In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, creating a column of pumice and ash that leapt 21 miles into the sky. Within a 24 hour period, Pompei - one of Italy's largest metropolises in the Bay of Naples - went from a shining beacon of pleasure, full of brothels and taverns, to a crumbling disaster zone that's preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
Director and his producing partner spent six years researching and developing a movie about a slave named Milo () who sets out to save his love, Cassia (), set during this hellish catastrophe of the ancient world. While more of a love story than the duo's Resident Evil mega-franchise, which has grossed $930 million worldwide, the disaster movie still retains Anderson's penchant for cataclysmic destruction.
I recently spoke to Anderson about his interpretation of Pompeii, working on original films versus franchises, and his creative visions.
We talked four years ago about the underground bunkers in Resident Evil.
Yes! I love underground bunkers. My God, I love underground bunkers. My wife () is in London right now filming in underground tube stations. There's something about our family. We love underground spaces, I guess.
But now you have Pompeii, which is a little different for you in that it's an intense love story.
Yeah, it's the first time that I've made a movie that has a love story central to it and I was very excited about that.
It's still your own special brand of chaos.
You can ask the actors about that. They were all very unhappy about all of the ash and the smoke. It was a very difficult movie for them to make because physically it was very hard. It gave us a level of reality that I was striving for. I didn't want to just do digital ash. It would have been a lot easier for the actors and it would've been a lot easier to shoot, but I think putting the flames, the explosions, the smoke, and the ash made it feel like they were fighting at the end of the world. I think that comes across on screen.
You spent six years working on this. How much research did you actually do about Pompeii?
A lot. I felt like I knew about Pompeii. What I discovered was that it wasn't just a volcanic event. The people of Pompeii had a triple threat within a 24 hour period. Not only was there the eruption of the volcano, there was a massive earthquake related to that, and there was also a tsunami. I think those aspects are things that people don't really know about. It was a bad day in Pompeii. They had to deal with all of those things to fight for survival. As a filmmaker that was exciting, but also a challenge because usually you make a volcano movie or an earthquake movie or a tsunami movie. I got to make all three in one.
What do you think the people of Pompeii thought about casual and serious earthquakes leading up to the eruption?
They thought it was just day to day life. They got used to earth tremors. They got used to earthquakes. It had never destroyed the city. They just got along with their lives. Of course, when Vesuvius erupted, they had no idea what that was. They were used to landslides and earthquakes. One of the historical writings that we leaned on was Pliny, The Younger who writes very vividly about the disaster and describes it very well. His descriptions were so vidid and monumental that he was actually discredited and a lot of people thought he just made it up because they couldn't believe that something like this would happen.
What about the city itself? It sounds like a pretty fun place.
We wanted to convey the essence of the city as much as we could for a PG-13 movie. It was basically a tourist destination. The rich of Rome came and spent their money there. Ironically, when the disaster happened, there was a festival. The population of Pompeii was actually three times its normal size. The streets were packed, the boarding houses were full, and the brothels were full. There were a lot of extra people there, but that kind of nature of Pompeii was like the Las Vegas of the Roman world. People went to do things there that were frowned upon in Rome. It was very popular to wear Greek robes and Greek outfits, but it was seen as a bit sleazy. You wouldn't do it in Rome, but if you had a villa in Pompeii, you could come and dress like a dirty Greek as much as you wanted to.
Is it more stressful to release an original movie like Pompeii compared to something with a built-in audience like Resident Evil?
I find the release of every movie stressful, whether it's a Resident Evil movie or a non-Resident Evil movie. I've always said if I could make movies and then dig a big hole in the ground and throw the films in there and cover, I'd be the happiest man in the world. I love the process of making films and I hate the process of releasing films. It's the stress of whether the movie will do well and how the movie will be received. Basically, it's the result of a year or a year and half's worth of intensely hard work. And then the fate of your movie is decided on Friday night.
The idea of the first weekend is still relatively new, but your movies also have a shelf life that extend beyond what a lot of people have.
A lot of my movies like Event Horizon have gone on to have a very big afterlife on ancillary markets on DVD, Pay-Per-View, cable, and things like that. Definitely, a lot of my movies are popular internationally. You know, I'm from Britain. I'm European. I make movies that aren't just American movies. I make movies that are designed to play in Germany, France, and England. I think about those people there. They do want slightly different things to American audiences, so obviously I try and make movies that appeal broadly. A lot of movies live and die by their opening weekend in North America. That's something that takes the pressure off a little bit is that my movies don't because they tend to do very well elsewhere. A Resident Evil movie, for example, will make 80% of its business outside of North America. I mean, they do well - they've been number one movies - but they do the bulk of their business elsewhere.
How do you construct a movie for both culturally?
American audiences like violence and they have a taste for violence. European audiences don't. It's why hard horror movies - like Dawn of the Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre do very good business in America and do nothing outside of North America. You look at the grosses of those films and they'll make $70 million in North America and they'll make $15 million in the rest of the world because the rest of the people in the world don't like to see people be chased around and chopped up by chainsaws.
But there's carefree violence.
And there's sexuality as well. Americans are uptight about sexuality in a way - it's a cliche, like in France it's full frontal nudity all over the place and they don't think anything about it. It's interesting when you try and straddle both worlds and try to make a movie that plays in both camps.
Is your creative vision ever compromised by trying to sell a movie to both audiences?
I don't think so. I think your creative vision as a moviemaker... I mean, moviemaking is a business. It's an industry. It's a business. If you spend $75 million of someone else's money, you kind of have a responsibility to try and get them their money back. If you want to have total freedom, you know, you should be a starving artist. If you want to continue as a filmmaker, you have to have some kind of fiscal responsibility and tailor your movie to the audience that you think will like it. Creatively, I don't feel hemmed in by that responsibility, but that's just being a filmmaker. I want people to see my movies. It's not like a go, "This is my art and fuck you all if you don't like it!" I go watch my movies play with audiences and if they didn't shout or scream or life in the right places, I'd be crushed. It's actually the good thing about audience testing. I know a lot of filmmakers don't like it, but I do. When I grew up in England, when you see a movie with an English audience, you have no idea whether they hated or loved the film. At the end, everyone just politely gets up and leaves. What I love about watching movies with an American audience is they interact much more and they're much more vocal. The first American movie that I ever saw with an audience was Arnold Schwarzenegger's version of Total Recall, which I saw in Times Square when Times Square was a bit edgier than it is now. It was a revelation to see an American audience enjoy the movie. That scene with Sharon Stone tries to kill him and he gets the gun and she says, "You wouldn't kill me, I'm your wife." and he goes, "Consider this a divorce!" I mean, my goodness! The audience cheered so much, you couldn't hear the next scene. You couldn't hear any of the dialogue. And when she said that in the movie, these two ladies next to me go, "Kill the bitch! Shoot her in the head!" I love that about American audiences that they enjoy movies that much and interact in that way.