Antony Johnston Interview Transcript

In July 2021, Resident Evil Village screenwriter, Antony Johnston joined us for Episode 70 of the Resident Evil Podcast. In what turned out to be a fascinating insight into the writing process, the interview led into intriguing discussions concerning the B.O.Ws, characterisations and ultimately the canonicity of the script written. Below, we present a transcript of the key questions.

We would like to thank Antony for his taking his time to speak to us. You can check out his work over at his website and on social media.

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REP: What was your introduction to Resident Evil and how familiar were you with the series law?

AJ: I’ve been aware of the franchise since its inception. I remember the first Resident Evil. I didn’t play it at the time, but I remember it. I think RE4 was maybe the first one that I played. Back in the early 2000’s, I got big into Silent Hill and played all of those. I was also familiar with Resident Evil, but not to the extent of being a lore expert or anything, which meant I had to do an awful lot of reading up when I was hired to work on Village, as you can imagine. But that’s fine. You get used to that, you can’t play everything, you can’t read everything, you can’t watch everything. And so it’s not that unusual, especially in triple A series franchises, to get hired and go, ‘oh, hell, I’d better do lots of reading up here’. I’ve seen the movies, but even I knew the movies were nothing like the games. And like I say, I’d played a couple of the games but never got heavily into the lore . So, yeah, I just had to do my research, as you do. But like I say, that’s not that uncommon with these long running franchises because, you know, you can’t play everything!

REP: I [George Trevor] was interested to hear your roots with Silent Hill because a huge highlight for many was House Beneviento. Many fans have always wanted to see more Silent Hill themes and that psychological horror creep into Resident Evil. Did that shape your writing when you got to the House Beneviento scenario?

AJ: The funny thing about House Beneviento is, you’re right, it is clearly the most Silent Hill any Resident Evil game has ever got. But that was almost all the concept, and the execution of it, down to the vision of Sato-san, the Game Director, who obviously was deeply involved with the narrative & story, and that was his vision. I wasn’t involved in the design of that in terms of game design and challenges and all that kind of stuff. I did write quite a bit of script for that section. Speeches from both Donna and Angie and a whole ending scene that would have had one of those, much like Ethan gets, one of those death scenes where you then managed to get a 10 minute monologue. I wrote all of that, and then we just didn’t need it. And this is another part of being any writer, not just games writer, this happens in all media.

Sometimes you write it because you need to get it out and you need to establish what you’re trying to do. But then when it comes to the execution, you realise, oh, actually, we don’t need this. You see it a lot with actors in film and TV where they’ll have a whole monologue written out and they just don’t need to read it. They can do it all with their face, they can throw an expression at the camera and that says as much as five lines of dialogue ever could. And that was what we found with Beneviento. The further along we went, the the more we realised we just don’t need the script. We kept a fraction of what I originally wrote, because and I hope you’ll agree, it works perfectly fine without it. You don’t need pages & pages of script, it actually works better without it, because it’s more creepy and it’s more intense and you feel more alone when there is nothing except just silence in this creepy big old house. And of course, the giant slug baby monster!

“We also hadn’t at that point figured out exactly who Mother Miranda was or what her back story was, how she tied into the larger lore”

REP: We’re interested in what you’re saying about the minimal approach with some of the dialogue. How did that work in practice, when you were cutting down parts or amending the script, how did that work with Capcom?

AJ: It’s an iterative process. There wasn’t really a writer’s room on Village except when I was first hired because obviously they are in Japan, I live here in England. So when I was first hired, I went over to Osaka in February 2019. I started work on it I think in October or November of the previous year, and then I went to visit the studio in February and we spent a week sitting in a meeting room. There was me, Santo-san the Director, Masato Miyazaki who was animation lead. Steve Kniebihly, the cinematic director. James Michael, who was my liaison & translator throughout the whole process, and massive props to him because that cannot have been easy! Dazaki-san who was the Japanese equivalent of me. And we all just sat in the room and figured it out. We started not quite from first principles because some of the design had already been done at that point.

So we had to have things like the villagers house, where Ethan goes with Elena and her father, at some point somewhere in the game that had to happen because that had already been designed and work had already begun on it. But where it happened in the game and exactly what happened in there had not yet been decided. We also hadn’t at that point figured out exactly who Mother Miranda was or what her back story was, how she tied into the larger lore. All of this had to be worked out. And that’s what we did for a week. We spent the entire week in that meeting room just figuring that stuff out. And even then we didn’t get it all right first time around.

There was stuff that we came up with in that room that we all went away going ‘brilliant, we’ve got it, we’ve solved it, yes fantastic, that’s it, don’t change a word’… and then we’d change every word (laughs) over the course of the next year because that’s development, it’s iterative. And that’s not just games, although it does happen a lot more in games than in most other media. So that was the only real writer’s room that we had. From that point on, it was then video calls almost daily between myself and Capcom, after I returned home to England, where we’d go through script I’d written, or revisions that needed to be done, or changes they decided they wanted to make to various scenes or to the plot. And also discussing changes to things that we decided in the room that we’re not sure this is working anymore, so let’s try and figure something else out. And so we would go through that as well. Again, you know, very iterative.

The fact that a script gets dropped or gets changed or gets minimised is just part of that process. It’s not like a movie where I write an entire screenplay and then a producer comes along and says, ‘we’re going to drop that scene’, and I go, ‘oh, no, please don’t’. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it happens. Yes, I’m the scriptwriter but there were at least four or five other people involved in that process just at a high level, and then below them there are others being managed by them. Triple-A Games writing is a very collaborative process. One person does not write an entire game.

Even Hideo Kojima is not the only person writing that game in terms of who literally writes the dialogue and then who’s in charge of directing the voice actors, is it him or does he have a subordinate? Even that can affect how the lines are said and sometimes what the lines are, because once you get in the recording booth with actors, some actors will not be able… sometimes you’ll write a line that looks great on paper and then when an actor reads it out, you go, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, we need to change that’. But you don’t realise until an actor has read it out, or sometimes actors just can’t get their mouth around certain phrases. And so you’ll have to change those on the fly.

All of these things are part of game story, game script writing and game narrative. And none of them is any more or less important than the other. They are all vital parts of the process so that everybody can genuinely say, I was part of writing that story and making that narrative. Everybody has a sense of ownership because it is like saying no one person does it all. So when things get dropped, when somebody says, oh, actually, we don’t need that line or we don’t need that scene, it’s not like it’s somebody from on high delivering a stone tablet (laughs), it’s part of this whole process in which everybody is involved all the time.

REP: Village is very much a continuation of Ethan’s story. But one one of the aspects I (TheBatman) was interested in personally was some of the ties to the older games, particularly Miranda’s relationship with Spencer and the origins of the Umbrella logo. Was that your idea or was that Capcom Japan or was it a mixture of both?

AJ: That was initiated quite late in the process, actually. So the idea of having some ties to older Resident Evil lore, that was there from the beginning, but exactly what that would be wasn’t at all finalised. At one stage there was talk of there being an actual Umbrella laboratory underground. There would literally be clean room, high-tech laboratory, buried underground somewhere that you would go in, I think, during the Chris section. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, that never panned out. But that gives you an idea of how early in the process we were talking about that sort of thing. The final iteration of it was mostly Capcom, partly because, as I say, they have obviously much more familiarity with the lore than me. So they could tie it in better than I could. I made suggestions, but again, not being an expert in the lore, I wasn’t really the best placed person to make those connections between Miranda and Spencer that you read, that you discover, because I probably would have got some bits wrong (laughs), and you don’t want that because then people like you would get very angry and deservedly so.

REP: Did you have any input with the exposition story files in the game, or was it just the cut-scenes and scripts that you were focusing on?

AJ: I didn’t write the final versions of those documents, but they were all based on stuff that we had worked out together. And I did write some early, I wrote character bio descriptions and theories of how something might work, and even field reports at one point from BSAA, and stuff like that. So while I didn’t write the final versions that you see in the game, they were based off work that I had done with the team, or at least in part. But most of that was done in-house at Capcom.

REP: Were there any other characters from previous games such as Leon or Jill that you potentially wanted to include, but Capcom said no, we’re saving them for other projects, or for other reasons, or that you can’t use this particular aspect, or did you have complete freedom?

AJ: I don’t know if I had complete freedom because that question never came up (laughs). We had the characters we had, and those were the characters that we always worked with and knew would be involved in the game, and nobody suggested bringing in any other characters. So I genuinely don’t know. Right from the start, it was very clear that this was Ethan’s story, that it was going to be Ethan and Mia. Again, Chris would be involved and everybody in the village would be an entirely new character. And that was set long before I got involved. It never changed. The Wolfhound squad, were a slightly later edition, I don’t think they were involved, or at least they were not to the extent that they are in terms of having speaking lines and stuff right at the start. But it didn’t take long for them to get involved. And obviously, they’re not characters on the level of somebody like Leon or Jill anyway. It was always going To be Ethan’s story with Chris involved, and then all these new villains and monsters in the village. So the question just never came up.

“There’s so much I can’t tell you that would just blow your mind if you knew some of the ideas and crazy out-there things that we came up with in the early days!”

REP: There’s a discussion with Chris and his team about who tipped off Miranda about Rose and Mia. Do you have an answer for that, because it doesn’t get addressed in the game? Do you know what the plan for that was?

AJ: I don’t have an answer… that I can tell you (laughs), but let me clarify. So the reason for that is that, yes that’s something that came up in discussion, obviously. There’s so much I can’t tell you that would just blow your mind if you knew some of the ideas and crazy out-there things that we came up with in the early days! Things that we very sensibly decided actually, no, let’s not do that. But there were many of them! Some of those include theories as to, yes, how Miranda became aware of Rose and all that sort of thing. The reason I don’t want to go into detail is it is entirely possible that, and I have to be very careful what I say here, i is entirely possible that some of those things may come up as lore in future games, and I don’t want to either give away something that is a secret for a future game, or say something here that will then be contradicted by a different idea in a future game. And now I should also very, very clearly state I have no idea what the next game is!

REP: When it came to the enemy types, and the Lords, how much input did you have on how the enemies worked, what types of enemies you’re going to face? Was there an idea that was presented to you, or did you have freedom to draw on whatever you saw?

AJ: So most of the design was outside my remit, certainly things like making up Lycans and various zombies and the King Lychan and all those sorts of things was nothing to do with me just because it’s not my area. The four Lords and Miranda existed, they had been visually designed, although they weren’t final. Marou in particular changed quite a lot actually, his look changed quite significantly from his original design to the what you see finally in the game. Heisenberg was probably the one that changed the least. Now that I think about it, actually, he looked pretty much right from the start. He looked like he does in game. So visually they were all there. And the idea of them being the Lords and Miranda’s sort of quasi children, it was all there. But again, this was all stuff that we worked out or started to work out in that writers room, right at the start of the process.

So, and I’m not trying to dodge the question here. I genuinely couldn’t actually remember how much of it was me or Sat-san, or Dasaki-san, or Mizaki-san. I really can’t remember, because when you’re in a room like that, throwing ideas around it all just kind of becomes a blur, and you get stuff out of it at the end and you genuinely can’t remember who came up with what idea!

REP: You’re all part of it essentially, you’re part of it and none of you are part of it.

AJ: Exactly, like I said, it’s an incredibly collaborative process. And you get the same thing in writers rooms, in TV. I have friends who are veterans of TV rooms and they do the same thing. Once the idea itself becomes embedded, who originated it is often lost in the collective unconscious. So like I said, the visual design I credit almost entirely to Capcom and and I know Sato-san and Mizuki-san both had a lot of input into that, obviously, but not just them. Again, they have design leads and concept leads, animators and stuff, who all contribute to this stuff. Again, very collaborative.

 

The one thing I can say that I did and I was proud of was bring out the personalities of the four lords, in particular Lady Dimitrescu, who we didn’t really have a handle on her at the start. We knew that she and Heisenberg were going to squabble! That was an idea that we liked that. I think Sato-san may have come up with that story, and we liked that. And that was kind of yeah, OK, we’ll have that, that’s good. But the self-righteousness of her personality and the sheer sort of, look down your nose contempt that she has for her siblings, I’m going to stick my hat in the ring, put my stake in the floor, whatever metaphor you want to use and say that that was me! And I’m very proud of the fact that I did that because I love the fact that we had an older woman who was not like she stepped off the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ as a main character in the game. That in itself is so ridiculously unusual. It shouldn’t be, but it is in games that I was just very pleased that we had that at all, and then having the opportunity to make her acerbic. And like I said, pompous and self-righteous. And she’s right! She’s not wrong, she’s not a fool to be pompous and self-righteous. She is the smartest of those four siblings. She is the one who gets things right and she’s just surrounded by idiots! And that was so Much fun to write (laughs).

The phone call that she has with Mother Miranda was written really early. I wrote that really early on in the process and it barely changed throughout the whole thing because it was such a great scene and I had such a great concept to work with that it just didn’t change much right from the start. And it’s still one of my favorite scenes because it just it captures her personality so perfectly the whole ‘My idiot brother!’, and then ‘Yes, Mother Miranda, I know the ceremony is important’, she’s like a teenager trapped in a 50 year old woman’s body. It’s wonderful!

The one thing I can say that I did and I was proud of was bring out the personalities of the four lords, in particular Lady Dimitrescu, who we didn’t really have a handle on her at the start. We knew that she and Heisenberg were going to squabble!

That was an idea that we liked that. I think Sato-san may have come up with that story, and we liked that. And that was kind of yeah, OK, we’ll have that, that’s good. But the self-righteousness of her personality and the sheer sort of, look down your nose contempt that she has for her siblings, I’m going to stick my hat in the ring, put my stake in the floor, whatever metaphor you want to use and say that that was me! And I’m very proud of the fact that I did that because I love the fact that we had an older woman who was not like she stepped off the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ as a main character in the game. That in itself is so ridiculously unusual. It shouldn’t be, but it is in games that I was just very pleased that we had that at all, and then having the opportunity to make her acerbic. And like I said, pompous and self-righteous. And she’s right! She’s not wrong, she’s not a fool to be pompous and self-righteous. She is the smartest of those four siblings. She is the one who gets things right and she’s just surrounded by idiots! And that was so Much fun to write (laughs).

The phone call that she has with Mother Miranda was written really early. I wrote that really early on in the process and it barely changed throughout the whole thing because it was such a great scene and I had such a great concept to work with that it just didn’t change much right from the start. And it’s still one of my favorite scenes because it just it captures her personality so perfectly the whole ‘My idiot brother!’, and then ‘Yes, Mother Miranda, I know the ceremony is important’, she’s like a teenager trapped in a 50 year old woman’s body. It’s wonderful! 

REP: Obviously, the game was marketed as the end of Ethan’s story, but was there ever a discussion not to have Ethan die, or was that always the intent?

AJ: That was always the intent. I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that. Yes. Certainly from the moment that I came on board, that was the intent. I can’t speak to what discussions they may have had before then, but certainly from the time that I became involved, it was always this is the sequel to RE7 and Ethan dies at the end, saving Rose. That was never in doubt.

One thing I will say, talking about that ending. I saw some speculation recently, somebody saying that they’d heard there was an early version of that scene that involved Chris! No. There wasn’t. I don’t know where you heard that. You hear some very, very strange rumours on the internet. Believe me, having been in various different entertainment businesses for the last twenty years, you would be astounded at how much absolute nonsense gets put around on the internet as actual complete fact, and it has no basis in reality whatsoever. And, half the time, I’m sure there’s no malice behind it, but it makes me laugh. So let me just say, no, I never wrote a version where Chris was involved in that scene. And I don’t know where that rumour came from.

REP: S.T.A.R.S[Tyrant] and I (Rombie), both noticed the ‘Hot Fuzz’ film reference in the game, and we’re wondering if is there any other little things that you snuck into the game? Is there anything else that players should pay attention to that that maybe you managed to get in there?!

AJ: The ‘Hot Fuzz’ reference wasn’t mine, I’m not sure who came up with that, I genuinely don’t know, but that wasn’t mine. I wasn’t involved in writing the collectibles, i.e. the documents and all that sort of thing. So I didn’t name any of those objects. And, as a result, I can say I didn’t try to sneak any similar puns for names of objects and stuff! That said, I am known for occasionally dropping a reference to ‘Motorhead’ lyrics, things things like that in there, or a ‘Hawkwind’ lyric into my scripts! I can neither confirm nor deny whether there are any in Resident Evil Village! But it is something that I have been known to do throughout my career…

REP: What about ‘You boulder punching arsehole!’, was that you, because that was brilliant?

AJ: No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t. I wish I could take credit for that one, but no, I think that might have been James because that technically was a (bark), rather than a cut-scene. And that was mostly down to James and Disaki-san, I believe. So no, that wasn’t me. I laughed, of course, I laughed when I heard it for the first time. I actually wouldn’t have put that in there. And I say this not to disparage whoever decided that they would have put it in there. But it’s a little too cute for me. It was an absolutely insane, absurd part of the franchise. But there it is. I wouldn’t have drawn attention to it in that way. But again, like I say, it’s a collaborative process. You don’t get to control everything.

“The English script is the canon, I wrote my script first”

REP: In the Japanese version, Chris is referred to as a gorilla, which is an inside joke within the Japanese community. This leads on to something hotly debated within the community, being which takes the lead in terms of storytelling and canon, whether the core Japanese script is the canon? With any differences to the English version we tend to go with the Japanese, but we know in more recent years it’s written in English first, then translated into Japanese. Is there much truth to that, and could you elaborate on which does take the lead more? Was it more your writing, or do they inform each other?

AJ: Well, first of all, I will say I’m relieved, I thought this is going to be a question about ‘wide Chris’, with his new character design (laughs), which again, nothing to do with me! So it is a bit of both. Regarding the English sccript, I can’t speak to previous games, I don’t know exactly how RE7 worked, but I know for this one, the English script is the canon, I wrote my script first. Again, all in collaboration with Capcom, but nevertheless, I was writing an original script, which was then being translated almost simultaneously, mostly by Disaki-san, into Japanese. But of course, part of that is translating. And part of localisation in general is translating cultural references and keeping, as you said, references in localised versions of prior games in a series. So referring to Chris as a gorilla, I didn’t write that, but I have no doubt Disaki-san when he was translating and localising back into Japanese,he would have put references like that in there.

When you have something that’s localised like this, and especially something that has been originated in two different languages, it’s so hard to say what is canon and what isn’t. All I can say is that I wrote my English script first and then it was translated into Japanese. But which one you want to regard as canon, that’s an argument that I don’t want to get involved in!

REP: Is there a reason why Blue Umbrella wasn’t specifically followed up on in Resident Evil Village?

AJ: Just because it was B.S.A.A. That’s the reason, But it’s not a nefarious reason. It wasn’t anything specifically anti Blue Umbrella. It was that Chris and the B.S.A.A. were the two points of relation to the lore of this game.

REP: Do you think the B.S.A.A deploying bio-weapons is an intentional clue for where the next game may go?

AJ: I could not possibly comment!

REP: What is the history between Chris and Miranda? The game states he’s been chasing her for three years, but nothing else is mentioned beyond that?

AJ: That’s something I would not be surprised to see come up in DLC. I’m not privy to those plans, but it is definitely something that we talked about, and it may well come up in other material.

REP: The content with regard to Ada Wong, was that already removed by the time you came onboard, or was that cut during the later process, like you said, when felt it was just not needed?

AJ: It never got beyond an idea, is what I’ll say about that. To the best of my knowledge, the only stuff relating to that that I saw was some grey box pre-vis that I was sent to do a writer’s test for. When I was in the process of being hired, that’s literally the only time. And even then at the time, they didn’t actually tell me that it was supposed to be Ada Wong. I didn’t find out until later. That’s the only time I ever saw that. And it’s the only time it was ever mentioned, it was never, to the best of my knowledge, never seriously considered to be part of the game. And certainly by the time I flew over to Japan and got in the writers room, it wasn’t ever mentioned again.

REP: Is there a reason why the B.S.A.A placed Ethan and his family in Eastern Europe so close to Miranda and her village? Is there a sinister reason behind that?

AJ: I could not possibly comment! (laughs)

REP: Well, that does wrap up our time with you, Anthony. We’d like to thank you for dedicating at least an hour with us and sharing your experiences in the writing room with Capcom and creating one of the most complex and engaging storylines. My (Neptune) favorite since Resident Evil 5, it certainly struck a chord with me. I loved Ethan from RE7, so I was delighted to have a direct sequel. It’s been really interesting to listen to your comments and thank you so much for answering our questions.

AJ: You’re welcome, it was a lot of fun!

A big thank you to Antony for his time here. Don’t forget this is just a flavour of the interview. To hear the full interview, be sure to download or stream Episode 70 of The Resident Evil Podcast.

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