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May 2004
The Day After Tomorrow: An Interview with Roland Emmerich

By Todd Gilchrist

The Day After Tomorrow: An Interview with Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich has directed some of the biggest movies in the history of Hollywood; his surprise hit "Stargate" took off in 1994, and was quickly followed by "Independence Day", the event movie to end them all. After stumbling with the 1998 remake "Godzilla", Emmerich made a proud return to form with the period epic "The Patriot", and this week returns to theatre screens nationwide with the disaster epic "The Day After Tomorrow", about a catastrophic change in the world's climate due to global warming. Emmerich sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss the scientific possibilities of his latest opus, as well as maintaining a career as a director whose filmography eclipses even those of the biggest moviemakers in the industry.

Can you discuss the controversy this film has raised over the possibility of global warming's effects on the environment?

RE: I'm a filmmaker, not a scientist. But I had a very smart and intelligent screenwriter, who did a lot of research, and he tried to keep it as accurate as possible.

Could it really happen in 8 days?

RE: No, that's pure fiction. But global warning lead to another ice age. That's happened before, so we know that.

What's the attraction for you of tearing down cities?

RE: I knew this question would come when I do this movie, but I felt it was such an important thing to do, that I, because of that reason, did it again. After "Independence Day" I didn't want to do it again because I didn't want to repeat myself. But I also thought that this movie is very different is from "Independence Day" and all my other movies."

Is it because of the message of the movie?

RE: Yeah, exactly. When you find something where you can give people a message and still make it an exciting movie, you get very, very excited about something. You probably even work harder than you normally do.

Was it because of this environmental message that the movie is more serious than your previous films?

RE: Yeah. I couldn't see the same kind of tongue and cheek humor. That's like aliens, and the movie didn't have to take itself so seriously. This movie has some humor too, but it's a little more subversive, it's a little more hidden.

Was the tidal wave sequence in New York the biggest challenge?

RE: It was the biggest challenge. There's a rule in Hollywood: stay away from water and stay away from snow, and I had both. I was quite nervous about it but actually it worked pretty well, and shooting actually went very well.

Was there a concern about destroying New York after 9/11?

RE: We were very sensitive. For instance, if that much water would hit the statue of liberty, it would crumble, but in our movie it still stands. For me it's a symbol that a lot has changed. There's not really much destruction in New York besides the weather and it's a natural force so it's not like any destruction. But LA gets leveled (laughs). That's my comment to Hollywood.

What about Americans crossing the border into Mexico?

RE: Well, that's what interested me about it. I was really surprised when I read that global warning can lead to another ice age. Everybody knows that the industrialized nations are the worst offenders. Europe and North America catch their warmth from the Gulf Stream, so if this Gulf Stream shuts down, we will have an ice age in Europe and America that means that we can not live here anymore. Everybody has to go south. Because it's an American movie, I thought, 'okay, great, they have to all go to Mexico -- what will Mexico do?' Again, it's a little bit of a Utopia, we had a scene in there which we cut out that you will see on the DVD where the Vice President comes storming into the Oval Office and says, 'the Mexicans have closed the border. We can open it by force if we want to!' And we cut it out because we thought that, in a situation like that, this would not happen, it would be more like: how can we deal with the fact that this is happening? It's a little like Sept. 11, the whole world in a way was one.

How political were you trying to get with a president and a vice president that, at least visually, referenced Bush and Cheney?

RE: Well, when you make a movie about global warming causing a new ice age that takes place in America, you have to portray a government. If you want to make it real you have to portray somewhat the political government which is in place right now. And it's a fact that they kind of don't do anything the environment. They think it's all a big hoax.

You also took a shot at Cheney, with the President deferring to the Vice President all the time...

RE: Well, (laughs) think whatever you want. I'm only a stupid filmmaker (laughs).

In "Independence Day" you had Randy Quaid and in this you have Dennis Quaid. Is there a connection?

RE: I wanted to work with the whole family! (Laughs) No, you know what? It's a coincidence. I saw "The Rookie" and I thought that Dennis was the age now where he feels very much for me like Harrison Ford 10 years ago. He grew older and I always liked him as an actor. He's a terrific actor. From that moment that I saw "The Rookie" I could not think of anyone else in the part. The same thing with Jake, I could not see anyone else but Jake in this film."

You made a real effort in this film to keep it a personal rather than effects-driven story.

RE: Yes, I think it's very important because I listen, sometimes, to criticism. And you know what? A lot of times the criticism is unfounded, but in a way there's an overall criticism of Hollywood movies that they're more effects than story. It's like a broad comment and I think we filmmakers have to learn from that comment and try to do better. And you always try to make a great movie. Nobody makes movies bad on purpose, so we worked very hard to keep the human [story]. Also, don't forget that we didn't have a real happy ending, so we had to invest a lot into the people so that paid off in the end, so you have a good feeling about the movie.

Are you a fan of disaster movies?

RE: Yes, but you know what? I'm a fan of all movies, but disaster movies in particular I discovered when I was doing Independence Day because we realized all of a sudden, the aliens are like a disaster over humans, they're more like locusts. I rewatched all the disaster movies and realized how relevant they are because in disaster movies, there's also a common noble person as the face against a totally extreme overwhelming enemy.

Do you have the feeling that each one of these "event movies" has to top the previous one?

RE: I don't know if this is really topping anything. We don't have that many visual effects in our movie.

What's the difference in technology, or what has become easier to do in movies like this since "Independence Day"?

RE: It's quite different, you know? Because visual effects are constantly developing. The good news is that you can do more. The good news is that you can pretty much do everything. The bad news is it's all done on computers, so you're dealing with a lot of people. And it's very hard to guide these people in the direction that you want to have the shot. So you have to kind of figure out a way to do that. That's very frustrating. It's not really there yet. We started with one company, and it didn't work because they very much saw us as a client. And we didn't like that. So at the end we ended up with 12 companies, because of that. Because the were all of the sudden competing with each other. Everybody wanted any work on this movie. And we had a lot of time, so we could sometimes, if a shot didn't work in one company, we said, 'Well, the others, they could do it.' And then it became like more competition. And that made it work better." Did you shoot an actual scene of the president dying, since you mention it in the film? "Well, we did. We shot a scene where he gets stuck in an avalanche, and you know in a way, indicating that they were not going to make it. But it was not necessary. It was an unnecessary beat."

Were there fewer CGI shots in this film because you wanted to make it more personal?

RE: Yes. And with the money I had, if I put it in less shots, the shot quality goes up. There's a lot of films these days made with like a thousand effects shots. I don't know how they want to make that, that every shot is good. So, even in like very good visual effect movies, like "Lord of the Rings", there's a couple of shots in there which probably, the director had to cut in, because they were running out of time. And I ran out of time, too, even though I had much less shots than, we had like 450 shots and 120 were like matte shots, which were pretty easy.

How many effects shots did "Independence Day" have?

RE: Independence Day had like 580, or something like that.

Was it tough to guide Jake through the effects shots since he's a novice to CGI?

RE: He has a vivid imagination. I didn't cut much. (laughs). Yeah, I had to talk a lot, you know. And I always kinda corrected him when he did something. I have the same problems that he has.

He said Dennis pulled him aside and reminded him it was an action movie and not a drama.

RE: It was quite interesting, when actors under each other kind of give themselves notes or corrections.

That's your job.

RE: No, it's not my job. I'm just happy with both of them. Look, every actor has his own style, and his own way to get (the fix?). And you have to respect that. You know? Because they have to respect how you do things. And it's always mutual respect, and I'm a person that has a lot of respect for actors.

What did you learn from doing "The Patriot" after "Godzilla" was considered a failure?

RE: I always felt that Godzilla was a much better movie than the critics think. And you will see this like kind of a - and I know this for a fact - it's like the favorite movie of all my friends' kids. And they watch it over and over and over again. So, it cannot be all bad. Secondly, I think "The Patriot" was a different step for me, because it was like a script from somebody else. So I had to work with material...also I had for the first time worked with a really, really, very powerful actor who was a very good actor and he had much more power than I had. And for me it was a great experience that he accepted me, as a director. And then after "Patriot", I had all kinds of other subjects and interest in other things, and then I kind of discovered this book, "The Coming of the Global Super Storm," written by two science fiction guys. And I first saw it totally as science fiction. But then I realized while researching it, because I was I somewhat felt compelled to research it. And I said, 'How much was real science?' And that immediately made me want to do this movie. And then I kind of said, 'Let's use all the strengths, the stronger aspects of my movies, to sell this to the audience.' Because I felt compelled to sell this to the audience.

Are you hoping this movie will create a discussion about the environment?

RE: I hope it creates discussion. It already created discussion, you know what I mean? All of the sudden every newspaper, you're like, 'Look, there's some guy from the right wing saying it's all fucking bullshit.' And then some environmentalist says, 'No it's not. Global warming is real.' And it's already cause so much noise that I think I already accomplished it. There's already so much out there. And me talking here about it, you guys filter the results to the audience and everything. It doesn't really matter if this movie is a success or not, because it's already out there. In one respect, it's also really interesting, because all the newspapers in Europe always make a part that's the film, and then the next side was the real science, the real danger. That's like amazing about it. I think we are obsessed with entertainment. The whole Western world is obsessed with entertainment. I don't know about the third world really; maybe they are too. It's like everybody is obsessed with Hollywood movies worldwide. And even though everybody hates the Americans, they're still watching American movies. So, in that way, entertainment can do much more than, probably, a book or article.

Are things like the rain made easier with advancing technology?

RE: A lot of the rain is practical. You only can do it practical. But you add digital rain. All the snow is, most of the time, a real snow, paper snow, anyway. So it's a lot of floor effects in this movie. I mean, everybody talks about visual effects, but there's enormous amounts of floor effects. We had a great guy, Neil Covell, he did movieS like "Gladiator". So he's really good. He's an English fellow. Really good.

Were the giant chunks of ice real?

RE: No, that was digital.

What were the most complicated shots?

RE: The tank scenes. And maybe the blizzards. Blizzards are very, very hard to shoot. They're very uncomfortable, the crew hates them, the actors hate them. I hate them because they sometimes look really fake, and then you have to do them again. It's really no joy to shoot a blizzard. It's probably also not a joy to be in one (laughs).

Are you worried at all about the competition at the box office?

RE: It's a lot of pressure, but it's more like the pressure because my crew and me, we worked so hard for two and a half years, so we want to have this effect and we don't want to fail badly. There's a lot of pain making this movie, and you want to have a happy ending.

What's next for you?

RE: Probably a movie about the authorship question of Shakespeare. Or another movie called "Coordination". It's actually a political thriller about a coup de etat in America. Or it's a movie that I wrote with my composer, who's a good friend of mine. And he wrote a script called "10,000 B.C." and it's about a mammoth hunter.

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