I became aware of Paul W.S. Anderson while teaching film classes at Chicago’s Columbia College. It was around the time Anderson’s Mortal Kombat was released on home video and one of my students couldn’t wait to talk it up.
Open-minded soul that I am, my exact response was, “I’d rather [email protected]*k a pencil sharpener than watch a film based on video game.” His reply won me over: “They bash Spielberg in the first ten minutes, and it’s the closest thing to Sam Firstenberg’s “Ninja” series for Cannon Films we’re likely to see.”
He handed me a video cassette, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Even after the success of Mortal Kombat, it would still be several years before Hollywood would offer Anderson the use of a superstar, so he did the next best thing. Together with wife Milla Jovovich, they created one of their own. The rest is franchise history.
Anderson’s latest, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, was not screened for the press. My admiration for his work such as it is, left me feeling confident that I could make it through an interview, even with the last installment sight-unseen.
A little side note before we begin. Each Tuesday Lickona and I flip a coin to see who will write the blurb for the Your Week section of the paper. Somewhere amidst the ballyhoo, I mentioned that Paul W.S. Anderson is the only director currently at work who makes a living exclusively in genre pictures.
My editor wrote back, “Is that true? What isn’t a genre pic? Isn’t everything in some genre? And certainly there are other directors making a living exclusively in genre pictures...?”
Since he was good enough to ask, I put together the following list of pointers:
- Genre pictures are the precursor to network drama: the same characters meet in the same setting to basically hash out a similar story. What makes them different are the individual storytellers.
- Genre films are geared for the masses and most of them have built-in audiences. An “art film” generally doesn’t qualify as a genre picture. The Seven Samurai is no more a western than Raging Bull is a sports picture.
- Film noir is not a genre. Nor is Italian neorealism. I learned that from Paul Schrader. They’re styles that exist through time, whereas genre films tend to take place in one particular time frame or location.
- What genre does Sully fall under? It’s not really a biopic, nor is it a disaster film. How about Silence? With the exception of something like Still of the Night or The River Wild, Meryl Streep is not a name often associated with genre pictures. Chuck Norris is. So are Milla Jovovich and Jason Statham.
- Back in the day films were defined by their genre: western, musical, sci-fi, gangster, adventure, etc. What with all the genre-bending out there today, there’s probably a western musical that takes place in outer-space.
- Finally, to a lot of people, the term “genre director” casts a negative connotation. At a time when genres have cross-pollinated to the point of being unrecognizable, it takes a little guts and a lot of skill to make it as a genre director.
The editor replied, “Maybe you can get all of that in a column sometime, so it’s not just for me.”
So I did. Now enjoy the interview!
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter trailer
Scott Marks: Three directors walk into a bar: Paul Thomas Anderson, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Wes Anderson. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. At what point in your career did you add the W.S. and were you just a little peeved when Wes Anderson came along to add more confusion to the mix?
Paul W.S. Anderson (Laughing): I’ll tell you exactly when the W.S. got added. I took my very first movie, Shopping, to the Sundance Film Festival where I met Paul Thomas Anderson. At the time we were both Paul Anderson. When we went on from that point...Paul Thomas is registered as Paul Anderson at the Writer’s Guild of America and I am Paul Anderson at the Director’s Guild of America. And that’s reflected in the credits of the movies I’ve made.
When I directed Event Horizon and Soldier – two films which other people wrote – I could be Paul Anderson. As soon as I wrote and directed, I couldn’t be because he was Paul Anderson. When I started working as a writer-director, that’s when he became Paul Thomas Anderson and I became Paul W.S. Anderson. Neither of us can write and direct an American movie under the name Paul Anderson. (Laughing.) Honestly, I don’t think anyone confuses me with Wes Anderson. He’s in his own terrific universe, but not the kind anyone would mistake for mine.
SM: It pains me to say that I wasn’t able to see the movie in time for the interview.
PWSA: I’m really sorry you didn’t get to see it because it’s a movie I’m very proud of. It raises the bar for the franchise. It’s got an emotional component to it that you wouldn’t associate with a Resident Evil film. It’s a massive departure in terms of visual style from the last couple of films. Kind of deliberately so. There’s no slow-motion, the whole symmetrical framing and elegant camera moves are all gone. It’s all kind of rugged hand-held, dirty, sweaty, sexy, gritty. It’s still very stylish but in a completely different way.
SM: Did you shoot it in 3D?
PWSA: I love 3D, and I’m very upset about the way it’s being treated and thrown away by Hollywood in this kind of horrible grab for the money with all these bad 3D movies and terrible 3D conversions. But I still believe in 3D, and I think when it’s properly used is a great submersive tool for filmmakers. I wanted it to be a 3D movie, but equally I wanted to give it this very aggressive visual style that I couldn’t achieve with a 3D camera. They’re too big. So what I did is I shot with 2D cameras, but I used my 3D crew and they shot everything as though it was in 3D. Even the conversion company that did it was shocked to see how good it looked in 3D. With the advantage of these small, lightweight cameras, I was able to put the camera in places I would never have been able to get the 3D cameras.
SM: Perhaps it’s best that you didn’t put any more effort into shooting in 3D. As is, unless it’s a major blockbuster, a lot of chains, at least in San Diego, are reluctant to program 3D screenings. You’re one of the few directors that actually knows his way around a 3D lens. The aerial shots in Pompeii took my breath away. If given a choice, I’ll always opt for 3D. Why do you think audiences are turning their back on the process?
PWSA: They’ve been burned, for ever movie like Hugo or Pompeii or Resident Evil where the 3D is strong, there are a dozen of bad conversions where the filmmakers clearly don’t care about 3D. It’s all done as a post-production process; they don’t shoot it for 3D.
If you’re going to ask people to pay a premium price, you have to deliver a premium product. Not enough 3D movies have delivered on that promise. People got tired of it, and that’s why they started to turn their back on 3D.
That’s in the U.S. In certain parts of the world, where cinema viewers are more selective about when they go to the cinema and whether they see it in 2D or 3D, 3D is still very strong. In China, you don’t watch anything other than 3D movies. In Russia, 3D is still very strong. It’s unfortunate that in America it’s declining, but there are still places where it’s very vibrant.
For me, you can still shoot a great 3D movie, and it will still look good in 2D. You can’t necessarily do it the other way around.
SM: After seeing them on the screen, films like The Three Musketeers or Pompeii only exist in 3D. The 2D Blu-ray copies don’t quite cut it. It’s sort of like watching a pan-and-scan copy of a CinemaScope movie.
PWSA: You’ve seen the premium product, and now you’re seeing something less. But if you haven’t seen them in 3D, they still work in 2D. Like with this new Resident Evil movie. We finished it as a 2D movie first, and it’s a great movie. That’s the way everyone at the studio saw it. When you finally see the finished movie in 3D you gasp and think, Wow, that’s even better. There are certain shots that are definitely done as a 3D conceit that really come to life.
SM: While doing my research, I visited your Wikipedia page. What a bunch of biased hooey! I can almost understand critics turning up their noses – instead of making artsy-fartsy navel-gazing indies, you seem quite content earning a successful living working exclusively in genre films – but you’ve also angered a lot of fanboys out there.
PWSA: Genre movies are hard to make. Action is difficult. If you consistently work in certain genres, you tend to get a little underrated. But I don’t care about that. I love making genre movies. In a way, hardcore audience are always hard to please. You’re always going to get criticism. I loved what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings, and he won an Oscar for it. But there are still people that just aren’t happy with what he did. I don’t know what they would be happy with. Maybe if Tolkien came back to life and the movies were just him reading the books for hours on end. There are always going to be people who feel unhappy. With social media, sometimes the voices of a small minority can be very loud.
SM: The word “cheesy” comes up a lot, but as you point out, it takes a lot of work and even more passionate talent to give these genre-tributes just the right feel to avoid pushing things in the direction of camp or even worse, gratuitous splatter. There’s not a lot of bloodletting in the majority of your work.
PWSA: Having a little restraint is a peace-saver. What scares people always is their own imagination. You can never put something on screen that’s as horrific as what people can imagine. But if you leave a little something to the imagination, people scare even more.
Having made Event Horizon...people have told me the things they’ve seen in that movie – the horrific images and flashes of hell – that just don’t exist. I never shot any of that. It’s not in the movie, but people think it’s there. That’s their own imagination working. That movie was a very important lesson for me. There’s a scene in it where one Kathleen Quinlan goes into the medical bay and she sees her son. She looks down and his legs are all withered and then Jason Isaacs appears behind her and there’s a big scare. It’s a very frightening scene.
But in the original cut screened for test audiences, she looks down at the withered legs and we cut back to Kathleen. She looks at the legs again and suddenly there were maggots crawling all over the legs. At that point, the audience turned away from the screen. I lost them. They disengaged with the movie because I had pushed them too far. And then when Jason turns up, he was not scary at all because the audience had stopped being in the scene. It was an important lesson for me to learn to show a little restrain sometimes. You keep the audience rather than pushing them so far that you break the suspension of disbelief.
SM: How did you feel when you found out you’d be making a movie for Paramount Pictures?
PWSA: When I came to Hollywood…it was a dream to me that I’d ever become a filmmaker. In my wildest dreams, if I ever did become a filmmaker I always thought I’d live in Hollywood, I’d drive past the Warner Bros. Tower or the Paramount Gate and actually shoot in one of them. I still get a huge thrill driving on the studio lot. It’s what Hollywood is all about. The reality of modern day filmmaking is you put the movies together in L.A. but then get on a plane and go and shoot them somewhere else. Very few movies get made in Hollywood anymore. The last movie I shot in L.A. was Soldier. I’m on the Sony lot plenty to talk about Resident Evil, but when it comes to making the movie, I’m in Toronto or Mexico City or Cape Town.
SM: I mentioned our upcoming interview on Facebook and the one question that everyone had was, when will we see a DVD director’s cut of Event Horizon?
PWSA: Never. That movie has become a great seller for Paramount. They asked me if I wanted to do a director’s cut. I investigated and unfortunately the material just isn’t available anymore. We shot that movie before the DVD revolution. DVDs gave movies a great afterlife. You had to generate more material for the DVD — behind-the-scenes stuff, deleted scenes, etc. Event Horizon came out just before that. Because the movie wasn’t a giant theatrical hit, the studio just didn’t keep the material. The footage doesn’t exist anymore to reinstate it in a director’s cut.
SM: Is there any truth to the rumor that the old VHS pressing contains footage not found on the DVD?
PWSA: Lloyd Levin, who was one of the producers has a VHS cassette…I’ve never managed to watch it, nor has he, because he moved to Spain. I travel so much and we’ve never been in the same country with a VHS player and him having the cassette in his hands, but I’m very excited about doing it at some point. I’d like to see what’s on that tape!