ‘Oh, that means I really want to read.’ And so I would start reading and pretending that was what I was getting my nourishment from — reading the book. It’s all, obviously, about games of denial.”

The accusation will no doubt be made that Bale’s extraordinary transformation is little more than a circus gimmick (“Roll up! Roll up! See the amazing emaciated movie star!”). And indeed, director Brad Anderson admits that this element of the film will be an immediate draw. “The first question anyone asks is, ‘How the fuck did he get so thin?'” he confirms. “But at the same time it’s part of the story. Much of his performance is played out in his skin and bone. You must understand the torment that this guy’s been through in the past year. He’s torturing himself, and you don’t understand the significance until the end.”

The Machinist can be seen as part of a welcome swing away from the irony-charged horror movies of the ’90s to proper chillers with beginnings and middles and denouements, preferably in the conventional order. The Fisher Price My First Metatext that the Screams and I Know What You Did Last Summers plastered across the screens over the past decade have — via a strange cultural confluence of M. Night Shyamalan’s success with the likes of The Sixth Sense and Signs and the sudden interest in Japanese horror — in turn been replaced by the kind of movies that have Nytol shares soaring. Honest to goodness spooky, it seems, is back with a vengeance. It’s a trend that suits Brad Anderson just fine.

“I’d always loved dark, creepy horror films,” he says. “I think the way that American studios imagine what horror films are, well, to me they aren’t horrifying. Shocker remakes, irony, the Scream films… Who actually cares about 18 year-old flavours of the week getting offed in comical ways? The films that are scary and effective to me are the ones where you’re just building up this sense of dread.”

Thus both Session 9 and The Machinist share the influences of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg and particularly early Roman Polanski (Andersonscreened Polanski’s The Tenant for Bale before shooting started).

“I like the sensation of the hair on the back of your neck going up,” he continues. “And there’s a whole genre of movies, I don’t know what you’d call it, but movies where characters have these big epiphanies, revelations about themselves at the end. Movies like Angel Heart or Don’t Look Now, The Others, The Sixth Sense, Carnival Of Souls or Memento. One of my favourite movies is Jacob’s Ladder where Tim Robbins realizes that, oh my god, I’m dead…”

The Machinist definitely belongs to this genre. And whatever it is called, it demands from the director the precise timing and control of a symphony conductor.

“I think audiences are pretty savvy,”Andersonmuses. “They’re trying to guess, ‘What’s the hook, what’s the gimmick?’ It’s a puzzle, you want to figure out the answer. But you want the director to dole out the clues so that it hooks you but you don’t get too far ahead of it. So that when the character has his big moment of revelation, you do simultaneously. But with this movie there was also the incredible attraction of this character who’s suffering immensely, but he doesn’t know why.”

“I suppose that there is continuity in some of the roles I’ve played,” Christian Bale muses. “American Psycho and Batman…”

HA HA! Given that he brought it up, and also given that Empire’s solemn promises are worth precisely jack-shit, it looks like some chat about the summer’s most anticipated tent-pole flick is on the cards. Honestly, it seems to be a topic that Bale approaches without any great enthusiasm: he’s well aware that he may be talking about nothing else for the next few years.

“We only wrapped a month ago,” he says. “It was fun, but an incredibly long haul. Seven months. I’d never been involved in something for that long and it’s a little too extended for my taste. In terms of the character of Wayne/Batman, there may be some link with other characters I’ve played. They’ve not all been psychotic. But there may be a kind of comical link. Bateman and Batman are really both American Psychos in a sense. That was something that I wanted to try and explore. What the hell kind of man decides to dress up as a bat and run around the city? There’s got to be something a little bit loose in there to genuinely believe in that character. To not just hang the suit up and give it a rest.”

So out go the Day-glo camperies of the Schumacher films and in comes a driven, dark, somewhat pitiless vigilante tale. “This is a ferocious man in his ability to retain rage,” Bale says. “An awful thing happened to him when he was eight years old, but he’s never reconciled to it. The way I see it, Batman is the real manifestation of the character. Bruce Wayne is the mask that he wears.”

And that, it appears, will be that. Between now and summer, Bale will first shoot Terrence Malick’s American history epic The New World and then a micro-budgeted, as yet untitled, project, to be shot in 20 days. “I know that there’s the possibility that if Batman’s a success there’ll be a second. I just want to be doing completely different types of movies between times,” he says. “I want to be able to mix in different types of film so that I can be ready to deal with these behemoths as and when they happen.”

A sensible, varied movie diet then?
“Exactly,” he smiles.

By Adam Smith.