Resident Evil: Welcome To Raccoon City Director Johannes Roberts Discusses The Franchise Reboot – Exclusive Interview
It’s challenging enough for a filmmaker to take on, say, the third entry in a successful movie franchise — just ask Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines") or Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III") — but imagine coming into an existing series that’s got six films to its credit. That was the test facing writer and director Johannes Roberts, who was tasked by three corporate entities (Sony Pictures, Constantin Films and game publisher Capcom) to reboot the successful "Resident Evil" film franchise.
Based on one of the biggest video game series of all time, the half dozen "Resident Evil" films churned out between 2002 and 2016 — all starring Milla Jovovich and all but two directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who wrote and produced the entire bunch — also had the distinction of being the most successful film property based on a video game. Regardless of the quality of the films themselves, that is an achievement on its own terms: Hollywood is littered with the graves of failed video game adaptations.
"Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City," adapted from the first two games in the series, puts founding characters like Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario), her brother Chris (Robbie Amell), Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia) and Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper) at the center of the creepy action. The film takes viewers back to the 1990s and into the bowels of the Spencer mansion and the Raccoon City police station, as the cast is overwhelmed by a horde of zombies and other horrific monsters created by the Umbrella Corporation.
Roberts knows something about the horror genre, with his previous films including "47 Meters Down" and "The Strangers: Prey at Night." But he’s also a lifelong gamer and a passionate "Resident Evil" fan, and as he tells Looper, he had a simple vision for his reinvention of the series: "If you’re a fan of the games, or if you’re a fan of the movies, or if you are just a fan of horror cinema, the one thing you all want is to be scared … I just want to scare the s*** out of people."
Starting Resident Evil again from scratch
"Resident Evil" started as a single video game. Over the last 25 years, it’s become this enormous franchise, movies and the games and everything else. Did you feel any sort of sense of pressure, or intimidation by taking this on and rebooting it for the movies?
No. I mean, you always have a certain amount of pressure. It doesn’t matter what the movie is. The previous franchise had been very much about Milla’s character and it’d been Paul and Milla’s show basically. They had created this hugely successful franchise that had sort of run its … It’d done the six parts and finished with "The Final Chapter," and it was something that was not — it was its own thing.
Milla’s character was not from the games and Paul is very much an action sci-fi guy, plus it was sort of a bright, shiny series. When I came on, the pitch was very much to go back to the games and to tell something super scary and to basically go to recreate the feelings I had when I was playing the games as a kid. There was never a sort of crossover with the previous franchise. So I never really felt any pressure there. Where the pressure comes in is more now, when the movie’s complete.
Oddly, the closer you stay to the game, the more people wanted it closer to the game. If I’d just taken the title of the game and just shot something, done my own thing, then people would react to it in a different way. But every scene, every character, every little bit comes from my love of the game. And then people are like, "Oh, but why this, but why that? Is this going to work? Is that going to work? How are you putting this together? How are you putting that together?" Then you start to feel the pressure of tackling something that has such a fanatical fan base.
I never made this as a fan service movie. I made this because I’m a fan, and you just hope that your vision of this thing connects with other people’s, how they connected with the game and with the whole world of "Resident Evil."
Working with the studios and game publisher
Were you given any kind of mandate from the studio or Capcom about what they wanted, or was everyone’s sort of vision in line with how you wanted to do it?
It was pretty magical there. Definitely with Constantin Films, we knew we were going to go back to the original games, and I connected with them very much on just my filmic references as well, in the sense that I really wanted to tell quite a retro style movie. So I was referring to a lot of older movies when looking at this. It has a very different feel and look to the previous movies, very single camera. It’s very created within the camera rather than through fast editing. It’s a very deliberate piece.
My presentation of this was like, "Look, I want to scare people again." That’s the big thing for me. If you’re a fan of the games, or if you’re a fan of the movies, or if you are just a fan of horror cinema, the one thing you all want is to be scared. That’s where I felt the unity would come from … I just want to scare the s*** out of people. The studios, Constantin and Sony, were very much together on that.
And then with Capcom, it was really an interesting process in that they’re obviously very protective over their creations, but we really went to them to work hand in hand with them. We built the mansion, we built the police station on the actual blueprints that they gave us for the game. We used their exact art they gave us. We wanted them in rather than keep them at the door, and really welcomed them in.
You are going to do your own thing. You can’t just put the game on screen, otherwise you should just play the game, because the games are amazing, especially now that they’re so cinematic. So it’s really about trying to tell a human, emotional story. But I think the process was really a collaborative and really positive one. I was never battling, as far as I could tell.
Casting fan-favorite Resident Evil characters
How did you select the characters you wanted to use?
The trickiest thing for me is obviously we are combining two games. The second game is Claire and Leon, and the first one is Jill and Chris and Wesker. And now suddenly I put them all together. You got Irons there, you got Birkin. You’ve got all these different characters. And that was very tricky for me in telling the story. I was like, "Okay, how am I going to do this?" And really, my way into the movie was "Assault on Precinct 13." I’m a huge John Carpenter fan. I just went, "Okay, this guy knows how to tell a siege movie." He knows how to bring characters together in that kind of Western way in a modern setting, and he knows how to scare people.
"Assault on Precinct 13" is one of my favorite movies of all time. I was like, "This is my benchmark for how we are going to bring everyone together." So I very much looked at that. It’s a real balance, that each character has their own space. They’re all differentiated enough to be their own character with their own goals and journeys. And it’s really tricky. It was very, very hard in writing it and then casting it, to make sure everybody was an equal lead. It was a pure, pure ensemble.
What did you look for when you cast the actors?
Kaya was first. I’m good friends with (director) Alex Aja, who just done "Crawl." I watched it. It blew me away. And I was like, she’s just perfect — she looks like Claire, but she just has this kind of down-to-earth toughness. So I spoke to (Aja) about it, and he was like, "Yeah, she’s great." I knew it was going to be a super tough shoot as well, pandemic, minus 10 degrees, dark nights, rain. I needed someone that was just going to roll her sleeves up and just get in there and pull the whole thing together, and she imbued that. She had humor. She’s so funny and so just English, just getting on with it. So she was first in there, and then we brought in the cast around her.
The trickiest by far was Avan (Jogia), the Leon role, because as a writer, I got into the piece through his character. He’s pure Carpenter. He’s a mixture of a little bit of Jack Burton from "Big Trouble in Little China," a little bit of Napoleon from "Assault on Precinct 13," a bit of MacRready from "The Thing." There’s all this kind of stuff — this disheveled, hungover character on his first day in Raccoon City.
We must have seen every actor in Hollywood, and then Avan came in, and he did not look anything like Leon from the games. But he just nailed it. He understood how to play the disheveled, broken-down, hungover humor and be a leading man and then have this perfect arc. I was just like, "He’s the guy for me."
Which cast member plays the most Resident Evil?
Who’s the biggest gamer in the cast, the biggest "Resident Evil" fan?
Robbie Amell, 100%. I don’t even need to think about it. I’m massive into the games, but Robbie and I were playing against each other, and he’s like a super gamer. So we would chat all the time. We would talk about the games, but he would also be like — with other games, he’d be like, "Are you playing this? You need to be playing this." He’s such a lovely guy. He’s a super handsome, cool guy, but he’s just a nerd. He’s just like a little gamer. He just wants to go home and play his games. Very sweet guy.
Did you guys play during off days or during downtime or anything like that?
We could not socialize at all. We were (shooting at the) height of the pandemic. We were in a small mining town called Sudbury, and we had a basement, which is unusual for an English person. You don’t get houses with basements like that. So it was cool. It was very Stephen King. I turned that into a bar, and that’s where I would go. We would finish shooting at whatever, 6:00 in the morning. We shot sort of through the night, and I would go there. That would be my downtime. I would play the second game always, and it’s a game I still go back to and play now, but sadly, it was never like a communal thing, where we could sort of all get together and hang out and talk stuff. It was a tough shoot.
Other actors, other directors, other franchises
Name one actor that you’ve never worked with that you’d love to work with, past or present.
Dead, George C. Scott, 100%. No questions about it. I absolutely love him. He’s my ideal actor. Present, Sam Neill. I absolutely love Sam Neill. I think he’s got just screen presence and a dry humor. I also love Nick Nolte, but I’m not sure I’m man enough to get to direct him in a movie. But yeah, give me Sam Neill and give me George C. Scott, and I’ve got a movie there for you ready to go. You know?
If you could assist a director early in your career, who you think it would be?
I’m just obsessed with John Carpenter, so I’d love to meet (him) … I’m always nervous about these things. What does he want to meet someone like me for? I just think he’s a wonderful storyteller and his movies are just — this movie is a love letter to his work as much as it is to "Resident Evil."
Is there another film franchise you’d maybe like to take a crack at, assuming you’re not involved in "Resident Evil" movies for the next few years?
It’s not a franchise, but I would love to go into the Stephen King world. I’m not sure which one it would be, but I’m obsessed with Stephen King, so I would love to do a Stephen King adaptation. I’d love to do "Children of the Corn." I’d love also to do … I love space horror. Space horror hasn’t really — it’s sort of fallen out of fashion of late, the sort of "Aliens" of the world. God, it would be so great to move into that world. Whether it’s that specific franchise or not, I don’t know. But yes.
"Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City" is out in theaters now.