Director Johannes Roberts on Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City: ‘I’m amazed how gory we were allowed to go with it’.

Cinema, Exclusive, Interviews, Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City

Written and directed by Johannes Roberts, Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City, sees the booming home of pharmaceutical giant Umbrella Corporation, Raccoon City, now a dying Midwestern town. The company has left the city to move to pastures new and left Racoon City a wasteland…with great evil brewing below the surface.

When that evil is unleashed, a group of survivors must work together to uncover the truth behind Umbrella and make it through the night…

We speak to Roberts about visiting Capcom, rebooting the Resident Evil franchise and why it was important for him for the latest movie installment of the franchise to revisit its horror roots…

How did everything start for you with Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City?

I had just done 47 Metres Down and then I got a call going ‘do you want to go and see Constantin [Films – production company]?’ I had been in the office many times because I knew Jeremy Bolt who had produced the previous franchise but I’d actually never actually met with Constantin. As I was waiting in the office I got a message from my agent going ‘oh I think this about Resident Evil‘ and we met and we started chatting and we just got on. They’re a German company, I’m half German and we had the same weird kind of sense of humour.

They knew they wanted to reboot the series [but] they didn’t really know what to do. They loved 47  and they loved the way it was an ‘audience movie’. It was a movie meant for an audience to come together in a dark room and jump and scream. They felt that maybe the franchise had moved away from that. That the previous franchise had become very international rather than American and was missing that kind of communal horror experience. Then I remember just getting a call one night going: ‘let’s go!’.

How does Welcome To Racoon City differ from the other movies in the Resident Evil franchise?

It couldn’t be more different to the previous franchise. We just hit on the idea of doing the first and second game. Just go back to what the fans have been asking for over and over. That really catapulted things along, mixed with the fact that literally as we decided to do that, Capcom released the reboot of the second game. Which is just the most amazing experience. The game is just fucking incredible. I remember playing it and just calling the guys and going: ‘This! This is what we have to do.’ It’s amazing, the atmosphere, the tone, the look, everything about it. That became the cornerstone of the movie and we really used that as the way forward.

Are you a fan of the Resident Evil games?

I love the Resident Evil games. The seventh game had been really fucking terrifying, but [the reboot of the second game] was just was so cinematic. The atmosphere in the game. The constant rain-drenched visuals and little pools of light as Claire comes into town to the gas station. Just everything about it. The production design was so incredible.

Then the way the horror is presented, it’s all lit with a flashlight, that very heavy front light, everything dark and flickering, and then you get the zombies come out at you and I was just like, ‘this is just phenomenal!’

It really just spoke to me as a horror director.  The characters were great, and I really tried to include that in the movie. You know, the trucker eating his burger in the opening of the game, I really just wanted all that in there. It was just like a movie in itself. So it was such a great template to launch from.

For Roberts, the opening scene from the game felt like a movie in itself…

What genre does Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City fall into?

This is definitely an out-and-out horror. On one side it’s absolutely in love with the games, particularly the reboot of the second game, but also the very first game. That really spoke to me. When I came across that game, I was a student and horror was in a really rubbish place in England at the time. It was the mid-Nineties, [John] Carpenter wasn’t really finding his audience anymore, and the heroes that I’d grown up with, [George A.] Romero, wasn’t working. Wes Craven then rebooted horror with Scream and that just didn’t speak to me at all. I was like ‘this isn’t my horror, this is like winking at horror and saying it’s not really scary.’ It didn’t connect with me. Then this game came out that was just so totally in love with the things that I was in love with. All the Romero movies and dark creepy, scary gory horror.

So the movie has the love of that built into it. Then when you watch it, it is Assault on Precinct 13. It is so in love with John Carpenter. It has all that kind of atmosphere to it and it also has a Seventies retro vibe, like with The Exorcist, The Shining – that’s all in there, in the movie.

Although it has that Carpenter humour and is actually very funny at times, there’s never a moment when it’s winking at the audience. Within this world, it’s very real. It’s very Stephen King in many ways, like the little town is very Stephen King, and it has that kind of horror vibe.

I went out and out for the horror. It’s pretty gory. I’m amazed how gory we were allowed to go with it. We pushed it. Particularly that Constantin is a German company and they’re not particularly gore-focused, and the previous franchise was very much not gory, or horror-orientated, so I was amazed how far we could push that.

It’s meant for people to come together in a dark room and jump and scream together. I really felt like you can never please all the fans of the game and you could never please all the fans of the franchise and then there are people that just want to come to movies. Somehow you have to combine all those people together to come to a movie. The thing to me that will bring them all together, that will make this find a home no matter what, is if people can jump and scream at it. If it’s a scary movie, then whatever their opinions on what characters should be shown or how the characters should be shown, they’ll come together and they’ll jump and scream at it.

What is it about horror that appeals to audiences? Why are we so keen to scare ourselves?

I don’t know. There’s a very obvious fairground ride experience with horror which is great and I love that vibe. My best experience with one of my own movies is watching 47 Metres Down and when the flare sequence with the three sharks came in, the whole cinema got up and screamed together. It’s such a ridiculous shot, the sharks are just sitting there waiting with their mouths open. But everybody just wanted it. They were willing for me to make them jump and I succeeded and they loved it. They wanted to jump and scream, they were shouting at the screen: ‘Come on Mandy, you can do it! you can swim!’. I’d never experienced anything like that.

So there’s definitely that side of things, just in a fun way. Like a fairground ride. It’s adrenaline and it’s pushing and pulling you

Then I think there’s something else which is much trickier. It’s something that I crave and it’s very rare to find: genuine terror. I don’t know quite why we crave something to feel so uncomfortable and to feel so unsettled. That really is a very tricky thing. In its very elementary stages, it’s the basic fear of ‘don’t go down to the basement, it’s gonna be scary’. But to imbue something with that feeling of dread all the way through is really… I say my little prayer to the gods of cinema every time I go to a horror movie that maybe I’ll feel it this time, and it’s very rare.

You get the occasional Hereditary or I remember when The Ring first changed horror cinema 20 years ago. You get those few moments and it’s very rare to get that but I do love it.

With Resident Evil I really did try to build this slow creeping tension of the town that just feels weird and wrong in that kind of Stephen King vibe way. But I find horror so fascinating as a genre because I don’t know quite why I’m so appealed to it, but I do love it. It does so many different things for me.

“There’s a very obvious fairground ride experience with horror which is great and I love that vibe”

Welcome To Racoon City is the seventh film in the franchise, based on games that are still being made after 25 years – what do you think it is about Resident Evil that keeps us coming back for more?

It’s really weird, isn’t it? There are so many fascinating things about it. You have the initial games and they made horror cool. In a time when that kind of horror was not cool. Then you had the movies that the fans of the games never maybe 100% embraced because they were very much their own thing. But were hugely successful and super fun and kept the brand name alive. They actually made it its own thing, a new whole new different shiny sci-fi. Then the games almost started to emulate the movies towards the end with Resident Evil five and six. Then you have this turning back away from that to the scary with Resident Evil seven and finding a whole new world of fans of that and the VR world. Then obviously we’ve got the TV show coming out and we have the movie coming out.

I don’t know why that particular brand is so successful. The one thing that really struck me working with Capcom is that it never occurred to me what a computer game company is like. I just assumed they were a bit like the Umbrella Corporation [haha]. I don’t know anything about making games or how they worked. I just assumed it was this faceless organisation that makes computer games and there are hundreds of people chained to desks creating games. Then I met the main guy there and he’s a geek, he’s a nerd – he’s a wonderfully passionate nerd about horror.

When we were in the process, he was very cautious about the little details and very passionate about his own creation of brand – then when he watched the movie, and his exuberance and excitement for my knowledge of horror, was so fascinating to me. He could see that I loved horror and he could see I love the game and that really excited him. That made him like giggly excited because he could see the difficulties that I had were equally the same difficulties he had in balancing the difference between horror and gore with suspense. Not making it too gory and balancing everything to make a very accessible product.

I think maybe that’s what it is; the guys who do the games are real passionate geeks and I think their love of it has infected other people. It is a weird thing. Resident Evil is there and it ploughs on…

Resident Evil: Welcome To Racoon City will be released exclusively at UK cinemas on 3 December. 

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