Quick Stats: Paul W.S. Anderson Movie director, producer, writer
Daily Driver: 2007 Cadillac Escalade ESV (Paul's rating: 10 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: From England's Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed
Car he learned to drive in: late 1970s Volkswagen Golf
First car bought: early 1980s Peugeot 205
Director Paul W.S. Anderson's gritty car racing action thriller "Death Race" comes out this weekend, a sort of prequel to 1975's "Death Race 2000." Set in a dystopian future, the characters are like gladiators, with cars as their weapons.
Featuring Joan Allen, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane, the film is expected do well, given Anderson's track record of "Alien vs. Predator," which he wrote and directed, "Mortal Kombat" and the "Resident Evil" trilogy. But Anderson's love of cars goes back to his very first film, 1994's "Shopping" about joyriding and ramraiding.
Anderson finds irony between his movies and his family car. These days he and his partner, actress Milla Jovovich, are a one car family -- for now. His daily driver is a 2007 Cadillac Escalade ESV, which he rates a perfect 10. A far cry from the sporty convertibles they once had (she: a Lexus and he: a Jaguar), but they got this more family-friendly car when their daughter was born last year.
"I have responsibilities as a father, so I want to keep my need for speed in check a little bit," he says. "As a huge family vehicle, I'd give it a 10. It seats so many people -- we have one baby, three dogs, my family regularly come over and visit from England. It's a fantastic vehicle for shuffling a large amount of people around in immense comfort. It's also got a pretty big engine, so when you need to boost it, the acceleration's not bad and the brakes are excellent."
Sure, he has a day job as a big time Hollywood movie director, but with his British accent and chipper demeanor, his musings on cars are punctuated by subtle irony and a witty sense of humor that belie his darker films. It makes you think in an alternate universe Anderson might've been a great "Top Gear" host.
"I fell in love with the Escalade, because when I first met Milla, she had one of the first Escalades ever in L.A. I think her and P. Diddy had the first Escalades," he recalls. "The first time I met her, I saw her truck before I saw her and it thoroughly impressed me. I just thought it was the coolest looking vehicle."
But the earlier Escalades left something to be desired. "What I hated about it though was the more I drove it, the more I realized the early versions are such pieces of shit. Looked fantastic on the outside, low level of workmanship inside, things would fall apart. Interiors were rather cheaply done, lots of plastic. It just felt unbelievably cheap. I'm happy to report now we've got one of the latest models, they've fixed all of those things that tended to fall apart. Although I have to say, my beef with most American vehicles is the interiors are just a little cheaper than most European cars."
In the U.K. Anderson grew up with "Top Gear" and it is the only British show he still watches on cable. "Once every two months they would review an American vehicle and they're just merciless to them, you know - how cheap the interiors are. It's true. You kind of get used to it living in America, you lower your standards."
He said he might get a sportier car again later. "We are a one car family right now - director, movie star, one car between us," he says. "We're trying to reduce our carbon footprint. We do drive an Escalade, but we only have the one vehicle. Sometimes it's not easy I've got to say, but we're doing our best. It's funny that I've made a movie called 'Death Race' with the most amazing fast cars mounted with machine guns and I drive an Escalade. I just realized the irony involved there."
British Expats in California and Jaguar Convertibles
Before the SUV, he had his share of convertibles. Loyal to the Jaguar badge, he had a Jaguar XK8. And while making "Alien vs. Predator" in Prague, where he had a driver and a Mercedes, sitting in his Los Angeles garage was a Jaguar XKR. As soon as he could afford Jaguars, he had to have the convertibles.
"I'm English and I live in California, I'm obliged to have a convertible. For us, skin cancer does not exist. No one has the concept of that in England," he chuckles. "It's an unwritten rule that when you move to California and you're an English person, you have to drive a convertible and you have to bank with Wells Fargo because they have a stage coach on their bank card."
Wells Fargo? "It's just so American, then you realize Wells Fargo is one of the worst banks in the world. I would guarantee you, 95 percent of English people that move here drive a convertible and they bank with Wells Fargo in the first two years. So I would always drive a Jag and you know the interiors of those cars are just fantastic."
Anderson feels the English made cars that had a glamour about them, but they never worked. "That's why I love Jags. I grew up adoring Jaguars but when I could afford to start driving them, they were built by an American company, so the actual engineering had gotten a lot better."
Car He Learned To Drive In
Born and raised in Newcastle, Anderson learned to drive at 17 in his dad's late 1970s Volkswagen Golf, but his dad had some other British cars he drove, like a Triumph TR7.
"When I was young, I drove antiquated British cars - my dad had a TR7," he says. "It was when they were shaped like wedges of cheese, it had that slightly futuristic look. They looked like a triangle and had these individual headlights that would pop up. It looked like the coolest thing, it was very James Bond. But they would always break, especially in damp weather and of course the north of England is damp all the time. So I'd be driving my dad's TR7 and one of the headlights would just keep going down and coming up again. From a distance it looked like the car was blinking at you."
Of course, being England, every car he drove had a manual transmission. "I never drove an automatic until I came to America. I much, much prefer a stick shift if I can get one. It's just more fun driving in a stick shift and the car is more responsive. It's a little more effort so you can't quite do the L.A. thing of drinking coffee, fiddling with the radio, talking on your cell phone, eating a sandwich - all at the same time while driving. You probably can tell from the movies I've made, I love cars and I love driving. And I love driving fast as well."
Anderson also drove his dad's 1970s Rover, which he recalls was a "huge boat of a car, again quite unreliable mechanically, but it had a picnic table that folded down in the back seat which I thought was the coolest thing ever."
First Car Bought
It was at the University of Warwick that Anderson developed his passion for making movies. In college he bought a used early 1980s Peugeot 205. But before that car, Anderson, who is 6 feet 3 and a half inches, borrowed his mom's Mini to see a Mel Gibson movie.
"I remember going to see 'The Road Warrior,' which was a monumental moment in my life, I love that movie so much," he said. "It was me and three friends and all my friends were like me - we're all quite big. So we're all crammed into this small Mini. And I see 'The Road Warrior' and I was so adrenalized and pumped up."
The post-apocalyptic action flick made Anderson want to get behind the wheel of the Mini and drive straight to the side of a truck, he says, "but obviously with four big guys in there it would go about 30 miles an hour."
The impact of that fast-paced film never left him. "When I made 'Death Race' I remember that adrenalized thrill I had when I came out of 'The Road Warrior' and that's really what I try to deliver to an audience. It was all for real - that really left an impression on me - no CG cars. That movie, like 'Death Race,' has a bone crunching reality to it."
Moving To Hollywood and a Mazda Miata
After making his first movie "Shopping" with Jude Law in 1994, he moved to Los Angeles to make his first major Hollywood film "Mortal Kombat."
"I had no money other than what New Line were giving me to live on while I was making 'Mortal Kombat.' And of course I'm British and as I explained they have to have a convertible," he says. "The cheapest convertible I could get was a Mazda Miata. Everybody used to ridicule me terribly because I would turn up on set and my head would literally be poking over the top of the windshield, because they're just tiny cars.
I would turn up and my hair would look like Christopher Walken's hair, it would be sticking straight up."
He and his rental Miata stuck out on the 405 freeway, so when crew members drove by they would wave. What color was it? "It was bright red," Anderson replies with a hint of irony. "You know - very inconspicuous."
After that, the first car Anderson bought in the U.S. was a used 1977 Ford Bronco. "I spent so much time broken down on the side of the road with it, but I always believed I looked very cool in it. Even broken down." Anderson then switched to Jaguar.
Favorite Road TripWhile driving up Highway 1 to San Francisco is always a great road trip, at home in Los Angeles, Anderson loves Mulholland Drive. "That is an awesome highway. Mulholland at any time of day, with the alternating views between the Valley and Hollywood. I've traveled a lot. That's got to be one of my favorite, favorite drives in the whole world."
In England, Anderson loves to road trip from his hometown of Newcastle north on what was once straight, old Roman roads, to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town on the English/Scottish border. "Then from Berwick you drive another hour and you're in Edinburgh. That is an unbelievably beautiful drive."
Driving up the west coast of Scotland also provides breathtaking views and twisties, with the erratic coastline and nearby lochs and castles. "I'm a big fan of the area I grew up in. It's got some of the most beautiful scenery in the world there."
Anderson wanted this movie to help explain how the Death Race came to be a national sport in the original movie. "I was always fascinated about the genesis of that sport. So in a way our movie was a prequel to the original movie, it's kind of an explanation as to how the sport started to become popular and how it was created."
In this film, prisoners are contestants and if they win five races, they would be set free. "The point in the movie - no one's ever won five races but it could potentially happen in the story we tell," Anderson said. "It's Gladiator basically. These people are the gladiators of the future. They are men who are fighting for their freedom and this racetrack which is on an island where the prison is located is called Terminal Island and Terminal Island is like their coliseum."
Unlike many movies made today, Anderson did not want to rely on CG effects for car stunts, so actors like Jason Statham, did a lot of their own driving when they could.
"It's really got some of the most fantastic driving I've ever seen in a film," Anderson said. "Jason is an amazing driver. When you see inside the car he's pulling 180s. All that he did for real. There's no fakery or trickery involved." Cars getting T-boned while on fire, spinning 30 feet into the air, that's all real, he says.
The movie was shot at an abandoned train factory in Montreal and because trains were once built there, it provided huge warehouses for miles and the race scenes were shot inside or between the warehouses.
"So it looked spectacular, but very, very dangerous, because you had all these pillars, concrete columns, bits of smashed concrete with rebar sticking out," Anderson says. "If you do a 180 and you spin out and you're on a track, all you do is spin out. You do a 180 on these locations, if you lose control and spinout, you slam into a concrete post and people can get really hurt. It really upped the level of danger of letting an actor get behind the wheels."
Anderson never thought of shooting the industrial looking movie at a real racetrack. "I didn't want a racetrack look for it. Also the amount of cars we blow up, we tumble end over end. We had huge giant spikes that sprung out of the road that cars slam into - these traps. No one's going to allow you to go and dig up their Formula 1 tracks to put all this in there."
He adds, there would be too many restrictions to film on a real racetrack. "And unfortunately for me, there have been no good NASCAR movies. The problem with a lot of race car movies is cars are just racing around an oval track and it becomes a little tedious, whether it's a Formula 1 or a NASCAR movie. We avoided that because these cars are not just racing, they're also battling."
"It's as much a war movie as it is a race movie because the cars all have heavy machine guns mounted on them," Anderson said. They added some serious weaponry. There were flame throwers. They added armor plating, roll cages and mounted Vulcan cannons which are found on Black Hawk helicopter gunships. They also added Browning cannons, invented in WW II to knock out Japanese planes, to the front of cars. Since the roads were very uneven, with potholes and gravel, he left it that way, to give the make-shift track a rally feel, so all cars were outifitted with rally suspensions. The heavy cars' axles would often break and needed to be replaced as well.
"We cast the cars like you would cast an ensemble of actors, because I knew I needed nine cars and I wanted each one to have an identifiable silhouette so in the midst of battle, you immediately know who's in which car," he explains. "I wanted the cars to be an extension of the characters as well."
For example, Tyrese Gibson, a villain in the movie, drives a Hemi-powered Dodge Ram 1500. "This thing is like a war machine," Anderson said. "It's like we built a tank. He's the bully of the movie, so it's kind of like the biggest has the thickest armor plating and has the biggest machine gun. But it's not the fastest and most maneuverable."
But Statham's character is a little more athletic and his car is a Mustang, which has lighter armor plating, lighter weaponry, but is fast and maneuverable. Since the cars were supposed to be modified in prison, it had to have that grungy, gritty look. Anderson says "this is very much the anti-Speed Racer."
"It's very down and dirty, but I think the grit and reality of the movie makes it look really cool," he says. "If you look at 'Speed Racer' you couldn't get a movie that was more right, shiny, glossy. I hate that, I don't know many people who liked it. It kind of feels just a bit cheesy and dated. I'm not into bright and shiny. I'm into sweaty, dirty, rusty and bloody. Those are the colors of 'Death Race.'"