How Resident Evil's director turned a game into a hit film franchise
There have been a lot of really bad adaptations of video game movies in Hollywood – and most of them have flopped. Only one director, in fact, has found any real form of critical and commercial success with these films: Paul W.S. Anderson.
While some fans of the Resident Evil games might object to his interpretation of series, it's hard to argue with the box office results. The first four films in the series have earned over $700 million. And Resident Evil: Retribution took in over $108 million worldwide in its first two weeks. (A sixth film has been greenlit.)
Anderson was also the director of the original Mortal Kombat movie (which few gamers complained about at the time). And he's already eyeing other game franchises. The difference between him and some of the other people behind game adaptations? This guy actually loves games – and has been playing since Space Invaders was in the arcade.
"I was the first generation of filmmakers where video games were a serious part of my life," says the writer/director. "I regard them as just as valid as books or plays in terms of an intellectual property."
Long before Resident Evil hit theaters, Anderson was a fan of the series – so much so that he essentially locked himself in his house for a month to play the games. When he finally emerged, he told his production partner Jeremy Bolt that they had to make it into a film.
Film company Constantine had an option on the movie rights at the time, but hadn't been able to find a script it liked. That's a problem a lot of game movies run into.
"I think people underestimate how difficult a job it is to adapt a video game into a movie," says Anderson. "People at the studios look at a video game, see the animated sequence, and think it looks like a movie, so how hard can it be to turn it into a film? It's actually quite difficult."
The problem with many film versions of games, says Anderson, is someone, whether it's the writer, actor or studio, is simply looking to make a buck – and doesn't understand the heart of the story.
"A lot of film people have never played the game and I think that shows a real contempt about the source material and a lack of understanding about what people enjoy about the games," he says. "There are characters or costume designs that infuse a movie. If you do play the video game, you see that the person who made it knows the game. I think that shows deference to the material."
It's also important, he says, to differentiate the film from the game. Simply rehashing the game onscreen often doesn't work – which is why he came up with the Alice protagonist (played by his wife, actress Milla Jovovich) in the Resident Evil films. Characters from the game can be cast in supporting roles, but having a new lead character helps remove some preconceived notions from players, each of whom has personalized the game's hero.
It's also important, he says, to resist the urge for useless stunts.
"The answer is not as lame as 'We'll do it all from a first person point of view' like Doom. If people want that,. they'll play the video game. It's pointless to do that."
Finally, he notes, assemble a crew who have a love of the source material that's equal to yours. The heads of departments on the production team are required to become familiar with the game – and many meet regularly with Capcom. And Anderson still plays games – any games – as often as he can.
"I do play, he says. "I must admit I'm not as good as I once was. I was playing Call of Duty with an 11-year old recently and at one point, he stopped and said "are you ok?" He thought I was having a heart attack or something because I couldn't press the buttons fast enough."
It's also critical that the cast be passionate about the project. Jovovich used to play the game with her brother. And Michelle Rodriguez, he says, "basically begged me" to have a role in the first film.
He, of course, brought her on board – but Rodriguez's well-documented love of video games (I've personally seen her ignore VIP areas at events, opting instead to play classic arcade games in formalwear) resulted in a different sort of problem.
"The only difficulty you have is getting her out of the trailer if she's playing Call of Duty online," laughs Anderson. .