Paul W.S. Anderson Talks Filming His Volkswagen Commercials, How the Process Differs from Films, and More

     July 3, 2014


While you might know Paul W.S. Anderson from the movies he’s directed like Resident EvilEvent HorizonDeath Race and Pompeii, over the last few years he’s also been doing something you may find more surprising: directing award winning commercials.  Like his movies, his commercials are loaded with action.  In the first of three new ads for VW, Anderson takes the tag line “made for real life, not the movies” and offers a tongue-in-cheek take on car commercials/high-octane action movies.  After you see the ad (which is after the jump), the tag line will make a lot more sense.  In addition to this ad called “Bus,” the second ad “Chase” and third one “Explosion” will be playing in theaters in the UK in front of movies starting July 11th and September 12th and will be released online shortly after.

Recently, I got on the phone with Anderson to talk about his commercial work.  He discussed how he first came to be directing commercials, the way he’s taken custom camera rigs created for the ads and incorporated them in his own movies, the premise of the different VW ads and why they were created, how he works with Volkswagen on the day of the shoot, and a lot more.  In addition to the interview, Anderson provided us with a number of behind-the-scenes images from the shoot.  Hit the jump to check it out.

Here’s the first of three ads Anderson did for VW called “Bus”:

Finally, if you missed what Anderson told me about Resident Evil 6 (now called Resident Evil: The Final Chapter), click here for what he had to say.

paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-6Collider: A lot of people know you for the features that you’ve directed and the things that you’ve written, but you also do a lot of commercials. How long have you been doing commercials for?

PAUL W.S. ANDERSON:  I started doing commercials in 2008 right after we released Death Race, and the reason was that I spent two years prepping Death Race and building all these custom rigs to shoot cars in the most dynamic and exciting way. [Laughs] I love Death Race, it’s one of my favorite films. I thought, “You know what?  All that two years worth of work is now gong to be wasted because I’m highly unlikely to direct another car movie straight away,” and I felt at that point there was no one who was kind of better at shooting cars, so I thought rather than let it go to waste I would explore the idea of doing commercials, and that’s what I did. The first job I did was Volkswagen, we shot it in Long Beach, and it was like they won multiple awards with it and they were super excited about it and that kind of launched me into the world of commercials. Still most of what I do is car-related stuff.

When you went to Volkswagen originally back in ’08 did you pitch them an idea for a commercial?

ANDERSON: The way it works in commercials is they come to you with the script and then you do the visual, you do the storyboards, and you give your vision of it, but it’s very much their baby. You just kind of put your polish and sheen on it, and you’re interpretation of it, but it’s very much the agency’s idea. I think people were a little nervous to work with me to start with, because the movies I’ve done they thought that I wouldn’t be able to control myself at all. I’d have to blow up the cars or something like that, and I think also people are scared of working sometimes with feature directors, because they feel like you’re not going to listen to their opinions. I’m a very collaborative person, so that’s not the way I work any way. Once VW got over the idea that I was going to blow their cars up, then we shot the thing really fast and it came out really good. Like I said, it won a bunch of awards and that really was the start of working in commercials.

paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-1It’s an area that I love, because as you know, every movie is a commitment of a year or a year and a half. Commercials are much faster than that because they’re much more contained. You can get in and out really fast, and you do a piece of work the you see the end result very quickly. Its also any opportunity to meet new crew and work with new kind of rigs. You can explore working with different people without having to make the full commitment of having to do an entire feature film with them and see whether you like them. Also it’s great for testing out new equipment,  like on the last spot we just did, I used a lot of drone technology, really cutting edge drone stuff, more than I’ve ever done before, and it worked out really really well. I’m very impressed and the next movie I do I’m definitely going to use a lot of drones in it, because they’re very light and flexible and fast, and there are things that you can do with them that you can’t possibly do with a helicopter for safety reasons.

Did you bring any of the crew that you worked with to the commercials?

ANDERSON: Yeah, the director of photography on the last set of commercials I did was Vern Nobles, who was the second unit DP on my last four films. So on this one he stepped up and became the main DP and he knocked it- You’ve seen the bus one?


ANDERSON: We shot that in a day. It was one day.


paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-7ANDERSON: Yeah, and we had terrible problems as well. The bus broke down, but we shot the whole thing, everything, in one day, which is another thing I like about commercials. They’re very kind of rock n roll, and they keep you on edge. I like alternating commercials with movies, because it keeps the pace up. You can’t slack on a commercial. You need to go fast. That’s a terrific piece of action, I think if that was scheduled for a movie, you’d put that in for two or three days worth of work.

You have three VW commercials and one of them is called “Bus”, which I’ve seen, and it plays with basically the future technology in cars right now. Talk a little bit about where the ideas for these commercials came from and the next  two.

ANDERSON: It’s all based around the idea that basically VW cars are space age. They’re the worst cars to use in action movie, because all the things you want to traditionally do in an action movie they won’t allow you to do, because they make you drive safely if you want to or not. So each of the commercials- basically it’s an action movie cliché. “Bus” is very much inspired by Speed obviously, where you have a high-jacked out of control bus, and you have heroes who are trying to jump  from a moving vehicle to the bus and they just can’t do it because the moving vehicle can’t get close enough, because all these VW cars have this distancing technology, which is really fantastic. When that technology becomes widespread and it’s on every car on the freeways, it’s going to save so many lives. Especially in America, so many people get killed in these multi-car pileups on the freeways.

paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-3What this technology does, and the first time it was demonstrated to me was on an air field in England and there were two cars. I was in the chase car, I was in the second car, and we’re chasing another car down their field and they’re both VW. We’re doing I would say 85mph and the driver of my car, because it was on the cruise control, he just had it set for 85. So he didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel or his feet on the pedals, and the car in front of us did an emergency stop without any warning, so it was going at 85 and the guy in front just hit the brakes, we were right behind this other car and our care stopped perfectly behind this other car. Went from 85 to 0 without hitting the other car, without our driving handling the steering wheel or the brakes, which is just- it was quite terrifying, but it’s really an amazing demonstration, because what happens in a lot of crash situations is even if you hit the brakes what tends to happen is people over steer and they cause the car to crash anyway, and this technology will bring the car to a perfect halt for you. Which I think, like I said, ultimately is going to save a lot of lives, but is terrible for action movies.

And the technology in the other ones. Another one is called “Chase”, which is this classic car chase around a derelict boxside, and it’s super exciting when the cars are going straight, but when they take a corner there’s this technology, it’s an anti-skid technology, that if you start taking a corner too fast and it thinks the car is going to skid, it slows the car down. So its like this chase scene, but every time they take a corner the cars kind of slow down to 25 and take the corner really boring, and then they can accelerate again. It’s like the most frustrating car chase ever. The other one is this thing called “Explosion”, where somebody tries to use a car as a missile to ram into something, but again there’s this technology that stops you running into walls and stuff. So the car is supposed to hit these explosive barrels and blow up all the bad guys, but the car stops dead. Each one has this very funny punchline at the end of it.

paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-2Were these shot on three consecutive days?  What was the shoot like?

ANDERSON: Yeah, it was three days. We shot each one in the day, and each one, as you’ve seen from the one you’ve seen, it’s a kind of mini action sequence.

With these three ideas, they came from the agency and then you basically, as you said, put your touch on all three?

ANDERSON: Yeah, exactly. The basic ideas and the punchline at the end was present already, that came in tact from the agency and then I just put my interpretation on it.

So do you now watch Mad Men with a whole new looking glass?

ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. A big part of my job is drinking martinis when I work in advertising.

A hundred percent [Laughs].

ANDERSON: [Laughs] The real reason why I wanted to get into advertising.

How is it when you’re on the set of one of these things?  Are the Volkswagen people sitting there and sort of watching every thing, or do they sort of trust you and they just see the finished cut?

ANDERSON: These commercials, I directed them all from inside the tracking vehicle, so I was traveling about 85mph most of the time, so there wasn’t really anyone sitting beside me other than the driver. But, you know, yeah the agency is there and VW is there, which is- they’re paying for it all and also because the agency created the boards, they want to make sure that you’re not going off the rails in executing it. And also they can help, because they- it’s a very different thing to cinema. Ultimately this is a sales tool and they know the marketing better, because it’s their life, than you do. It’s good to kind of listen to their advice. So they’re definitely there all the time, but quite a lot of the time they hire me to do my thing, so when it comes to the action and stuff, they just let me have at it. Interestingly it’s when you come to the comedy, that’s where a lot of the discussion is. It’s like ten people sitting around talking about what is funny. “Is that funny?  Is that funnier than that?  Is this slightly funnier than this?”  I guess that’s what it’s like when you’re making a comedy movie as well, you just have to sit around talking seriously about the nature of comedy.

paul-ws-anderson-commercial-image-8Did you know that these commercials were going to be shown in cinemas when you were making them?

ANDERSON: Yes, absolutely. That was one of the attractions to do something that when they play you kind of feel like it’s  kind of a movie, and then there’s this punchline at the end. I think that part of them is serious and we just play it like a serious action scene without any set up, they do kid of feel a little like trailers and then you have the punchline at the end. But certainly they were designed to be shown- I shot them widescreen and they’re designed to be shown on the big screen. And they have this huge sound mix in them as well so you see them in the theater and they take on a whole new life rather than just watching at home or watching them on TV.

So do you have any other commercials lined up after these or is it back into feature film world?

ANDERSON: I’m writing the next Resident Evil at the moment, so I don’t know whether I’m going to have a chance to direct something else before I have to get immersed in that. It’s a nice thing to balance as well. When you’re writing it’s a very solitary job. It’s you and your word processor and a cup of tea. It’s nice- that again, is another nice thing  about being able to do commercials is, you can get out of the house and chase high speed cars around for a few days and then by the time you go back, you’re kind of re-infused to write. Also, I never have to blow anything up in commercials whereas in Resident Evil obviously I can, and am encouraged to.

I have to ask you, how happy was Clint Culpepper at ScreenGems when you either emailed him or called and said, “Okay, it’s time for the next one”?

ANDERSON: [Laughs] Everyone is excited about Resident Evil and no one more so than me and Milla, because it’s really a franchise that we really love and as you know we’ve put a huge amount of energy and care and love into the franchise. We’re very excited to be doing another one.

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