a long talk

Paul W.S. Anderson Is the King of Violent, Relentless, Go-for-Broke Thrillers

Photo: Coco Van Oppens /Screen Gems

If you look at the Tomatometer scores for Paul W.S. Anderson’s work, you’d think that this guy makes disaster after disaster. And yet the action auteur of movies like Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Resident Evil (along with three of its sequels), and the new Monster Hunter has, over the years, built up a devout critical following and a reputation as the king of violent, relentless, go-for-broke thrillers. His films are filled with tight visual storytelling and excellent, intricate locationwork. They’re unpredictable and kind of ruthless in their willingness to kill off characters, often quite brutally. And, sure enough, movies that were once dismissed by critics — such as his 1994 debut feature, Shopping, which also happened to introduce the world to a young actor by the name of Jude Law — have retroactively gained respect. When I last spoke to Anderson, back during the release of 2014’s Pompeii, we went down a fun rabbit hole of how to shoot a good explosion, and a good beheading, and a good jump scare. This time around, I asked him about how to handle several other classic action scenarios. We also talked about discovering Law, the importance of locations in his work, and what makes a good video-game movie. Oh, and that time he and his wife, Milla Jovovich, accidentally wandered onto the set of The Great British Bake Off.

Tell me about the controversy in China over your new movie, Monster Hunter.
We were withdrawn from Chinese cinemas on our first day because some people found offense at a line of dialogue in the movie. It was an improvised line of dialogue by one of our actors, who is Chinese American; some people drew a relationship between that line of dialogue and an old schoolyard rhyme that dates to the Second World War and was used to taunt Chinese children. I was totally unaware of this, and so was the actor who improvised the line. And, by the way, the movie went through the Chinese distributor and the Chinese censorship board, and no one there picked up on it either. But then it became a big thing. Obviously, we were mortified that anyone finds offense in anything, especially Monster Hunter, which is designed as just fun entertainment. I’ve issued an apology, and I am very sorry to have offended anybody — that’s obviously not the intention of one of my movies. Hopefully we just move on.

You’re the rare director who’s actually succeeded at making successful movies out of video games, with Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and now Monster Hunter. What’s the biggest challenge with one of these?
You’re always walking the fine line between two audiences: One is the hard-core video-game fans that know everything about the game, and the other is people who don’t know anything about the video game and maybe don’t even play video games. I’ve always approached it first and foremost as a fan. I played Mortal Kombat in arcades in London before I got involved in the movie. I played Resident Evil in my apartment in Hollywood for days and days and days, becoming obsessed with it, before I started making the movie. Monster Hunter I began playing 12 years ago in Japan and immediately became obsessed with that world and those landscapes. So first and foremost, I am approaching it as a fanboy. In Monster Hunter, I was led by the experience of playing the game. I was like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park the first time they see a dinosaur, that slack-jawed sense of wonder. I wanted to re-create that both for the game players and people who didn’t know anything about the game. That’s why I have Milla’s character in there, because when you play the game, you’re a person from our world. You’re sitting in front of your computer, eating a pizza that you just microwaved, and you’re being immersed in this fresh, spectacular other world, and you’re playing a character that you create from scratch. So, Milla’s character is the avatar for the audience. You see the world through her eyes.

It’s a very striking-looking world, just in terms of the landscape.
Some of the landscapes we shot on haven’t been put on film before. The landscape is supposed to portray another world, so I couldn’t be shooting in places that are a half-hour drive away from the studio. Some would be literally hundreds of miles away from the nearest place of habitation. In order to capture them onscreen, we had to put the entire crew in tents, build roads sometimes to get to these places, put in infrastructure so that there was water and power where we were shooting. But once you find an amazing location, it can dictate the action to you. For example, we started in this place in Namibia called Spitzkoppe, which is German for spiky head. When we got there, there was this magnificent rock archway. We used it several times in the movie; Tony Jaa stands in it when he shoots his arrow for the first time. Obviously, I’d never conceived of something like that. I was blown away by it when I saw the location.

All your work is very strong on environments. Your first film, Shopping, to me feels like such an architectural movie — it’s all about these buildings in this industrial landscape. In Event Horizon, the ship is really kind of the central character. Then Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat — these are films where the locations and sets play really key roles.
The movies I gravitated toward [when I was younger] tended to be movies that were very visual and sparse on dialogue: Walter Hill’s The Driver, which is a beautiful movie with very, very little dialogue, and also the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, who heavily influenced Walter Hill. Melville was taking American archetypes, gangsters, and then putting them in Europe and making these very cool existential European gangster movies with very little dialogue and lots of looks and glances.

Even in life, you read all these studies where it says 80 percent of communication is visual rather than verbal. So even if you’re standing in front of somebody, you know whether they’re angry or sad; you can tell what they’re trying to say to you just through the visual cues that they’re giving you. So it’s more of a challenge, but it’s perfectly possible to build character through action. And action is always dictated by space and by location, so that kind of tied the whole thing together for me. In terms of this movie, specifically, I was very influenced by a John Boorman movie called Hell in the Pacific, which starred Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin. At its heart, it’s a story of two characters who just hate one another, but they’re trapped in this isolated place. They try and kill one another at the start, but if they are to escape from that island, they have to learn how to work together. Obviously, we’re a totally different movie from Hell in the Pacific, but the relationship between Milla and Tony builds in a similar way.

I like these quiet moments where people don’t speak, and I like working with actors where you can just stare at them and imagine what they’re thinking, project yourself into their head. Because once you start doing that, then you start empathizing with that person, and you’re doing it visually rather than through telling backstory and stuff like that. I’ve always tried to work with actors where you can do that — people whose faces tell a story even before they open their mouths. Jude Law [in Shopping], right at the very start, has an iconic look. There’s no denying that. And Milla is another icon. Laurence Fishburne [in Event Horizon], just such a fascinating face to look at. These are people who hold the screen visually. I think that Monster Hunter, for example, has that in spades, between Milla and Tony and Ron Perlman.

“I love going back and looking at old reviews occasionally. My favorite, I think, for anything I’ve ever done was a review of Event Horizon.” Photo: Paramount Pictures

Shopping was Jude Law’s first big role. What drew you to him?
It was his first time in front of a film camera. I think he’d done one very small television role. We looked at a lot of young British actors. The choice came down to two relative unknowns: One was Jude Law, and the other was Ewan McGregor! And so we couldn’t have gone wrong with either one. Jude, he just had this air about him — he filmed great. There was something I was keen to break away from, this notion of British cinema being so goddamn worthy and intellectual. I remember, when we were trying to raise the money for Shopping, we went to all these film festivals. I had a meeting at Cannes with this French executive, and she said, “Why is it that you British, you have such goddamn ugly actors in your movies?” And it was true. We got a backlash against it with Shopping, with reviews like, “Jude Law is too good-looking to be an actor.” Can you believe that? Some critic wrote that. But, I will say, those vicious reviews were among the reasons why I ended up doing Mortal Kombat. Because Shopping opened in the U.K. when I was showing it at the Sundance Film Festival. With these horrible things the British critics were writing about my movie, I thought, Oh, God, if I go back to Britain now, I’m going to end up working in a coffee shop. That persuaded me to try my hand in Hollywood, which led to Mortal Kombat.

It must please you that for films like Event Horizon and Mortal Kombat and Shopping, people have come around on them. 
I love going back and looking at old reviews occasionally. My favorite, I think, for anything I’ve ever done was a review of Event Horizon, which said, “Are you thinking of going to see Event Horizon? Well, save yourself five bucks. Just have someone put a metal bucket on your head and hit it with a wrench for an hour and a half.” And I probably told you my favorite for Shopping: “Shopping is nothing more than a relentless orgy of destruction.” And I’m like, Do you know how hard it is to create a relentless orgy of destruction on that kind of budget?

That’s another thing about location. We were making Shopping on the same budget as a kitchen-sink drama. For the same budget, we were trying to do car chases and rock and roll and helicopters. When you’re really trying to stretch a budget like that, location becomes incredibly important because you can’t build anything — you don’t have the money. Those locations in Shopping were magnificent, and they had existed for ages but just didn’t get used. We shot a lot in the East End of London, where there are all these fantastic dockside locations. We worked with Jonathan Pryce on that movie, and I saw him one time: He was just standing in a contemplative mood, staring at some derelict building. I said, “Jonathan, are you okay?” And he said, “Yes, Paul. I think this is the doorway I came out of in Brazil.” And that was, I think, the last time any filmmaker had been there; it was when Terry Gilliam was shooting Brazil.

Event Horizon was the anti-Shopping, in that we had to build everything in the studio. We only went outside for one afternoon, which was to shoot Kathleen Quinlan’s birthday party with her young son that we did in the studio gardens — which is now where they shoot The Great British Bake Off, if you can believe that! I used it for abject horror, and now it’s used for a baking show. We were in Pinewood Studios (where we shot Event Horizon) last year because my oldest daughter, Ever, was doing [Marvel’s] Black Widow, and Milla and I were there as chaperones. I said to Milla, “Oh, you’ve got to come with me. We’ll walk into the Pinewood gardens, and I’ll show you where I shot my only exterior scene in Event Horizon.” So we go into the gardens and, lo and behold, there’s the big Great British Bake Off tent. We watched them shoot, because we’re big fans of the show and we liked seeing Paul Hollywood and all those people. Then they cut, and someone comes running over to us. I’m like, Oh, God, it’s some production assistant who’s going to tell us to bugger off because we’re in the back of the shot. Turned out the director had recognized us, and they were desperate to invite Milla to be on the celebrity edition of the show. They wanted to drag us into the horror! Milla was tempted.

What were your impressions of the Black Widow set?
Listen, I love being on other people’s sets. I enjoy watching another director’s stress. “The crane didn’t turn up” or “We’re losing the light!” Normally, it’s me in that position. It’s fun for me to sit there and have a cup of coffee and watch somebody else deal with it. But it was fun because I was back in the studio where I’d shot Event Horizon. It was the same first AD who was running the set that I’d used on Resident Evil 5 and Three Musketeers. On the other side of the road, my second AD from Three Musketeers was shooting the new Bond movie.

It was funny because Daniel Craig’s wife, Rachel, was in Black Widow. So you would see James Bond cycling through the parking lot from his movie set over to our side of the studio to come and see Rachel. And then you’d hear over the radios, “Is James Bond over there with you? Can we have him back, please?” The next thing on the family agenda is we’re flying up to Vancouver to go and be Ever’s chaperones again because she’s doing a movie for Disney, which is the new version of Peter Pan. She’s playing Wendy. And guess who’s playing Captain Hook? Jude Law. So it’s come in a weird circle.

What’s the most stressful shoot you’ve had?
I would say the most stressful movie for me was probably Soldier, which I did with Kurt Russell. You know how important space is to me; I had originally designed it as an exterior shoot. It was going to be all these amazing landscapes. I had big plans, and we were shooting in California and we had these El Niño storms, the worst in history. Epic winds, huge rains. I couldn’t shoot outside. The sets were collapsing. It was never intended to be a studio movie, but that’s what it became. So it was stressful, not because of the people I was working with — Kurt Russell is delightful and a dream to work with — but just because I wasn’t capturing what I wanted to capture.

It’s also very different when you’re shooting on the studio lot and every single executive and every single actor on the lot comes to visit you. I don’t know if I ever told you this story about Clint Eastwood visiting the set of Soldier. It’s the first week of shooting, and we’re on a soundstage. I had a British actor, Sean Pertwee, who I’d used in several of my projects, but this was the first time he was on the Warner Bros. lot doing a Warner’s movie. It was a big deal. He was acting with a big movie star, Kurt Russell. And it was his first big line of dialogue, big speech with Kurt. And he was intimidated. I could see that. It was a lot of pressure. We’re about to go for his first close-up, and suddenly the bell rings and the doors to the sound stage open and in strides Clint Eastwood! He’s totally backlit. This amazing movie star, Oscar-winning director, and a friend of Kurt Russell’s. And he’s very tall as well. He’s quite a presence. Sean, as nervous as he was before, now his nerves double. “Oh my God, there’s Clint Eastwood.” I didn’t know it, but I was using the crew that Clint uses. So Clint says hello to everybody. And he says hi to Kurt. And then, of course, he says hello to Sean. And this takes about half an hour. Which, of course, I’m pleased to lose half an hour of my shooting day because it’s Clint Eastwood. But also time’s ticking, it’s going into overtime. And just when we think he’s going to leave completely, Clint turns around and stands behind my chair, watching the monitor as we do our first take with Sean Pertwee. And Sean … he just drowned. His mouth opened, and no sound came out. He didn’t even get the dialogue wrong. He just couldn’t even speak. I don’t blame him. Then we go for take two, and he’s like, “Uuuuugh.” And then, after take two, Clint goes, “I think I better leave.”

So shooting on a studio lot like that, you are in a fishbowl a little bit. That’s why every movie I’ve done since then has tended to be in an abandoned cement factory in Prague or an abandoned tank factory somewhere in Mexico. That was the last time I shot on a studio soundstage.

Milla Jovovich, noted Great British Bake Off fan. Photo: Screen Gems

The last time we talked, I asked you about the secret to doing a good jump scare, a good explosion, and a good beheading. So, this time, let me ask: What’s the secret to a good hand-to-hand combat scene?
The first real hand-to-hand combat I ever did was Mortal Kombat, my first American movie. I was very fortunate, in that I had Robin Shou playing Liu Kang, because he’s a very skilled martial artist and champion who started working in the Hong Kong industry as a stuntman. I was a fan of fight movies, but I didn’t really know how to put them together. What I learned from that movie is if you have people who can do it, you can let the camera rest on them and you don’t have to cut so fast — you don’t have to hide the doubles. You experience the space, and it gives your fight scenes a different feel; it gives them geography. But if you go too wide, you can see the stunt doubles, right? And, back then, there was no face replacement or anything like that. So you had to have actors that could deliver the action. Fortunately, on that movie, I did, like Robin Shou or Linden Ashby, who played Johnny Cage and worked his ass off to become as good as you could in those fight scenes.

That’s a luxury I’ve had pretty much with all of my movies. All the way up to Monster Hunter. With Milla and Tony, these are actors who are willing and capable of executing their own fight scenes. I’ve been a huge fan of Tony’s from Ong-Bak onward. Tony reinvented this kind of fight choreography by saying, “Look, I don’t need wires. I’m just going to do it all for real.” I could ask him all these questions as a fan that I’d been waiting to ask him for years. Like, “How did you do the fight scene when your trousers are on fire in Ong-Bak?” And he said, “Paul, it was fairly simple. First, I poured gasoline on my trousers. Second, I set them on fire. Third, I did the fight scene really really fast and tried to get it right so I didn’t have to do it again!” He totally burned off his eyebrows during that fight. He said they haven’t quite grown back since then.

I learned a lot on Mortal Kombat, because I was a big fan of doing these big, wide masters because we’d built these beautiful sets. I would start with these epic wide shots. And, of course, because I wasn’t experienced, I’d get the fight in the wide shot great all the way through. But to do that, you had to run the fight five times. So then we’d come in for the closer coverage, and by the time I got to Robin Shou, he’s like, “Paul, I’m exhausted. You’ve made me do it ten times already. And now you’re in my close-up, and I can barely stand up!”

I also got a crash course in visual effects on that movie. Because I’d overstated my knowledge of visual effects in order to land the job — so then I had to really bone up on it. I ended up going into the visual-effects houses because I thought, Oh my God, I better learn all the stuff I claimed I knew! The upside for me was that then, as a director, I actually did learn a lot about visual effects. It’s always surprised me that some directors never go into the visual-effects houses and have never worked directly with the animators. That’s a shame, because I’ve always seen my job as a director to be a motivator of people. And when the shoot wraps, you trade your cast and crew of 350 people for another crew of 350 animators, and those people need as much encouragement and direction as the live shooting crew.

Okay. So what’s the secret to a good gunfight?
Weaponry plays a big part in the movies I’ve made, but I’m not sure if we ever really saw a full-on gunfight, as you would have in a Western or a Michael Mann movie like Heat. Obviously, as an Englishman, I’m fascinated with guns ’cause we don’t really have any over there; it’s always an exciting day when the guns come on the set. I guess the secret of a good gunfight is in the lead-up, the preparation for it. That’s what Sergio Leone used to say: “Once they start going ‘Bang, bang’, it’s over.” In Resident Evil: Afterlife, they’re trapped on the roof of a building, and Milla kind of dispatches the rest of the characters down in an elevator. She’s alone, and she’s got a sawed-off shotgun and a couple of machine guns. But you turn around, and you see on this rooftop there’s a whole army of zombies coming toward her. Then it becomes about how she uses the environment in association with her weapons to get out of the situation.

The setup for me is important, rather than the meat of the action. It’s about putting her in a position where you go, Oh my God, how is she ever going to get out of this? The odds she faces are so overwhelming. I think if your character survives just because they’re really, really good, it’s not that interesting. I remember I was a huge fan of Steven Seagal when his first few movies came out, but then as he became a bigger star and had more control over the movies, you could see he didn’t like getting hit. He just wanted to be untouchable. And the more untouchable he became, the less interesting he was.

How would you go about shooting a good car chase?
I like shooting cars for real. On Death Race, with Jason Statham, we developed all these rigs for shooting cars and getting the camera really close to the wheels and sliding the cars into the cameras. We built these rigs with shipping buoys — those are the things at the side of a pier to stop a ship crunching against the pier. We built camera rigs that would have two half-inflated shipping buoys on the front with a camera in between. And then the camera was on a kind of skid plate. So the car could literally fishtail into the camera, and it would come right up to the lens, but it wouldn’t hit the lens — it would hit the shipping buoys and knock the camera. We got amazing shots using that.

Paul W.S. Anderson Is the King of Violent Thrillers