Alex Fitch talks to Paul WS Anderson about Death Race, a slick B-movie revolving around a car race set in a prison, produced by Roger Corman and loosely based on Death Race 2000 (1975), also produced by Corman.
Alex Fitch: The new Death Race seems to be very much about now, as much as the original Death Race 2000 was very much about the 1970s. At the moment there’s a craze for these souped-up racer films such as Taxi and 2 Fast 2 Furious – were you trying to work within the boundaries of that genre or trying to subvert it?
Paul WS Anderson: I think Death Race is a lot more subversive than a traditional car action movie; the studio keeps referring to the film as the movie that no major movie studio should have made! I think that’s true because it’s both very violent and very anti-authoritarian. It’s also a throwback to the way movies were made in the 70s and 80s – it’s got a gritty visceral feel that harkens back to Mad Max II, Bullitt and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway rather than the movies you referenced, as those movies are 12 certificate pieces of frippery full of computer-generated images! There isn’t a single CG stunt in Death Race – every time you see a car crash it’s was all done practically.
AF: As a filmmaker, do you get a vicarious thrill thinking, ‘I’m going to have a chance to destroy a lot of cars in this movie!’?
PA: I would like to say it’s a pleasure, but it was in fact incredibly difficult. My orders to the crew were: ‘I want to put the most spectacular car stunts we can on film and I want to do it for real.’ And in order to pull that off and not kill anybody, it took about a year’s worth of pre-production, building the cars and building the camera rigs, so we could get the cameras close enough to film all of the action without killing the camera crew. It would have been much easier to film the actors and put some CG cars in afterwards, but we wanted to make a movie that offered the same thrill to audiences that I had when I walked out of Mad Max II, compared to Speed Racer, which was all CGI cars and tracks and stunts.
AF: Presumably that’s why the cars in this film are much more industrial than the ones in the original as they had to withstand the stunts.
PA: Absolutely. The original Death Race 2000 was a low-budget movie and it was amazing what they did with the money they spent, but they were basically VW Beetles in the original with a different shell put on top. They could never crunch together because they only had one of each and didn’t want to damage them or drive them faster than 42mph!
AF: The timing of the remake couldn’t be better – when the original Death Race came out, they were in the middle of an oil crisis, petrol stations were closing, they were at the end of an unpopular war and the most unpopular president in a generation was just leaving office, and here we are in 2008 and things seem exactly the same!
PA: It’s definitely a dystopian view of the near future of North America and that’s what audiences have related to. In our Death Race, the year the movie is set in is kind of vague – whether it’s five years in the future, 10 years in the future…
AF: The satire in the original is a lot more focused on recent targets, while here you’re commenting on the nature of reality television and the way the internet perhaps leads people towards entertainment that is more barbaric.
PA: Definitely. Roger’s movie was a more overtly satirical movie, which was not the movie we wanted to make. I didn’t want to make an obvious comedy satire. He was explicit; in our movie the criticism of reality television and the internet is more implicit.
AF: Is this a project you had been wanting to do for a while?
PA: This is the very definition of a labour of love for me! Not only did the original movie leave a huge impression on me, but also the movies that were directly inspired by it. George Miller has been very forthright in saying he was heavily influenced by Death Race 2000 in his movies and his films made a huge impression on me as a movie-goer and a filmmaker. I’ve literally been working on this movie for the last 13 years off and on. I originally met Roger (Corman) because he released my very first film Shopping in North America – he was a judge at the Tokyo film festival where he saw it. He didn’t actually release it until after my second movie Mortal Kombat, which 13 years ago was the number one movie in America. So I then had lunch with Roger and he said, ‘Great kid, you’ve got a number one movie, what are you going to do next?’ and I said, ‘Well, I want to re-imagine one of your movies, Death Race‘ and he said, ‘That’s great! We’ll make it your next movie!’ It’s a typical Hollywood development story: we cut to 13 years later and we finally made it!
AF: A film called Death Race 2020 was nearly made in the 90s – was that the version you were originally attached to?
PA: Yes, I’m like the caretaker in The Shining, I’ve always been there! It was my idea to remake the original and I feel a bit like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill! It’s been a long journey… Roger has always stood by me and for 13 years, he’s helped steer the movie, which is great because he made the original Death Race and 33 years later he gets to make the new one as well. He made the one for $200,000 and the one that cost a lot more!
AF: If you had made Death Race in the 90s I assume it would have been a very different film.
PA: Absolutely. I’ve done my arc of CG movies – when I did Mortal Kombat I was very enamoured with computer-generated images – but now I’m very excited by doing a movie with no CG images in it. The Death Race I might have made 13 years ago would have been a very different movie to the one I’ve made now. I’m glad it has taken this long because I think I’ve made a better movie. The kind of movie I wanted to make has changed, and the world is more ready for dystopian world views now, more like the ones we had in the 1970s than in the feel-good 90s!
AF: Are you a fan of Roger’s movies in general?
PA: I’m a huge fan of Roger’s movies and who Roger is – he’s given some of the best filmmakers working in Hollywood their first break and he’s the man who’s made a hundred movies and never lost a dime on any of them! He’s made so much money making these movies, but he’s still so passionate. I had lunch with him a few months ago and asked if he’d like to come up to the cutting room to see the rough cut of the movie and he said, ‘I’d love to, but I’ve got to go back to my cutting room now!’ because he was making a low-budget movie for the Sci-Fi Channel – it’s very inspiring.
AF: As well as Mad Max, the original Death Race influenced computer games such as Carmageddon and Grand Theft Auto. In the film, racers have to drive over tokens in the road, and it was the first time I’d seen something like that in a film rather than a game. I was wondering if it was some sort of comment on the overlap between games and film iconography?
PA: I’m sure those games were influenced by Death Race 2000, so in a way it’s coming full circle. But the idea of power-ups definitely came from games – I can’t point to one in particular we took the idea from. I’m a game player and for me, the kind of imagery that appears in games is a valid form of modern culture, so it’s something I would always consider putting in movies. I was also very aware that the problem with a lot of car race movies is that after you’ve been around the track a couple of times, it becomes a little boring! Every race scene had to be different and that’s a concept that came from video games where you complete one level, and then progress to the next level where things become a little more difficult.
AF: One interesting aspect of your films is that they combine genres – sci-fi and horror, sci-fi and action, etc – and that’s something that’s often used as a definition of cult films. In mainstream films you have to stick to one genre and not break the rules. Is that something you’ve become aware of throughout your career?
PA: I don’t know that the level of box office of my films can really be called cult! I think when a movie makes close to $200 million worldwide, it’s kind of beyond a cult level!
AF: But you know what I’m getting at: the way that ‘cult’ has become a genre in its own right, even if it breaks box office records, just as, for example, ‘indie’ is used to describe films that have a more skewed way of telling a story than ‘mainstream’ films.
PA: I think if you’re making genre movies, your audience is very sophisticated because they’ve seen everything – especially now when you can watch so many movies on DVD, or on TV, or download them. So if you’re going to present something fresh and interesting to audiences or subvert expectations, I think that’s where combining genres can sometimes help – for example, you think you’re watching an action movie and suddenly it has a very scary moment in it… I think it becomes harder and harder to take a genre audience by surprise and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the movies I’ve made have combined elements from different genres and been successful.
AF: How much of a challenge is it to make films that audiences find unexpected?
PA: It’s a huge challenge. Sometimes I think genre filmmaking is not regarded with the esteem it deserves. People look down on it a little bit, but it’s much easier to make a drama than it is to make a genre movie because the audiences of genre movies are the most critical in the world. It would be much easier for me to make a film where I’m just filming two actors in a room!
AF: Talking about exceeding audience expectations, I was wondering if that’s what attracts you to computer game adaptations because they’re a form of narrative that perhaps film audiences aren’t used to?
PA: I think there are video game references in my work that are fresh to the world of cinema, such as the power-ups in Death Race. I think that’s a challenge when you make this kind of film, especially when you make a video game adaptation: you walk the thin line between satisfying the hardcore fans of the game you’re adapting and delivering a movie for a more mainstream audience that don’t know anything about it.
AF: When you were developing as a filmmaker, were there various genres that you wanted to tackle, either separately or at the same time, or did each project suggest a different genre approach? My favourite of your films, for example, is Event Horizon, which successfully mixes horror and sci-fi to an unexpected extent.
PA: I’ve always made the kind of movies I enjoyed when I was growing up, and I guess those movies combined those genres anyway. Alien, for example, is the best known horror/sci-fi movie and it is really effective. I’ve done it on a project by project basis – there’s no overall plan to a filmmaker’s career. With Death Race, I’ve kind of made three movies in one – it’s a prison movie, a car movie and also a war movie! With the heavy weaponry in the movie, it has more in common with Black Hawk Down than your average car race movie.
Interview by Alex Fitch
Read Alex Fitch’s feature on both versions of Death Race in our autumn print issue. The theme of the issue is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Korean thriller A Bloody Aria to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Plus: interview with comic book master Charles Burns about the stunning animated film Fear(s) of the Dark and preview of the Raindance Festival. And don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!