Celebrities and local filmmakers at the Independent Film Festival of Boston

While you weren't paying attention, the Independent Film Festival of Boston got big. A staggering 96 films are included in this year's incarnation, which runs April 23-29 in Somerville, Cambridge and Brookline. In addition, there will be filmmaker Q&As, panel discussions, and parties.

And look at the names this year's event is attracting: Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley and Mary Stuart Masterson, who's making her directorial debut.

And local filmmaking success story Brad Anderson will help kick things off on Opening Night, when he's on hand to screen his new film, "Transsiberian."

Anderson is truly local. He's not only from this area, he also made films about this area. His breakout comedy, the fabulous "Next Stop Wonderland" (1998), used many local actors as part of its Boston backdrop. And Anderson got the idea for his terrific little 2001 chiller-thriller "Session 9" while he drove past the eerie and abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital.

If you see a trend developing here in Anderson's work, it's that there's really no trend. He jumped from comedy, to horror, to the disturbing ("The Machinist"). And for his new film, he's headed in another direction. "Transsiberian" is a kind of Hitchockian thriller. (Note: Just to throw you entirely off his trail, it looks like Anderson's next film will be a musical.)

"I like to move from genre to genre," says Anderson from his home in New York. "It's a way to test myself. I've never been interested in repeating myself. At least not consciously."

Inspired by "Strangers on a Train" or "The Lady Vanishes," "Transsiberian" follows, well, strangers on a train. The more these passengers get to know each other, the less they realize they know.

Anderson liked the dramatic possibilities and intrigue inherent in a train - the chance for people from all over the world to meet in a contained environment, traveling through exotic locations.

"It justifies so many interesting characters," he says.

This film marks a big step up for Anderson, in terms of scope and star power. His cast includes Woody Harrelson and Kingsley.

"They met all my expectations in terms of being able to deliver the goods," says Anderson, describing the process of working with A-list actors. "I appreciate that they were drawn to the project. They knew it would be a labor of love. At times, the shoot was cold and difficult," but the stars pulled no star trips, he reports.

Although Anderson seems headed in a new direction with "Transsiberian," the writer-director also knows that there are certain common themes to all his works, no matter how diverse they may appear on the surface.

"I'm interested in putting characters in excruciating circumstances, whether that leads to comedy or horror," he says. "I like to see the characters negotiate it and work it out. I like it when characters have an epiphany about themselves that boggles their mind, a revelatory moment."

You know that Hollywood must have made a few calls to a proven director like Anderson. You wonder if he'll ever pick up the phone. He's not adverse to making a big-budget Hollywood picture - to get the chance to play with all the "bells and whistles" - but it hasn't happened yet.

Anderson's fans may be grateful.

"Sure, there's a temptation, a curiosity to work with a much bigger budget," admits Anderson. "But you know you'll be answering to more people. That can always reduce the film to the point that it's no longer pure and authentic."

Spoken just like the guy who should help kick off the Independent Film Festival of Boston.

Independent Film Festival of Boston plays at the Somerville Theatre, in Davis Square, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. For a list of screenings, events, panels, parties and passes, visit <u><span style="color: blue;"></span></u>

Fast fact: Brad Anderson's new film, "Transsiberian," plays April 23 at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.