"I can show you some of the things I've had to endure," says Milla Jovovich, unfurling the gray blanket covering her lithe supermodel body to reveal cuts and bruises she has sustained filming Resident Evil - discreetly exposing a flimsy excuse for a red chiffon dress, minuscule panties, a pair of black combat boots and, well, very little else. "I did some minor rolling on the grills, which left marks here and a big huge bruise there," she explains.
It's nearing the end of the Berlin-based shoot of the $35-million Resident Evil (opening March 15 from Screen Gems), and Jovovich (The Fifth Element) has spent the previous seven weeks battling all manner of blood-crazed zombies for this video game-to-movie adaptation. Today, as for the past few days, Jovovich is shooting a scene which occurs toward the film's climax, in which a subway train on its way out of the underground research facility known as the Hive is under attack. In the scene, one major cast member has just turned into a zombie and is trying to take a bite out of the few remaining human survivors inside the compartment, which sits a good 15 feet above the set floor and is rocked via a hydraulic system to simulate movement. Much later in the day, the pyrotechnics department will set off an explosion below the raised vehicle that blows back flame spectacularly inside the set itself.
Last week was spent mainly underwater, filming on a flooded laboratory set. "It was 16 hours of being in freezing water and having to dunk myself in," Jovovich recalls, "pretty much half-naked, 35, 40 times during the day. It's trying, to say the least." Yet for all the physical demands and long hours involved, one can't help getting the feeling that the actress is actually enjoying firing guns and kicking zombie butt. "It's hard, but it's fun," she says. "It's the toughest film I've ever worked on, that's for sure, and [The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc] was crazy, 50 pounds of armor a day and no going to the bathroom. But we didn't have these kinds of hours. That's what kills you."
Resident Evil first hit PlayStation consoles in 1996, courtesy of Japan's Capcom, and together with its four sequels-among them Code: Veronica and Nemesis - has since sold more than 16 million units, making it one of the most successful video game franchises ever. The action revolves around the effects of the T virus, developed my the mysterious Umbrella Corporation. In the first game, a team of crack STAR marines enters the isolated mansion outside of Raccoon City and comes across several kinds of zombified foes - some once human, others very obviously not. Heavily inspired by George Romero's Dead trilogy, Resident Evil swiftly became a monster success, thanks to its chilling atmosphere, ultra-violent thrills and splattery graphics. And given the film industry's predilection for transforming video games into movies, it was perhaps inevitable that Resident Evil would follow Tomb Raider, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario Bros. onto movie screens.
The rights were snapped up by Constantin Film, a German company responsible for such literary adaptations as The Never Ending Story and The Name of the Rose, and a script was commissioned from Spawn screenwriter Alan McElroy. "We said, 'This is easy,'" recalls the company's head of production, Robert Kulzer. "You take the first game-a bunch of commandos go into a place, shoot it up, blah blah blah. [McElroy] did a pretty good job. You read it and you said, 'I've seen this movie before.' Then the second game comes out, and all of a sudden your movie based on the first looks really dated and boring, and you say 'What do we do now?'"
What they did was certainly inspired. The thought, Kulzer says, was, "Let's go to George Romero and do the ultimate zombie movie." Unfortunately, after a number of drafts, Romero (who helmed a Japanese commercial for Resident Evil 2) and Constantin parted ways. "With George, we could have done a great zombie movie for a very, very limited audience," says Kulzer, who insists that neither the rumored George (The Vanishing) Sluzier nor Geoffrey (Cherry Falls) Wright were ever attached to the project. "We could not have shown it to a regular theater, we could not have shown it on television and the video would have been sold in the X-rated section. Then you can make a $2-million movie, but not a big event movie."
By this stage, Constantin had already sunk huge sums into developing the film, and were said to be close to not renewing the option when they hooked up with writer/director Paul (Event Horizon) Anderson, who brought a fresh take to the material. After what had proven to be a less-than-happy experience working with Warner Bros. on the Kurt Russel sci-fi vehicle Soldier, the British-born Anderson had holed up in his Venice Beach home for six months, writing and playing video games-specifically Resident Evil. Enthused with its obvious cinematic potential and a fan of zombie movies, especially Romero's, Anderson (whose Mortal Kombat remains the most profitable game-to-film adaptation) rang his longtime producing partner Jeremy Bolt in London to buy the rights.
"He called me late one night," Bolt recalls, "and said, 'I've been playing it nonstop, I'm basically turning into a zombie. It's fantastic, we can do this.'"
The next day, however, Bolt discovered that Constantin owned the rights and that Romero had just become attached to the project. Undeterred, Anderson decided to write his own script, in homage to the game, called Undead. "My idea was very much a ripoff of Resident Evil," Anderson confesses. "It's like I was going to make a version that would probably get me sued. It had exactly the same elements: the mansion in the woods, underground laboratory, big corporation doing genetic testing-terrible ripoff." But before he had completed a finished draft, Constantin's deal with Romero fell apart. "To be honest, I heard rumblings that it wasn't going terribly well with Romero, and that it might not happen," Anderson admits, "so even from the outset I was writing Undead with an eye to it becoming Resident Evil."
Constantin had been talking to Anderson about numerous projects, including a version of Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination, ever since the release of his debut feature Shopping back in 1993. So with Anderson keen to make an undead film and Constantin unhappy with Romero's take, the two parties finally came together. "Bernd [Eichinger, producer and head of Constantin] said, 'Let's have a look at what Paul's writing.'" explains Bolt, who runs Impact Films with Anderson. "Bernd was ecstatic, and we joined forces. It's great, because we were talking to them about doing an overhead financing deal, so it all sort of happened simultaneously. So they own half of [Impact], and hopefully this will be the first of a number of films we make under this arrangement, both games-based and otherwise."
Whereas all the previous attempts at adapting Resident Evil had adhered closely to one or more of the games, Anderson took a different approach entirely, coming up with the concept of a prequel, a film that lays the groundwork for the Resident Evil universe and explains what went on before the original game's events. "What we're trying to do is make a movie that works within the universe of Resident Evil and doesn't contradict it," Anderson explains, "so you're not just giving the fans the game as a movie, you're giving them a new adventure."
"Everything is very logical," Jovovich reveals. "This is what the T virus is, this is why these people are undead. Where usually you have this cheesy [explanation], you understand here why these people are walking around and what scientifically is going on to make them this way. What better movie than one with an explanation for the undead? It's reality and it's scary."
While it certainly made narrative sense to do a prequel, Anderson's concept was also born out of his desire to scare his audience shitless. "Primarily, this is a horror movie," he says. "It has to be. It has to be really scary, and for that you have to feel that people are in danger and they are going to die."
To this end, Anderson says he was heavily influenced by Ridley Scott's Alien. "I remember the first time I watched it and they killed Rom Skerritt. I was f**king traumatized. I couldn't believe it, 'cause he was the leader and they killed him. At that point, the whole thing was up for grabs. I wanted a similar kind of feeling to this movie. That's the advantage of doing a prequel: Any of the characters can die, because you're not tied to what happened in the game."
Yet Anderson's film doesn't dismiss the game entirely, a lesson he learned from Mortal Kombat. His film has everything any Resident Evil fan could arguably want: zombies, the Umbrella Corp., the Hive, the isolated mansion in the woods, the zombie dogs, the Licker, even crows. The movie begins in what appears to be San Francisco with the T virus being released--, before cutting to Jovovich's character Alice waking up naked in the shower in a huge, remote mansion, with no idea who she is or how she got there. Barely has she dressed than a team of commandos bursts in and ushers her into an underground research facility, their task to hunt for survivors and seal the complex off before the virus infects the rest of the world. They have just three hours to complete their mission, during which Alice slowly begins to get her memory back.
Anderson's favorite book is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and it was while writing the script that he noticed similarities between the worlds of Resident Evil and Carroll's famous creation, and decided to infuse one into the other. "It struck me that the fundamental idea of 'girl in a dress goes into hole in the ground and meets strange things' is exactly what both Alice and Wonderland and Resident Evil are," he says-which explains why the computer that runs the Hive is named the Red Queen and Jovovich's character is called Alice.
What's typically lost in most video-game movies is the sense of the audience playing the game, and Kulzer says that the character of Alice was designed to correct this flaw. "Within a 90-minute movie, we can recreate what the gamer feels like, and this was the birth of the Alice character. First she wakes up in an environment she knows nothing about. Then slowly she realizes, 'Oh my god, this has very much to do with me, I might be a very introduce part of this, maybe even responsible for it,' and we use her getting her memory back to take her from someone who knows nothing about the environment to a kickass commando who has to save the day, and also use her as a representative of the gamer."