There have been two Batmans, two Supermans, and three Spider-Mans since 2002, but only one Alice Marcus. Milla Jovovich has spent a vast majority of her career playing the kick-ass heroine of the Resident Evil franchise, starring in six movies that have made her an action icon … even if not everyone realizes it.
It may not get the ironic love or box office scores of The Fast and the Furious series, or the earnest millennial love and ticket sales of the Harry Potter franchise, but director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series has been one of the bigger success stories in modern Hollywood. Though it was never a U.S. box office champion or all that critically beloved, the series, based on the Capcom video games, was a bonafide hit overseas. In all, the franchise, which began with 2002’s Resident Evil and ended with 2016’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, made an impressive $1.23 billion in ticket sales.
And it’s not just a financial success story. The movies, featuring a zombie uprising caused by experiments from the evil Umbrella Corporation, made an impact. Jovovich became an action star, zombies returned to the mainstream, and the film defied the stacked odds against video game movies. But comparably little has been written about what happened during the production of these movies, so Inverse spoke with the filmmakers and stars to get the inside story on the years spent making the Resident Evil franchise.
Paul W.S. Anderson: I played the first two Resident Evil games. I became obsessed. I was living in L.A. I disappeared into my apartment for two weeks, didn’t return anyone’s telephone calls. I emerged two weeks later with a lot of stubble and red eyes. And I talked to my producing partner Jeremy and said, “We have to make this into a movie.”
Jeremy Bolt, producer: I remember him calling me up, because I hadn’t heard from him for a while. I’d been trying to get ahold of him. I was back in London, and he was at his home in Venice. He said he had been playing Resident Evil nonstop, and that’s why I hadn’t been able to get ahold of him. He was convinced there was a movie.
Anderson: The film rights had already been auctioned by a German company, who I knew very well, called Constantin Film. They’d been developing it for a couple of years unsuccessfully. They’d had different filmmakers involved, George Romero included. They were reaching the end of their tether, thinking of just giving up on the whole idea.
They said, “We’ve spent so much money on all these other filmmakers, we don’t have any money left.” I said, “I’ll write the script on spec,” that’s how passionate I was about it. So I wrote the script completely on spec, showed it to them, and they were very excited about it.
The first thing I did once the ink was dry on my contract was get on a plane and fly to Japan, and I met with Capcom to pitch them my vision for the film. I wanted their blessing, but I also wanted to access the creative minds.
There had been two games at that point. Though Anderson’s film was without an American distributor, he already started to map out a potential big-screen franchise.
Anderson: I looked at other franchises. Particularly Alien, which I was completely obsessed with, because the first Alien was very much like the first Resident Evil. It was kind of a chamber piece horror. It was in a very tight space, and that’s what we did with the first movie.
It was all set in the mansion, the underground Hive. That claustrophobia added to the intensity. And it made it doable on the budget we had, as well. I always thought if we were lucky enough to make a second movie, I would open it up in the same way that Aliens opened up the world of Alien.
His version of Ripley would be a former security officer at the Umbrella Corporation named Alice, played by a 24-year-old Milla Jovovich. The name was no accident.
Bolt: Paul had always been fascinated by Alice in Wonderland, and so he was very inspired by that. He always felt that you have to give the gamers something new. You have to respect what they love but try to give them something fresh and new, and that’s why he created this new character.
Milla Jovovich: I was just a big fan of the game. Me and my [14-year-old] little brother played the game all the time. He got me into it, and I wanted to produce the movie, because I just thought, “Oh, what a great property, to have such strong female characters, that even my brother and his friends would rather play as Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield than the guys.” And then I found out that it was being made by Paul’s company, so I just asked to come in and read for it.
The First Battle
Jovovich got the part and was due to be the movie’s clear-cut star. Then a new actress joined the cast, which led to a showdown that nearly torpedoed the movie before it ever started rolling.
Jovovich: I almost quit the movie. I was shooting something else, and Paul had hired Michelle Rodriguez to play Rain. And she had just come off Girlfight and there was Oscar buzz. She was very hot at that moment, and my hotness had sort of been already four years old by that point. So Paul rewrote the script for her. It pretty much made my character “the girl,” and Rain was “the guy.” She got all of my big action scenes, and she became like Alice. And then Alice became this tag-along.
I didn’t get the new draft until I was leaving to go to Germany from Canada, where I was working. I ended up reading the script on the plane, so by the time I landed in Berlin I was livid. I got to the hotel and said, “We have to have a big talk, or I’m going to be on a flight tomorrow morning.”
So Paul ended up coming over that evening, and we literally sat for three hours and went through the script, page by page. He was like, “What do you mean? This didn’t change that much?” So I was like, “OK, why don’t we start with page one?” I pointed out every time I felt like my great scenes were taken away. That was how we started our relationship.
Jovovich and Anderson began dating during the production of the first film. They now have two children.
The first movie, shot in Berlin, was made on a $33 million budget, filmed across basements and bunkers in Germany.
Anderson: Berlin just had amazing underground spaces. Like the train station, the scope of it is huge, and Berlin had this u-bomb station that hadn’t opened yet that we were able to access. We were shooting in the middle of winter, so I would say one of the biggest hardships and challenges was just the weather.
Milla is really tough and really committed, and it was physically a very challenging shoot. She was literally freezing. She was wearing this little red dress. And she was soaking wet, by the way. You’d look at the camera crew, and everyone was wearing like massive jackets and fur, hand warmers, and gloves.
Jovovich: Action was something I had an affinity towards, because I grew up on the Alien movies, especially number two. I was 12 when I saw it on TV, and it really changed my view of women. Because I had never imagined women doing things like that or wearing clothes like that or acting that way. It was empowering.
I thought, who is better to play a woman in Resident Evil than me? I’m at the top of my game; I’m young, I love action. It’s not like I am one of those actors who do it just to make money but are actually really embarrassed by it or hate it. I don’t do theater; I don’t take myself that seriously.
Jovovich was low maintenance, but the same couldn’t be said for the zombie dogs on set.
Anderson: I remember playing the second game, and you’re walking down a corridor in a police station, and the dog jumps through a glass window. And it was terrifying. So in the first movie, I kind of recreated that a little bit.
The zombie effect was primarily makeup. The only place we couldn’t put the makeup was around the mouth of the dogs, because they would lick it off. I would frame the shot so that you didn’t see that. The pieces were pre-made, and then the dog would be wearing a stocking: a suit of makeup with a little bit of spritzing.
The Dawn of the Living Franchise
The movie was released in March 2002, and earned $102 million worldwide.
Bolt: There was a screening in L.A. where the crowd went insane, and the score was very high. I think that was the time when we started to have the first conversation about a sequel. Certainly, from when we made it into most of post, we never thought there would be a sequel, and we weren’t cocky enough to assume there would be.
Anderson: From the second movie onwards Sony really became heavily invested in the films. They always gave us enough resources. I think sometimes too much. I grew up loving movies made by filmmakers who, quite often, didn’t have all the money in the world. And they had to be really creative because of that.
Bolt: I think the reality is the franchise occurred when Hollywood really began to fall in love with sequels. Once you have something that works, you want to have another one that works, and each of these movies is better than the last one.
Anderson was actually unable to direct the next two movies in the franchise, Apocalypse and Extinction, due to scheduling conflicts.
Anderson: I wrote and produced both of those movies, so I was very involved in the preparation. The second movie, most of the time I was in Prague making Alien vs. Predator during the shoot. But I was there for the start of the shoot to get the whole thing underway. And then I was heavily involved in the post-production of the film — all the editing, special effects, mixing of the film.
Bolt: I was able to keep him closely informed, and he was seeing dailies. Obviously, it would have been better to have him around, but we managed.
Without Anderson on set for the second film, Jovovich had to work out some difficult acting choices on her own.
Jovovich: I was in a place where I was still figuring out who I was as an actress, and I felt the way I played Alice in that movie didn’t really represent Alice. And when I saw the movie finally and had to do the ADR, and I said, “I’m going to redo everything, because I am not happy with the way I performed this part; it’s totally wrong.”
I ended up changing the whole performance during the voiceover. It sounded too much like me, like Milla. I was trying to be realistic, which I thought means being yourself, like Robert De Niro. But I’m not Robert De Niro. If I’m myself in that situation and sound like I do right now, I’m all nasal, and it just sounds awful, and so stupid.
Anderson: On the third movie, I was pretty much on set all of the time. So, I feel like even though I didn’t direct them, definitely my fingerprints were all over them.
The third movie, Extinction, was shot in a desert in Mexico, creating difficult conditions for all involved.
Bolt: I would arrive very early to the set, in the desert in Mexicali, just outside Tijuana, where we were shooting for Las Vegas, and I would see all the marks on the sand from all the rattlesnakes that had been there the previous night. Literally hundreds or shapes in the sand from all these snakes. We had guys going around all day with buckets and sticks to protect the crew from the rattlesnakes.
Jovovich: Our director at the time, Russell Mulcahy, passed out from dehydration. It was like 135 degrees, and people had to be really careful. We were doing all of our major stunts in this weather. He’s got zombies in full-on prosthetic makeup running around in these kind of conditions. People started dropping pretty quickly.
The third movie saw Ali Larter join the cast as Claire Redfield, a character from the original game series.
Ali Larter: I loved the idea of getting involved in a female-led franchise; especially in these action-zombie movies. You don’t usually see a woman in that role. I was originally very attracted to that, seeing Milla and the fact that they were then bringing a character that wasn’t going to be in competition with her. They build each other; they end up having this connection, and they work together. I thought that was really special.
Larter appeared in the third and fourth movies and became the de facto second lead alongside Jovovich.
Anderson: A lot of the characters in the game were strong women. The DNA was already in the game, so that wasn’t so much a change. But, in America, the idea of having a strong female lead in an action movie was something that most movies shied away from. Having the first movie be a European based film, mounted outside of the studio system, shot outside of North America, it really helped push that through, the strong female lead.
Larter: When you’re in something that women respond to like this, it’s really exciting. We travelled the world, and I get to talk to these different girls, and for me, I never thought this thing would have that kind of impact. And it really has been very inspiring and empowering to women to see us in these roles.
Anderson and Bolt almost went out with an offer to an even more famous actress to join a later sequel.
Anderson: I remember at one point we had a discussion about, do we make an offer to Sigourney Weaver? Because, for our generation, when you think about strong women, she’s really the archetype. But then we thought, she’s so associated with Alien, and that’s a different franchise. It’s better for us to … we are Resident Evil, let’s just embrace Resident Evil. Let’s kind of build on our own strength, not take the strength of somebody else’s franchise and weld it onto ours.
Bolt: I thought, maybe we should have learned from Fast and the Furious, maybe we should have cast a huge actor as the villain for Milla to go up against. Somebody who had real stature in America, but then, you know what? Your budget would have increased substantially, and it would have been a question of whether that would have been a worthwhile investment. We did have those conversations.
Alice Kicks Ass
Because Alice was not a character in the games, Anderson and Jovovich had plenty of room to shape both her backstory and arc.
Anderson: Over six movies you see the character discover herself. And that obviously all comes to a head in the final film, where she puts all of the pieces together. I gave Milla a kind of blank canvas to work with, and she got to fill that in. And Milla grew as a performer and as an actor, but also as a person. She became a mother. They gave her lots of different levels and experience that she could then infuse into the performance.
The actual details Milla and I filled in together. And, obviously, she had a big influence when I was writing the screenplays. I would always show her early drafts, and she would often have comments.
Jovovich: I think I had a lot more creative input in the beginning. I’m not a scriptwriter, and I’ve never wanted to be a scriptwriter. That’s not what I’m about.
When number two came along, I had a lot more say in it, because Paul was doing Alien vs. Predator at the time, so he couldn’t shoot the movie himself. So I found myself in a situation where there was a lot that had to happen, and the writer was not around.
In some ways, the biggest challenge they faced was not gender, but viability — it’s hard to believe, but zombies were not always so popular.
Bolt: I think the most difficult part of making these movies was persuading non-gamers to come to them. Making sure that people understood they didn’t need to play the game to enjoy this story. When we made the first one, The Walking Dead had not begun. 28 Days Later had not come out, so we had to kind of resurrect the zombie in a way.
The key to it was the Umbrella Corporation. Creating a very compelling, relatable, and frightening villain in this large, industrial, military complex company. Everybody could relate to it, and it just seemed to be ubiquitous in its power.
It was also an action franchise. Jovovich quietly became one of the biggest action star of the last two decades.
Jovovich: The reason an audience loves escaping into a movie is they love the world, and it’s fun to them to run away from their real life. It’s the same for actors as well; it can’t all just be all drama and serious. You have to have fun too, and this really answered that. I could feel bigger than life and really powerful and do things that were extraordinary.
Larter: She’s like a ballerina when she does stuff. One of the things that we connect on is that she has an incredible work ethic. Me and Milla are the ones in the slop. We’re the ones jumping off bridges. We’re the ones in the freezing cold, running, night after night after night. You don’t hear us complain. We’re happy to be there. It’s something that we love to do.
Anderson: Milla was really good at pushing me to deliver more. I remember in that fourth movie, Resident Evil: Afterlife, I showed her the first draft of the screenplay, and she said, “There’s something missing. I need to do some kind of aerial stunt. Fly through the air and do something.” By coincidence she actually had a dream that she was falling down an elevator shaft, and she was terrified by it. And I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting. I could use that.”
And the combination of those two things ended up in what we called the Needle Dive, which was in the fourth movie in Tokyo, where the two Alice clones jump through the plate glass window and just kind of drop that kind of underground atrium, underground shaft.
All that action did come with a steep price. Jovovich did many of her own stunts, but a stunt double rode a motorcycle for her in the final film, shot in 2015. An on-set accident left her in a coma for a short time, twisted her back, and forced her arm to be amputated.
Anderson: Considering I’ve made a career of directing actions movies and stunts, I think in that whole time you could count the amount of injuries on the fingers of one hand. You try to make people as safe as possible, and we’re interested in the illusion of danger rather than actually being dangerous. Unfortunately, accidents happen, as they do in any workplace. You could work in an office and get injured.
Jovovich: We had one horrible accident on the last one, and we had one accident that thank god wasn’t worse on number four. But comparatively speaking, we’ve had very safe, pretty uneventful productions.
The Future Catches Up
As visual effects got better and cheaper, Anderson’s ability to imagine bigger worlds — and make them on a budget — expanded the series. It also helped fix a few of the flaws that were nagging at Anderson.
Anderson: I felt like we hadn’t done the definitive sequence with dogs yet. They’d been in several of the movies, but I never felt I’d really delivered something super intense with the dogs until this film. And so I was very happy that we got to revisit the dogs and really do them right in my mind, in CGI.
Anderson and Jovovich had their first child, Ever Gabo, in 2007. Though their relationship was a boon for the movies, it also led to some scary moments.
Anderson: There’s a stunt where she zooms down a zip-line in the final movie, where we just did that in camera. You know, we hauled her 100, 200 feet into the air. And then she came down the zip-line really fast. So she’s hanging from a cable. Of course, the cable is secured, and it’s all looked at by stunt people, and it’s all safe. But that’s my wife dangling 200 feet in the air from a zip-line, and then she’s coming down real fast.
So that was particularly stressful for me. Milla didn’t seem very stressed, though. She was like, “Yeehaw!” She was loving it. But I was stressed on her behalf.
The series finished with last year’s aptly titled The Final Chapter. It returned Larter and several other franchise favorites, like Iain Glen, who starred in the second film.
Anderson: I think one of the best decisions we ever made was to bring Iain Glen back. He’s such a marvelous villain, playing two roles in the final movie. I think he did exceptionally well playing two different aspects of the same person. It was shot completely separately, as well. There was only one day where he had to be both characters. But otherwise, he basically played Dr. Isaacs, who is the insane version of him, going mad on the surface of the Earth first. Then, in the last half of the shoot, we had him play Isaacs’s prime. And, actually, he went away to go and do some Game of Thrones in-between.
The six movies performed modestly in the United States, never climbing above Afterlife’s $60 million at the box office. But they were certified hits abroad, climbing above $200 million for Afterlife and maxing out at $285 million for The Final Chapter.
Bolt: The brand was stronger in some territories than others. For example, it’s very, very strong in Japan, because it’s based on Japanese games. I think Milla has slightly more value in some territories than others. I also think Paul’s style of action, in countries like Russia and Brazil, that is extremely popular. South Korea, too.
Anderson: John Carpenter famously said, “In Europe, I’m an auteur. In America, I’m a bum.” And he did get treated as an auteur in Europe.
Bolt: Why didn’t it connect enough in America? R-rated action. Obviously, you have a slightly more limited audience. I think the video game adaptations as a whole have trouble connecting in the States. Maybe Milla had a slightly bigger international audience. I think we should have done better in America, honestly, and it’s baffled us.
If you look at the international box office, it’s kind of crazy. You know, this is post-apocalyptic; it’s action, it’s scary. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have done better in the States. I just don’t know.
American box office aside, the filmmakers and stars consider the franchise a major triumph; few movie series last this long, with this much consistency, and it made $1.23 billion worldwide. There’s a reboot in development, but don’t expect Anderson, who will next direct Monster Hunter, to be a part of it.
Anderson: I feel like I’ve done everything I wanted to do with Resident Evil, so I’m excited to move on and do something else. There are very few franchises where the filmmakers have stayed the same behind the camera, and the actors have stayed in front of the camera for such an epic sweep of movies. I’d be shocked if anything can kind of match that.
Jovovich: The last one had to be the most challenging. There was a poignancy to that, and bringing Alice’s story to a close. Also bringing our daughter into the movie and putting her face in my head when I thought about Alice and the Red Queen. I think Alice’s story, plus our own story through all of it, having this amazing family, definitely made it very easy to bring the emotion at the end, and feel the gravity of everything coming to a head.
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is available now on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.