Reconsidering Paul W.S. Anderson

Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t get a lot of respect for his work. It’s easy to look at the collection of films that he’s made and look down on them. There are cliches in the dialogue, a lack of heart and empathy built into the characters to make us care about them (which extends to characters not having reasons to care about each other), and uninventive plots. People look at his body of work and assume he just makes movies for the paycheck.

And yet there’s still a vast audience who enjoy his movies — even re-watch them. So I took a closer look at his work to unearth his films’ value and in my research I found a man who loves making the movies he makes.

Here are six reasons to reconsider Paul W.S. Anderson and his work.

1. He Understands the Moviegoer’s Collective Unconsciousness

Some describe James Cameron and Steven Spielberg as having an innate understanding of the collective unconsciousness of movie audiences. Because they are so commercially successful, it seems like they instinctively know what audiences enjoy or respond to on a fundamental level.

To a smaller degree, the same might be true of Paul W.S. Anderson. While he has a couple of commercial flops to his name, he also has a lot of box office success, including the most commercially successful video game movie franchise yet (Resident Evil).

I think part of the reason for this is his fandom. Anderson will often make things he’s wildly enthusiastic about and will make them with an audience in mind.

To get a better insight into how Anderson thinks about the audience here is an excerpt from a Vulture interview where he talked about witnessing an American audiences’ reaction for the first time.

When you watch movies in Britain, the reaction when people hate a movie is … they just politely get up and leave at the end. And when they love a movie … they just politely get up and leave at the end. You can’t tell whether they hated your movie or loved it. But when I was a student, I spent some time traveling in America on an exchange program. One day I went to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall play in Times Square on opening weekend, and it was a revelation for me. Remember that scene where Sharon Stone tries to kill Arnold, and he wrestles the gun off her, and she says, “You wouldn’t kill me, I’m your wife”? At that point, these two women beside me stood up and screamed at the screen, “Kill the bitch! Shoot her in the head!” And then when he goes, “Consideh dis a divooohce” and shoots her, the whole audience erupted! They were so happy! You literally couldn’t hear the next scene’s dialogue at all. I realized that that was the kind of movie that I wanted to make — popular entertainment. Now I watch all of my movies with an audience, and you know if you’ve done your job as a filmmaker when people cheer when they’re supposed to, when they laugh when they’re supposed to, when they have a great time.

I think Anderson is one of those people who isn’t just saying, “I make my movies for the fans,” because he’s not only making movies for the fans, he’s making movies for himself. He says he watches his version of The Three Musketeers every time it’s on TV and that he thinks it’s his most lighthearted and entertaining movie — and he’s right. He really does love (and watch) the movies he makes and keeps the audience in mind. Isn’t that something we want from our filmmakers?

 

2. Budgets and Preproduction

Paul W.S. Anderson likely makes films within the confines of genre budgets of $30 – $45 million, but compared to big budget ($120 million) films, Anderson manages to make films that look good with smaller budgets.

His biggest budget film is Pompeii ($80 million), his disaster movie about the fall of the famous ancient Roman city that fell victim to a volcanic eruption almost 2000 years ago. While $80 million is Anderson’s biggest budget, this is cheaper than a lot of disaster movie budgets (Twister – $92 million, The Day After Tomorrow – $125 million, Dante’s Peak – $116 million, San Andreas – $110 million, The Perfect Storm – $120 million). So how does Anderson keep these budgets so low?

Here is what Anderson said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine:

I’m a very hands-on director in preproduction and in script development and also, especially, in the production design. I think when you’re creating worlds, or re-creating worlds, and trying to immerse an audience in them, production design is incredibly important. I sat with my production designer quite frequently for months, and we built all of the sets within the computer using architectural software. We did projections looking at the sets to see how much set we actually needed to build to photograph it on a 32mm lens from 200 feet away in order to get a certain kind of scope, a certain aspect ratio. We did that with virtually every set, and as a result there was absolutely no waste, because the sets we built were built for the lens. So if you panned a millimeter to the left or a millimeter to the right what you’d see is garbage cans and empty coffees. What you see in the film is everything we have. There were no extras standing on the side that weren’t in the [shot]. We went as far as [digitally] populating the sets we built in the computer just to see how many extras we needed to hire every single day to populate those sets. And so I think in terms of preproduction it was a very, very detailed prep. We got a lot of bang for our buck.

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Why are Anderson’s frugal budgets important? Because films these days are all about mitigating risk and Anderson’s frugal method of filmmaking could be a way for other filmmakers to pitch their movies at lower budgets so they can get their projects greenlit. Here is a possible example from another interview with Anderson:

I’m sure people in studios look at the budgets of my movies and go, “How on earth did you achieve that?” We had a screening of Pompeii in New York, and at the end of it, Paul Haggis came up to me and really wanted to pick my brain as to how we do that.

Paul W.S. Anderson is far from perfect, but every director can learn more. And how to make less look like more is a lesson Anderson could teach other filmmakers.

 

3. Anderson Loves to Direct Action

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Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t get too fancy with his camera. In his interview with The Hollywood News he said, “I like action and I like to shoot it which is why my movies probably have a distinctive feel to them. My movies are pretty much the creation of one being, one director, rather than a movie with different directors doing the action.”

If he positions his camera for a low angle shot (to show the protagonist’s position of power) it is brief. Anderson is primarily interested in clarity of action. He keeps his camera further away from the action so you can see what’s happening and (often times) that it is the actress doing it, not a stunt double. In an interview he said, “If you have an actor who’s willing to do that for you, you have a duty as a filmmaker to prove onscreen that it’s really them doing it.”

Let’s take a look at another film to help showcase Anderson’s strength of clarity. In Taken, there is a fight sequence in a brothel (Apologies. This is the best video I could find that had the fight I wanted. It starts at 0:14)

While it’s reasonably easy to follow the action, there are some difficulties. Let’s slow down part of the sequence and look at it more carefully.

Notice when Bryan (Liam Neeson) throws the first attacker against the wall. We shift camera angles so we can see the attacker’s head hit the wall (Anderson would approve of that). But then the camera moves in much closer to the first attacker’s face to show his discomfort, which disorients us a bit from where we’re going next. Bryan brings the first attacker to his knees and we change the angle two more times to show Bryan kneeing him in the face. Jarring.

Bryan finishes him off with some punches and we see him head to the lower-left part of the screen.

Then we see the second attacker approaching. He is also heading to the lower left of the screen. This isn’t the best way to acclimatize the audience to which way these guys are facing. If they were facing each other (and they are) we should see them approaching each other from opposite directions. We’ve all seen enough shaky cam, quick-cut action that our brains can piece it together, but it’s not ideal. Also, notice how the camera moves down on the second attacker to show him revealing a gun. This is a different shot. While it’s important to focus on the gun (because Bryan is going to defend against it in the next shot) the additional shot just makes the transition a little more jarring.

Now let’s compare this to a fight scene from Resident Evil: AfterLife. In this sequence, Chris (Wentworth Miller), Claire (Ali Larter) fight against Wesker (Shawn Roberts).

Notice how clear it is where each character is in relation to one another. When Chris first charges Wesker, Chris is facing right, and Wesker is facing left.

And when Wesker tosses Chris, we see Wesker turn his body to the right, which throws Chris to the right. There’s no invasive zoom in to Chris’s face as Wesker elbows him in the back, we simply get a closer shot of Wesker elbowing Chris in the back as well as an overheat shot of the same (and both shots have already been shown and established so it’s easier for us to follow).

And while there will be differing opinions on the slow-motion, it certainly helps facilitate the clarity of the action, which is what Anderson is all about.

 

4. The Different Measuring Stick for Action Films

Action films seem to get their own criteria for determining quality. For example, what Schindler’s List delivers is not what Jason Bourne delivers; they are different beasts.

While Paul W.S. Andersons films are best categorized as Genre films and often have multiple elements like Horror and Sci-Fi, I think it would be fair to say that Action is the most common genre in the majority of his work.

And what films that are considered the best in the Action genre? What are the films that really surpass the standards and expectations of the genre? It’s an extremely subjective thing, but I suspect you’d find movies like Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Die Hard (among a few others) at the top. The reasons for elevating these movies would also differ from person to person. One could argue that an innovation of genre (the CG in Terminator 2, or bullet time in The Matrix) could elevate these films. Or, that the films have effective heart and characterization for the characters that allow you to care for them, instead of an action movie that simply moves from action set piece to set piece.

Though it depends who you ask, I suspect there aren’t many films that people would place on this top shelf of movies. Some might even make a second tier for action movies that strive to be better than their genre, but don’t reach the heights of films like Terminator 2. Then there’s the rest. And while you can always look through that bottom shelf of movies and say, “Universal Soldier is better than Street Fighter,” if both films are on the bottom shelf, what’s the difference?

The point is, none of Paul W.S. Anderson’s film are on that top shelf. None of them are even on that possible second shelf, but if the vast majority of action films aren’t on the upper echelons of the genre, I think it’s reasonable to cut Anderson’s films some slack for not reaching those heights either.

 

5. Anderson May Have the Most Experience with 3D

Ever since the release of Avatar, Paul W.S. Anderson has shot his films exclusively in stereoscopic 3D. Anderson does not approve of post-conversion 3D and thinks that 3D is the future of cinema. He has a total of four films (and a fifth coming out January 2017) that have been shot in 3D. That may make him the most experienced director with 3D, ahead of Peter Jackson who worked with 3D systems on the three Hobbit films and Ridley Scott who used 3D systems in Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and The Martian.

 

6. His Passion isn’t Deterred by Fear or Logic

Back in the early 90’s video game movies weren’t considered a good idea. Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon had both been critical and box office failures, which made the planned budget for Mortal Kombat a conservative $18 million. This was a fortunate turn of events for Anderson as one of the reasons he probably got the job of directing Mortal Kombat was because his debut film Shopping demonstrated he could make movies look good with smaller budgets. But consider Anderson’s situation as he approached Mortal Kombat. He would be directing a movie from a budding genre which, historically, hadn’t performed well and with a budget that indicates the studio has no confidence in it. Anderson did it anyway. Why? Because he’s a fan of the Mortal Kombat game.

Fast-forward a few years to the first Resident Evil film. Because of the studio intervention Anderson had experienced with Event Horizon, Anderson sought funding in Europe for Mortal Kombat. This meant while he was filming it, there was no American distribution lined up at all. Again, Anderson was not deterred because he loved Resident Evil games. He loved them so much he locked himself in his apartment playing the first few games for weeks. And upon finally emerging, he was obsessed with making a Resident Evil movie and let nothing deter him.

Anderson followed Resident Evil up with Alien vs. Predator. This is another risky film. Not only was it a film that was languishing in development for ten years, but it was also a movie that combined two franchises which has the expectations of two franchises worth of fans. Anderson admitted in a Dark Horizons interview it was “Humongous pressure. In one way, it’s absolutely a dream come true. I saw ALIEN when I was a kid at school. Every day I can’t fucking believe I’m on set with an alien, you know every time I see Tom Woodruff in the suit, I’m like: ‘Wow, it’s an alien, excellent!'”

You have to admire Paul W.S. Anderson’s willingness to follow his passions to places that aren’t safe.


There’s a tendency to be dismissive about Paul W.S. Anderson’s work. People say, “It’s just mindless action,” or, “It’s just hot chicks running around in spandex suits kicking ass,” but I think that’s reductive thinking (and if the latter were true then Ultraviolet would have worked). I think it’s easier to focus on the weaknesses of Anderson’s work and forget about the potential strengths. Genre work can be like that. Paul said in an interview once: “I grew up loving the movies of John Carpenter, and he famously once said, ‘In Europe, I’m an artist. In America, I’m a bum.’ That’s true of a lot of American filmmakers.”

It’s easy to look down on genre films, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enjoyment there, it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in them.

Back when Anderson was making Soldier with Kurt Russel, Anderson screened Event Horizon for him. He recalled what Kurt said in 2011 fan screening of Event Horizon:

We screened it for Kurt and he really loved the movie and afterward he came up to me and he said, ‘Paul, in fifteen years time, that’s going to be the movie you’re really glad you made.’ And he was right. I thought it was very generous of him to say that. I think because he had done movies like Escape from New York that hadn’t quite worked as they’d imagined at the time, but over time had become a big, big cult hit and I think he saw that potential in Event Horizon as well.

While researching this article I was talking to a friend about Paul W.S. Anderson and his films. I told my friend about Anderson’s passion and his budgeting abilities. My friend said Anderson had “figured life out.” And I think Paul W.S. Anderson has. He’s found a way to make movies he loves and is passionate about and find audiences for them.

And I for one applaud him for it.

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