Gabe Durham Interviews Philip J Reed About Resident Evil May 25 2020
This is the fifth and final installment of our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Philip's book on Resident Evil and Gabe's book on Majora's Mask are funding now on Kickstarter.
What was the initial kernel of an idea that made you pitch Resident Evil to us as a subject?
I had a friend who really wanted to submit a pitch. I encouraged him, and he encouraged me right back. I think he didn't want to go through the process alone. I wasn't sure what I'd want to write about, so I brainstormed a bunch of weird and obscure games. I figured I could pitch some truly bizarre title nobody else would dare pitch, and that that would help me stand out a bit.
A different friend of mine -- both of these friends are named Matt, for maximum confusion -- had recently rekindled my interest in the first Resident Evil game. That's certainly not obscure so I didn't give it much thought, but it kept creeping back into my mind. I knew I'd have a lot to say about it. It was the first PlayStation game I played. I have vivid memories of that night, playing it for the first time with two friends. I remember comparing it to Alone in the Dark, a PC game from a few years prior that I had also played. I knew I could walk through the entire game like a museum exhibit and talk about what every little thing is doing and how it's contributing to the overall atmosphere...
There were a lot of angles I could take, but I didn't want to pitch Resident Evil because I was certain hundreds of people had already pitched it. My friend Matt -- the first one -- told me to stop worrying and do it anyway. I did, and I learned later I was the first person to pitch that game to Boss Fight! There's probably a moral to this story but I'm not sure I learned it.
How did the book change as you wrote it? What surprised you, either from the research or the writing itself?
I have two answers! From the research side, it was the sheer amount of misinformation out there. It drove me crazy. I’d find something I thought was an interesting fact and I’d try to validate it. Article A cites Article B, so I look at that to find Article B citing Article C, so I look at that to find Article C citing nothing. To be fair, a lot of the time I'd follow a trail that led to something being specifically presented as unverified. Somebody would write a theory about how the game was made, or something, and it was clear they were theorizing. Of course the internet being what it is, other sites would quote it or report on it without being clear that it was conjectural, and then other people would cite their reporting, and then readers accept it as fact.
It’s major stuff, as well. Somebody will say, incorrectly, that the characters were voiced by the same actors who played them in the live-action cutscenes. People pick up on that and it becomes gospel, even though it’s not true, there's no evidence for it, and you can disprove it the moment you try researching it yourself. Fred Fouchet, a very active Resident Evil fan who has dedicated himself to identifying the actors, vented to me about how frustrating it was. Bad information constantly ends up leading him in the wrong direction and wasting his time. He’s acutely aware of how false information has made his job harder than a complete lack of information would have.
From the writing side, I ended up learning that one of the friendships I was writing about -- the friendship that was pivotal to me discovering Resident Evil -- was toxic. I started writing about our relationship, which made me think about it in ways I never had before, I guess. Between two drafts I went from wistful to wondering why the hell I kept him in my life as long as I did. It's the sort of emotional journey you hope a reader will have, and I got to have it as a writer.
One really fun aspect of the book was how you successfully interviewed the voice actors and live cutscene actors -- many of whom have spent their lives not knowing they were in the game at all. Could you tell me about your process of finding and talking to these people?
There's about a fifty-fifty split between the actors who have been identified and the actors who have not. It's really strange. There's an entire chapter in the book that explains why the actors in Resident Evil didn't know until recently they were in Resident Evil. In the cases of those who are still not identified, I did what every fan does and tried to track them down myself. Then I did something that nearly every fan does, which is fail at doing that.
As for the others, I had a lot of invaluable help from the fan community, which was so warm and welcoming to me. Specifically, Monique Alves and Fred Fouchet helped me establish contact with the actors. Sometimes directly, sometimes just by nudging me in the right direction. My process involved reaching out honestly and sincerely, being clear about what I was doing, and hoping they'd be willing to be part of this book. Every one of them was, which still blows me away. Barry Gjerde -- who voiced Barry -- has been bullied relentlessly for his performance in Resident Evil and was the only one who didn't reply to my requests. I tried so many times to get in touch with him, as Barry is an integral part of the game's legacy, but I got nothing. Ward Sexton -- the narrator who growls "RESIDENT EVIL" at you when you boot the game up -- is friends with Gjerde, though. When he heard that I had difficulty getting Gjerde's attention, he reached out to him and assured him that this wasn't a hit piece; this was a chance for Gjerde to set the record straight and be treated with respect. That's all Gjerde needed to hear, and he gave me so much great information for the book. Thanks to him, and the rest of the actors, I get to tell for the first time the true and complete story behind those infamous performances.
With only two exceptions -- Scott McCulloch, who voiced Chris and has passed away; and Lynn Harris, who voiced Rebecca and prefers not to be interviewed -- we hear from every known Resident Evil actor in this book. I am both humbled and honored that no other singular source can make that claim!
Beyond the first game and its remake, what other games in the Resident Evil series have you enjoyed most?
I’ll always have a soft spot for the first game, and I believe its remake is one of gaming’s great masterpieces, for sure. Outside of that, the one I enjoyed most is probably a controversial choice; it’s Resident Evil: Revelations.
I bought it because at the time there was very little else worth owning on the 3DS, and I couldn’t believe how great it was. It’s not as scary as most of the other Resident Evil games, but it’s definitely one of the most effective. The game is mainly set on an abandoned, drifting cruise ship, which is such a perfect setting for Resident Evil. And by that I really do mean I can’t think of a better setting at all. Jill is in it, which is always a plus, a lot of the new characters are great, and it’s just so much fun. My only complaint about Revelations is that the subseries died so quickly. Capcom did a sequel, which was also good, and that was it. I would have loved to see those games continue.
Elsewhere, Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4 are both brilliant, and I want to show some love to Code Veronica, which is among the very best in the series and doesn't get nearly enough recognition.
You got the infamous B-horror director Lloyd Kaufman to write a great foreword to the book. What do you think Resident Evil and Kaufman's work (like The Toxic Avenger) have in common?
I’m almost certainly oversimplifying things, but the first thing that strikes me as a commonality is their willingness to just go for it. You can play Resident Evil or watch a Troma film, and in either case you see artists barreling toward their vision without hesitation. Sometimes it works great, other times you can see where the end product might have benefited from a more deliberate approach, but the fact is that you wouldn’t have gotten those particular moments of greatness if you hadn't been barreling in the first place. It’s a big gamble to just let yourself fly with artistic abandon, because if it lands it lands brilliantly and if it doesn’t, it falls very flat.
I think it’s that willingness to “go for it” that gives certain works their specific identities. A more carefully crafted Resident Evil wouldn’t have had the staying power. (I know, because that game was Alone in the Dark.) A more carefully crafted Toxic Avenger or Class of Nuke ‘Em High or Poultrygeist would have just been a competent B-movie. It takes bravery to run headlong into your craziest ideas instead of conferring with your team and trying to decide whether or not you can even pull it off.
That’s from the production side of things, but from the audience perspective I think there’s a perceptible earnestness behind both. Shinji Mikami and Kaufman are both punching above their weight, and people like seeing that. It’s transfixing and hypnotic. We laugh when things fall apart, as they inevitably do at certain points, but when something works -- when we get an image or a line or a sequence that sticks with us -- we never forget it, because on some level we are aware of the sheer gall it took for them to try in the first place.
As a writer, one of the projects you're best known for is your review of every episode/special/movie of ALF, a very bad sitcom. Could you tell me about what drove you to complete a project most would've abandoned, and what you got out of that process?
One thing I got out of that process was the reminder that you never know what an audience is going to latch onto. I've written a lot of things across various outlets that I put my heart into, truly expecting them to take off. One October, for instance, I spent the month writing about Christian horror films, which I thought was such a fascinating topic. Nobody cared. But I write angry jokes about ALF and I'm flooded with readers from all over the world.
I started the project as a way to write about a topic I didn't have to take seriously. It's ALF, for crying out loud. Within a few weeks, I was taking it seriously. I started using ALF as a springboard to talk about literature, music, and movies. And religion. And politics. And basic human decency. I was writing tens of thousands of words about each episode at one point. The most flattering comment I ever got was that reading my reviews -- of ALF, mind you -- was like attending a series of lectures on television history with a very passionate professor.
I want to say it was the readers that drove me to complete the project, and without question there's a lot of truth to that. Mainly, though, I was proving to myself that I could do it. I could take a topic literally no human being cares about and write something worth reading. Each episode was like a writing prompt from hell, but it forced me to either find things worth discussing or to take things that weren't worth discussing and find a way to make them entertaining. It's not my place to decide whether or not I succeeded, but I can say with confidence that I've written more about ALF than anybody else in human history.