The Other Paul Anderson: The Psychotic Action Vision of ‘Pompeii’ Director Paul W.S. Anderson

Paul W.S. Anderson is a visionary director.

Those visions include a red-drenched adaptation of the most popular fighting video game of all time, a mash-up of two iconic science-fiction monsters, and a steampunked take on a classic 19th-century adventure novel. But they are visions nonetheless, and authentically crafted. While his Hollywood doppelgänger, director Paul Thomas Anderson, commands critical acclaim with films like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Paul W.S. Anderson hypnotizes the masses with technologically enhanced spectacle. To unspool something remotely watchable, a director must be invested in his material. That’s Anderson’s artistry. He invests, heavily. The flashy visuals of the Resident Evil franchise didn’t conjure themselves. The series’ $915.9 million worldwide take was not delivered by robots. It took some kind of imagination.

Reactions to Anderson’s work over his 20-year career have been scattered, from routinely damning New York Times reviews to a place alongside John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, and Tony Scott on the Mount Rushmore of “vulgar auteurism,” a critical movement committed to assessing the “unserious” artistry of popcorn cinema with absolute seriousness. Describing the value of Anderson’s filmmaking, critic and vulgar auteurism ringleader Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, “Anderson’s work may not have a lot of narrative substance, but his visual sensibility is so well-developed that it often doesn’t matter; form is substituted for theme. Composed in crisp visual shorthand, Anderson’s movies are about images: strong, stoic-faced women meting out violence; characters executing somersaults through the air; tiny figures venturing into vast, foreboding spaces.”

Anderson understands the debate. He’s a maximalist hungry for audiences, and he’s happy to be his own self-reflective salesman. The director describes his latest project, Pompeii, a sword-and-sandals disaster movie that arrives this week, as a “labor of love” that took six years to tailor to his sensibilities.

What sensibilities, exactly? To understand the artistic ambition of Paul W.S. Anderson, I asked the director to boil down his filmography to a series of emblematic sequences. These are Anderson’s visions.

"Resident Evil: Retribution" - Los Angeles Premiere

Shopping (1994) — “Fleeing the Scene”

“I really wanted to put something onscreen that I thought had some contemporary relevance to the youth of Britain,” Anderson says of his directorial debut. The British-born writer-director grew up in Newcastle and returned to his hometown after film school at the University of Warwick. “I felt like if you were a young person in the U.K. at that time, there was absolutely nothing for you in British cinema. You ended up watching American cinema. John Hughes was doing an amazing job of putting the American youth onscreen. No one was doing that in the U.K. If you were a sexually repressed British butler, then you were well represented in British cinema, but otherwise there was nothing for young people.”

Anderson adapted Shopping from the world around him. Jude Law made his feature debut as Billy, a British teenager addicted to the thrills of joyriding and ram-raiding, burglary by way of vehicular destruction. A self-described world-builder who finds himself entranced by locations, Anderson found an appeal in the derelict Victorian warehouses of his hometown. The claustrophobic setting enabled Anderson to shoot action on an indie budget.

“I was very influenced by Boyz n the Hood,” Anderson says of an early scene where Billy and his girlfriend, Jo (Sadie Frost), head to a carjacker hangout only to find it raided by cops. “The sound of helicopters in South Central is very present in the movie. You’re very aware that helicopters are always circling, but [it's a] similar thing: They didn’t have the money, so you never actually see a police helicopter. It’s all done with sound, but it’s very, very effective because of it.” Anderson prides himself on his economical approach to action. “The methodology now is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago … nothing is thrown away and you have very little waste on the cutting room floor.”

Mortal Kombat (1995) — “Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion” 

Anderson professes what few “geek cred” directors can say with straight faces: He loved the game Mortal Kombat. As a Newcastle commuter, Anderson would kill time between Shopping-related meetings in London by hitting the arcade. “I was very aware of the phenomenon that Mortal Kombat was, and I was also kind of steeped in the backstory of the characters. So when the idea of the movie came out, a lot of filmmakers … it wasn’t the most glamorous project to be attached to because people thought, you know, Video game adaptations don’t work. You can’t really make a successful movie out of them. So they tried and failed with Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon. So a lot of people went, ‘Why do you want to do something like this?’ But I knew what Mortal Kombat could be,” says Anderson.

Anderson didn’t have experience working with fight choreography, but he did know geography. He credits Robin Shou, who played Liu Kang in the film, for introducing him to Hong Kong fight cinema, a style that had yet to be appropriated by American blockbusters. The fantasy elements inherent to Mortal Kombat, and a sizable budget (by his standards) to bring them to life, allowed Anderson to go nuts constructing the world around him. In the fight between Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and his spear-throwing adversary Scorpion, the filmmaker is operating like a live-action game designer.

“It was the first time I’d really had, I felt, the materials to kind of do something that I thought would be stand-out,” he says. “I knew the kind of mixture of fighting on different levels, and using the environment in the fight in a clever way, so it wasn’t just people hitting one another. They were actually in a clever way using the combat environment they were in.”

Event Horizon (1997) — “Glimpses of Hell”

“You know, when you make people a lot of money it gives you leverage in Hollywood,” Anderson says of his radical transition from Mortal Kombat to Event Horizon, a nightmarish sci-fi that wears its R-rating loud and proud. “I love the movies like Solaris, the original Solaris — the script clearly draws from [it]. Those kind of meditative European films that are unsettling, but don’t really play to a modern audience. By adding that kind of visceral thrill, that’s making it my own.”

Event Horizon is Anderson unfiltered. In the film, a rescue team descends upon a spaceship long thought to have been lost in the abyss of a black hole. The reason for the ship’s reappearance turns out to be … quite hellish. A montage of gruesome visions is when Anderson sees the movie transcending its roots.

“Sometimes it’s only like two frame cuts of truly grotesque, unpleasant, but beautiful images. That, to me, is where the movie becomes really special,” he says. Anderson recalls touring art galleries with his production designer, absorbing paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel in hopes of delivering a different kind of horror to the mainstream. “When people were painting images that had to do with hell several hundred years ago, they believed in hell. And they believed it was the flip side of the majesty of heaven — as amazing as heaven was going to be, hell was going to be the dark side of that. These paintings that were just gorgeous, but really terrifying at the same time.”

Event Horizon is peppered with bits of frenzied gore. Another director might linger on a makeup and lighting job that took hours to prepare. Not Anderson. “A modern audience is capable of processing just so much information because they’re used to visual media that’s on overload. And I think what gives it its power is that you see it for a moment and then you take it away. You can show them something horrible and then take it away. They’ll imagine something even worse than what you actually put onscreen.”

Soldier (1998) — “Traversing Arcadia 234”

“What I’d originally planned would have been much better, ultimately, than what we put onscreen.” 

Anderson saw his Kurt Russell–led, super-solider sci-fi as an opportunity to make a Western. Both he and writer David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) saw it as Shane in space. Even today, Anderson lights up at what could have been, a chance to escape the confines of his set-driven movies and expand to real locations. But he encountered an unpredictable force to be reckoned with: “El Niño”’s arrival in 1997 made location shooting nearly impossible.

“I became attached to Event Horizon and then when we cast Kurt Russell, he was very intent on transforming his body into this kind of super warrior, but he didn’t want to take steroids, so he needed time to do that.” The timing issues pushed Soldier back into the studio as a scaled-back action picture (though its bombastic finale still rings of Anderson’s riffing on a Man With No Name pistol duel). The movie only flashes glimmers of what could have been. “I think when Kurt first lands on the planet … he goes through the bones of an old abandoned spaceship, and it looks like the ribs, the carcass of a whale, and it has all these grave markers there. That to me was the kind of imagery I wanted to put onscreen and get more of.”

Resident Evil (2002) — “Laser Corridor”

When Anderson first encountered the Resident Evil games, he didn’t play them. He lived within them. “I kind of disappeared into my apartment for a month, and I think my friends were getting very worried about me, because I wasn’t replying to people’s telephone calls,” he says. “I’d become obsessed. I played the first three games back to back, and I emerged like a month later with this long shaggy beard and crazy red eyes from staring at a TV screen for far too many hours going, ‘Someone has to make this into a movie, this is amazing.’”

Anderson discovered cinematic influences all over the Resident Evil series. George Romero, Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter — filmmakers he believed were underappreciated in modern American cinema — were all over the games. (Anderson notes a famous quote from Carpenter that’s particularly apt to his own career: “In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the U.S., I’m a bum.”) “The most interesting part of the video game is when you take that scary concept and you take it down into the secret laboratory beneath the gothic mansion, which was very high tech,” he says. “It was that juxtaposition of horror movie with science fiction movie.”

The scene that encapsulates Resident Evil for Anderson doesn’t even have zombies in it. He favors the puzzles. Blasting away the undead is reflective of the games, but in the film’s race-against-time moment — when members of a military squad are trapped in a laser beam hallway — Anderson says the audience feels how the gameplay preyed on his fear. “There’s an element of having to figure things out and having to use your smarts. You can’t just shoot your way out of every scenario in Resident Evil games. You have to use your intelligence. And that’s what the laser corridor was to me, like this deadly game of intelligence that these people had to play.”

Alien vs. Predator (2004) — “The First Battle”

When it was first announced that Anderson would direct a long-gestating collision of the Alien and Predator franchises, a journalist asked him, “How does it feel to have been handed the poisoned chalice?” He knew what they meant. “You’ve had over a decade’s worth of anticipation for what this movie could possibly be, and it’s hard to live up to those expectations, and everyone has their own idea of what it should be and of course you’re almost destined to fail,” he says. “[But] I couldn’t say no to it because I was so excited [over] Aliens and Predators.” Whoever won, Anderson would lose.

The director nabbed the job by doing what he does best: He wowed studio executives at Fox with paintings of Predator spaceships hovering over pyramids, humans worshiping their alien visitors. He built a world, on Earth, where the two could feasibly kick each other’s asses. And while the movie was never going to be just a brawl — not as much a dramatic problem for Anderson as much as the logistical one involved with removing easy-to-shoot dialogue scenes from the equation — the director still loves his monster-on-monster showdown.

“I think it’s really well shot,” he says. Anderson was a fan of Dark Horse’s Alien vs. Predator comic book run, featuring crazy splash page after crazy splash page of the two races fighting. But he disliked Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection, which he says demystified the Xenomorphs with full body shots of them running around like dogs. “The attraction of watching a movie called Alien vs. Predator is you’re anticipating — and the movie has to deliver — battle scenes and fight scenes between the two creatures. The reality about the two most fearsome creatures that have ever been encountered is that it’s two guys in rubber suits who can barely stand up, can’t see where they’re going, and after taking a few steps have to collapse from heat exhaustion … I tried to do a lot of stuff practical because I didn’t want it to have a huge CG fest.”

And while he admires filmmakers who took on the franchise after him — “the guys who did [AVP: Requiem], they did yeoman’s work” — Anderson feels his orchestration of Predator-Alien carnage has been re-contexualized by subsequent installments. “That movie showed what a good job we’d done with the first movie. It’s like, OK, you can pick apart my AVP, but take a look at that one and then maybe watch my movie again and you’ll have a new appreciation for it.”

Death Race (2008) — “Destroying the Dreadnought”

Though it’s a Jason Statham action vehicle set in a dystopian future where criminals vie for their lives in a murderous version of NASCAR, Anderson sees Death Race as a return to his grounded work in Shopping. “There’s a great beauty to industrial dereliction, and I grew up around a lot of it in the north of England,” he says of the dilapidated scenery of the film’s setting, Terminal Island Penitentiary. “You know, decaying steelworks and shipping and shipyards, abandoned coal mines. North of England was an area that had a lot of industry and then kind of fell apart.”

Anderson regards his location as a character. Terminal Island teams up with Statham’s vengeful Jensen Ames to shatter armored adversaries into a mosaic of steel shrapnel. The relationship is evidenced in a scene were Ames goes toe-to-toe with the “Dreadnought.”

“We crashed that truck, for real. And it was an awesome thing to shoot, because it’s 10 tons of steel flying, traveling really fast, hitting a dead stop and flying through the air,” Anderson says. “The locations we shot in were just gorgeous, and the kind of wrecked-tech beauty of it all. In terms of [my style], it was very different. It was very frenetic because it was all car chase and machine guns, so it was probably faster cut than any of my movies, and more frenetic.”

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) — “Alice vs. the Axeman”

Anderson slid into the screenwriter-producer role of the second and third Resident Evil installments, only to return as director for Part 4. The reason wasn’t story-driven. In fact, if he could have directed every movie himself, he would have. Blame studio scheduling.

But Afterlife still provided a rejuvenation that Anderson describes as  “making my first movie all over again.” A major fight scene between Alice, Claire (Ali Larter), and the towering Axeman became a moment for Anderson to show the progress he’d made as an action orchestrator. “That kind of particular massive [set piece] is what 3-D is built for,” he says. “That kind of depth is impossible to get when you dimensionalize afterwards. With dimensionalization you end up with a kind of lenticular feel, where you have a foreground and midground and the background. With native 3-D there are a thousand different points of depth, and each one of them is a raindrop in a scene like that.”

Anderson doesn’t linger on why Alice needed to fight Axeman in Afterlife except to say that the character was in the games and when you’re equipped with James Cameron’s 3-D rig, you shoot the hell out of it. “When [audiences] pay for a 3-D movie, they’re paying a premium price, and I feel like you need to deliver them a premium product. And for a lot of people, if there isn’t stuff coming out into the audience, they feel like, Well why did I bother paying to see a 3-D movie?

The Three Musketeers (2011) — “Attack on the Tower of London”

“Increasingly, film’s forced to survive in a world where people can stay home and download things and watch them on TV,” Anderson says. “I think more than ever the imagery that you can provide in the theater on a big screen becomes more important because it’s something that you can’t get at home.”

Three Musketeers certainly pushes that conceit: Anderson reinterprets Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel with the fanfare of a contemporary blockbuster. “I loved all those steampunk elements that found their way into it. It definitely wasn’t a traditional telling of The Three Musketeers, although the story is actually very close to the book in terms of the events and what happens. I love the combination of the real big European palatial locations and then the visual effects”

And yet, even while concocting action worthy of a child’s Lego adventures, Anderson sees an opportunity for verisimilitude. He wanted Musketeers to teeter on the rails without flying off. “Nearly all of the designs that we had were kind of based on original sketches,” he says. “If you look at that scene where Luke Evans is standing beside this Gatling gun shooting at the Tower of London … I mean, it looks like steampunk fantasy, right? That Gatling gun was a re-creation of a real gun that was found in a museum in Bavaria.” Anderson rattles off a history of weaponry, airships, and 17th century brass knuckles that had never been realized until Three Musketeers. He admits that the story had been told countless times before. But it had never been pushed that far.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) — “The White Room”

Anderson has substantial investment in his leading lady, Milla Jovovich — he went on to marry the actress in 2009. But their working relationship goes beyond affection: As the director notes about Resident Evil: Retribution, one of the more experimental action movies of all time, anything goes when your main character is riding a four-movie wave of success.

“She makes you believe all of the movie-making artifice, and she makes you invest in it,” Anderson says. “That’s something I’ve learned from watching Alien movies, and when I made a movie with an Alien. What’s really making you believe in that Alien is Sigourney Weaver. She’s terrified, and because she’s terrified she makes the audience terrified. And they invest all that terror in this man standing in a rubber suit in the corner in the darkness.”

Throughout his film, Anderson jolts us back and forth between the real world and virtual reality. In his favorite scene from the film, a bloodbath in which Jovovich slices and dices Japanese zombies in a corridor of light, the manic pace blurs the line even further. “I didn’t want to see another corridor made out of concrete and steel. I felt very much ‘done that’ and we needed to push the imagery of the franchise further,” he says. “[The corridor] had that clinical kind of unpleasantness; it’s clean but it doesn’t feel nice. The cleanliness doesn’t make you feel secure or safe in any way.”

Pompeii (2014) — “Bay of Naples Tsunami”

With Pompeii, arguably the director’s best film, Anderson combines his style of hand-to-hand combat finessed in Resident Evil, the bombast of Three Musketeers, and a sweetness demonstrated in Shopping into a disaster movie as driven by Roman politics as it is volcano carnage. After spending half a decade developing the script, only one scene survived each rewrite of the script: a tsunami that engulfs half of the city.

“I was determined to do it because Pliny the Younger writes so eloquently about the disaster,” Anderson says. “He witnessed it and talks about the Bay of Naples draining out, and the water going out, which is a very familiar image that everyone has seen recently. And we all know what happens after that, but the kind of tidal wave that hit Pompeii has never really been dealt with in any of the movies or documentaries that really talk about it, so I thought it was an undiscovered bit of Pompeiian history that we should definitely put onscreen,” Anderson says.

Anderson’s favorite word is “opportunity.” When he learned of the real-life incident, he knew the sequence would dazzle on the big screen. Crashing waves would devour scenic architecture. Horses and chariots function like speeding cars. It’s almost too good to be true, but as Anderson reminds, it’s fact. “As a filmmaker it’s something where I could use a real historic event and combine it with all the skills I had as a kind of modern-day action filmmaker to deliver something that I felt would be really special.”

“It feels a lot like some of the other movies in my oeuvre … although it’s period and it’s Romans running away from a tidal wave.”

Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.

Filed Under: Movies, Paul W.S. Anderson, Pompeii, Resident Evil, Alien vs. predator, matt patches