Under the Radar

'Pompeii' Director Paul W.S. Anderson's 3D Volcano Dream

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Pompeii aims to use cutting-edge 3D technology to tell the story of the 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption in a way that appeals to modern audiences. Paul W.S. Anderson, who's best known for the series of successful movies based on the Resident Evil video game, directed the movie, which stars Kit Harington from Game of Thrones and features a villainous turn from Kiefer Sutherland.


Harington plays Milo, a slave turned gladiator who tries to save Cassia (played by Emily Browning) as the volcano erupts and wipes out their home city. The movie also highlights Milo's battles with fellow gladiator Atticus (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who must kill Milo to gain his freedom. Pompeii opens this Friday. We talked to director Paul W.S. Anderson about his longtime dream to make a movie about the volcanic event.

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You seem really interested in making the kind of historical action pictures that mostly disappeared after “Star Wars.”

After Star Wars, people were taking these classic story lines that would have been told as kind of a sword-and-sandal movie or as a knights-in-armor movie or even as a western, and then setting it in a fantasy world or a far future world.

I grew up watching El Cid, Spartacus, Ben-Hur, those great kind of sword-and-sandal epics and I always had a huge affection for them. Added to that, I grew up in the north of England, very close to Hadrian's Wall, which the Emperor Hadrian built to separate England from Scotland. Hadrian's Wall crosses the whole of England and it's this giant monument to the might of the Roman Empire. So, when I was growing up, Romans were a big part of my childhood and I was just fascinated. Not just with the the military might of Rome, but also the technology that Roman society had. When you travel now and you go to a hotel and it has under floor heating in the bathroom, it feels something really special. The Romans had hypocaust as pretty standard in most of their villas, which kind of was like under floor heating. They had under floor heating, fresh running water, plumbing. They had second floor plumbing. Rome was a really sophisticated and advanced society.

Then I studied Pompeii at school. From the moment I saw the plaster cast figures of people frozen in the moment of their death, I've been obsessed with it. Some of the most striking historical artifacts are these figures frozen in time. I think it has a huge kind of relevance to a contemporary audience as well, because it asks the question, “If you know your end is coming and you know you're going to die, how do you meet that end?”

Those plaster cast figures show it. Some people are running. There are some people who are huddled and some people are facing their death with nobility. There are some people who choose to ignore the coming apocalypse and just stare into the eyes of the person they love. That imagery has stayed with me for decades. This really has been a lifelong obsession for me. The movie is definitely a labor of love. I've been working on kind of bringing it to the screen for six years now.

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Did you always plan to make this a 3D movie?

I always felt that a disaster movie with a volcano in it is exactly the kind of movie that 3D was invented for. The technology is really built to immerse the audience in the disaster.

I've probably seen the movie a hundred times now, in the first half of the film, and I still find myself leaning forward to see more depth in the images, because the images of the streets of Pompeii recede into the screen. There's incredible depth in the image. In the second half of the movie, I end up leaning back in my seat, because all of this stuff starts flying out to me. You're really wrapped in all of the ash that starts falling from the volcanic eruption.

This is a movie that was built to push the boundaries of 3D. I watched it with an audience in New York last night and, in the scenes where Atticus is throwing his axe, you’ve got people literally ducking in the cinema as that thing flies at you. 3D is a fantastic tool and there are some movies where the 3D really pays off. I think it really adds a lot to the experience in “Pompeii.”

This is the fourth movie I've made in 3D. I think I’ve probably made more movies in 3D than any other director working and I've used the same crew for each one. The 3D has gotten better and better and the cameras have gotten smaller, which means you can get into the action more. You can get into the sets more. It just allows you to give the audience more of a kind of front row seat in the disaster.

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Tell us about the central characters in “Pompeii.”

Kit Harington plays Milo. He’s from from Britannia and he's taken as a slave when he's just a child and he trains to be a gladiator. So the central character is a warrior.

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The main relationships are between Milo and another gladiator called Atticus. The story is really their quest to find freedom. The volcano erupts and they use that crisis an opportunity to escape and fight to get their freedom. At the same time, there's a love story between Milo and Cassia, played by Emily Browning. But for me the real heart of the movie is this relationship between these two men who are both amazingly good warriors.

The bad guy is Senator Corvus, a highly decorated Roman general who becomes a totally corrupt senator. It's a fantastic performance for Kiefer Sutherland, who’s really totally evil.

A lot of people associate him with Jack Bauer, who although he's got his dark side, is a good guy. But I grew up loving the Kiefer Sutherland of The Lost Boys and Flatliners, when he was bad and he was mean. And I hadn't seen Kiefer play a role like that for a long time, so I really wanted to kind of engage with the evil Kiefer Sutherland. And I have to say he hasn’t lost it. He's a great, great bad guy.

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It's a really fun movie. I'm very, very proud of it and it really – it plays great with the audiences. My intention was to make a movie where you almost forget that there's a volcano in it because you get so immersed in the characters and the action and their struggle for freedom. There are some really good battle scenes inside the arena. And I hope that the audience gets so into it that, when the volcano suddenly explodes, they go, “Oh, yeah, there's a volcano in this film.”

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