Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a photo of Paul W.S. Anderson that doesn’t also include Milla Jovovich? For a filmmaker whose work is as…divisive…as Anderson’s (albeit not divisive in the Pasolini mode) one would expect the internet to be littered with photos of the man. But perhaps that points to the difference between Anderson and other directors who attract a certain sort of attention; whatever impression his movies make on an audience, this is a guy whose off-set personality takes a back seat to the stories he wants to tell.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that he prefers to let his movies do the talking, in part because I don’t know that to be true, and in part because in the interview below Anderson is incredibly talkative. But the final impression I got from this roundtable interview held on the last morning of Comic Con ’08 is that Anderson is a director who would rather move forward from one project of interest to the next, rather than spending much time worrying about what has come before. His latest is Death Race.
We’re seeing a lot of films this summer that seem to consciously reject the methodology of extensive CGI. Is there some groundswell resistance for CGI and support for practical effects?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve made my fare share of CG movies and I felt for this film…I was heavily influenced by movies made in the ’70s and ’80s. Walter Hill’s The Driver, Peckinpah’s The Getaway, The French Connection, Bullitt, The Road Warrior, Death Race 2000, the list goes on. In particular Road Warrior, where I remember I borrowed my mother’s Mini to go to the cinema. And I remember being so energized when I left that movie I just wanted to take the Mini and drive it through the side of a truck. And I don’t get that visceral thrill from many action movies nowadays. Because it’s not real. You can see that it’s CG. It’s spectacular, but you don’t have that visceral thrill of seeing real things get crunched up and the sense of danger that can give you.
I wanted to go back to making one of those movies. And let me tell you, it’s a really difficult way to make films. You can see why people use a lot of CG. There’s nothing easier than just shooting an empty plate and creating it all in the computer six months later. To put the stunts in this movie on screen, as spectacular as they are…to do it all for real and not kill anybody was a huge undertaking. Everyone was very excited about the idea of doing that, but even our practical effects guys, there were stunts they said ‘you know, Paul, you should probably do this as a miniature.’ Like with the Dreadnaught? No one had done that before, taking a 75-foot truck, driving it at 65 miles an hour to a dead stop, see what happens. What’s in the film, we did one take. We shot it with like 15 cameras, and that’s reality. We tested it twice beforehand, and every time something different happened.
That’s the thing when you’re dealing with practical effects like that, it’s not…in a computer you plot it and if you don’t like it you change it, but it doesn’t look real. You’re dealing with reality, it’s uncertain. It was very stressful. And seeing Statham do all the driving, it was really stressful. Like when he does the 180 in the Mustang, you can see the g-force on Statham when it happens. That’s because he’s really in a car, driving at 60 mph and throwing it into a 180. You can’t fake that, and I think it gives the movie a real sense of reality. But as a filmmaker, seeing him drive off in an armor-plated car that doesn’t handle like a normal car, with reduced visibility because of the armor plating, completely wrapped with cameras and lights, guy can’t see, he’s half-blind because of the light shining in his eyes…seeing him do these stunts, and not on a normal racetrack, but a dirt track with metal posts and concrete pillars, it was dangerous. And my heart was in his mouth every time we did it, but I’m glad we did because we got it on film and it improves the movie.
You’ve made quite a few films that work with established properties, whether it’s Alien and Predator, Resident Evil or Death Race. As a fan, are you happy to make your version of them all?
It’s never completely my take. There are always a lot of other people involved. Like with RE, the first thing I did after signing the contract was get on a plane and fly to Osaka to meet all the guys from Capcom. I talked with them about what I planned to do with the movie, the idea to make a prequel to the first RE game.
And the same thing with this, I had lunch with Roger Corman 14 years ago and said ‘I really want to remake Death Race 2000.’ He said ‘that’s great, kid! We’ll make it your next movie.’ And in typical Hollywood development fashion 14 years later we finally made the film, but it came out of endless conversations with Roger, he’s read different versions of the script, always made his comments on them, so it’s not like I’ve been making them in a vacuum. But you do feel a responsibility for sure. I know there’s an existing fanbase that loves those properties, and that to some it is sacrilege to even touch them. But for me, I feel like we have delivered a movie that is different from Roger’s, but is a very, very valid film. Roger put it nicely, actually. He said he loves bother films, and that ‘the film I made in 1975, if I was making it now I’d have made this film.’
What was the thought process behind setting this one in a prison?
I was always fascinated with the original movie. Once you get beyond the nudity and the violence and cars and how cool and funny it is, it always fascinated me. The concept of the Death Race. How did that become the national sport of America? It’s not like the American president woke up one morning and said ‘I know! We’ll have a cross-country race where people get run down for points, and we’ll televise it.’ He clearly latched onto something that was a sport or an underground event and developed it.
In the same way, they didn’t just build the Circus Maximus in Rome; that came out of smaller combat events, and eventually the Coliseum and Circus Maximus became the main form of entertainment. What fascinated me here was, how did the Death Race become the main form of entertainment? What I thought our movie should be about was the origin of the Death Race; how, in a very real way, could you imagine that happening. Where Roger’s movie is an overtly satirical movie, ours is tonally different. But I think the criticism of the media and where I think reality TV is going is implicit in the movie.
Why do we never see the audience that is consuming the Death Race broadcast?
I wanted to keep the movie focused on the race. I’m not a big fan of movies set ten years in the future. It’s very difficult to make a movie like that, because what do you do? People wear upturned collars and holo-watches, and then three years later your movie looks like bullshit because it wasn’t like that, everyone is walking around with Apple phones and it’s so much better than the future you imagined.
So I deliberately set the movie in a nameless, and slightly timeless American city, and I shot it in a series of locations that haven’t changed. The reason Jason’s character works in a steel works is that, if you went to a steel works in the 1970s and you go to one now, they look exactly the same. If you go to a steel works in 2030 it’ll look the same. And the tenement houses where he lives were built in the 1940s, again, fairly timeless. The prison was a turn of the century prison, and there are plenty like that. Ours was decommissioned five years ago, but there are many still working because the science of locking men up was perfected 200 years ago and they haven’t really changed it.
I kept it set in environments that I felt would have existed 30 years ago and will exist 30 years into the future, deliberately to give the movie a timeless feel. So the only modern elements within the movie are Joan Allen’s high tech broadcast cocoon, and I deliberately didn’t show the outside world because I thought it made the movie more powerful to let the audience imagine what the outside world was like. As soon as you show people in a high-tech sports bar watching a plasma screen, it becomes Running Man. And as much as I like Running Man, those were the weak aspects of films like that.
Even though you like the practical effects of older car movies, the cutting in Death Race is still very modern. Do you like the slower longer cuts of a movie like Mad Max?
I think cinema just evolves. If George Miller were making The Road Warrior now, it would be cut like Death Race. I don’t think he’d use the same long shots, because audiences…MTV was revolutionary in the way that people assimilate information. It showed that people pick up on things very quickly. You don’t need to have something on screen that long. I was watching [The Exorcist] which had what counted as flash frames back in the day, and you look at it now and it feels like it’s on screen forever. It’s up there for like 12 frames! It doesn’t have the same impact it did at the time. I love those movies, and I wanted to capture the feel of those movies, but you can’t make movies like that anymore. The way people watch films has changed.
Many video game elements have been incorporated into the movie, such as the ‘power-ups’ the cars drive over to activate their weapons. Why don’t you have a game released concurrently with the film?
To develop a really good video game takes two years. When you get the green light for a movie you’re releasing a year later. I did Comic Con last year to promote Resident Evil, then I got on a plane to Montreal and made this movie. One year is not enough time to make a good video game. One year is enough time to make a piece of shit. I don’t want a piece of shit. I’m so proud of this movie, I’m so proud of the work that went into making it. The last thing I want is some cheesy piece of…I don’t want anything cheesy associated with this film. I only want quality stuff. If that means the video game comes out in two years time, I’d rather have a good Death Race game in two years than a bad cash-in now. It doesn’t help anybody. No one wants to play a bad video game. They feel ripped off. And it doesn’t help the promotion of my movie if people buy the game and say ‘this sucks balls!” it makes people think bad things about my movie and I don’t want that.
So there will be a Death Race game at some point?
I would think so. We’re starting to get into the discussion of it.
And will you make a Resident Evil 4?
I’m talking with Sony Pictures about it. We’re in discussions to make another one, but it’s far from certain.
Do you have any other game properties you’re interested in?
I’m developing Castlevania, which I’ve been doing for a while. Hopefully that’ll be the next game-related thing that we’ll shoot. I love Castlevania. I’m just finishing a new draft of it, and Sylvain White is attached to direct. I’m really excited about the project, and hopefully it’ll shoot later this year. But you know, if I play a great game and I think it’s right…I think video games are a valid form of entertainment just as much as books and theater to adapt into films.