‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ set visit, Part 1: The zombie dreams of Milla Jovovich

Note: You can scroll to the end of the piece to check out the brand-new teaser trailer for the film.

Milla Jovovich’s large, wide-set eyes gazed with a mixture of confidence and barely-veiled apprehension on the tight circle of journalists gathered around her. They were stunning, her eyes – a pair of icy blue vistas that emanated a clear sense of purpose and conviction. It’s not hard to see what the late, influential fashion photographer Herb Ritts saw in her when he booked the young Soviet emigrant for her first magazine cover when she was only eleven years old, and then the late Richard Avedon when he chose her to be one of Revlon’s “Most Unforgettable Women in the World” a short time later. That’s when it all started.  

Now she sat before us, only a few days prior to her 36th birthday. Shaped by the daily rigors and triumphs and disappointments of the cruel industry that gave rise to her – Milla Jovovich, the glamorous model-cum-movie-star, with eyes as big as the moon – she was welcoming but wary, warm but guarded as she hospitably gave up the twin cushy sofas inside her well-appointed trailer for as many of us as they would hold. She folded her long legs in front of her as she settled onto the floor in the center of the group, preparing to hold court. Directly behind her, flames darted enthusiastically inside a small fireplace.  

“I feel like we”ve been following you on your journey to this movie through Twitter and keeping us very busy with your video updates,” noted one member of our group.

“Oh, good. I hope you”re enjoying them,” Jovovich replied. Her spunky, high-pitched voice had a distinctive “California” lilt to it. She sounded like a girl I could’ve gone to high-school with. 

“Yeah, but there”s still some surprises left with this movie, right?” he continued. “I feel there”s been a lot of stuff revealed.” 

“Really? Like what?” She bristled, but only just. 

“Boris posted a picture of a giant Licker claw and the zombies. There”s been pictures and stuff like that.” 

“I mean, everybody knows there”s zombies in the movie.” Touche. 

“Let me say Russian zombies or something,” he tried again. 

“Well, Paul was talking about that even during [the press rounds for ‘The Three] Musketeers'”, she answered. “I mean just talking about the whole point of going to Moscow and having the Las Plagas [a mind control parasite featured in some of the games] zombies on motorcycles and the whole Rolls Royce chase scene. …So we thought, since Paul already gave that away… So what else have I given away? I think I”ve been pretty good about keeping it under wraps.” 

There was something undeniably defensive in her tone, but then for “Mamma Milla” [a nickname Jovovich gave herself during our talk] – the longtime steward and lead actress of all five “Resident Evil” films thus far – keeping the next installment’s secrets close to the vest is a very important part of the game. Given that she’s now married to Paul W.S. Anderson – the director of the first, fourth and now fifth films in the franchise and the writer and producer of all five – her protectiveness over the series has an added, undeniably personal, dimension. Not to mention the fact that the films have been a major part of her life for the last decade and more (“I’ve been having zombie dreams for the last ten years,” she intoned at one point).

“I was watching an assembly of [‘Retribution’], and I”m sure you read about it on Twitter, but I started crying watching it, because having the history of Alice and me and Rain [Michelle Rodriguez, back for her first outing in the series since the first film] and Jill [Sienna Guillory] and all these people who have been going through this hell for the last 10 years, and again Umbrella is torturing them,” she told us. “It was almost heartrending to watch them again having to go through all of this. …The storylines are so intertwined and in such a strange and beautiful way that there”s something very nostalgic and sad about it too.

“Listen, it”s going to be a really fun movie,” she continued. “We”re not expecting anybody to start weeping in the audience, but just on a personal level, going through it for 10 years of my life and watching these people coming together again, it was quite emotional.”

There are certainly parallels to be drawn here between Sigourney Weaver’s journey playing Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” movies and Jovovich’s own experiences portraying Alice in the “Resident Evil” films – both characters transform from relative innocents to hard-bitten female warriors in the scheme of hugely successful sci-fi/horror franchises – and while the former series is admittedly more artisticially interesting and filmmaker-driven on the whole, Jovovich demonstrates a genuine and admirable dedication to the character she plays in what ultimately amounts to a fun-but-slight line of genre movies. 

There are commercial and career considerations underlying all of it, of course – the films are Jovovich and Anderson’s highly-lucrative bread and butter, and they clearly have a keen understanding of the series’ fan-driven nature – but in person there’s also something very authentic about Jovovich’s passion for them as a creative enterprise, not to mention her human insight into a character who is so beloved by the franchise’s hardcore devotees.

“You know, Alice started off as the audience, as this innocent bystander watching what”s going on and then finally understanding what role she had to play in all of it and who she was,” she told us. “And then throughout the series, she kinda started separating from people. You know, first she realized Umbrella was controlling her, so she couldn”t be close to people. Now that she”s human again, and not only human again, but now she”s almost… I mean, this is her life. It”s like when you spend 10 years of your life at war, what else do you have, in a sense? This is what she knows. This is what she loves in a weird, sick way. It”s what she does best. It”s how she excels. I don”t know if she would be able to become a teacher or have some sort of career outside of what she does.”

That last quote was aimed at the junkies, no doubt, though it’s a testament to Jovovich’s skills as a pitchwoman that I could literally go through the transcript of our conversation with her and pick out a quote that would apply to nearly any segment of the film’s audience, potential or otherwise.

Many of the “Resident Evil” franchise’s fans, of course, are casual ones, drawn in by the promise of high-octane action sequences and inventively-rendered monsters. Seeing as the worldwide gross of each of the movies has continued to build on the one that came before, that’s true now even more than it was at the beginning of the series. In that vein, Jovovich made sure to stress she and Anderson’s dedication to upping the ante with each successive installment.

“The whole point is that we want to make every film better than the last one,” she said. “So, we definitely have more creatures and monsters and action [in ‘Retribution’]. And the action sequences for the actors are really difficult. It”s one of the most trying physical undertakings that I”ve ever done in an action movie. I think the Jill and Alice fight has over 200 moves in it, which is more than [stunt coordinator and second-unit director] Nick Powell did for ‘The Bourne Identity’. It”s pretty crazy.”

Also teased by the actress were a sequence involving the aforementioned chase in a Rolls Royce through the streets, subways, and historical landmarks of Moscow (the production actually more or less cleared Red Square for a day to get the necessary “plate shots” for the sequence) and a stunt-heavy opener that will include what Jovovich termed a “Kubrickian homage”. (“We’ve never seen anything like it on screen before,” she promised.)

Certainly, “Afterlife”‘s huge jump in grosses (it made almost double what the third film did) can at least partially be attributed to its 3D presentation, so it’s of course no surprise that Anderson and the producers decided to shoot the fifth film in the format as well. Indeed, the unusual thing at this point would be for a “Resident Evil” sequel not to be filmed in 3D.

“I think definitely there is Jim Cameron and there”s Paul. They are the masters of 3D,” said Jovovich. “Paul has been working with the same team for the last ‘Resident Evil’, for [‘The Three] Musketeers’ and now for this one. They”ve built a whole new camera system that”s quite incredible. …Paul understands the dynamics of 3D and what you can do and what you can”t do. When you see a bad 3D movie, you get a headache and leave the theatre going ‘Ahhh my eyes hurt, my head hurts!’ Especially when you do a panning shot and everything goes blurry. …It”s so important technically to know how to shoot something so that people don”t leave with their eyes crossed and feeling sick to their stomach.”

As for the possibility of a sixth film, Jovovich indicated that Anderson has “sort of a rough basis” for it, though she wouldn’t give any specifics for obvious reasons. Of course, the idea of another installment also begs the question of just how much longer the actress can reasonably expect to play the role of the ass-kicking female warrior she’s come to be most associated with over the last ten years.

“I mean, there”s only so much longer I can play Alice as she is today,” she admitted. “At some point, I”m going to have to be the mentor to the younger generation. …I have to say, it”s hard to imagine this world ending for us. We work with the same people, we shot here actually for three films and it always feels like coming home.”

So what does an actress who’s become best known for playing the central role in a series of explosive video game adaptations do once the dust has settled and she begins creeping into her 40s, and then 50s, and then beyond? There’s no doubt the “Resident Evil” franchise has proven a godsend in both a personal and a financial sense for Jovovich, but it’s nevertheless interesting to speculate what turns her career might have taken had it never come her way. Though she’s certainly continued to act in other films since the series began, none have made much of an impact outside of either her pre-existing genre fanbase (“The Fourth Kind”, “Ultraviolet”) or limited-run festival audiences (“Dirty Girl”, “Bringing Up Bobby”). For her part, Jovovich seemed to be at peace with that.

“Listen, I could make indie movies for the rest of my life,” she told us. “That”s not a problem, for sure. Am I going to play the lead in a big Hollywood romantic comedy? Absolutely not. Can I play the lead in an indie nobody is going to see? Yeah, for sure. I can get movies financed based on ‘Resident Evil’ and the success that its had, but nobody really sees them. The last few years, I did so many small movies. It”s hard because if you”re going to be in the indie world, you have to make 12 of them for one of them to potentially come out. And then if it does potentially come out, to actually be a hit, it”s so hard. You can spend your life doing indie movies and never getting anywhere.”

If I had to go about summing up my impressions of Jovovich in a nutshell, the mixture of artistic drive and real-world business sense reflected in the above quote would probably be a good starting point. A woman with no shortage of ambition, she also displays a refreshing amount of self-awareness regarding her place in the Hollywood landscape.

There’s also a perceptible shimmer of fire in those icy blue eyes of hers – a quality perhaps best exemplified in her answer to my question of what it was like, as Milla Jovovich age 25, to sign on for the first movie back in 2001.

“I was high on my laurels,” she began. “I had just come off of ‘Fifth Element’, ‘Million Dollar Hotel’ and ‘Joan of Arc’. I was like, ‘You”re lucky to have me!’ Me and Michelle [Rodriguez]…she had just come off of ‘Girlfight’. Paul cast me in the movie. I did it because me and my little brother played ‘Resident Evil 3’ all the time. I was like, ‘Yeah, they”re casting for it. I”ll go in and read [air quotes] for the part. They won”t hire me, of course.’ It was sort of very tongue-and-cheek when I did it.

“And then I was doing this indie movie called ‘You Stupid Man’, and I was here in Toronto actually filming it. We were doing the first one in Germany and I remember reading a new draft of the script on the plane ride from Toronto to Germany. Half way through the flight, I”m red in the face because Paul has completely written me out of the movie and put all the good fight sequences for Michelle. She had just gotten off of ‘Girlfight’ and I had a year lull from ‘Joan of Arc’, at that point or something. I”m thinking ‘I”m out of here!’ I hit the set…poor Jeremy Bolt. I”m sure you”ve met Jeremy. He”s one of our producers. He meets me with flowers and I”m like, ‘You better tell Paul to meet me in my room in an hour or I”m out of here first flight tomorrow!’

“Then Paul came to my room. I was like, ‘You better sit down! We are going through this page by page and you are putting me back in the movie!’ He”s like, ‘What? What? You”re in the movie! You”re in the movie!’ I”m like, ‘Yeah, I”m the little girl that goes ‘Look out! Oh, no!” Why am I doing this?’ So, yeah, he gave me back my good action sequences.”

You can follow me on Twitter at @hitfixchris

“Resident Evil: Retribution” is scheduled for release on September 14th.