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HitFix Interview: '2012' director Roland Emmerich
The 'Day After Tomorrow' and 'Independence Day' helm talks about disasters, religion and Shakespeare
It's the end of the world as we know it, but Roland Emmerich feels fine.
And he should feel fine.
No filmmaker of his generation has made more money off of destroying the world, one internationally famous landmark at a time.
Between "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow," Emmerich's disaster oeuvre has yielded more than $1.7 billion in worldwide box office (that doesn't take into account films like "Stargate," "10,000 B.C." and "The Patriot").
On Friday (Nov. 13), Emmerich's latest global destroyer hits theaters. Given the other names on his resume, it's hard to believe, but "2012" is Emmerich's largest film to date, at least in terms of scope. Yes, he destroys the White House (again), knocks California into the Pacific and sends a tidal wave cascading over the Himalayas, but those are only the epic moments Sony has seen fit to feature in trailers. There's another two-hours of chaos and survival you've yet to see.
HitFix caught up with Emmerich at the "2012" press junket in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just down the road (if you have a couple hours to drive) from Yellowstone Park (which "2012" teaches us is actually a vast, ready-to-blow super-volcano). As befits the scale of the movie, we held our conversation in a cavernous, empty lodge-style meeting room, with ceilings so high the echo is featured in our recording like another interview participant.
We talked about disaster, religion, making time to develop characters and also his upcoming movie "Anonymous," in which he leaves cataclysms behind for a thriller about William Shakespeare.
[Full interview after the break...]
HitFix: With "Day After Tomorrow," you depicted a disaster that was presented as somewhat preventable. It's a "This is what will happen if you don't treat the Earth better" disaster movie. With "2012," there's absolutely nothing we can do, right?
Roland Emmerich: No!
HitFix: What's the difference in this genre between a preventable disaster and an unpreventable disaster?
RE: Well, it's a totally different set of problems. With a preventable disaster, you're like, "The government should do something!" or "The people should do something!" And you hope people will change their ways. With this movie, it's an unpreventable disaster, but it's two groups of people: It's the ones who know about it and secretly take precautions, but don't tell all the rest and it asks, "Is this moral?" And secondly, it's about the people who don't know, who find out by coincidence and learn about it by coincidence and it tells the story of what they can do. So in a way, it's a movie which asks a much grander question. It's about what is real life? Is it worth saving human people as a race? Are we worth saving? And if we're worth saving, what should we save and how should we do it?
HitFix: So you don't view this as a step back from the level of political engagement in "The Day After Tomorrow"?
RE: In a way, it's a very interesting message for me. On one hand, yes, it's about total destruction, but also it shows the emerging of a new consciousness. Because at the end, you see all of the government leaders in the world, they're united in a way to save the human race. But do they really save it? In the end, there's the question of if we do this, will it start a new civilization with an act of cruelty? I think it's a more complex story.
HitFix: Did you have a chance to listen to the 2012 experts who spoke with reporters before your press conference?
RE: No. I was doing TV and the news.
HitFix: Had you heard them before? Did you do any research or is this 2012 idea just a starting point?
RE: Well. It's like we did some research, but I didn't do much, because there's not much to tell. The Mayan Calendar just ends and it's almost like the destruction of the world is at the end, but because it's so vague and says nothing absolute, the Mayans are very mysterious people and not much is known about them, it leaves open all sorts of different theories, which is evident when you listen to all of the experts. Some people say it's the emergence of a new consciousness, otherwise it's just the end or total destruction. And the strange thing is that when you look around the world for other prophesies, it's pretty much in every culture that there's a prophesy that coincides with the Mayans, but only the Mayan one has an exact date.
HitFix: Do you buy any of it? Or, put a different way, do you need to buy any of it to make a movie about it?
RE: I was constantly torn. I always say that I hope it's not going to happen, because I want to make many more movies. But I always felt that these things only crop up because, overall in our society, I think we're living in an age of pessimism. If you look at the last century, there was a lot of optimism. People always said, "It's going forward. It's going forward. It's getting better. We're becoming richer. And this and that." There was the Internet and everything was... But here, in the new millennium, more or less, there's all of a sudden everything is pessimistic. Everything gets a pessimistic skew. And it's partly because we got hit by two big financial crises and so there's this feeling of doom. And I have to say, to myself, this past five or six or seven years, I feel very pessimistic about the future of mankind. I think it's a little bit of zeitgeist. And that attracted me to do a movie like "2012," because it asks a lot of questions about what is really important in life.
HitFix: Do you see yourself as picking up the Irwin Allen Disaster King mantle?
HitFix: Not at all?
RE: I mean, my next movie is a movie about Shakespeare and after that I'm hoping to do the "Foundation" serious. So it's just a coincidence. Actually, it's a coincidence that I did "Independence Day." With "Independence Day," Dean [Devlin] and I were discussing at the very, very beginning, "What is the genre that this movie should be in?" Then we realized it's about "Who are the aliens?" So we decided we didn't want to give the aliens any personality, to make them really mysterious. So because of that, that led us to treat the aliens as this kind of disaster coming over us. That led us to watch a couple disaster movies and we realized all of a sudden that in disaster movies you can go against the grain and do things that you can do in no other genre, for example introducing a character after one hour. In "Towering Inferno," Steve McQueen comes in after an hour and he's one of the two leads. There was also an unpredictability in the genre that I like. And then it had something that I've always liked, multi-character casts, where normal people have to become heroes.
HitFix: And everything afterwards has also been a coincidence?
RE: Well, when you're a director of big movies in Los Angeles, you don't have much choices. It's either a famous book, and there aren't many around, it's a science fiction extravaganza, it's a superhero movie, mostly actually, or it's a secret agent movie, lately. Of all them... I've never liked superhero movies. I have a little bit of a problem with fantasy. I've also always wanted to create my own movies, so famous books are not really an option. Then there are disaster movies and the most successful movie of all time is "Titanic" and everybody forgets that's a disaster movie.
HitFix: That actually leads into my next question. With "Titanic," there's almost a whole movie before the disaster happens and the ship hits the iceberg. I was struck in "2012" by how long you waited before the big set pieces and the money shots begin. What was the strategy in making the audience wait?
RE: Exactly that. Exactly that! I said to [co-writer Harald Kloser], "Let's really this time create good characters." Always like everybody criticized us about this, so I was sick and tired of it. There will still be naysayers, trust me. That's unavoidable. But it was just, for me and for Harald, a goal to create full and developed characters and for that you need time. What always happens that movies get tested and and the audience, 20 or 30 percent they say it's too slow and too long. So what do they cut out? All of the character. I just have reached a level in my career where I don't really have to test anymore. We did little tests with friends and family and they tell you the same things that the big tests say. And yes, the people always said "It's a little long," but I said to the studio that all of the famous movies that everybody likes, people say "Did you see 'Dark Knight'?" "Oh that was a great movie. A little long." I'm asking myself, "Did you see 'Lord of the Rings?' Little bit long." Even the most successful movie of all of them, "Titanic," it's three hours. So I said it's sometimes important to be a little bit long, to ell all of these little things because they give it texture. They make it rich.
HitFix: So this is just you going "I'm at the point of my career where I can get away with making the movie I want to make"?
RE: Yeah, but I knew that with my visual effects, it would be really, really big. Whatever you do, it's always going to be in relation to something.
HitFix: I'm not sure I've seen a blockbuster-ready movie that takes such a pessimistic view of organized religion. The world is coming to an end and people react with prayer and that, of course, can't stop what's coming. It's not an answer for anyone.
RE: Oh, it isn't. I'm openly a guy who's against organized religion. When look at it practically, yes, the Catholic Church has kind of created the Red Cross and stuff like that and runs a couple hospitals and orphanages, but when you see the Catholic Church in general and you see, let's say, the last Pope, who was replaced by the German Pope, they want to canonize him now, and this was a guy who single-handedly told Africa not to use condoms. I just feel this is not right. Nobody says anything. I'm always of the belief that if you believe in something, why do you need a house to go in? Why do you need a church at all? Why do you not pray in your home? Why do you not build a little thing in the corner of your living room and pray there? Why do you need all of the other people? Why do you need priests? Why do you need all of these things? I think that organized religion has brought only misery, when you see it right now, what's going between the Arabs and the Western world? Come on. People in Koran schools learn to hate other people. Just for me, that's incredible that in our time and with our technology and information age, that we still have fundamentalists in very high places.
HitFix: Since we're running a bit low on time, let me transition. "2012" obviously isn't a movie you make for Oscars or for critics. But your next movie, like you said, it's a period piece. It's Shakespeare. That seems like it's intended for a different audience. What do you hope to gain from that?
RE: You know what's really kind of strange? I only just read the script, which I really liked. I thought it was fascinating subject matter. Totally provocative. And it just introduces people to the idea that the most famous playwright in the world was probably a fake and just play that. I plan on making a very, very entertaining movie. I don't care about critics whatsoever, because if I would, I would just retire. But it will be an eye-opener, hopefully, for a lot of people. For me, it's also the fact that I really love actors. I will work with some of the most amazing actors in England, which is also great for me because I love English actors.
HitFix: Is the new movie focused on Shakespeare? Or is there an ensemble around him?
RE: There are three main roles. Actually four. There's Queen Elizabeth. There's Shakespeare. There's Ben Jonson, who was another playwright. And then there's Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. But, like all my movies, the movie's like an ensemble cast. There's no one character you can take out.
HitFix: And then a giant wave washes over The Globe at some point?
RE: [Only laughter.]
"2012" will be in theaters everywhere on Friday, Nov. 13.