Back in 1977, German-born Roland Emmerich enrolled in the Munich University of Film and Television to be a production designer. Later that year, he saw “Star Wars” and decided to switch to the director program. More than three decades later, that decision proved to be a prudent one. Known for his disaster films, Emmerich has directed one of the highest grossing films of all time, “Independence Day,” and several others that have topped the $100 million mark, such as “The Patriot,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Godzilla.”
His upcoming “2012” — previewed at Comic-Con and due out Nov. 13 — is yet another disaster flick. Inspired by the Mayan prophecy of a doomsday event in the winter of 2012 — and starring John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and Danny Glover — it’s about a global catastrophe that leads to the end of the world.
How is it that you’ve made so many disaster movies? What do you think of all day?
In essence, I’m a very positive person. But deep down I’m very afraid. I’m afraid of everything. So it’s just one of these things where it’s interesting sometimes when you, as an artist, just dream up things and then all of a sudden everybody around you says, “How did you know that.” I said, “Don’t ask me. I just felt it, you know?”
Does it get challenging trying to destroy the world in unique ways?
I don’t know. That’s my speciality. I think it started with "Independence Day." And I tell you it’s like I created the genre myself and I’m a prisoner to it.
I have to say this — I’ve announced this so I can never ever go back — "2012" will be my last disaster movie. At one point during the process of coming up with the story, I all of a sudden wavered. Right … I wavered! And I said, “Harald [Kloser, his composer and co-writer on "2012," among other projects], I cannot do another destruction movie. This is like way too much destruction.” And he said, “But, Roland, you can now have the technology which is out there and make the model for a disaster movie. Do you want to have somebody else make that?” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
And then I really redid the model of all disaster movies, trust me. When people see it they will say, “Oh my gosh.” I wanted to say the "F" word, but I didn’t.
What role does technology play for you as a filmmaker?
Well a big one [laughs]. I’m sitting every day for two or three hours in the visual effects review [laughs again]. I actually love the possibilities you have these days to get the images which are in your head on film. We are at a stage where you can pretty much do everything if you have the money and the time.
How fast has the technology evolved since "Independence Day"?
Volker Engel — who was the visual effects supervisor on "Independence Day" and is also doing "2012" — and I always talk about how much has changed and how great it would have been if we had this technology at that time. In "Independence Day," we were still struggling. There was a lot of digital compositing going on, but we also had a lot of shots that were still shot with motion control. Even on "Godzilla," we did a lot of stuff in motion control, a lot of stuff with models.
With "2012," there’s not one model in there. Not one model shot. And we have 1,400 visual effects shots.
Would you ever revisit "Independence Day"?
Well, every once in a while I meet with ["Independence Day" screenwriter] Dean Devlin for dinner and we yak a little bit about what would be the sequel. And we have ideas, but it’s a little bit hard to get Will Smith and everyone under one umbrella again, especially with Fox. Fox is very skittish about spending a lot of money and spending a lot of gross.
I mean, they probably want to have one of these partnership deals. But I don’t know if Will will do that because he’s at the height of his career and he’s the number one movie star in the world. But we also talked with Will about it, and he’s open to it, so we’ll see.
What role do you think 3D will play moving forward?
Well, it will be very much decided by a couple of movies that come out this year and next year. So far, it’s going really well. I actually like 3D because it has to be digital. And I think digital projection is far superior to film projection, whether it be 2D or 3D. Because everybody thinks 3D will be big, it kind of forces people to establish digital projectors in theaters.
Would something like "2012" work in 3D?
I think there are certain movies that don’t need 3D and then others look better in 3D. I think "2012" would have looked fantastic, but it was just not possible in the time we had.
Is that an area you want to explore in the future?
I’m thinking maybe Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi epic "Foundation" could be my first 3D film. I don’t know yet.
Can you talk about the environmental aspect of "2012"?
Well it’s like a little bit eerie because when Harald and I had the idea for the movie, I always said to Harald, “I feel like there’s a feeling of the end of the world that’s somewhat really out there. And I cannot explain why.” And he said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “I think we should do a flood movie … a movie about a global flood.”
Then we started researching: What would be the theories which could lead to a global flood? Because there’s not enough water in the planet, right? And so we didn’t want to make it a fundamentalist approach. We wanted to take a scientific approach. And there is like one very obscure theory of the ‘50s. which — strangely enough — Albert Einstein endorsed. It’s called Earth’s crust displacement, which pretty much gives you an idea how it could happen that the world gets inundated by water.
Then, throughout this research, we all of a sudden discovered the Mayan theory of 2012 for ourselves. And the movie more and more became "2012." And then when we were shooting the movie, all of a sudden this economic crisis happened and everybody thought the world was ending. Luckily, that has been easing down lately.
They’ve made videogames based on "Independence Day." Have you been following what those visual artists are doing?
Well, it’s coming back now. When we did "Independence Day," videogames based on movies didn’t perform very well. But now they perform very well. So it’s become a big part of Hollywood. But to do it, you need a lot of time.
It takes longer to make a game than a film, so pretty much the first designs you make for the film have to immediately be given to the gamemakers so they can start building. James Cameron had four years to work on "Avatar." That’s easy, trust me. But if you have to do a movie in two years, it gets very difficult.
I’m working for Sony right now. For Sony, it’s always a subject. And they want to know how you want to do these films. But how are you going to make a game about earthquakes and volcanoes? We have a lot of very organic effects like a volcano exploding, an earthquake, and it’s very, very difficult to translate that into a game. When you’re dealing with characters who fight each other, it’s very easy. But if you have natural disasters like what we have in "2012," it’s pretty much impossible.
Do you play videogames?
Not at all. You know what I don’t like — that most games are shoot-‘em-up games. I don’t like to shoot people. I would say I’m a lover not a fighter.
What’s next for you?
For me it’s like a very small movie, which is very unusual for me. It’s called "Anonymous," and it’s about the authorship collection of Shakespeare.