q&a with the guy behind every resident evil movie
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

How the Mastermind Behind 'Resident Evil' Kept the Franchise Going for 15 Years

Resident Evil wasn't a video game for director Paul W.S. Anderson -- it was holy text. Capcom's survival-horror title debuted in 1996 and grew into a phenomenon with each installment. Anderson, coveted by Hollywood after converting the Mortal Kombat fight games into a viable blockbuster series, drowned in Resident Evil's immersive, blood-gushing gameplay just after Nemesis, the first trilogy-capper. By his own account, he spent a month playing the games through bloodshot eyes, emerging to confused friends with a new goal: make a kick-ass Resident Evil movie.

We rarely celebrate the accomplishments of action directors. Bombast, speed, and cornball setup aren't as dignified as a meditative long shot of A-list actors yapping or a historical re-creation anchored by an Oscar winner. Purists might argue that even Steven Spielberg's greatest feats transcend "blockbuster direction." But with the arrival of Resident Evil:The Final Chapter, the sixth installment of the Resident Evil franchise that drops in America this weekend, Anderson's vision demands the same consideration as our Godfathers, our Mad Mens, and our Scorsese movies. A video-game franchise with niche appeal prevailed for 15 years, all with a single name, Milla Jovovich, leading the charge. Under Anderson's eye (he directed the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth installments, handing two and three off to handpicked successors), Resident Evil became a box-office smash willing to subvert the style and formula each time around. 

Some directors' passion projects start with their favorite novel or an infamous life story. Anderson's began with a Resident Evil binge session. We sat down with the director earlier this month to discuss how the series took shape, how it outlasted imitators, and what The Final Chapter means for him now.

paul w.s. anderson resident evil last chapter premiere
Paul W.S. Anderson snaps a selfie with a fan during the "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" Mexico City premiere | Victor Chavez / Getty Images

Over the years, you and your producers have threatened to end the Resident Evil franchise. This time it's right there in the title. Why end it now?

Paul W.S. Anderson: When I returned to the director's chair for [the fourth movie] Afterlife, I said that we had made a trilogy of movies with the first three, and what I wanted to do was make another trilogy, this time in 3D. That's exactly what we've done. Our plan was definitely to kind of bring ... With this movie, we kind of close the circle. We bring the franchise full circle. We bring Milla back to the very beginning, back to where everything started. It's a return to The Hive, a return to Raccoon City for her to try and finish the job that she started 15 years ago.

That kind of circular nature of the franchise was intentional. I always had it in my mind that we would eventually come back to The Hive and kind of give away the secrets that I've been holding for 15 years now, the truth about the Alice character. The truth about her face, about the Red Queen, the real agenda of the Umbrella Corporation. These are things that I was aware of when I was writing and making the first movie.

"I had a strong female lead back in the day when that was absolutely not acceptable in mainstream Hollywood movies."

Really? Like what?

I don't want to give too much away, but ... There are truths that I never shared with anybody, even with Milla, until we were actually making this movie. I was aware of them while we were making the other movies, so everything is pretty much buttoned up by the end of this film. I think it's a terrific final chapter. I'm really, really proud of the movie. I think it delivers not only the big action that people have come to expect from the franchise, but it also has these great narrative reveals, and as a result of them, I think it also has an emotional undertow that people might not normally associate with a Resident Evil movie. Even me, as a kind of stiff upper lip, repressed British person ... I've seen the movie 100 times. I still start tearing up at the end of it.

Is the violent streak in your movies an act of rebellion against the repressed British persona?

I think there's an inherent kind of sadistic streak in a lot of British people that I think is definitely reflected in the movies that I've made. And I think [The Final Chapter] is a return to the kind of cruel sadism of the first [Resident Evil]. The first film really reflected where the video game was at the time. Resident Evil the video game pioneered this idea of survival horror. That was something that we ran with in the first movie. It was very contained, it was really scary, it was really cruel and intense. Then, as the franchise progressed, and the budgets got bigger, the franchise became more associated with big action set-pieces. This movie, we keep the big action that people associate with the franchise and alternate the action with really intense horror. I think it's a real return to that survival-horror roots. That's aided by the fact that we're actually going back into The Hive, and that kind of claustrophobic intensity. Being trapped in this underground space really, really amps up the tension.

You made the first Resident Evil movie at a time when video-game movies weren't working. There was Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, and your Mortal Kombat movie. Why risk your cred on Resident Evil?

Because I loved the video game. I loved the movies that the video game was clearly based upon. And I had had success in that field, where most people had had failure, so that gave me a leg up in terms of being able to mount that movie. I think that the previous success that I'd had with Mortal Kombat also allowed me to kind of force through a few things. I had a strong female lead back in the day when that was absolutely not acceptable in mainstream Hollywood movies.

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Screen Gems

So the studio wanted a male lead?

Yeah. Also, zombies themselves. It seems like a no-brainer now, but when we made the first Resident Evil movie, no one had made a zombie movie for 15 years. There was a real question mark over whether audiences really wanted to watch zombies or not.

It was an uphill struggle to get the movie made, but then the impediments suddenly became positive once people started seeing the finished film. People really loved Milla. She became the avatar that the audience members really rooted for and empathized with. The fact that zombies were back after 15 years, that wasn't a dangerous thing anymore, that was a fantastic thing, because people loved them and were terrified by them. It was one of those things that everything that I had to fight hard to get made, suddenly became a benefit, and then we started seeing that reflected in other movies as well.

How did Milla shape "Alice" over all six movies?

Milla really helped create the Alice character. What I provided her with in the first movie, was like a blank slate. She wakes up in the first movie, she has no memory. She has no concept of who she is and how she feels about things. While you're watching as an audience member, you're watching a character being constructed in front of your eyes. 

Milla had the rather unique opportunity to do that as an actor, and not just to do it in the first movie, to continue to do that over the rest of the franchise, so that what you see in the final chapter is a much more sophisticated and fully rounded character than you had when we did the first movie. 

You married and had kids with Milla over the course of this series. Can I assume directing your wife in action sequences is good for your relationship at home?

For sure. There's balance in everything, though. Milla's amazing on set. I get to be the boss on set, but as soon as we get home, those roles change.

Do you leave the work on the soundstage?

No. We're not a couple that separates work life from our home life. It's all intermeshed. I love movies, and Milla loves movies. It's one of the things that brought us together in the first place. We talk about them all the time, other movies and the movies we make. We talk about that a lot.

"I'd done the most successful video-game adaptation ever. That was true until I did Resident Evil."

George Romero spent a few years working on a Resident Evil movie. What was his script like?

I never read George's script. I came to the Resident Evil franchise because I was excited about the game. I investigated the rights. I already had my take on the movie worked out, so I knew the movie I wanted to make. It kind of was a little irrelevant to me what earlier failed attempts had been. 

A master of the horror genre failing to crack the movie could be intimidating.

Listen, at that time, I'd done the most successful video-game adaptation ever. That was true until I did Resident Evil.

You've probably mentioned that in a few meetings over the years.

If you make people money, it gives you the opportunity to make them more money. I've never walked into the room and gone, "You know what I'd love to do is a romantic comedy with some song-and-dance numbers." I know a massive success with Resident Evil isn't going to get me that.

So you don't want to direct La La Land 2?

No, I absolutely don't. I mean, it's a genius movie, but it's not a movie I would have made. I enjoy making the movies I make. Those are the movies I grew up watching, and those are the movies I love.

You hired Marilyn Manson to co-compose the first soundtrack for Resident Evil. Did that give the series a soul that would speak to a particular subculture?

I remember one review of Resident Evil in The Hollywood Reporter, I think. The reviewer almost took the music as a moral affront, the fact that it was Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. Just couldn't handle it. It was just like, "Ugh, this is such ... This is like, heavy metal." Even the way he described it, you could tell this reviewer was completely out of touch. Marilyn Manson is not heavy metal.

It's one of the reasons why I don't take reviews of my movies too seriously, is that they're totally, totally out of touch. The music for the audience I was making a movie, totally resonated.

Are you still listening to Manson?

I was then. I was a massive Manson fan, Slipknot, all of those bands. Now I listen to a lot of music. Milla is a big music fan, and she's really on the cutting edge of music. I owe a lot to her, because she really directs me towards a lot of cool stuff. I listen to so much music, it's staggering that I still have any kind of hearing left.

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Code Guru/YouTube

You wound up incorporating many elements from the games over the years, but the franchise's contribution to cinematic laser-beam deaths is all you.

Right, the laser corridor was not something that was in the games, but it was inspired by the games. As I was playing the first two games, I definitely got the sense that it wasn't just the creatures that were trying to kill me. It was actually the environment itself. The mansion in the first movie, and in the first game, felt malevolent. That feeling is something that inspired the laser corridor. And in the first movie, Milla was a passive observer. In this one, we actually put her into the corridor of death, and see how she deals with it.

What other design or idea did you toil over because you envisioned it appearing in each movie?

The thing that drove people insane, and I'm pretty sure we drove a small company out of business because I kind of sent their work back so many times, was the digital maps that we built for The Hive. They were pretty revolutionary at the time. We did all the work 16 years ago, and the idea of an interactive 3D map that you could rotate around, zoom into, that didn't really exist at the time. It was so important for the movie, because while each of the locations was very impressive that we had, because everything was underground, you could never cut to a wide shot where people could have a sense of geography of how these things related to one another. 

It's a problem with a lot of movies that I've seen; you have no idea how these different environments relate to one another. In Lord of the Rings, they've got a big map. You can go out and go back into the map. Because it's an underground space, you can't cut to a wide shot, big helicopter shot to show you how different parts of the battleground relate to one another. I knew it was a very important thing for the audience to orient themselves.

Resident Evil the hive map
Screen Gems

Look at a movie like Doom, for example, which has a lot of problems, but one thing that would really have helped that movie is something like a digital map. It would have told you where you were, because you just had no idea, spatially, where you were. Sometimes that can be an advantage for a filmmaker. Like in the first Alien, Ridley plays with space and fucks up your spatial awareness to make it really disorienting, which puts you in with these people who are running around being hunted by the aliens. That's a deliberate artistic choice. The same way he keeps crossing the line, as well, so that you're disoriented as a viewer.

Other movies strive for geographic clarity. We certainly were, in that first movie. It was important to know how deep in The Hive they were, how far away from being able to escape they were. It just added to the stakes. Those digital maps were something we worked on really long and hard.

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Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) | Screen Gems

Resident Evil was originally slated for release in October 2001. Even in January 2002 when it was released, 9/11 still loomed over everything. How did that event impact your work?

I was actually in the air, flying to Toronto out of New York when the 9/11 attacks happened. We were one of the last airplanes to leave American airspace before airspace got closed down completely. I was flying to Toronto to film the last two days of Resident Evil, which was where Milla wakes up in the hospital and walks out into the street of the desolate city. 

We were shooting that in Toronto, while the rest of the movie was done in Berlin, which was fantastic for underground spaces and creepy mansions, there was nowhere in Berlin that looked anything like an American city above ground, so we were going to do it all in Toronto. When I landed, it was at that point where all the different footage from different angles had already been cut together. It had a huge impact personally. We cancelled the shoot in Toronto for a little while, and then did it about a month later, so it delayed the movie a little bit. Also, the title of Resident Evil originally had been Resident Evil: Ground Zero.

You've had luck spinning off your movie Death Race as a direct-to-DVD franchise. Why were you determined to keep Resident Evil in theaters?

I loved the first movie, and I would have directed the second movie. Sometimes as a director in Hollywood, you don't have control over your own destiny. I was involved in two different movies at the same time: Resident Evil: Apocalypse and also in Alien vs. Predator. I'd already signed a contract to do AvP, and Fox wanted their movie, and Sony wanted their movie. Studios don't give a damn about one another. 

The same thing happened with the third movie. There was a conflict with Death Race, which was with Universal. But I always saw the [Resident Evil] sequels as being theatrical sequels. That's what I wrote. Although I couldn't kind of direct the second and third movie, I was all over it as a producer. I was on set for a lot of the time. I was all over post-production. I was heavily involved.

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How did Highlander director Russell Mulcahy wind up taking on the third movie, Resident Evil: Extinction? He was on the older side when he made that movie. 

I picked him because Highlander had a huge influence on me. I think Russell is someone who pioneered a whole new visual style. He didn't get the kudos that Ridley Scott did, and he didn't work on the level of movies that Ridley had, but in his own way, Russell was a pioneer. He's a pioneer that I certainly appreciated. I had seen his work. Look at the first Highlander movie: Sean Connery only worked on that movie for seven days! It's an insane piece of work, what Russell managed to do, of kind of directing and producing. It's really phenomenal talent.

I felt Russell was one of those guys that was really underrated. I think the studio felt comfortable that the pairing of him and me would end up with something amazing. And I was there. I went to the desert. I was there for nearly all of the shoots. I was there for all of the post-production. I was involved. We ended up producing a fantastic-looking movie. 

Your penultimate entry, Resident Evil: Retribution, earned deserved praise for achieving a certain visual ecstasy. For me, it's the most Japanese movie of a series that seems to play the best in Japan. Was that intentional?

We talked before about my love of aesthetics. The best graphic design in the world comes out of Japan and along with, in my opinion, the best architecture as well. That Japanese influence has very much been baked into the whole look of the Resident Evil franchise from the very beginning. 

For example, The Hive is built from pre-stressed concrete blocks that are used in a lot of construction because of the way light plays over that concrete. That's taken straight out of the Tadao Ando playbook. He's one of the top Japanese architects. He builds a lot of churches and museums. That was a huge direct influence. 

I feel like the Japanese audience has really always liked my work. Japan has a very strong local industry and a lot of Western movies just don't even get released in Japan and if they do, they don't do terribly good business. The last two Resident Evil movies both did, like, four times the business of the most successful Batman movie in Japan, or the most successful Lord of the Rings movie in Japan. The movies have really been embraced by Japanese audiences, but I do feel like my love of Japanese aesthetics somehow influenced that. My first movie Shopping was partly financed by a Japanese company and the movie did quite well in Japan. Even The Three Musketeers, movies that you wouldn't normally associate with a Japanese audience, play very well there. [Resident Evil: The Final Chapter] is beating Rogue One at the Japanese box office. I think we're the only movie to beat Rogue One anywhere in the world.

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Screen Gems

The action-movie business has changed drastically since 2002. "Action-movie directors" aren't hired to direct most blockbusters. I don't think Marvel would turn to you for a superhero movie, even though you're qualified. What do you make of that?

First, I'm not really and never have been a director for hire. I don't make other people's movies. I make my movies and that's pretty much been my entire career. I don't feel like I'm on a lot of lists to do such and such movie because people don't feel I'm particularly interested in that. I've written and directed everything. That's the way I work the best and that's how I like to work. 

You know, a lot of filmmaking is very producer-led, especially when you're working within somebody else's world. You're working within the "Marvel world" or the "DC world" or "James Bond world." There are certain rules you have to abide by that many people know better than you as a director. You have to fit within that mold. That's not really the world that I operate in. 

When I write a script, they're very descriptive. One of my scripts will be a blow-by-blow of exactly what happens in the fight which makes them very kind of dense. I'm a big fan of 1970s actors like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen who didn't like to say too much. Their movies had a certain style where you learned character through action rather than dialogue. They showed you the kind of people they were rather than talking about the kind of people they were. Those are the kind of movies that I like to make, which means that you're putting much more emphasis on the action. It can't just be something that somebody develops inside a computer and goes, "This looks cool." You have to actually learn about the character through the action which means really it has to be something that's done at the script stage.

The Resident Evil franchise is over, which means you need a new gig. Do you go off and find a new franchise or do you return to a previous idea, which seems to be all the rage? Ridley Scott is making a new Alien movie. You could make a second Event Horizon?

I've been associated with a lot of franchises. I started a lot of franchises. My first Hollywood movie was Mortal Kombat. It spawned a franchise and a TV show and an animated TV show. Resident Evil has spawned a highly successful franchise. There have been multiple Death Race movies. AvP spawned a franchise. I think I'm kind of associated with franchise filmmaking and being on the ground level, the first person in. Those are the kind of movies that I like so I would think the next thing I do would be something very similar. I also like video games as well. I'm definitely working on things that are within my wheelhouse.

Would you ever reverse the process and make a video game?

To make a successful video game is so different to make a successful movie. I don't think that my time would be well-spent doing that and I don't necessarily know that an audience would appreciate it, just as my time would not be well-spent doing the next Bridget Jones movie.

I'd watch it.

Well, you never know. Maybe something explodes from inside her chest. It might be quite good. 

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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.