THE STORY BEHIND the making of the romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland represents one of those fantasies artists turn to in moments of poverty-inspired delusion: I've got it. I'll find some multimillionaire guy in town, maybe a real estate developer who secretly wants to be a film producer. He'll commission me to make a movie for, say, a million dollars. I'll get to do whatever I want, since he won't really know anything about film. It'll get shown at Sundance, and the investor will turn out to have connections at some big Hollywood studio that'll buy the movie for $7 million. I'll quit the liquor store and do interviews with critics at posh hotels across the nation. We'll order room service. God, I'm good...

And so it was for Wonderland's co-writer/director Brad Anderson, although, back in his poor days, he did sell jewelry on the street and donate sperm. He also took part in a sleep-deprivation study--which, from the looks of his dandruffy sweater, neglected beard, and pink-rimmed eyes, might still be in progress. Halfway through a grueling PA tour organized by his movie's purchaser, Miramax Films, the 33-year-old Bostonian director-cum-hot-commodity could use some coffee, which his co-writer/actor Lyn Vaus proceeds to order.

Sitting with Vaus on the top floor of the downtown Hilton in Minneapolis, Anderson admits that working with such an inexperienced producer as Boston real estate developer Mitchell Robbins had its trade-offs. "We could tell him how we were going to do it and what's he going to say? 'Cause he doesn't know." On the other hand, because the main character is a woman (played by Hope Davis), the director says his investor wanted him to hold "women's focus groups, where we'd ask women questions like, 'What's it like to be a woman? What do you guys do when you're alone?'" Anderson refused. "It's not like we're trying to access another species here," he says.

Although Variety recently named him one of "Ten Leading New Directors to Watch," Anderson often looks back to his no-budget Sundance debut from 1996, The Darien Gap. Clearly, this "guerrilla-style" portrait of an enterprising filmmaker (played by Vaus) is closer to his heart. "With Wonderland we were going for a more commercial audience," he says. "I didn't want to lose a sense of artistry, but at the same time we didn't want to make it so esoteric that no one's going to see the goddamn thing." (The Darien Gap received only limited distribution outside the festival circuit.)

As part of the massive Wonderland deal, Miramax also bought rights to Anderson's future filmmaking services. But this post-hippie/anthropology major still maintains his passion for documentary, a form in which he cut his teeth editing series episodes for Boston's PBS affiliate, WGBH. "I'd like to be able to go back and forth between documentaries and features," Anderson says. "Any benefits of moving out to Hollywood would be far outweighed by the awfulness of that kind of lifestyle. We're probably getting into that with our next movie," he says flatly, alluding to his upcoming horror flick for Miramax.

In a sense, Next Stop Wonderland served as a means to an end for Anderson, capped by this rousing refrain of mediated cynicism: "Everyone exploited everyone else, to everyone's mutual advantage. At the end of the day, we made a movie, Robbins sold it and made a little money. So from that perspective, the film succeeded."

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