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For Paul W.S. Anderson, making a Pompeii disaster flick was a dream come true

Pompeii stars Game of Throne's Kit Harington

It’s not easy being a director of big-budget Hollywood films. Sure there’s a big upside – the money, the fame, the gorgeous spouse – but it also comes with an amount of pressure few of us will ever know … not to mention the deep, dark corner of the Internet filled with people who hate you so much they frequently wish horrible things to happen to you.

Cameras flash and audiences swoon when the faces behind a film step out and smile for the masses to debut their new product, but for every smile there is a stress-fueled grimace waiting in private, as reviews loom and the fateful opening-weekend box-office numbers wait to be tallied. It’s a different type of pressure than most of us will know. Maybe not better or worse, but certainly different.

“Hand over heart, I’d be shocked if you’ll see better 3D this year in a cinema than you’ll see in Pompeii.”

The release of Pompeii on February 21, 2014 marks director, writer, and producer Paul W.S. Anderson’s 19th major film, 12 of which he directed, including Pompeii. For more than 20 years the filmmaker has created films that have been loved, hated, and in many cases loved after originally being hated. We sat down with the director and asked him about the process of making Pompeii, what the rise of technology in filmmaking has been like, and how he deals with the stress of a major release.

When did you start working on Pompeii?

Well, Pompeii is definitely a passion project for me. It’s just the subject matter. I became obsessed with it. Roman culture was part of my childhood. I grew up in the North of England very close to Hadrian’s Wall, which crosses the whole of England, kind of separates it from Scotland, built by the Emperor Hadrian to kind of keep the Scottish tribes out of England. So Roman culture was a very big part of my childhood because it was all around me, and Pompeii is taught in school in England. And of course the combination of Romans with a volcano for a young boy was just fantastic, like the two best things ever.

The thing that kind of struck me the most about Pompeii, and really made it an obsession for me was the figures of Pompeii, the plaster casts, the people kind of frozen at the moment of their death … the woman holding her child, the man cowering in terror, the two lovers kind of looking at one another, rather than the disaster that prepared to overwhelm them. And I found that very evocative and very emotional, even as a kid. And of course I was fascinated by these people’s stories. Who were they and how did they meet their end?

Pompeii is kind of a lifelong obsession for me. In terms of turning it into a movie, that’s a process that began about six years ago, which is when I actively started to try to mount a Pompeii film. I developed the screenplay and we raised the money to make the movie, so it’s been six years in terms of film development, but a lifetime in coming.

With that in mind, is there ever a point with this movie – or really any movie – where you can just say “I’m done” and walk away from it?

I can’t remember who said “no film is completed, just abandoned,” but I think most filmmakers will tell you that they could endlessly fiddle with their films for the next couple of decades, you know, changing things, altering things. But I have to say, Pompeii is a movie that I’m terrifically proud of and very, very happy with. I think of all the movies I’ve made … I’m super happy to put it in front of audiences and see what they think.

It’s been a long road getting there, but it’s a movie I’m very, very pleased with, and very proud of.

“Essentially a year, or two years of work … all comes down to Friday nights in North America.”

Looking back over your career, you’ve made several effects-laden films. How has that process changed over the years?

I think the big change is that digital effects used to be more of an additive element that kind of came in – partly during the shoots you would discuss them – but mainly in post-production. Whereas now I would say the visual effects supervisor very much has an equal footing with the director of photography or the production designer in actually designing the look of the movie and the way you mount a movie, how you shoot it.

It used to be I didn’t see a visual effects supervisor until post-production, maybe a little bit during the shoot. But now in pre-production he’s sitting there right alongside me, deciding how much of the set we’ll build and how much will be CG, whether we’re going to have real, falling ash on set or whether it’s going to be CG ash. Those decisions are really important on how you mount and budget a movie nowadays. And quite often in Pompeii we’d be building 20-percent of the set in real life. The production designer would be responsible for that, but we’d be building the additional 80-percent of the set as a digital environment. And so you really find that visual effects kind of interface with every piece of filmmaking nowadays.

So it’s become a much more organic rather than an additive process.

Is that something people are learning on the fly, or are younger filmmakers coming out of film school ready to film with effects?

I think visual effects, and particularly 3D, is something people are just starting to wrap their arms around it. I really believe, especially with 3D, you kind of have to approach it as this holistic thing. You have to kind of mount a 3D movie, you can’t just add 3D as a kind of a special sauce sprinkled on top of a dish afterwards to give you an extra 20-percent in theater grosses, which I think is the way a lot of studios perceive it.

Harington and Anderson

My feeling is you have to build sets that will look good when they are shot in 3D, you need to design sequences that will play to the strengths of 3D. That kind of cuts across everything – fight choreography, production design, visual effects… And I think it’s an exciting time to be working in movies. When I did my first 3D movie, Resident Evil: Afterlife, I’d been working in movies for over 15 years, and it felt like I was making my first movie all over again, because you had to kind of relearn how to shoot properly in 3D.

So I think as filmmakers, the crew I work with, we’ve done four 3D movies now, and a couple of big 3D commercials. I don’t think anyone has worked more in the 3D medium than I have and the crew I work with. And I think we’re starting to get really, really good at it. So that’s why I would say, like really good 3D and the way visual effects interface with it, I think it’s not being taught. I think it’s not being taught because it’s something that we’re only just understanding how to do it.

Hand over heart, I’d be shocked if you’ll see better 3D this year in a cinema than you’ll see in Pompeii.

Yeah, there’s a noticeable difference between films shot in 3D and those converted in post.

If you take a scene like in Pompeii, there’s a lot of falling ash. If you do a post-production process, you end up with lenticular 3D. You get a foreground layer and a background layer, and maybe two mid-ground layers of 3D, but you get different planes of 3D. But it’s limited. You get three or five planes depending on how much money you spend and how long you take to do it.

Harington and Emily Browning

If you shoot, like some of the scenes in Pompeii when that ash falls [you have] a thousand different points of depth. Because each piece of ash, even if it’s only like half an inch away from the other pieces giving you that extra depth, there’s no way some computer can do that in post-production, or some guy can rotoscope every piece of ash.

You can only capture that by shooting native 3D – which is time consuming and expensive, and it’s limiting sometimes because the cameras are bigger. But I think the end results are so much more powerful and so much more engrossing for the audience.

And I think when you are making a film like Pompeii where you want to just envelope the audience in this world that they haven’t really seen before, that’s where 3D comes into its own. I think when correctly used it’s an incredibly immersive tool for the filmmaker.

With a movie like Pompeii, a passion project you’ve spent years on, when reviews are coming and everyone is waiting for box office numbers, how do you relax and enjoy it?

You don’t. You don’t relax, and you don’t enjoy it. That’s always been … It’s one of the things that people who are kind of on the outside and look in at the filmmaking world, they always feel like when you go to premiers and put on suits and smile in front of cameras, that must be the most glamorous, enjoyable thing to do. It’s never, because all you’re doing is stressing about what the reviews will be like, and whether you’re going to have a good opening weekend or not, and what will the cinema score be, and will the movie do business a second weekend.

“I know for me I’ve always positioned myself as a populist filmmaker.”

Essentially a year, or two years of work, or six years of planning in terms of Pompeii, all comes down to Friday nights in North America.

How do you deal with the negativity? There’s always going to be a lot of negativity…

Yeah, there is, but I’ve also been around long enough in the film industry to know that you can make a movie some people don’t like, and then you wait a little while and eventually that movie gets re-examined, and the same people that didn’t like it sing its praises. I mean that’s happened to me a bunch of times. So I’ve learned not to take too seriously what people might say.

I know for me I’ve always positioned myself as a populist filmmaker. I watch my movies play with a real audience. I actually find the testing process movies go through very informative, because I want to know whether the audiences really engage in the films I make, and really enjoy them. For me, watching a movie with 350 strangers and just seeing how they respond to the movie, that’s the true test, it’s not what a reviewer might write, or ultimately what your opening-weekend box office might be.

You know as a filmmaker whether your movie works and whether it plays to an audience, and when they are supposed to be scared they scream, or when they are supposed to be amused they laugh, or when they are supposed to be thrilled they are kind of like gripping their cups of Diet Coke a little harder. You know whether you have taken them on the white-knuckle ride you intend to.

Anderson with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

And that for me, you know as a filmmaker whether you’ve done your job or not.

There have already been a lot of reports about Resident Evil 6 coming soon – what do you have coming up next?

I think I’m going to start looking at Resident Evil 6! You know, it’s definitely a movie we want to make, and we’d like to make it, so I think I should probably make it.

So going back the tech used to make movies, are you considering using the new Ultra HD 4K and 48fps high frame rate format?

It’s definitely stuff I’m looking at, but for me I don’t think it’s a format that’s been completely perfected yet. So I’m waiting for the genius of Peter Jackson to sort it out, as I’m sure he will do. I’m a fairly early adopter when it comes to technology, so when a new filming process comes along, if it makes sense I definitely want to jump in there and use it. There’s a lot of very new sound processes coming out that I’m very interested in. One of the things I’m going to be doing over the next couple of weeks is definitely checking out new filming and sound processes that I may incorporate in the next movie.

Anderson with Browning and Carrie-Anne Moss

I think the movies I make, they try, most of them, whether it’s a period movie or something set in the far future, or something set in an underground bunker, I think they thing they all share in common is they attempt to immerse the audience in an environment where the environment is actually a character in the movie. And I think that any technology that will help with that – whether it’s sound that will wrap around an audience and target each audience member in a particular way, or whether it’s 3D, which again as I said when used correctly I find it incredibly immersive – the fact that it can drag you into the screen or push you back from the screen, take things and literally put things in front of the audience in their theaters, anything that can help immerse an audience plays into what my movies are trying to do.

Was there more pressure than normal with Pompeii since it was based on a real event?

I feel a lot of pressure as a filmmaker to make a film that delivers anyway. But I think especially with this, because it’s been an obsession since my childhood, and since I visited and walked the streets of the city and looked at the plaster casts, I definitely wanted to make it a special treat for the audience and deliver the best and strongest movie I possibly could.

And also, I think because I’m delivering a movie that the audience … it’s not the exact kind of movie I normally make, definitely a departure for me. I mean not a 100-percent departure for me, it’s not like I’m making a romantic comedy like Notting Hill, but it’s got elements you wouldn’t traditionally see in one of my movies. I definitely felt the pressure to kind of deliver more and to step my game up.

(Images © Sony Pictures)

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