Uncovering ‘Resident Evil’ – An Interview with Philip J. Reed

Photo Credit: Philip J Reed

I recently put up a review of the latest installment in the Boss Fight Books series, Resident Evil by Philip J Reed. I’m excited to say that the author gave me a bit more of his time as I had some questions I really wanted to ask him and he was gracious enough to do a quick interview about his book and experiences writing it!

The answers provided were incredibly thorough and informative so I’ve decided to present them as they were sent, with the only changes made being for formatting and typographical errors. No content has been edited out.

That Jersey Gamer: Boss Fight Books has been around for a while and somehow they haven’t tacked Resident Evil up to this point? Where did you get the idea for the book and how did you pitch it?

Philip J Reed: I was as surprised as you are! When I had the idea for the pitch, I figured that it would be competing with a dozen other *Resident Evil* pitches, at least. Basically, I made sure to discourage myself as much as possible, as any writer should. My one, small bit of reassurance was that if they had received dozens or hundreds or millions of Resident Evil pitches, they hadn’t received the right one. Sure enough I pitched it, and I found out later I was the first one to do so. I have no idea why, but for such an important game and series, it went completely overlooked by other folks pitching. Maybe the game didn’t resonate with them the way it did with me. More likely, I just got pretty lucky!

The idea grew out of conversations with a friend. Boss Fight Books had an open pitch season at the time, and my friend was excited about an idea he had. We talked about it, he encouraged me to pitch as well, and conversations just continued until I landed on Resident Evil, realizing I could approach the game as a case study in how horror works. He ultimately insisted I pitch it. And I really do mean insisted. He got me to put in the work and I honestly wouldn’t have done it without him.

TJG: For someone that’s never written a non-fiction book before, it’s easy to forget just how much time and effort goes into writing a book like this. How did you go about your research and what was your writing process like? How long did it take from conception to publication?

PJR: The effort is staggering. I don’t say that to brag, but as more of a heads up to anyone who really wants to dig into a game’s development or history. Don’t expect it to be a project you can whip out in a weekend, at least not if you care about getting things right and bringing anything new to the discussion. For this book, the entire process, from first draft to final edits, took around three years.

In terms of research, there was so much to do. Boss Fight Books paired me up with Michael P. Williams, who wrote one of their very first books, on Chrono Trigger. He’s part database, I think, because there would be some document I needed and I’d reach out to see what he could find. He’d come back with the document, a mountain of pertinent information about it, a few bits of interesting tidbits that document led him to, and some bizarre things he found along the way. And he’d do this between the time I hit “send” on my request and blinked. He was a godsend. I probably could have written the book without him, but not anywhere near as efficiently or as well.

While he was tracking down specific documents I needed, I was trying to untangle all of the information I found on the game. I verified what I could, which was surprisingly little. The rest of what people “know” about Resident Evil is a series of assumptions that have never been challenged, and so people keep parroting what they’ve heard. Much of the misinformation breaks down the moment you look for a source, but that’s not the end of the journey. Now you have to find what the truth is. In some cases that was an adventure in itself. In other cases, it literally just came down to asking someone who was there. A wild concept, I know!

For instance, it was astonishing to me that nobody had thought to sit down with a bunch of the actors to ask about their experiences. In a way, I’m glad; I got to have the world’s first oral history of those recording sessions, relayed directly by the actors themselves. But at the same time, it’s frustrating that instead of anyone asking these people questions, they made their own assumptions and circulated those instead. Wading through those assumptions makes it more difficult than it should be to find the truth. Doing that is actively damaging to those who come along later and want to get things right.

TJG: The book opens with a forward by Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment — I just want to know how you got him to write an introduction for the book!

Lloyd Kaufman (Photo Credit: IndieWire)

PJR: However weird and wonderful you think Lloyd might be, you’re right. He is such an interesting personality, and my god the heart on that man is huge. I think for most people, they hit a certain level of fame or success and they get more selective with what projects they take on. That’s not a bad thing, and it makes a lot of sense. Somehow, though, Lloyd still has the love and excitement of an up-and-comer. “Oh, you have a project? Tell me about it! It sounds like fun!” I’m impressed that he has the time and energy for it. The guy has directly and indirectly inspired an entire generation – two or three generations, actually – to make their visions a reality. I think he’s genuinely flattered when one of those people in turn invites him to be part of those visions. I’ll even go further and say I think he believes other people’s visions are every bit as important as his own. He’s a rare kind of celebrity. He’s still just a guy doing what he loves, and if he can help others do what they love, he will.

In my case, I reached out to him and told him what I was doing and he hopped right on board. He said he’d be honored to write the foreword. My heart was full, and then he disappeared because the guy is no less busy now than he was decades ago. It turned out he was distracted by trying to find a venue for the premiere of Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High in Denver…which is where I live. He had no idea that’s where I lived; he just apologized and explained the delay. All at once I realized I could at least try to help him out in return for the foreword, and I connected him with a local theater that couldn’t have been more thrilled to have him. It was one of those perfect little things that worked out for everyone. I didn’t owe him anything and he didn’t ask for anything, but it really did feel great to help him get what he wanted at the same time he helped me get what I wanted.

Or maybe I told him I was from NJ and this was his way of apologizing for putting Tromaville there. That’s possible, too.

TJG: In the book, you mention that Mikami said, “Resident Evil would have probably been a first-person shooter…” without Alone in the Dark. In an alternate universe where one game didn’t inspire another, what do you think that version of Resident Evil would look like? Do you think it would feel like a low-tech version of Resident Evil VII or do you think it would play more like DOOM in a mansion? Or do you think it would have been some other kind of game entirely?

PJR:DOOM in a mansion” is, I think, a great way of picturing it, and probably pretty accurate. The difference would be, I think, that the Resident Evil team obviously had an interest in a slower pace. I don’t think you’d be mowing down zombies, in other words; I think there’d be relatively few of them and they’d be pretty resilient. That doesn’t sound like a particularly fun first-person shooter, I admit, especially in the mid-90s when there wasn’t much to those games beyond moving and pulling a trigger, so I’d assume they’d have found some other interesting ways to spice things up. Puzzles would do that, but the puzzles in Resident Evil are so clearly modeled after those in Alone in the Dark that I have no idea what they’d end up looking like.

It’s hard to say. It’s fully possible it would have been “DOOM in a mansion” and would have been dismissed as such. Or it could have been a slower-paced first-person shooter with severe ammo restrictions that would have frustrated more people than it impressed. Either way, I don’t think we’d be talking about it today. And that’s interesting, because without Resident Evil making a splash, we might not have had a survival horror genre. We’d certainly have no Silent Hill or anything that Silent Hill directly influenced, either. It’s possible Alone in the Dark would eventually have inspired some other copycat project which would then have led to a whole other string of franchises, but I don’t know. It’s a fascinating thought exercise. It’s possible we’d be playing descendants of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins instead, or Splatterhouse, with “horror games” just being regular games full of Spirit Halloween imagery rather than any real atmosphere. Trying to figure out what horror games would look like without Resident Evil isn’t miles removed from trying to figure out what platformers would look like without Mario. They’d exist, but probably not in ways we’d be able to understand!

TJG: Throughout the course of Resident Evil, Chris and Jill have an experience that varies quite a bit but they both manage to make it through, for better or for worse. What if it hadn’t been them who wound up in that mansion though? I can tell you have a love for the genre so I wonder: if you could put any horror protagonist as the lead in the game, who would it be? And do you think they’d have an easier time getting through or is what we see in the game about par for the course?

PJR: There’s a lot of Laurie Strode from Halloween in Jill Valentine, but maybe I’m only saying that because Resident Evil 3 is so fresh in my mind. They both have this obsessive, unstoppable, malevolent force carving its way through everything that stands between it and her. It’s about as close to indestructible as something can get, and she’s just a human who needs to rely on luck and resourcefulness. Easy choice for Resident Evil 3, but I don’t know if Laurie would be my choice for the first game.

I think I’d go with Sarah Bowman from Day of the Dead. Competent enough to get through the night, but flawed enough to keep things interesting. Also, I think she’d do a really great job of assembling what’s left of Bravo team in the Spencer Mansion and putting them to some use. She’d be a good judge of how to use everybody’s skills and knowledge. Also, of the first three George Romero zombie films, she’s the one who guides the most survivors to safety, which seems pretty fitting for a game that has a variable amount of survivors itself. I’d say she’d have a slightly higher chance of survival than Jill and a notably higher chance of survival than Chris. Mainly, though, it’s giving me a chance to talk about Day of the Dead, which means I get to say, “If you haven’t watched Day of the Dead, go do that, because it’s brilliant.”

Failing that, Army of Darkness-era Ash, with Bruce Campbell providing full voice acting and motion capture. It wouldn’t be a better Resident Evil game, but it would be the best game ever made. And we all know he’d survive through the end, at which point a cliffhanger would leave him in an even worse situation.

TJG: I always like to end these interviews with some kind of crazy, off the wall question, just to catch my subjects off-guard. For yours, I’m going to stay right on Resident Evil. You’re tasked with rebooting the film franchise, but you can’t make it horror. What way do you approach the film that will completely shock the audience and do you think it pays off?

PJR: My non-horror Resident Evil reboot cheats by taking place just before there are any monsters. It’s the story of George Trevor and his wife and daughter. We learn in the remake of Resident Evil how he designed the Spencer Mansion, and what happened to him and his family as a result. I’d take that story and make a dramatic thriller.

George in my movie is a talented but humble architect with a happy enough life who gets hired by Oswell Spencer to build this mansion. Money is no object. George is told they’ll need certain things – secret passages, hidden doors – and he thinks that’s strange, but what the hell, it’s good money and he’ll get to do the job he loves. He feeds his family and feels professionally fulfilled. Can’t beat that!

So he and his family live on site and he’s supervising crews and all that boring stuff. His daughter misses her friends at school. His wife misses their own home. A bit of family friction, but everyone realizes this is an important job and it’s for the best. They’ll get through a long job and they’ll all be better off for it, so they put their misgivings aside as best they can.

Gradually George gets asked for more and more things that make him suspicious. The mansion is being built to conceal an underground lab, after all, so maybe he asks questions and is rebuffed so harshly he realizes he needs to keep his mouth shut. He sees strange equipment and horrifying specimens being brought down there. As he goes about his work, he understands a bit more each day what a worrying situation he’s contributing to. But he’s in it now, too late to say no, the money is still good, if he can keep his mouth shut and focus on his work the family will be set for life…so he just keeps working. He says nothing to the family because he doesn’t want to worry them. He tries to manage their stress without revealing the reason for his own. The squabbling and friction grows, but they clearly all love each other and are just trying to hold it together until the job is done, secure in the knowledge things will go back to normal soon.

George convinces himself for as long as he can that if he keeps his head down and does as he’s told, they’ll all be okay. It’s bullshit and he knows it and the audience knows it, but what else does he have? Maybe the movie builds to one big escape attempt on George’s part, which fails and he’s caught. By that point, the mansion is just about finished; he’s done everything they needed him to do, so some Umbrella goons intercept him in one of the secret passages he’s dug and execute him. (He literally dug his own grave!) His wife and daughter the next day can’t find him, but that’s okay; some security folks come in and let them know he’s in the lab underground, collecting his salary and saying his goodbyes, and he asked his family to meet him down there so they could all bid farewell to the mansion together. It ends with the door closing behind them as they enter the lab. Credits play over the closed door, just to keep the hope alive that it might open again. It does not. Go home miserable, everyone!

That wraps it up for my interview with Philip J Reed! I had a lot fun reading his book Resident Evil which you can find a review of here. I just want to take this opportunity again to thank him for being so gracious about answering my questions. If you’d like to check him out online, you can find him on Twitter as @NoNoiseChitChat, his website is Noiseless Chatter, and he’s also on Facebook. If you’d like to pick up Resident Evil, you can get that on Amazon or directly through Boss Fight Books.

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