Take Me Down to the RACCOON CITY: An Interview with RESIDENT EVIL Director Johannes Roberts

Source material, Steve Perry and Journey (yes, the band).

By Richard Newby · @RICHARDLNEWBY · November 23, 2021, 3:00 PM PST
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RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY (2021)

Resident Evil fans have taken numerous trips to Raccoon City, but never quite like this. Despite being one of the biggest global horror franchises, spanning six films, animated movies, and a couple of dozen video games, we've never seen a direct, cinematic adaptation of any game entries. So, when it came time to reboot the film series, following Paul W.S. Anderon's successful, yet only loosely based on the games, series, director Johannes Roberts had one priority first and foremost: to go back to the root of what made the video games and its characters so memorable and terrifying.

Based on Capcom's Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City unleashes the horrors of the Umbrella Corporation's genetic experiments on a dying town, while a group of heroes fight to survive the night as a siege of zombies and other creatures force them to reckon with who they'll have to become to survive.

FANGORIA spoke to the director and screenwriter Johannes Roberts about his film, the thrill of rebooting the beloved franchise, the challenges of an adaptation, and what the future might hold.

I got to check out Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City last week and I really enjoyed it. I'm a huge Resident Evil fan. I started with the fourth game when I was in high school, and I've played them all since then. First off, I'm curious about your experience with the games. Did you come on board when Capcom released the first one, or did you find the series later?

I was a student at university when the first one came out, and gaming up until that point had sort of not been very cool, and I was not a gamer. And then PlayStation came and changed all that. But it was an interesting period in that I'm a huge horror nut, and horror was in such a bad place at the time. Carpenter just wasn't finding his audience. Wes Craven had just done Scream and that didn't reflect horror to me as I felt it should be, very meta, very winky at the audience. In England, you couldn't see horror movies, there was nothing that I found very scary. It was a dead time. Then this game came out that was in love with all the things I was in love with— was in love with Romero, in love with dark, scary, horror, walking down corridors and gore, and all that kind of stuff. And, it was cool to like it! I was like, "wow, what is this thing?" My first sort of interaction with it was almost like I was watching a movie. I was watching other people play and thought to myself, this is my horror. I recognize this on screen. And then through that, I became a gamer, and obviously Paul [W.S. Anderson] created his franchise so I was very aware of that. I loved the first movie a lot. It sort of built from there. I'm obsessed with the reboot [2019's Resident Evil 2]. The second game just blew my mind. I'm an avid gamer now.

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The casting is really awesome in this because I think each cast member fits the character so well. I imagine that's a difficult process just because people have lived with these characters for so long. They've played as these characters. There are entire Wikipedia pages devoted to all the little aspects of their personalities. So, I'm curious about the casting process for you. Did you have any of the cast members play the games to get into the characters, or was that more so something in the script?

In terms of casting, it started with Kaya [Scodelario]. I'm good friends with Alexandre [Aja] and he'd just done Crawl, and I'd seen it. I thought to myself, I love this girl. I'd known Kaya through Skins and stuff like that, so she was on my radar, but I'd watched Crawl and she was the vision I'd had for Claire, and she was a roll-your-sleeves-up, get-in-there kind of [actor], and I knew this was going to be a tough, tough movie to make. I spoke with Alex about her and he said she'll just get in there and do it. We got on straight away, and she became the first point in. With the rest of casting, it was really interesting. A lot of them, like Robbie [Amell] looks and sort of is Chris Redfield. He just feels like the game. The same possibly to a certain extent with Tom [Hopper] as Wesker, and then Avan [Jogia] and Hannah [John-Kamen] obviously are not. Avan in particular is a really interesting one in that he could not look more unlike Leon of the game. It was a really fascinating process.

We worked really closely with Capcom on all of this, and they're very protective over the whole world, and everything like that. The thing with Avan's role as Leon is that it was through him that I explored the world of Resident Evil. It was through Leon's eyes that we get to see this world, and he wakes up disheveled and hungover in this motel, as in the game, and we must have seen everybody for that role. It's a real Carpenter role. It's a little bit Jack Burton, it's a little Napoleon from Assault on Precinct 13, a little bit MacReady. It had all those kinds of Carpenter things when I was writing it, and I needed someone who could carry the humor, but not make it a comedy sidekick, could be the leading man, could drive the narrative, could have a broken down, disheveled guy arc. He kind of becomes a hero at the end. But at the end, you kind of feel equally that when the movie finishes he still needs to get a drink and get off the subway. So, he came in, and he nailed it. It was probably the best experience I've had when screening the movie. We screened the movie with Capcom, and seeing their reaction, particularly to him, was an amazing experience because they just got [it].

You know, the movie is in love with the game, but it has to be its own thing. It has to take the essence of the characters and the heart, but they have to live and breathe on the screen. When you're playing the computer game, you are that person. That person is your sight. You just need them to explore the world for you. But these people have to do the exploring, have to be their own person. So that was super important, and I'm really interested to see how the fans react to that when the movie comes out. And then, in terms of my direction, it was very much a request to fall in love with the game. Kaya wasn't into the game, but Robbie is the ultimate gamer, and then the others fell in between to a certain extent. It was really, I explained to them, my love letter to the franchise. Avan would come to me asking 'should I hold the gun like this, like Leon does in the game?' We do it a couple of times, but I'm like, don't worry about that. Your characters need to feel true to the world that we've created, and just love the game. That love will come across on screen. I asked them as much as I could to watch it and play it, you know Robbie didn't need to, but yeah, you should all just have that love there, which I think is a big thing.

Especially in the first couple of games, there are quite a bit of puzzles in there. I think once you remove the puzzles, the story goes very quickly. I'm curious if that played into your decision to combine the first two games into a single narrative.

Yeah, there's not an awful lot of narrative. You know, you're having to explore it through the puzzles. There was a lot of backstory through the whole Resident Evil world, which is so complex and rich, a crazy, crazy complicated world. I would go down a rabbit hole exploring all this. But I think how I approached this was I knew it had to be scary, I knew I wanted the mansion, and knew I wanted the police station, and that was it. And I knew I was allowed to. I'm a big kid, and someone has given me the keys to the kingdom, and they've gone, 'well what do you want?' And I say, 'well, I want the mansion', and they're like 'okay, have the mansion.' And I'm like, 'well I also want the police station', and they're like 'okay, have that.' And I'm like 'ok I will, thank you' [laughs]. And so, it was then like okay how do I combine this narrative together. I'm such a Carpenter fan and such a sort of it-all-happens-in-one-night kind of siege movie fan. And I was just like yeah, this is sort of an Assault on Precinct 13, so let's tell that and let's bring these characters together on this siege night. It just felt so right to have the mansion and the police station. But yeah, it was a tricky balance to click it together.

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Between this and The Strangers: Prey at Night (2019), you have a real knack for creating these really awesome musical moments within horror. I'm curious about your process of song selection. Is that something that happens while you're writing the script, that just comes into your head, or does it happen later on during production?

I always tend to have a very fixed idea before the movie, and I know exactly what I'm going to do. Then, when we finish the movie, I do the exact opposite. Whatever I had in my mind always goes out. The one exception, the swimming pool sequence in Strangers, I knew Bonnie Tyler, and that has always been Bonnie Tyler, and that set that tone. I love music, and I love that what you listen to when you watch Strangers or Resident Evil is my taste in music, because I'm not trying to appease anyone else. I'm just like 'I love that tune, I'm gonna fucking have that tune.' A lot of it at the first point came with Donal [Logue], as Irons, I sort of wound him up and let him go, and he would come up with these amazing monologues, and he came out with this weird monologue out of nowhere about Steve Perry in the bullpen sequence where he's talking about Journey and how to seduce women and stuff like that. And I'm like, 'can I put this in a movie? This is fucking weird.' And then when we were cutting it together, my editor, Dev [Singh], just put it in there and I was like 'fuck it, let's keep it.' And then when he's underneath the bridge and he's getting shot at, I'm like 'god, he'd be listening to Journey.' So we then put Journey on that, and that sort of built the world. These were all the songs I was listening to when I was first playing the game, they're part of my fabric. It's just gut instinct. Sometimes you can feel that people love it, and sometimes you can feel that they're like, what the fuck is this guy doing? This is madness [laughs]! But Sony and Capcom backed me on the craziness of the score, so we went there. The craziness of the needle drops.

I'm also curious, you know, Mr. X. is a huge presence in the second game. Was there ever a question of ever having him in the movie as another antagonist?

Absolutely. We talked about it a lot. He is in there. I built a Mr. X Tyrant head at great expense. Practical. It's in the lab. I never shot the fucking thing right, so you can never see it. The weird thing is, it's obviously a very heightened world, a crazy, bonkers world, but everything feels believable within that world. The liquor feels like it belongs there. The Tyrant is terrifying in the game, but I just didn't know how to put a giant guy in a leather jacket with a hat. I just didn't know how to fit that into the story I was telling. Maybe in the future sequels (fingers crossed), because I love him. He's great. Definitely a discussion.

I know there are a lot of factors that go into making a sequel, but as a fan I am hyped to see where it can go. Is that something you personally want to follow through with? The other follow-up to that is that the games have a very clear path that's laid out after that with Resident Evil 4 and Las Plagas. Do you want to follow that narrative, or do you see deviating more, in terms of what Anderson did with the original franchise?

No. The way we approached this, which I think was a very different way to approach a game adaptation, which is why I hope it is succeeded, is to say we are adapting a novel. I wanted to approach it like I'm doing a Stephen King adaptation. The source material is important, and we need to be faithful to it. It needs to work cinematically on a screen and live and breathe on its own, but it needs to feel true to where it's come from. I would really love to continue that. It's not quite so cut and dry like I think doing the first and second game was, so where it goes from there, I'm not sure. But, I love Resident Evil 4. Obviously, that changed gaming. I like Code Veronica, it's pretty fucking weird. I like Resident Evil 0, you know, the train, that fits into my sensibilities as a director that likes contained locations. Obviously 3 is, you know, they just rebooted 3, which looked great but wasn't as good as 2. The whole other worlds of Village and 7 and stuff like that are fascinating. So I would love to hold to the source material as if we were adapting the next book in line in the Resident Evil franchise.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is in theaters November 24th, 2021.