Taking Up Residence: Interview with Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City Writer-Director Johannes Roberts

Image courtesy: Sony Pictures Entertainment / Screen Gems

Talk about false advertising. The franchise’s previous installment was literally titled Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but the sixth film in the zombie sci-fi action series proved to be anything but. New prequel/reboot Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City takes viewers back to 1998, several years before the events of 2002’s original film, to reveal how the evil Umbrella Corporation set up their genetic research facility gone wrong underneath the titular town.

British writer-director Johannes (pronounced yo-HAHN-is) Roberts has become a hot helmer of action-horror titles in the past half decade, writing and directing 2017’s shark thriller 47 Meters Down and 2019’s sequel 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, plus directing 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night. Now he arrives for this seventh Resident Evil installment from Sony Pictures Entertainment and Screen Gems, exclusively in theaters on Wednesday, November 24.

Where were you in the production process on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, “the day everything changed”?

Oh my God, where were we? We were ready to go. The movie had been written, everything was going well. Kaya was probably on by that point. [Previously the lead in 2019’s horror film Crawl and Netflix’s drama series Spinning Out, Kaya Scodelario plays protagonist Claire Redfield.] Everything was just being sorted out with Sony and staff.

Then, obviously, the pandemic came in. You have to hand it to [production company] Constantin, a company that has to be careful with their overheads and everything. They had to make this decision: “The world has shut down, what are we going to do?” And Martin [Constantin Film’s Chair Martin Moszkowicz] said, “I don’t know what it’s going to be like next year. Maybe it’s going to be worse.” He was right on the money. Everybody else said it’s going to be over by Easter [2020]. So we went out, in the middle of a pandemic, and just did it. That was tough. It was a ballsy move on their part.

As to what I was doing on that exact day? Praying, I think. [Laughs.]

This film will have theatrical exclusivity. Why is it important for audiences to see this in theaters?

The first movie I went back and watched was Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, after I finished this movie and the cinemas reopened. And I cannot tell you how much I loved every minute of being in that cinema. I just think, in general, cinema is such an amazing experience. I’m so glad that the pandemic has shown that people missed it.

This is such a big screen experience. Thankfully, horror has been successful since the pandemic, by and large. Horror is so communal: to have everybody together in this dark room, being able to jump them up all at once. Everybody feeds off everybody else’s emotions. The music in this film, the needle drops of the ‘90s, mixed with the scares — it is just meant for that big screen. It hopefully will be a beautiful experience. Myself, I can’t wait to sit and watch it, just one more time. 

What is your funniest story from production?

The movie is called Welcome to Raccoon City. We finished the edit and we wrapped the movie. I never had a wrap party because of the pandemic, so it was just me, the post-production supervisor Andre [Coutu], and my editor Dev [Singh] sitting on this rooftop in Toronto and having this sort of party. It was 1 or 2 in the morning. Andre looks over to the corner and goes, “Can you see that raccoon over there?” There was this little raccoon peering out of a window at us!

What a funny thing, but we go back and carry on chatting. A few minutes later we look back again, and the raccoon has come back a little closer with another one. And then there’s another one. And another one. Pretty soon we’re surrounded by four or five of them coming right up to us, eating off the table.

This film comes out the day before Thanksgiving. None of the six prior Resident Evil films were released around that time of year, or indeed tied to any holiday at all. What was the rationale behind releasing such a family-unfriendly film during a holiday intended for family cheer?

Don’t be silly, this is exactly for Grandma! The tagline is “Bring Grandma along.” [Laughs.] A lot of it just came down to when we finished shooting. I literally only finished this movie three months ago [August]. It’s not been long. It’s not like this has been sitting on a shelf, waiting for the right time. We actually initially looked at a September date. When we were in post [post-production], that was the date we were going for. In the end, they picked Thanksgiving.

I think the rationale is: no one knows anything at the moment. Not that they ever did know anything, but now they really don’t know anything. [Laughs.] Bigger and more important people than me have decided this, it wasn’t just up to me. But I think the [logic] was, “There’s a lot of people under 30, males under 30, that sort of key Resident Evil audience, who are going to be kicking around over those four or five days.”

Hey, I’m a male under 30.

Then I’m going to make sure you’re there! [Laughs.]

What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?

I’ll always remember seeing [1994’s] In the Mouth of Madness, because that was my first John Carpenter movie at the cinema. I had to hunt down that cinema, because his movies weren’t really finding an audience at the time. I sat there and the multiplex audience were sitting there chatting among themselves… and then the first jump was so wonderfully executed that the whole cinema just got silent. It was so great. I remember that very clearly.

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