Exclusive Interview: Paul W.S. Anderson

        In the 1990s there was a sudden increase in new filmmakers; directors born from the newly emerged independent film world who were able to budget their films in a way that increased the profits for studios. These filmmakers were not seasoned professionals; they were fans. In order to understand where this trend, we need to look a decade earlier. The advent of VCRs created an influx of filmmakers educated by video store. This is not to say that they did not also go to school to learn the mechanics of filmmaking, but the passion was developed from a wealth of material which hadn’t been near as available for previous generations of movie-makers.


        These directors are a joy to watch, often developing a loyal fan-base because of their ability to embrace the spectacle of cinema. Some have criticized this group of filmmakers for relying too heavily upon previously established genres, but working within the structure of these known narratives is what forces the filmmakers to find another way to place their own stamp on the material. This is why many of the most successful genre directors also end up being the most stylistically recognizable. This list includes directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith. Another name that has become impossible to ignore when compiling a list of these directors is Paul W.S. Anderson, a filmmaker whose love of cinema was clearly apparent in my conversation with him.

Anderson on the set of Resident Evil: Retribution with wife Milla Jovovich

        Anderson’s first feature was screened at the Sundance film festival in 1994, which quickly solidified the English filmmaker’s career in Hollywood. His first blockbuster was also the beginning of a venture into the world of video game adaptations, which was Mortal Kombat (1995). Anderson would return to this sub-genre with Resident Evil in 2002, then again with Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012). This franchise stands out as not only being one of the only successful video game adaptations as well as the atypical choice to make the movies with a hard R-rating.


        Though he has managed to pull back the reigns on the violence enough to get a PG-13 when necessary, Anderson’s strongest films seem to revel in the spectacle of action, often inserted into the science fiction genre. Soldier (1998) blended typical R-rated action fare into a science fiction plot. Event Horizon was so violent that the first rating it received before cuts were made was NC-17. Death Race (2008) is not outright science fiction, but does exist in an imagined dystopian future (as did Shopping) and certainly appreciates the value of shocking violence. Anderson’s latest film shows that he is just as comfortable working in the past as he has been in the future, though despite its PG-13 rating, Pompeii still manages to contain more than a few brutal action sequences.  


Ryan Izay: First of all, I’d like to say that I’m a big fan of your work. That’s something I don’t always get the chance to say with complete sincerity.


Paul W.S. Anderson: Thank you very much.


Izay: The scope of your films appears to be growing with each movie you make, and Pompeii obviously having a very large scale, but I would like to hear how your experiences in lower budget productions has affected the way that you make blockbusters today.


Anderson: As you probably know, I started making movies in Europe. I started doing television in England, and then my first film was Shopping. It starred Jude Law, which was the first time he’d ever been in front of a movie camera. Actually, I ran into Ewan McGregor a few weeks ago, and when we were auditioning for Shopping we read pretty much every young British actor and it came down to a choice of two unknowns; one of them was Jude, and the other one was Ewan. So, I think that background cinema definitely helped me in terms of budget, squeezing the most out of the budget. We made Shopping for $2 million, which at the time was a good TV-movie budget in the UK, and a lot of movies were financed in that way. And most of the other movies that were being made in the same year in the UK that we made Shopping, they were kind of like kitchen sink dramas and the most exciting thing they’d have in them was maybe a crane shot as some people walked down the beach or something like that, and with exactly the same budget we were trying to make a movie that had action sequences, car chases, helicopter shots, some crowd scenes, riots, explosions… We were trying to make something that was on a much bigger cinematic scale, yet for exactly the same budget as your average European drama. So, from the outset that was a good learning ground for me, because I’ve really applied the same principles to nearly all of the movies I’ve made, whether they’ve been independents or studio movies. I think people would be surprised to learn how efficiently and cost-effectively we make the movies we make, across the board. Definitely some of them are in large scale, but I guarantee that they are still made for about half the price than typical studio fare. I think that we make an action movie for about the same price that a studio would make an Adam Sandler comedy.

Izay: When you make these films, as you’ve said, there’s a lot of research and preparation that goes into their construction. Do you approach your career with the same foresight and planning? In other words, when you were making Shopping, did you intent to end up where you are today or has it all been somewhat happenstance?


Anderson: I don’t think I intended to stay in the UK as a filmmaker. I was heavily influenced when I was young by American movies and by mainland European movies; a lot of French movies, a lot of German movies. I wasn’t a huge fan of British cinema in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. And that’s what Shopping was, an attempt to kind of rebel against what was considered British cinema, which was great art-house.  If you were a young person and you liked to go see movies, there was nothing for you that was made in the UK that would play in the multiplex, unless you were a sexually repressed British butler in the 1930s, in which case there were probably lots of movies made for you. I never really thought that I would stay in the UK as a filmmaker. I always saw my future either in Europe or in America, and that’s what happened pretty fast when my first film played in the Sundance Festival and got a really good reaction from American audiences. And also from American studios who saw what I’d managed to do with two million bucks, and they’re always on the look out for the next young director who can make $1 look like $10. So, I think I always spiritually saw my home more in France or in America rather than in the UK. You know, because I was such a huge fan of Die Hard, Hunt For Red October, Predator, and the Alien movies. Also, there had been that whole wave of British film directors who had gone to America and made their mark in success: the Scott brothers, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne. Although I didn’t plan these things, I guess I’d always imagined that was where I was headed.


Izay: Shopping had a little bit of controversy when it was released, [1] and I feel as though even your PG-13 films have retained some of that edge. Is that just your personal tastes, style or something that you intentionally insert for mass appeal?


Anderson: That’s just my taste, the kind of movies I like, and even when I’ve made PG-13 movies, they’ve been right on the edge of R-rated. I tend to imagine I don’t really have a G-rated movie in me. Not at the moment anyway. My daughter is 6 ½ years old. Maybe she will have that calming influence on me and I’ll have a G-rated movie in me at some point, but certainly not now.


Izay: Let’s talk about Pompeii. Most disaster epics in the past decade have been about either recent tragedies, or an imagined future with some type of apocalyptic dread. Obviously zombie apocalypse is one example of a type that you have dabbled in. Were you aware of the Pompeii’s unique historical disaster qualities during production?


Anderson: Yeah, it’s something I grew up with, because I grew up in the North of England very close to Hadrian’s Wall, which the emperor Hadrian built to kind of separate the civilized Roman South England from the uncivilized wild Scots. The Romans were a big part of my childhood. There’s a lot of Roman history, Roman ruins buried everywhere. I was surrounded by it, and so, I was well aware of Pompeii and the nature of the disaster, even as a child. It has always fascinated me, particularly the plaster casts of the bodies. The idea of people being frozen in time, and frozen at the moment of their deaths; I’ve always found that very evocative and Pompeii is a story I have always wanted to bring to the screen.

Anderson with Pompeii stars Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Kit Harington


Izay: Aside from the disaster elements of the story, it’s actually a fairly traditional sword-and-sandal epic, complete with a number of fairly bad-ass gladiator sequences. I’m curious to know what some of your inspirations were for this portion of the film were.


Anderson: We obviously looked at a lot of the classics; we looked at Ben Hur, we looked at El Cid, we looked at Gladiator, obviously. Gladiator we looked at more to try and stay away from what they had done, because I felt it was one thing to reach back into the history of cinema and be influenced by Ben Hur, for example, and the chariot race. But we didn’t want to feel like we were taking from Gladiator, especially since we have gladiators in the film. So we were trying as much as possible to not tread Gladiator territory even though we had people who had the same profession in the movie. But definitely Ben Hur was a huge influence on this; the Charlton Heston version. The chariot race was influenced by this, of course, but it was a completely different way of filmmaking. They built everything. When you look at the photographs of the set, it’s staggering how huge the construction was and how many tens of thousands of extras they had. It’s the same thing when you look at Cleopatra and movies like that. The great thing about all those old movies is that everything was real. They didn’t have to try hard to make them look real; they just were, because they had unbelievably large sets and unbelievably large amounts of extras. And our approach was to try and do that, but do it with the help of visual effects. But to make the visual effects as close to real as possible, so that it felt like you were immersed in a real ancient world rather than looking at a bunch of visual effects.


Izay:  With the action especially, it felt very intentional what you showed, so that it feels like there was little extraneous material.


Anderson: We did a lot of preplanning on all of the action scenes. Kit and Adewale, virtually everything in the movie is them rather than stunt doubles. They gave me everything and trained very hard for those specific scenes, so it was very precisely done. You are right; there was little that was left on the cutting room floor. It was very exact and planned and executed. A lot of period movies they do battle scenes and the director throws fifteen cameras in there and films it and the sequence is assembled in the edit with a lot of fast cuts, and lots of grabs, bits and pieces. Our approach was to do something more precise, because I thought it would immerse the audience more. And also be really impressive to see Kit Harington do all of this stuff and know it was really him doing it.


Izay: If you had the chance, is there anything you would have done bigger, with a larger scope that wasn’t possible but you wish you could have done?


Anderson: The movie’s pretty big. It’s got a lot of really big stuff in it. You know, there was a sequence that was cut from the script, where we spent more time with the young boy in Britannia that eventually grows up to be Milo, the Kit Harington character. That was kind of interesting stuff, and we cut it because ultimately, the feeling was, in the final edit we’ll want to get the movie going and we’ll want the little boy to grow up to be Kit. So if we shoot this stuff, there’s a great danger that it just won’t end up in the movie. But it’s all set in Northern Britannia, which is of course, where I grew up. So, for purely selfish reasons, I would have loved to have shot more and immerse the audience more in that locale before we shifted to Italy and Pompeii. But that’s really the only thing that I wish that I’d been able to shoot. And like I said, that kind of thing would have only ended up in a director’s cut of the movie. I think in the theatrical version in order to speed the movie along, it probably would have hit the cutting room floor. So, I think we did the right thing by not shooting it.


Izay: Speaking of director’s cuts, since you brought it up. Quite a few of your films have had rumors of a director’s cut. And I know many fans would be eager to know if there are any plans of releasing any in the future, in particular Event Horizon.


Anderson: I think that’s the only one of my movies that I felt there was a lot of material left on the cutting room floor, and it could have been assembled in a different fashion. But we did a special edition of it a few years ago, and that really contained everything. Paramount approached us because the movie had become a big cult hit and they’d sold a lot of DVDs of it, and so they said “Do you want to go back in and do a director’s cut?” And ultimately when we looked at the material, there just wasn’t enough of the material left. It hadn’t been stored particularly well, because you have to remember that Event Horizon was made in the days before DVD and in the days before there was really a great need for all of this additional material. Director’s cuts were unusual at that point. All of these behind-the-scenes things that people have gotten used to now didn’t really exist. So, when you finish the movie, the stuff was put in the vault and forgotten about, and unfortunately when we came back, the material just wasn’t there anymore. So really that special edition we did with a lot of deleted scenes, that’s probably the most there will ever be of Event Horizon. Unless somebody discovers something in a vault in Philadelphia, or something at some point. It happened with Escape From New York; somebody discovered a whole chunk of the movie in storage somewhere and they did a special edition of it. But as far as I know we’ve put as much into the movie… and it wasn’t worth doing a director’s cut because the material didn’t cut in particularly well. A lot of it was kind of low quality, the way it had been stored and the film itself, so it would have been distracting to cut it into the movie. So we just did it as a whole series of deleted/extended scenes.


Izay: I would love to ask about your use of 3D, but I feel like I have to use my last question to ask about Resident Evil 6, to see if there is anything you can hint at for fans to look forward to.


Anderson: Why don’t you ask about the 3D? I can’t talk about Resident Evil 6.


Izay: Alright, fair enough. (Dejected pause) So, Pompeii is your fourth film in 3D. Do you enjoy working in this medium? And what steps do you take to plan for this extra element?


Anderson: I’ve always believed that rather than seeing 3D as a kind of add-on thing, a kind of late developmental process four weeks before the movie comes out, I’ve always felt that you should approach 3D really in the nuts and bolts of assembling a movie, from production design to lighting to script. I’m very aware even in the script process that we’re making a 3D film and I try and design scenes and build sets that I know will enhance the 3D, and that way I think it feels more organic to the film rather than an add-on and gimmicky. It’s the same way when people started making color films; you started thinking about the color of what people wore, and what color the sets should be painted. I don’t think color should be a post-production thing, and I don’t think 3D should be post-production thing.


Izay: Thanks so much for talking with me.


Anderson: And as far as Resident Evil 6, I’m sorry that I can’t be really elaborate on it, but its something that definitely Milla and I both want to do. So there will be a Resident Evil 6. I just can’t give you any details about it.


Izay: Can I get a confirmation on possible titles, at least? There are a lot of rumors floating around right now.


Anderson: There isn’t one. I’ll tell you one thing; it definitely won’t be called Resident Evil. Although in Japan I am sure it will be called Biohazard. That’s one of the territories where they go with numbers, and as you know it’s the Japanese video game’s original title.


Izay: Alright, thanks again, Paul.


Anderson: Alright, cheers. It was a pleasure talking to you.    


Pompeii explodes onto Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD May 20th, 2014


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[1] Shopping is about thieves who steal by ramming a car into storefronts, and was banned from exhibition by select cinemas in England upon release.

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