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no respect week

Paul W.S. Anderson on Building the Perfect Over-the-Top Action Scene

It’s No Respect Week here at Vulture, which means we’re celebrating things that never seem to get any love: schlock rock, Adam Sandler cry-festsromance novels, and, yes, a novelty song by a comedian whose catchphrase was “No respect.” Something else that doesn’t get appreciated enough: a perfectly executed over-the-top action sequence.

If you’re looking for a real underrated genre auteur — a guy who makes a particular kind of populist movie and gets very little critical respect for it — Paul W.S. Anderson is your man. From the gaming-inspired action-fests Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, to the post-apocalyptic Jason Statham car flick Death Race, to the down-and-dirty cult sci-fi horror classic Event Horizon, Anderson very consciously makes movies you’re supposed to scream at — in delight, horror, vengeful wrath; you name it. His is a very visceral kind of cinema: It requires a lot of precision and care, but is also perceived as lowbrow and often ignored by critics. This year’s epic Pompeii 3-D is one of his most ambitious films yet, but it’s still very much his: It’s got over-the-top bad guys, beautiful heroes, big, un-nuanced emotions, gruesome fight scenes, and, of course, a gloriously explosive third act involving a giant volcano. We caught up with the action auteur to talk about why he never gets any respect and the secret to a good explosion, among other things.

Do you think people sometimes look at the subjects of your films — whether it’s Mortal Kombat or Resident Evil or Alien vs. Predator — and just decide in advance not to take them seriously?
That’s definitely a danger if you do a lot of genre work — especially action movies. I think people don’t understand how hard those movies are to make, both as a filmmaker and as an actor. It’s different in different countries, though. If you were a Japanese or French journalist, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I grew up loving the movies of John Carpenter, and he famously once said, “In Europe, I’m an artist. In America, I’m a bum.” That’s true of a lot of American filmmakers. You know, the auteur theory, which back in the day really gave those kinds of genre filmmakers their due, came out of France and Europe. So, there are a lot of people who have worked in the larger genre that get a lot more respect in countries overseas rather than their own country.

Do you ever read your reviews?
When Mortal Kombat came out, I was living in an apartment in the Venice Canals in L.A. I didn’t get paid a huge amount of money, so I had a nice apartment, but I couldn’t afford to have it furnished. It was kind of like Robert De Niro’s apartment in Heat: It looked like I was ready to walk away from it in ten seconds, because there was nothing. New Line sent me all of the reviews for the movie when it came out, and at the time I was overjoyed because the movie was No. 1, it was a big success, it was my first American movie. So, I got all the reviews and I put them in the middle of the floor and spread them out. There were two piles: the good reviews and the bad reviews; the positives and the negatives. They were pretty much the same height, 50-50 on that movie. I read everything. Three weeks later, the movie was still No. 1, a big hit, and I couldn’t remember a single good thing anyone had said about the movie. All I could remember — in vivid detail — was all the bad things people had written. That’s probably just human nature, right? You always remember the bad stuff. But at the end of it, I thought, I know people liked it. That pile was just as high as the negative pile. I don’t think I’m gonna do that again, because I don’t think it’s terribly constructive and it’s kind of painful. So I don’t.

But a lot of your films have gotten belated critical respect, too.
My first movie that came out — Shopping, a British movie starring Jude Law and Sadie Frost — there were certain journalists in the U.K. who just eviscerated that movie. They hated it, hated everything about it. But it was also financially successful for Channel 4, and it was kind of an important film for the industry at the time, sort of the start of a new wave: Without Shopping, there might not have been Shallow Grave or Trainspotting or those more commercial movies that were aimed at younger audience. At the time, one journalist in particular just laid into Shopping so brutally. Ten years later, he wrote about the movie and about its place in British film history and how it had started this new wave of British youth film, and he was very complimentary about the look of it, the style of it, how it started Jude Law’s career and what an asset he was to the industry. This is the same person who did a complete hatchet job on the same movie ten years ago. So, the reviews — if they’re bad, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be bad forever.

What’s better: having the success and the acclaim right out of the gate with a film, or having more belated, though perhaps longer-lasting, respect?
Of course it would be awesome to have both; if you can’t get it straight away, it’s nice to have it a little later. But for me, the real epiphany came the first time I saw a proper movie play in America. When you watch movies in Britain, the reaction when people hate a movie is … they just politely get up and leave at the end. And when they love a movie … they just politely get up and leave at the end. You can’t tell whether they hated your movie or loved it. But when I was a student, I spent some time traveling in America on an exchange program. One day I went to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall play in Times Square on opening weekend, and it was a revelation for me. Remember that scene where Sharon Stone tries to kill Arnold, and he wrestles the gun off her, and she says, “You wouldn’t kill me, I’m your wife”? At that point, these two women beside me stood up and screamed at the screen, “Kill the bitch! Shoot her in the head!” And then when he goes, “Consideh dis a divooohce” and shoots her, the whole audience erupted! They were so happy! You literally couldn’t hear the next scene’s dialogue at all. I realized that that was the kind of movie that I wanted to make — popular entertainment. Now I watch all of my movies with an audience, and you know if you’ve done your job as a filmmaker when people cheer when they’re supposed to, when they laugh when they’re supposed to, when they have a great time.

What, for you, is too over the top? Is there a point where you think, You know, the audience might go ape for this scene, but I’m not going to do it?
You don’t want the audience to react so much that it takes them out of the movie or takes them out of their suspension of disbelief. In Event Horizon, there’s a scene where Kathleen Quinlan gets a medical bag and she sees a vision of her child back on Earth. You’ve seen him in a wheelchair earlier, but this time, in her vision, you see that his legs are all withered and covered in sores, and it’s really powerful. Then there’s a jump-scare right afterwards — Jason Isaacs appears behind Kathleen, and people are like, Ahhh! It’s, I think, an effective scene. Now, the audience had an even bigger reaction in the original cut, because when we first tested it, you could see the withered legs and the sores, but then you could also see the legs were covered in writhing maggots. It grossed the audience out. They were like, Ohhh God, ughhh! But what I realized was it grossed them out so much that when Jason Isaacs turned up behind her, no one was surprised or shocked, because they had ceased to engage with the film. So you can give them too much sensation and take them out of the movie. So I took the maggots out, and you just saw the legs, and it became a much more effective and scary scene because of that. 

So, what’s the secret to a good jump-scare?
I think it’s a lot about timing. I’ve always felt that there’s a lot of similarity between doing a comedy and doing a scary movie because jokes and scares are all about timing. If you give the punch line too early or too late, the joke falls flat. And it’s the same with a scare. You can deliver it too early. If you make the tension too long, the audience is like, Get the fuck out of here, we’re over it! There’s a moment where the jump is correct, and you have to deliver. It’s a very precise thing, and it’s the same as comic timing.

What’s the secret to a good explosion?
[Laughs] Make it big. I think with all action — fight scenes, explosions — you need to show the impact. When there’s a big explosion, it doesn’t really have a visceral impact on the audience if it’s just flinging people through the air. They know that’s just stunts. But if you fly people through the air and they then they hit something, it’s a lot better. And then if they hit something really hard — like, you know, a brick wall — it’s even better. And if they hit a kind of rough edge on that brick wall, then you’re getting to the good stuff. And then if what they hit breaks, then that’s the best. An excellent example of that is the fight scene in True Lies. That’s not James Cameron’s strongest film, but there’s an awesome fight scene right at the start, with Arnold in the bathroom. What’s great about it is all the tiles that break. You know, you’ve seen Arnold punch people so many times, but it’s the fact that he punches people and he hits their heads into the tiled wall and then the tiles break into little pieces, that’s when you start to feel it. That’s something that I’ve always tried to do in my movies.

You’ve given a lot of thought to this.
I learned that in Mortal Kombat, actually, from [actor and fight choreographer] Robin Shou, who started as a Hong Kong martial artist. When we did Mortal Kombat, we were really one of the first mainstream American movies to employ all of that Hong Kong—style fight choreography. Robin was instrumental in bringing that to the table. We watched a lot of movies together, and he was very insistent that if he got flown through the air, he should hit something, and if he could hit on the edge, it would be so much more impactful than hitting flat. Stuntmen don’t want to do it because it’s painful. But that’s why they do it in Hong Kong — because they know the more painful the stunt, the better it looks usually, and the better it looks, the more you’re valued in the stunt world.

Of course, in Hong Kong they do it so fast, and kind of on the down low; people do get hurt. In America, they try to pad the corners, make the table a breakaway table rather than a real table, that sort of thing. In Hong Kong, when you plan a Jackie Chan fight with a stunt team, you ask, “Is it a one-rib fight, a two-rib fight, or a three-rib fight?” It all depends on how many ribs you’re going to break in the fight scene. In my movies, I try to give the illusion of broken ribs without actually breaking them.

So what’s the secret to a good beheading?
[Laughs] A good beheading. I think probably it goes back to not showing too much. There is definitely an audience for that kind of real gross-out, gore-fest kind of stuff — but it’s a small audience, and by pandering to that audience, you alienate a much wider audience. For me, whenever you’re cutting off limbs or heads, usually the less you show, the better. It’s all about what the audience member can imagine, which is something that we tried to do to the nth degree on Event Horizon. People imagined they saw horrific things in the flash-frame images at the end of that film. But the imagery is so fast, they just turn away and think they saw things, because you’re allowing people to access their own worst nightmares. I’ve always felt that as soon as people look away from the screen and stop watching the movie, they stop engaging with the film and the story you’re telling. And if you’re trying to scare people or horrify people, you can’t do that if they’re not looking at your movie. I always try to err on the side of making them turn their head away kind of three-quarters of the way, but they’re still looking. When I was a kid, Dr. Who was on every Saturday at teatime. And I was terrified of the Daleks. I would watch from behind the sofa in our living room, looking through my fingers. But I couldn’t bear not to watch. I was probably watching with one eye half-obscured by one finger, but I was still watching it. That’s kind of what I want the audiences who see my movies to do. I don’t want them to turn away fully because I don’t want them to disengage.

I’ve always been impressed by the editing in your action scenes. How do you go about cutting a fight scene?
Well, I think for me, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked with a lot of actors who take action very seriously and learn to do their own stunts, whether it’s Milla [Jovovich] or Kit [Harington] or Kurt Russell. If you have an actor who’s willing to work really hard, willing to learn the choreography, not wimp out when they get hurt, go home covered in bruises, and really perform like a stunt performer for you … If you have an actor who’s willing to do that for you, you have a duty as a filmmaker to prove onscreen that it’s really them doing it.

But I think everything starts from the choreography. I work really hard with the fight choreographer and the stunt performers to really design action sequences. Quite often filmmakers have to create excitement through fast editing and sound because actually what they’ve captured isn’t really that exciting. I’m very involved in building the action sequences in my film, coming up with the ideas, rehearsing them. So it’s a holistic approach to action. I don’t just turn up with cameras on the day and shoot it.

And I do like environments. I like fights or action scenes that involve the environment that you’re in somehow. They’re built to specific environments, and they wouldn’t work if you put them somewhere else. For example, the fight in Pompeii in the arena, it’s all built around that monolith and those rocks, and that’s how we started. We designed the set, and then we designed the fight around the set.

Speaking of environments: In Pompeii, the mountain feels like another character in the movie right from the beginning.
I’ve always been a big fan of movies where the environment or the setting becomes a character in the movie — whether it’s the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. That’s what I’ve always strived to achieve with my films. I see one of my strengths as a filmmaker as immersing the audience in an environment, and quite often an extreme environment. That’s why I love 3-D, because if it’s correctly used, 3-D is an incredibly immersive tool for a filmmaker to deploy.

The film reminded me a bit of those “sword-and-sandal” epics I used to love as a kid — very transporting in that way. What kind of films inspired you for Pompeii?
Of course, all the big classics like Ben-Hur and Spartacus are very much in your consciousness when making a period movie like this. We’re obviously a very different movie because we’re a disaster movie, but I definitely invoked the spirit of Ben-Hur on occasion, especially in budget meetings. People would ask, “Why do you need four horses? The chariot could be pulled by two horses.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but look how cool four horses look!” And I’d just produce a picture from Ben-Hur.

Your films are not super-high-budget films though, right?
We do spend a lot of money on them, but it’s not on the level of some other films. We’re not a $200 million studio spend. I’m sure people in studios look at the budgets of my movies and go, How on earth did you achieve that? We had a screening of Pompeii in New York, and at the end of it, Paul Haggis came up to me and really wanted to pick my brain as to how we do that. My movies have a lot of preparation before we start shooting. It’s the cheapest part of the production process. You just sit around and talk about how you’re gonna do it. You can either do that before you start shooting — in which case it’s free, because it’s just you and a few other people talking about it with some pieces of paper and computers — or you can do it when you’re standing on the set with 200 people staring at you wondering what you’re going to do next, and quite often that’s how studio movies get made. I think there’s a lot of waste in many studio movies. They shoot things that they know don’t really work, but they know they’re gonna do these big four-, five-, six-week reshoots.

I come from a European independent background where you don’t reshoot for four or five weeks. You make the entire movie in four or five weeks. So there’s very little wasted, especially in the big visual-effects and action sequences. They’re very well planned and executed, because a lot of those big $150 million movies, the money doesn’t go on the screen. It goes into scenes that don’t get used, or it goes into people standing around and getting only three setups a day rather than 25 setups a day because they’re still trying to figure out how the zombies move or what the color of the alien blood’s gonna be. We try and have all that stuff done beforehand.

Does that buy you a certain amount of freedom as well, to not have gargantuan budgets?
The film business is a business, and there’s a relationship between how much you spend and how much a movie has to make. You can have a movie that makes $300 million worldwide and doesn’t get a sequel. Why? Because that movie cost $200 million to make, and then you’ve got P&A and marketing on top of it. So you have what on the surface looks like a successful film, but underneath it, the finances don’t add up. You’re spending somebody else’s money, and if they don’t get it back, they don’t like that. So you can’t think, I’ve got big balls because my movies cost huge amounts of money. Because then you’ve got to make even more giant amounts of money. It puts a huge pressure on you.

I remember once upon a time, in the days of Waterworld, it was a mark of shame to have made the most expensive movie ever. Now some people seem to take pride in it.
[Laughs] Yes. But studios do take the cost of their movies down as well. It’s commonplace that the reported budget on big movies is usually only two-thirds of what the real budget is.

Finally, a stupid question, but I have to ask it: Have you ever met Paul Thomas Anderson?
Yeah, I met him in Sundance when we both had our first films there. I met him at a party. It’s a very common name. Back in the day, we both used to go by the name Paul Anderson. The reason why we have to use our middle names now is because I think I’m officially “Paul Anderson” in the Director’s Guild, and he was officially “Paul Anderson” in the Writer’s Guild. So when we started both writing and directing films, we couldn’t both be called Paul Anderson. That’s why I adopted the W.S., which is my name.