‘2012’s Roland Emmerich: Grilled

“Yes, maybe we’re headed for extinction … it is kind of scary.”

You can usually set your calendar by Roland Emmerich and one of his huge summer disaster spectacles, such “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Independence Day.”

But this year something’s off with his timing – appropriately enough, it turns out, as his latest mega-disaster, “2012,” is based on doomsday interpretations of the Mayan calendar and its apparent prediction that a cataclysm of epic proportions awaits the earth in 2012.

Obviously this sort of thing can’t be handled by governments and scientists. It takes a filmmaker of huge ambition and with enormous visual flair to be able to do it justice and warn the masses – not that there’s anything we could do if it turns out to be true. 

Enter Emmerich, who marshaled a cast of thousands, including stars John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover and Woody Harrelson, and enough visual effects to employ thousands more.

Here, in an exclusive interview with TheWrap, the German-born director, screenwriter and producer explains why he loves destroying the world.

Q: What sort of film did you set out to make?

A: Our basic idea was to do a big spectacle but we also tried to counter that with an interesting discussion about the ethical side of things, and I feel this is something people can relate to today. There’s a lot of doom and gloom, and the philosophical and political elements add to the disaster and spectacle element.

Q: Was this the biggest film you’ve done so far?

A: It was a little bit like a culmination of all the other films I’ve done, and because I’ve done some similar things before, it wasn’t actually as big for us as people think. We were very well prepared and the production went quite smoothly. I wasn’t pulling my hair out (laughs). It was actually quite an enjoyable experience.

Q: How big was the budget and how hard was it getting financing?

A: It was around $200 million, which is huge, but it wasn’t a problem as people know there’s a big global market for films like this.

Q: You write, direct and produce. What part of the process do you like most?

A: The most exciting part for me is always the writing and coming up with these wild ideas, but I also love shooting and working with actors. The most tedious part for me is all the visual effects. You have to be very patient. And we had over 1300.

Q: Audiences don’t usually associate John Cusack with this type of film, so how did you get him?

A: (Laughs) I know, but he was really into it so we were really happy to get him. I was thinking about who could play his character in the writing process, and when you look at that age group, there just aren’t that many actors who could pull this off. And he always looks for the reality of a scene, which is great when you have some sort of fantastic story like this. He keeps it all grounded.

Q: The rest of the cast is pretty impressive too.

A: Yes, I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Dirty Pretty Things” and thought he was amazing, and then when we met I knew he was perfect, And Amanda Peet isn’t just a pretty face – she’s a really good actress, and Woody Harrelson just went for it. We weren’t quite sure what to expect with him and how he’d play the character, and he didn’t disappoint. And Thandie Newton and Danny Glover? What a great cast.

Q: You shot this in Vancouver. Was it the tax breaks?

A: Right, that’s why. It’s why people don’t shoot big movies in America anymore. It’s just economics, and the Canadians were so smart with their tax breaks and they’ve taken away so much of the production here now. And Hollywood is very cash-strapped these days.

Q: Did you like working in Vancouver?

A: Not as much as in Montreal where we did “The Day After Tomorrow.” The stages in Vancouver are relatively small, so we had to keep moving around a lot. But they have great crews there.

Q: Jim Cameron told me that after doing “The Abyss” and “Titanic” he’d never work with water again – and would advise other directors to heed his warning. Obviously you didn’t get the memo.

A: (Laughs) Yeah, obviously poor Jim got totally burned out on water, and we have a lot of water scenes in this, and it’s always hard on the actors, but again, it all went pretty smoothly.

Q: What’s your take on Hollywood these days?

A: It’s definitely changing and it probably had to. It’s not so star-driven anymore, and the old business models don’t seem to work as well now. And it seems that if you’re prepared to risk something, it can pay off big. I go to a lot of movies and I loved “District 9.” Here’s a $35 million movie that’s done huge business, and that’s a good trend, and look at “Paranormal Activity.” It’s huge, cost nothing, and that’s something that Hollywood notices.

Q: What about the 2012 prediction. Do you believe in it?

A: You look around at the state of the world and all the problems and you think, yes, maybe we’re all headed for extinction. And I got a lot of books about it when we were writing this, and read up on it, and it is kind of scary.