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In the Ruins: Paul W.S. Anderson on Pompeii

Pompeii, so-called vulgar auteurist Paul W. S. Anderson’s latest extravaganza, is a love story and a disaster movie, a prison film and a paean to a certain kind of tried-and-true action pic many directors attempt but few make as involving and effortlessly enjoyable as “the other” Paul Anderson. Since his 1994 debut, Shopping, he has, with moxie and aplomb, uncorked one high-concept genre thrill ride after another. In his first film since 2008 without his wife, the actress and model Milla Jovovich, the British veteran deftly takes on the sword-and-sandals adventure epic. After opening with an odd epigraph about the horror of post-eruption Pompeii, Anderson plunges us into the story of a former Celtic horse tribesman named Milo (Kit Harington), who is apprehended by the Romans after a massacre and enslaved — but not without the added benefit of being a horse whisperer of sorts for a fetching daughter of privilege (Emily Browning). Soon enough, however, the magma starts flowing.

Shot in rusty burgundy-and-honey tones, Anderson’s movie kicks into high gear right around the time Vesuvius starts to produce its molten fruit, mixing and matching scenes of bonding between slaves with depictions of the snotty invincibility of the upper classs, to which Browning’s Cassia belongs. As giant waves bear down and infrastructure collapses, these characters’ seeming immunity to the tides of nature wears on in short order. The end is rather telegraphed, but, as always, Anderson’s joyride is built for high velocity and maximum glide. As you might expect, the man knows his way around a fight scene. One of the last few true action directors we have left, W.S. makes it all seem pretty easy.

Pompeii opens this weekend nationwide from TriStar Pictures.

Paul W.S. Anderson
Paul WS Anderson

Filmmaker: Did you develop this movie at your company, or was this a project sent to you by producers you know or the studio?

Anderson:  No, it was my idea to do a movie about Pompeii. We developed the project. I called my producing partner, Jeremy Bolt, in the fall of 2008. I was in a derelict warehouse in Paris. I called him to talk about the exotic fairs of Italy, and we discussed doing a movie about Pompeii. I thought it was a terrific idea, and we did a search to see if there are any available scripts out there already. There was a draft of a script that we optioned, and then we did an awful lot of work on it. We developed internally for about five years before we went to camera with it. This is very much a labor of love for us.

Filmmaker:  A lot of your films have been based on video games, science-fiction stories or preexisting material of some kind. Is there something freeing about being able to shape your own movie without having to worry about pleasing the constituencies of those pre-branded properties?

Anderson: The thing about Pompeii is you’re not free to do whatever you want. The interesting thing about Pompeii is that, of any archaeological site, it’s the best preserved because it was buried in the ash. In the Pompeii exhibits there’s a touring walk. You see loaves of bread that are kind of perfectly preserved. You see the bodies, you see how people lived, you see how they died. The frescoes and wall paintings in Pompeii are amazing and a lot of our production design was based on exactly that. The frescoes and wall paintings you see in the movie are all based on reality. The tiles on the floor are all based on reality. The design of the amphitheater and the picture of what the interior of the amphitheater looks like were based on the original frescoes. They were unfortunately destroyed by the weather, but there is lots of evidence of what they looked like.

So a huge amount of the movie is based on reality. We really try to be as accurate as possible. We had a scientific advisor and a historical advisor, and we just started showing the movie to the the scientific community to get them on board. And what we’ve heard back wholeheartedly is that this is the most accurate portrayal of the disaster that happened to Pompeii put on screen ever. We do have a responsibility to try and portray Pompeii as accurately as possible. So rather than the freedom you refer to ,actually, I think there was as much pre-existing structure put on the development process as if we were developing a piece like Resident Evil or Alien versus Predator.

Obviously, though, within the structures of that world you create a story. We don’t have any kind of historical figures. It’s not like we have Cleme, for example, in the movie. The fictitious figures we have really kind of stack up. They behave in exactly the way those people would do at that time. We don’t really play fast and loose with the social rules of the Roman Empire, for example. We tried to be as accurate as we possibly could.

Filmmaker:  How hands-on are you in preproduction on that kind of research? I mean obviously you have a team you’ve worked with on picture after picture, and keys who are doing a lot of the design work. How involved are in you that day-to-day process early on?

Anderson: Very. I mean I think the key to kind of getting a movie of this scale onto the screen without it breaking the bank is to spend as much time in preproduction as possible. For the filmmaker that’s the cheapest time you can spend, and it’s the most effective, because you have just a skeleton crew and yet you can make incredibly important decisions that impact the budget and the production. So preproduction for me is incredibly important, especially for a movie like this.

In terms of preproduction, making this movie is not that much different than some of the other movies I’ve made. I’ve done a lot of science-fiction movies, and the thing is, you’re creating a world, and that’s exactly what you have to do with this. Every costume has to be built. Every set has to be brought. Every weapon has to be built from scratch. That’s really no different than when you’re doing a movie set in the far future. 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.

Filmmaker:  Your story reminds me of the tale that Akira Kurosawa told Sidney Lumet that he relates in his book Making Movies about the production of Ran — that if he had panned two feet to the right you would see a highway in 16th-century Japan.

Anderson:  If you’re making these kind of decisions on the set then you’re wasting a lot of money. A lot of studio movies cost what they cost because there’s a tremendous amount of waste. Whereas you look at a movie like Ran and that’s a very ocular-looking movie. But you know they’re on a budget because it’s a Japanese film.

Filmmaker:  Once you had the script together and it had been packaged, was it a lugubrious process to get to the point where you were greenlit? Were the people who ultimately financed and distributed the movie on board immediately with your vision and with what you wanted to do with it?

Anderson:  Well what happened with Pompeii was we presold the movie in Cannes. I think it was three years ago, and it was kind of the hot title at Cannes’ market that year. Everyone was very excited about a 3D disaster movie to mount in Pompeii. We raised a lot of money to make the movie, and then I had to go and make the last Resident Evil movie. So although we didn’t put the movie on hold, we kind of did. In terms of financing the film the money was in the bank, but to actually greenlight it was quite a hard process, because this is a bonded movie and we had to prove to the completion bond company that we could actually mount the movie that we said we could mount for the amount of money that we had.

Filmmaker: There was doubt on their part that you could do it?

Anderson:  I think again if you’ve seen what we actually built, you’d be shocked at how little we built and how effectively we shot it. That’s one of the other reasons for a long preproduction period — to prove to people you can actually do what you say you’re going to do. I think from when we got the official green light to the movie being fully completed was probably 12-14 months, no more than that. We made the movie fast, because we’d done so much work ahead of time. One of the reasons why we could do it so fast was we greenlit a huge amount of visual effects shots before the start of principal photography. A lot of the volcano shots and wide city shots were already well into production before we’d actually shot any of the actors because those are the full-on CG shots that require the most work. If we’d waited until we were actually in production to begin work on those, we’d never have made our delivery dates. But I and everyone felt comfortable committing to quite a lot of shots before we’d even shot a frame of film because the preproduction process and the pre-visualization process was so thorough.

Filmmaker: I’m wondering how casting plays into this. So many movies require a certain cast in order to get the financing, both in the indie world as well as in the studios, obviously. How did you settle upon Kit and Emily as leads?

Anderson:  We knew the two leads of the movie had to be in their early 20s. You’re very limited when finding movie stars in their early 20s. There are not many of them. There are one or two, and they’re impossible to get, because they’re already locked into a whole bunch of other franchises. So, I think, if you’re going to go with a young cast you are accepting the fact that you have to go with fresher faces. Everybody knew that when they were buying the movie, it wasn’t going to be Brad Pitt. As much as I love Brad Pitt, he’s not in his early 20s anymore. So everybody wanted to look for exciting names. People think there’s no one movie star in the movie, but hopefully the accumulation of exciting names gives you a kind of critical mass. That’s what we were trying to achieve.

Kit is obviously very hot coming out of Game of Thrones, and Emily, again, is a name. Kiefer is a worldwide name that everybody knows. Jared [Harris] obviously has a profile. Carrie-Ann [Moss] has a profile. It’s the accumulation of those names. We were never going to make a movie with unknowns. I think more importantly than anything we just needed people who were good actors who’d be really good in the role. When you’re making a disaster movie you want to engage with the characters, because if you don’t then you don’t really have any engagement with the visual effects when the disaster strikes. I I think that’s a formula that everyone’s familiar with from The Poseidon Adventure on. You don’t necessarily need the biggest movie stars in the world, but you want good actors, and you want people you are going to engage with as an audience. That’s fantastic for me because I got to get people who I really admired. I loved Kit in Game of Thrones. It is one of those series I didn’t come to until the second season had actually ended. It was Milla, my wife, who turned me onto it. I think we watched season one and two back to back in about three days.The cast in Game of Thrones is amazing, but Kit was the one for me who just burned with this intensity. I felt like he was a real movie star waiting to happen.

Filmmaker: How does 3D weigh on your mind as a director? Is it something you embrace wholeheartedly, or do you see it as simply a necessity of modern studio adventure movies to be tolerated?

Anderson:  I love 3D. I made Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3D,, and The Three Musketeers and Pompeii all 3D. In between I’ve done some huge commercials in 3D for cinemas in Europe. I think I’ve done more work in 3D than any other director working right now. I can’t think of anyone else who’s made four movies in 3D, native 3D. [Pompeii] is actually shot in 3D, which I think delivers by far the best results. I love it. I felt when I was making Resident Evil: Afterlife, which is the first movie I did in 3D, it was my first movie all over again. I had to kind of relearn how to shoot, how to look at a frame, because I was working with this extra dimension. I love what it gives you as a filmmaker. I think it allows you to be much more immersive. When I was a kid you’d get in a theater and sound would just come from the front of the theater. Then surround sound came in and then THX and now of course you go watch Pearl Harbor and you’ve got the Japanese planes flying from the back of the theater to the front and the explosions are sounding off all around you.

In Saving Private Ryan, you’re immersed in an audio world when Tom Hanks is storming the beach, right? Yet the image has always stayed exactly the same — flat at the front of the cinema. I think 3D has opened things up in a way that rivals how sound has become much more immersive after the last 30 years. The image got bigger, perhaps, with iMax, but now we’ve opened up the world visually if it’s done well,. Especially for the kind of movies I make where you’re trying to immerse an audience in an exciting world that they haven’t been into. Whether it’s a futuristic wasteland or whether it’s the exotic streets of Pompeii, 3D can be a very powerful, immersive tool if used correctly. I would like to think after four movies and a bunch of commercials I’m using it effectively.

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