Would you spend a few months of your life working in an abandoned mental hospital? I did, and it was one of the greatest jobs I ever had.
Few horror films are made in a way that mirrors the story they want to tell — that’s probably for the best — but Session 9, directed by Brad Anderson, is a unique exception. In the movie, a small asbestos removal crew races through a week tearing hazardous materials out of an abandoned mental hospital in order to earn a fat bonus check, only to be torn apart by paranoia, jealousy, and violence.
There was no murder on the set of Session 9, but the film was filmed in the same location where the action takes place: the husk of Danvers State Hospital north of Boston, a former psychiatric facility that had fallen into ruin after being abandoned in the 1980s. The place was plastered with real asbestos. There were other problems, too, like floors that barely existed, making much of the location impossible to traverse. But few buildings are so immediately photogenic and perfectly suited for a psychological thriller.
My involvement started with a simple question. A colleague, Jay Heyman, called me at the end of one Boston summer with the best pitch I’d ever heard: “Want to make a movie in an abandoned mental hospital?” Jay and I knew each other well, having already done dozens of film and commercial jobs together. We’d come up at the same time as PAs and both gravitated to the art department: building and dressing sets, and doing props. Jay would be the prop master on this show and needed an assistant. There was a catch, however: we had very little money (I don’t remember our exact budget to do all the show’s props, but it wasn’t more than a couple thousand bucks) and very little time.
Our initial allotment of two weeks to prep turned into a month when casting and other pre-production tasks took longer than expected, so that was good. The hospital was loaded with stuff we could use in the movie, and that was good, too. The set crew had to build a few things, like a wall dressed to be a morgue, and we brought in a handful of elements for the movie. But 90% of what you see in the movie was just the place — around every corner was a bizarre painting, a corridor so decayed that it posed mortal danger for anyone who dared walk through, and rooms serving as reminders of how simplistic and brutal our treatment of mental illness was until not so long ago.
Ridley Scott’s movie Alien always seemed like it would have been a singular film experience, with sets so detailed that the film’s sense of reality was never in question. Session 9, in its own smaller way, is probably similar. The hospital was overwhelming, giant warren of rooms and hallways filled with strange equipment, stairways fenced off, rooms flooded with shin-deep drifts of abandoned paperwork.
In one room I found piles of circular paper, each sheet about ten inches in diameter, with unfathomable graph measurements related to some sort of psychiatric activity. In the individual patient rooms, called "seclusions" but which looked more like cells, small drawings were sketched on the walls. In one upper hallway I found a mummified hawk on the floor. The bird had presumably become trapped in the building and then lay undisturbed for years after dying.
Dressed in their low-key working gear and the second-hand tools we sourced as props (those cheap tools were appropriate for the characters and good for our limited prop budget), the actors seemed to find the atmosphere of the hospital to be an ideal stimulation for their work.
Peter Mullan, who played the lead character Gordon, would stand off on his own, far away from the crew, quietly taking in the feeling of the place before powering into scenes. He was a miracle to watch, for every shot there was a perceptible moment when he turned his character on.
Session 9 traded 35mm film for HD video before almost any other film did, and that gave us a lot of freedom. Anderson and the incredible cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, who followed Session 9 by shooting several seasons of The Wire, could craft long, slow takes, the camera slowly crawling through the dirty corridors of the hospital, without worrying about running out of film. The Kubrick vibe was unmistakable, but in a location like this how could a filmmaker not allow viewers to pore over the visual details?
No one, however, really knew what that HD video was going to look like. Combined with all those long takes there was a near-morale crisis on the film in the first week. The hospital was even more difficult to work in than we’d expected — if something wasn’t ready and we had to change plans, that often meant doing a full company move to drive all the gear a quarter-mile around the hospital, because unsafe floors meant there was no way to simply walk through it.
An unexpected difficulty was getting the entire crew -- including me -- to really see what we were doing. The script was evolving as we crafted all those long, slow shots through decrepit hallways. Everyone knew that this wasn’t a jump scare horror movie, but not everyone knew precisely what the movie wanted to be.
Finally, a week or two into the shoot, Anderson assembled everyone to show a sizzle reel cut from what we’d shot so far. It didn't show off the characters or story, but conveyed exactly what the mood and pace of the film would be. It worked astoundingly well, and the job got a lot easier after that. Everyone knew what we were working to create.
Danvers was amazingly photogenic, but it was a pain in every other respect. A low-budget film is already difficult. Crews are pushing against time constraints and limitations of whatever gear is on hand. We shot many scenes outdoors, in sunlight, which makes the film unlike other horror movies. That was a practical consideration in part, as there was no money to pay for lights to do extensive night shots.
Our financiers didn't understand why we would often fall behind schedule, because they couldn't comprehend just how difficult the hospital was to work in. Finally they sent someone out to oversee the shoot, creating a new, different tension on set. In the end, that tension might have contributed to the movie -- another example of the film's real-world creation mirroring the content of the story, with conflict and a bit of paranoia creeping in from the margins.
I’ve worked on much bigger movies, and things that were seen by an exponentially larger audience. But Session 9 has the most staying power of anything I took part in, even above more recognizable films from studios. People respond to the movie in a way that I love; the people who are really into it often like the movie far more than I do.
This movie was made before the internet exploded as a place for film discussion, and consequently before people became much more commonly literate about horror and other genre films. It’s a movie on the cusp of a big change in the genre landscape, coming in just a few years before Saw changed the scene in the 2000s, and before the real wave of indie horror took over.
Today, a film that features a plot inspired by 1980s satanic panic, shot in an abandoned mental hospital, would have a long online promo campaign and a big run through festivals around the world. Session 9 was left to its own brief theatrical life, one of the last genuine cult classics.