Over the past 10 years, the “Resident Evil” franchise has raked in more than $700 million for Constantine Film — but if Paul W.S. Anderson’s childhood vacations had been more interesting, it might never have made a nickel.
Every summer, his grandparents would take him to a “grim” resort in England, where the only real entertainment for kids was the local arcade. For a long time, that simply meant pinball, but one day he walked in to find “Space Invaders” — and Anderson was hooked.
“I was the first generation of filmmakers where videogames 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.”
Flash forward about 20 years. Anderson picks up a copy of Capcom’s “Resident Evil.” He starts playing — and doesn’t stop.
“I couldn’t get hold of him for a month because he was in his house with the curtains drawn playing the game,” says Jeremy Bolt, Anderson’s partner at Impact Pictures (who at the time was in London).
When he did emerge, Anderson quickly convinced Bolt of the cinematic potential for the games.
Constantin Film had optioned the rights, but didn’t have any luck finding a satisfactory script. Anderson offered to write one on spec.
“I was (asked) by many people ‘Why are you doing this movie? Videogame movies don’t work,’ ” he says. “I said the thing these (previous) movies have in common is they’re not really good movies. The secret is to make a good movie based on a videogame.”
Anderson has a history of success in that area. Many of his trademark styles, including dynamic visuals, quick-cut editing and kick-ass heroines, were established in 1995’s “Mortal Kombat” — and are widely copied today.
And yet the film industry is littered with the corpses of failed videogame adaptations. Even “Tomb Raider” lasted only two films. With “Resident Evil,” each film has grossed more than its predecessor. The first took in $39.5 million in North America and $26.6 million overseas, while 2010’s “Resident Evil: Afterlife” grossed $60.1 mil domestic and $235 million foreign. (A fifth installment, “Resident Evil: Retribution,” hit theaters Sept. 14.)
The series’ success can largely be attributed to two things: Consistency and change.
The consistency has been grounded in the creative team. Anderson has been an integral part of each film: Directing the first, fourth and fifth and writing and producing each one. And series star (and Anderson’s wife) Milla Jovovich has topped each installment.
The change is evident in the film’s themes. The original “Resident Evil” was a chamber horror movie, while 2004’s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” was more of an action film. 2007’s “Resident Evil: Extinction” took on the aspects of a road pic. And “Afterlife” was a siege picture. “Retribution” aims to be the first post-apocalyptic epic.
“I feel you need to introduce something new in each version of the franchise,” Anderson says. “The audience needs to feel ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ That makes them want to come see the movie.”
The films have also remained true to the source material, not only introducing characters from the game at a steady pace, but also keeping their look and mannerisms consistent with what players are used to — something Bolt refers to as “respecting the essential DNA” of the game. At the same time, the introduction of Jovovich’s protagonist Alice gives the filmmakers freedom to create their own narrative.
“That may have been the magic wand that turned it from a regular adaptation into a feature film mythology,” says Martin Moszkowicz, head of film & TV at Constantin and executive producer of the films. “It’s like it’s its own universe.”
While “Resident Evil” is a solid franchise today, it has experienced its share of hurdles. Securing a domestic deal for the original film proved difficult. It was the post-Columbine era — and U.S. studios were shying away from R-rated fare. While there was discussion about making the film PG-13, Anderson felt strongly that do so would disappoint fans. Sony eventually stepped in with the money.
“That was a real leap of faith,” Anderson says. “I was shooting a movie that didn’t have domestic distribution. That’s really not a place you want to be.”
After the success of the first film, Anderson kept writing installments, but stepped away from the director’s chair — and getting him back there took some effort.
“To bring Paul back in after he had been involved as a producer on numbers 2 and 3 was a hurdle,” Moszkowicz says. “If Paul hadn’t done (‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’), I don’t think we would have moved on with the franchise at that point. He was the one thing that made it happen.”
Anderson has hinted that a sixth installment might be the last for “Resident Evil,” but that doesn’t mean he’s through with videogame adaptations. He’s passionate about Konami’s “Castlevania” games and says he’d be very interested in either directing or producing a film based on those. He’s also a big fan of the “Monster Hunter” series.
“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 videogame, you see that the person who made it knows the game. I think that shows deference to the material.”
Tapping into his inner gameboy | All vid-based adaptations aren’t created as successfully as ‘Evil’ | Digging into myths for ‘Retribution’