Alice’s Ultimate Adventure: Paul W.S. Anderson brings the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise to an action-packed finale
“Our approach has always been that as long as we love making these films, we're going to make another one.” That’s what director Paul W.S. Anderson has to say to Film Journal International when asked about what keeps him returning to his movies based on Capcom’s popular videogame, Resident Evil.
It’s been over 14 years since the debut of the original movie that brought Anderson together with his leading lady (and wife) Milla Jovovich for a project that mixed equal parts horror, science fiction and action. Anderson took on a writer and producer role for the second and third movies, but returned to the director’s chair for 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, followed by Resident Evil: Retribution two years later.
Collectively, the five movies in the series have grossed $916 million worldwide, doing subsequently more business overseas with each installment, making it tough not to want to return to the subject matter at least one last time. Being released theatrically by Sony/Screen Gems on Jan. 27, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter promises to offer closure to Anderson and Jovovich’s 15-year commitment to her mysterious character, known simply as “Alice.”
Even after all that time, Anderson remains enthusiastic about the character, and especially about the chance to bring her story full-circle.
“I passionately love the franchise, and I love the videogames that it's based on,” Anderson says about his enduring dedication to challenge his wife in new and exciting ways. “When I worked on the first movie, I was super-excited to do that film, because I was a huge fan of Resident Evil. I met Milla, and she was a massive fan of Resident Evil—she played it with her younger brother. I met Michelle Rodriguez; she loved Resident Evil. Right from the start, you had a very passionate group of people, both in front of and behind the camera, working really hard to make something special. That's why people have kept coming back to the franchise, because we consistently worked our asses off to do the best we possibly can.”
There’s a significance to Anderson reflecting so much on the first movie in the franchise, because the finale is a literal return to the original film and its key location, the Umbrella Corporation’s underground laboratory and bunker known as the Hive.
“I always knew it would be a return to the Hive, and a return to the roots of the franchise,” Anderson tells us. “We structured the movie so that the first half of the movie is Milla's return to Raccoon City, her journey to get there and her adventures above ground in the remnants of Raccoon City—or what's left of it after the bomb was dropped on it at the end of the second film. Then the second half of the movie all takes place back in the Hive, and it becomes increasingly claustrophobic and terrifying, because you're in this one location underground. As in the first movie, the characters are trapped down there with a limited amount of time, and things get nasty. The Hive is massive, so there were some areas that you hadn't seen in the first film. They also go back to some of the areas that you completely recognize from the first film, so what we had to do was rebuild those sets.”
Recreating the Hive from the first movie actually meant going back to original blueprints for sets built on a Berlin soundstage 15 years ago. Anderson explains why this was important to him. “One of the things I wanted this movie to do was for people to go back and revisit those earlier movies—readdress them and reassess them—because we're going to give away some groundbreaking secrets in this movie, where you realize what the agenda of the Umbrella Corporation is, what Alice's story really is, what the Red Queen's story really is. Once you realize that, I think you want to go back and revisit those first movies, and now you can watch those films in a completely different way now that you realize what this conspiracy was and what actually going on.
“In anticipation of people going back and watching the first film, I wanted it to feel like Milla's walking back into exactly the same place, and that’s why we went to such lengths to recreate the cutting-edge technology of 2001,” he jokes. “It’s even to the point where we put the same computer screens on the desks. Back in 2001, these were cutting-edge, the latest and greatest in computers. Now, no one makes them anymore, so I faked it. We actually had to laser print and laser cut, so we did 3D printing and we actually created those monitors from scratch.
“What I love about this film is it's got huge scope and scale, which I think people have come to expect from the franchise—this big action feel,” Anderson says about Alice’s journey during the film’s first half, which took him and his cast to Cape Town, South Africa, where the director had been doing a lot of work in recent years. “It's a long way to travel, but for us it was worth it, because we just got all these magnificent, fresh locations and a crew that was very excited to be working on the project. Creatively, it was very exciting for me. That’s why the movie became more of a location-driven picture, which is why I think it has a really awesome, photo-real, cinematic feel to it, because so many of these big locations that normally you'd do as a visual effect we could just shoot for real.”
And what about those visual effects that have continuously evolved and improved since the first movie? “I think my first approach is always to try and do things practical,” he muses. “I've worked with a very good visual-effects supervisor early on in my career called Richard Yuricich, who worked on 2001 and Blade Runner and really did some groundbreaking stuff with Douglas Trumbull. His favorite visual effects were no visual effects. He really taught me that my favorite kind of visual-effects shot is where you're looking at 75 to 80 percent reality and then there's 20 percent CG on top of that. It's easier to sell it as real because the majority of what you're looking at is reality. Sometimes you have to do it CG, but I've always tried to do as much practical as possible and then use CG as the sweetener and the enhancement. The reason why we went to South Africa was obviously there were some wide CG shots when you're going to show a city with a giant blast crater in the middle of it that's several miles wide. We had so many huge, big, real locations that I think when we go for these wide CG shots, you just buy them all because you're so used to the environment looking real to you—because most of it is.”
“Milla is a very creative person and if she ever wanted to give up being a movie star, she'd make a great studio executive, because she gives great notes,” the director says about his working relationship with his leading lady and wife. “She has a very good feeling for script and character, and that was true from the first movie onwards. She's a very giving actress, and she'll sacrifice stuff for herself to give it to other actors, because she wants everyone to be amazing and for the movie to be as good as it can be. I think that's why she's very much become the beating heart of the Resident Evil franchise and its figurehead. In that regard, my relationship with her has been pretty consistent. I think she's a terrific asset to any film, and I think any director is lucky to have Milla on his or her set.”
He continues, “I think she's always been an underrated actress. When you go back and look at The Fifth Element, for example, that performance is phenomenal. Because it was a science-fiction movie and it was so visual and so comedic, I think people really underrated her performance in that film. The fact that she's speaking a real alien language, the finesse and the nuance in her performance is amazing. I've always found her a terrific actress, and now that she's branched out and done some small indie dramas, I think people are starting to realize that she has great acting chops.”
The Resident Evil franchise’s success overseas has been especially astounding, some of which might be attributed to Anderson’s international casting with Chinese, Japanese and Korean actors playing principal parts in recent films.
“I’ve always seen myself as a global filmmaker,” he explains about his approach to casting, which exemplifies the diversity that is becoming increasingly more desirable. “I grew up in the United Kingdom, but I grew up liking movies that were made in France and America—I liked Hollywood movies and the more cutting-edge European films. Because my influences were always global, that's the way I've always approached my movies. My first Hollywood movie, Mortal Kombat, has an incredibly diverse cast, with Robin Shou and Talisa Soto. The same is true with Event Horizon. Every movie is an adventure, and I like to draw from the best in the world. If the best in the world is a production designer from Mexico, like Eugenio Caballero that we worked with on Resident Evil 3, why not go with that guy? The same with people in front of the camera.”
When pressed on whether The Final Chapter would indeed be “the final chapter” if it’s as successful as earlier installments, Anderson remains pragmatic.
“For me, the business side of it—I'm not ignorant to it, obviously—but it's not the driving force as to why I make a movie or not. For me, each movie is a work of passion. I've never, ever made a movie because of money or because of a business deal. That's not my approach, never has been. That's why I approach the projects with passion, and I think that's why I enjoy working with Milla, Michelle and the other people I work with. They’re there because of a passion for the project that they're making, and those are the kind of people I like to work with, because that's the kind of person I am. It's been a real pleasure to return to the franchise every couple of years and tell a new story.”