Interview: Paul WS Anderson, film director

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With his muse Milla Jovovich centre stage, director Paul WS Anderson talks about The Three Musketeers and his pursuit of the perfect popcorn movie

THERE are John Woo-style shoot-outs with flintlock pistols, a Milady de Winter who strikes sparks with swords and lovers, plus a climactic battle between the musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s allies fought between two airships. And it’s in 3D. You don’t recall any 17th-century Zeppelins riding the skies in Dumas’ novel? That’s because when tackling the umpteenth film version of The Three Musketeers, British director Paul WS Anderson opted for something that chimed with his first experience of the movies – seeing Richard Lester’s irreverent romp in 1973, aged 8, in his local Newcastle cinema.

“It was the first time I’d been to a film theatre,” says Anderson, a tall Geordie who resembles Professor Brian Cox in geeky handsomeness and smiling earnestness. “My dad took me and I couldn’t get the film out of my head. For days, all I did in the playground was rush at people with sticks challenging them to duels.”

“Richard Lester’s film captured the excitement and pleasure of watching great action and adventure, and I think many people forget that Dumas was writing popcorn entertainment, not historical documents. For instance, the real Richelieu was a very responsible politician and the father of the modern political system. Without him, France would have collapsed but Dumas portrays him as fiendishly horrible because it’s great drama. So I thought – he takes a few liberties, so why can’t we? Frankly, I think he would have approved.”

Yes, but airships a century before the Montgolfier brothers managed to push the clouds around? Anderson laughs. “We took that from Da Vinci, who drew all these fantastic war machines, some of which were built, but many weren’t. He was so far ahead of his time that we thought we could get away with it. But really they give me a chance to give a fresh, spectacular climax at the end of a movie.”

Anderson’s disarming honesty and likeability belie the fact that he’s both one of our most successful filmmakers, and also one of the most controversial. His Resident Evil films, starring his actress wife Milla Jovovich, have generated more than £300m worldwide, and all his movies – from the horror Event Horizon to mashups such as Alien Vs Predator – look good, from the stars to the action sequences. But like Michael Bay, it’s hard to find a critic who will champion the work of Paul WS Anderson – his official handle, to distinguish him from the Magnolia and There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. Does he ever wish that he could be confused with the latter Anderson, a filmmaker who is something of an awards jury and reviewer’s darling?

“I don’t read reviews any more,” he says. “When I made my first film, Shopping, the reviews were incredibly snooty. They said things like ‘Jude Law is too pretty for the role’, and that’s why I don’t respect the British press. That kind of small-minded thing doesn’t consider what people like. And Jude Law was not too good-looking to be an actor: he became one of our major movie stars. One critic called it ‘a reckless orgy of destruction’ and actually that sounded quite cool so we put it on the film poster.”

“I don’t make films for critics and I’m not particularly interested in what they have to say and they don’t have a bearing on my audiences. I’ve always positioned myself as a populist filmmaker. People see my films and they cheer and they clap and they are the kind of movies I like to see myself. Audiences are my barometer.”

His Three Musketeers is certainly aimed at pleasing crowds – the action is nerveless, the women – including Jovovich as villainous Milady de Winter – are corseted and gorgeous, and the cast combines favourite baddies such as Christoph Waltz as Richelieu, screen hunks such as Orlando Bloom swapping bow and arrow for duelling sword, and comedy favourites such as James Corden in a role “very close to the one that Roy Kinnear played in the Richard Lester film”. And while his tone is nonchalant, there’s a lot at stake for this rapier adventure. It’s one of Europe’s biggest productions this year, and the profits will flow back into the European film industry, unlike Notting Hill “which looked like a British film but all the money went back to America”.

Already, it has won one duel. While in preproduction, Anderson was told that Warner Brothers also planned to make a movie of The Three Musketeers to be directed by Doug Bourne Identity Liman with a script by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Two sets of épées on screen within months of each other sounded like too much for the market to bear, given that US audiences are not quite as keen on period adventures as Europe.

However, Anderson points out that Warner Brothers withdrew from the race, leaving his film with a clear shot at the box office.

Anderson’s script was co-written with Andrew Davies, still identified by Jane Austen fans as the man who had Mr Darcy jump into a lake. The two have known each other since Davies tutored Anderson as a student at Warwick University. It was Anderson who sought out Davies, looking for a sure hand with experience of calibrating period character. “Andrew has very different interests than mine but that’s why we hired him,” says Anderson, who usually writes alone. “He has a romantic edge, and that’s what we wanted in the Musketeers.”

Anderson’s own romantic life has generated its own share of headlines. He fell in love with Milla Jovovich in 2002 as they created zombie mayhem in the Resident Evil franchise, which is heading for a fifth instalment next year. Despite little plot, originality or character development, the series shows no sign of losing steam, and it’s quite clear that Anderson views Jovovich as the engine of the franchise, his muse on his other films, and a force to be reckoned with. Now married with a three-year-old daughter, Ever, he sounds hopelessly in thrall to his wife’s energy.

“We can work all day together, and when we go home there’s no question of switching off,” he shrugs. “Milla’s so driven that if there’s a script issue, she will want to talk about it even at 2am.

“Everyone in the cast got bruises and scrapes and bloody fingers during the sword fights, but Milla really pushes the envelope. She’s already great at martial arts but now she’s an excellent swordswoman and when you see sparks in the film, it’s because everyone is fighting with real metal blades. The difference is that Milla is also fighting in a corset and a costume that weighs about 30lbs. Some of the other actresses could hardly stand in the clothes, but Milla fights!”

Like his hero James Cameron, Anderson is a director who tends to champion roles for strong women. “That’s been the case even before Milla,” he says. “I was raised by my mother, and the north-east, like Scotland, has a tradition of men who think they are in charge but it’s the women who are the real power. Besides, I love action, and I love women, so it’s a very easy combination in my films. Jean-Luc Godard once said, ‘All you need to make a great movie is a girl and a gun’. And that’s definitely my philosophy.”

• The Three Musketeers is on general release from tomorrow.