The Newcastle-born, Hollywood director tells The Drum about his new career direction
His CV bears all the hallmarks you’d expect of a Hollywood director, he met his movie star other half on the set of one of his films and he’s heading for lunch in sun-kissed Malibu once The Drum stops bending his ear.
But you couldn’t accuse Newcastle-born director, producer and screenwriter Paul WS Anderson of forgetting his roots; the 44-year-old filmmaker, whose credits as a director include Event Horizon, Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator, recently signed a deal to shoot commercials for the Manchester and London-based film company The Mob.
When we speak, Anderson is on good form having just wrapped up the final day’s shooting in LA on his first commercial, working with The Mob and ad agency DDB Berlin on a spot for Volkswagen’s new Gti car. It will initially air in Germany but is pencilled in for a global release.
An advert for a sporty motor seems like a natural step for Anderson, given that he spent two years filming cars for his 2008 film Death Race, his re-make of the cult 1970s flick about murderous motor racing. “When we wrapped Death Race, I felt like there was no one better in the world at shooting cars than me, just because I didn’t think there was anyone in the world who’d had more experience of working with cars during that time when it became my entire life,” he says. “I was completely consumed by it – constructing cars, rigs, filming techniques. I thought it would be a shame to let that skill set go to waste.”
His brief for this commercial was to shoot it like a Hollywood action movie, and “make your pulse race in the way a lot of car ads don’t”. He says the client was a little shocked by some of his techniques, namely crashing the three new, brilliant white Volkswagens into purpose-built rigs and having a helicopter skim three feet above them. “I think VW always worried that I would blow the cars up at some point,” he laughs, before adding, proudly, that he gave all three cars back still gleaming white and without so much as a dent in them.
Anderson was introduced to The Mob by his old friend Vadim Jean, a partner at the film company and one of its directors, and it’s clear he’s enjoyed his induction into commercials: he praises the client’s “enthusiasm” and is delighted with the creative freedom he’s been afforded.
“I’m very excited about doing more commercials, but I don’t have to just take commercials to pay my mortgage. That was what was great about this, if the client had gone ‘That location’s great but we want to shoot in this other place’, and if we hadn’t had a creative vision that was very much the same, I didn’t have to do it.”
Anderson always wanted to be a filmmaker, he says, ever since he was a child. He made his name as a director and writer and first announced his striking visual style with his 1994 debut, Shopping, starring Jude Law and Sadie Frost. “If anyone wants to criticise one of my movies in the press, one of the easiest things to say is it’s all style over substance, and that’s because even when I was spending very little money making films in England, they always looked fantastic. That’s a criticism that you can never level against me – that the movies don’t look good.”
His arresting style was informed by the director he most admires, Ridley Scott, another native of the north east of England who, with films like sci-fi classic Blade Runner, became renowned for his slavish dedication to visual panache. Although Scott gained worldwide acclaim through his films, he’s also renowned as a master of commercials: his 1984 epic to launch Apple’s Macintosh computer, which aired during the Superbowl, is still heralded as a masterpiece, while his fondly-remembered 1973 ad for Hovis topped a poll of the favourite ads of all time in 2006.
“Think about why Ridley Scott’s films look so amazing – why is the texture and the detail so good? It clearly goes back to his experience directing commercials, and that close attention to detail that he has that commercials demand. If I had to pick a filmmaker that I’ve been most influenced by who is working right now it’d be Ridley.”
As a visually-led filmmaker, Anderson believes he’s suited to make the transition to commercials, but many film directors wouldn’t be, he claims. “A lot of filmmakers have this very broad view of what their film should be; if you made them turn around and look away from the set, they wouldn’t be able to tell you where the cup was on the table, or whether there’s two cigarettes in the ashtray or just one.”
He also believes some commercial directors – zoned in on the tiny details but with less experience of developing a story arc which can grip a viewer for two hours – would struggle to make the move into films. “There was a time in the eighties when there was a lot of crossing over, that whole wave of British commercial directors who made amazing debuts as filmmakers.”
Now, he says, with fewer films being made and those that are on smaller budgets, studios probably aren’t as likely to take a flyer on an ad director with a great commercial reel. “I think they’ve been burnt quite a few times like that.”
With a schedule that demands shooting enough footage for a 30 to 45 second spot in three days – rather than two minutes’ worth a day on films – Anderson has relished “tweaking the details” on his first ad. Now it’s about to break (1 April) his attention will turn to writing the next movie in the Resident Evil franchise, and he admits he doesn’t yet know what his next ad will be. So what would be his dream commercial?
“Because I’ve done a lot of female-led movies one of the things I really enjoy is shooting women and making them look good. My dream job is to go work with Milla [Jovovich, his partner with whom he lives in Beverley Hills] and shoot something that she could be in.” His dream spot then, he says, “would be some kind of high fashion car advert. Volkswagen meets Chanel, that kind of thing.”