by GREG KING
“My aim has always been to make a movie that would kick some arse in this country,” says filmmaker Paul W S Anderson.
Anderson is a young, new wave director from Britain, a filmmaker in a hurry who, after just one film seems poise to take Hollywood by storm. With his striking and distinctive debut film Shopping just released in Melbourne, it seemed like a good time to talk to him about his controversial and provocative film and his rapidly burgeoning career. I tracked him down to a cutting room somewhere in Hollywood where he is currently hard at work overseeing the editing of his new movie, a mega-bucks special effects block buster action fantasy based on the popular video game Mortal Kombat.
Anderson seems as excited as a kid unwrapping Christmas presents when discussing the cutting edge technology he has available at his fingertips for Mortal Kombat, and as he takes time out for a quick chat he enthusiastically compares his experiences in making this film and the low budget independently financed gritty action drama Shopping.
Shopping is a frighteningly nihilistic, disturbing downbeat and amoral movie set in a not too distant future which explores the illegal phenomenon of joy riding and ram raiding. Teenage gangs steal luxury cars and drive them through the front windows of shops before stealing whatever merchandise they want.
Anderson grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a decaying industrial city in the north-east of London, where that kind of activity was epidemic amongst the restless, disenfranchised youth. The film’s bleak, darkly forbidding urban landscape full of imposing, impersonal concrete edifices and factory complexes spewing forth gases an d industrial wastes easily reflects this depressingly familiar background.
However, Anderson warns: “It’s very important that Shopping is not seen as a snapshot of Britain in 1993. I’ve deliberately located it in a timeless, placeless city because it’s about kids in Europe and America as well. It’s about the disenfranchised generation we bred in the 1980s.”
The film was a deliberate attempt on Anderson’s part to shake up the normally complacent British society by confronting them with a more accurate picture of what life was actually like in some of these cities. “My aim,” he says frankly, “has always been to make a movie that would kick some arse in this country.
“I think British society is really very, very complacent and we have a fantastic habit of brushing things under the carpet and ignoring our own problems that are happening in our own backyard. And the whole wave of teenage crime which swept through Europe in the late 1980s was something that Britain just completely ignored.”
Shake them out of their complacency Shopping certainly did! In some circles of the conservative media Shopping was vilified, called an abomination and a piece of shit. It’s a rather extreme reaction which Anderson expected because he deliberately set ou to make an “extreme movie”, but it also helped bring the film to the public attention.
Two decades ago a film called A Clockwork Orange similarly raised the hackles of both the British media and the Government with its rather frightening depiction of a lawless future world and restless teenaged gangs whose primary interest was a bit of ultra-violence. Back then director Stanley Kubrick was so incensed at the criticism directed at the film that he withdrew it from circulation and, at his express wishes, it has still never been screened publicly in that country.
Anderson is a little flattered at the comparison and parallel drawn with Kubrick’s seminal film. “It was actually something I felt really complimented about, when it first came out. I thought that if we made anything even approaching A Clockwork Orange that’s a great thing.” However, unlike the temperamental and perfectionist Kubrick, Anderson has no intention of removing the film and its controversial themes from the public eye!
There was also some positive press support for the film, which in turn helped shape its box office success. Anderson acknowledges that with a low budget film like this you have to rely on press coverage – good or bad – for exposure, and the commercial success that hopefully follows.
Anderson is happy that his film has ruffled a few feathers because he firmly believes that the British film industry should be making more than just the type of emotionally sterile, staid, lavish, meticulously detailed period dramas perpetuated by the Merchant/Ivory school of filmmaking. “I actually have nothing against Merchant/Ivory and that kind of filmmaking,” he apologises. “I just think that there’s room for more than just that. I think that what’s happened in the past is Britain has been kind of stereotyped, filmmaking has concentrated on that kind of movie. That imbalance has to be addressed.”
Anderson also laments the fact that the British film industry has concentrated more on dry period dramas and stuffy art house offerings than on films which address a younger audience – after all it is the 16-24 year-olds who make up the major film going audience toady, and while the major American studios have long recognised that fact, British filmmakers seem reluctant to cater to that end of the market.
“I think that, just speaking from my own experience as a teenager growing up in England, I never saw anything that was made in Britain that spoke to me as a teenager. I never saw a movie that was made for me in my own country. If I wanted to see a movie about the agony of growing up as a teenager I’d have to go and watch a John Hughes movie or a movie made by an American filmmaker. As a teenager that pissed me off. I wanted to see a British movie about people I knew, about the streets I knew, about my concerns, and I just wasn’t seeing that.
Apart from the adolescent comedies of John Hughes, Anderson, who is only 28, largely grew up on a diet of big American action films, and more stylish films like Alien, Blade Runner, etc, In fact, Ridley Scott is a major influence on Anderson, and this is reflected in the distinctive visual style and blighted urban landscapes very much in evidence in Shopping.
Anderson’s unremittingly bleak and down beat look at a forbidding future world and a youth culture devoid of any positive elements or hope of escape is effectively reflected in the film’s settings, which resemble a fevered cross between the gothic other worlds of Batman, Mad Max and Blade Runner by way of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Anderson is also a huge fan of multi-Oscar winning British director David Lean, whom he considers a consummate storyteller who is able to combine beautiful images and strong characters and intimate human stories set against vast backdrops. Anderson ultimately aspires to be able to emulate Lean’s mastery of storytelling and richly cinematic style.
Anderson’s enthusiasm and passion and youthful drive have not been diluted by his experiences of working in Hollywood on a big budget, special effects driven film. In fact he seems to relish the experience of working with the cutting edge technical wizardy which is helping to shape his vision. Mortal Kombat is actually based on the popular and bestselling video game which, apparently, did over $50 million in sales during its first week of release in America alone.
He’s a little bemused by the fact that, although he’s still editing the movie and adding the computer imaging and special visual effects which are an integral part of the film, there are already teaser trailers running in American cinemas. There’s already a “high level of awareness for the movie” and Anderson acknowledges that the efficient marketing strategies of the American studios has a lot to do with this.
There is a hint of frustration here that is brought on by memories of the three year struggle he faced in trying to develop his script, raise the necessary finance for Shopping back home in Britain – after all, there were no major stars in the film, and its potential was restricted – and to finally get it released.
Although there is some slight pressure from studio executives and financial backers to get the film out in time for its slated mid-year release, Anderson admits that he’s been able to work relatively free of studio interference. “I have quite a lot of autonomy and freedom to make the kind of film I want to make,” he confesses, which was an important consideration for Anderson when carefully choosing his first project following Shopping. He describes Mortal Kombat, an action fantasy movie starring Highlander‘s Christopher Lambert (“probably the biggest name in it”) as something of a cross between Jason And The Argonauts and The Crow, the type of boy’s own Saturday afternoon matinee which Ray Harryhausen would have made in the 60s, but with lots of rousing action and state-of-the-art special effects, all made with a definite 90s sensibility.
“This is the first big special effects movie I’ve made, although it is something I’ve been interested for a long time, and yeah, there’s an awful lot of effects. I mean there’s the budget of Shopping ($3 million) spent on special effects. It’s exciting! There’s one character for example who’s just completely computer generated; so we came away with just lots of shots of the sets and then we’re kind of animating him in at the moment.
“It’s really a very exciting time to be doing a movie like this, because since Cameron did T2 there’s been a whole revolution in special effects technology with a lot of computer generated imaging. And, what’s happened is that all this new technology opened up, and if you make a movie now you’re using cutting edge technology that just wasn’t there two years ago. So that makes it a terrifically exciting time because there are no old tricks you need to know – everything is new, everything’s fresh, everything’s changing. It means you can immediately familiarise yourself with things that Renny Harlin didn’t know a year ago, or John McTiernan didn’t know two years ago.”