Roland Emmerich has established himself as one of the most creative and successful directors in film. Emmerich has proven himself in a variety of genres and has enjoyed blockbuster success with films such as Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012.
After starting his career in Germany working on short films and drawing notice as a director to watch, he gained worldwide attention with Moon 44. He got the job making Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi thriller Universal Soldier, which in turn led to him directing Stargate, kicking off a franchise that would spawn three television series. Emmerich himself is now developing a remake of that film with co-creator Dean Devlin. Between them, the two became known as reliable shepherds of big films, attracting a variety of talent and breaking box office records. Since then, Emmerich has directed several huge movies, but has also found time for smaller projects such as Stonewall and Anonymous.
Yet it was in 1996 that Emmerich and Devlin would make the film for which they are still best known: Independence Day. Electrifying audiences from the moment its teaser trailer blew the White House apart, the blend of science fiction adventure and grand disaster movie became an influential moment in cinema, relighting the desire for such films and triggering any number of attempts to replicate its formula of huge effects and memorable characters. In the original, huge alien spaceships arrive and begin to lay waste to the world’s cities. Eventually, thanks to some chance discoveries and a lot of heroics, a small group is able to defeat the mothership and save the human race.
Now, 20 years later, Emmerich is back for the follow-up, which moves the story on 20 years. Earth in the wake of the infamous “battle of ‘96” is a much more unified place, and humanity has learned to use some of the salvaged alien technology for the good of the planet and its people. And yet they live with the knowledge that the aliens will one day return, and in force; and that day has now arrived.
The director talks about the inspiration for him to make his first sequel, what it was like getting the old cast back together and why he’s glad he no longer has to rely on puppets to bring extraterrestrials to life…
When did you first consider the idea of this sequel?
I think it was during the making of 2012. That was the first movie I shot using digital cameras, the first one I totally relied only on CG computer graphics for the effects and I realised, all of a sudden, how far technology had advanced. I talked a lot with my visual effects supervisor about it, and said, “at the time we couldn’t do so many things, but now we can do them…” and it was the first time I had any idea. To be honest, I’m not a guy who really likes sequels, because I think, ‘why do you want to see something again that you have seen before?’ and it’s why I also decided to not make this a straight sequel, but the continuation of a story, and that’s when the whole idea came about to say, “what would the world look like when we know the aliens are coming back?” With all the positive and negative of that, and that’s what got me going.
A lot of today’s big blockbusters tend to take themselves seriously, but with Independence Day you managed to find funny, quirky moments. Is that going to continue into this film?
It is. It’s not in the forefront like in the first film, but it has the same kind of lightness, I think. But when you look at the first one, I was actually surprised at how, for some stretches, it’s bad news, bad news, bad news and nobody makes any jokes about that. So we tried to emulate that. There is a little bit more joking at the beginning, but then at one point it gets really serious because it’s about the threat and a lot of people die. It’s a fine balance you have to have.
What was the process of getting to this point?
I had an idea to focus on a whole new generation. And it opens up the movie in a way, for franchise possibilities, which naturally Fox as a studio was very interested in, so you have new fresh faces. It also somewhat related to Jeff, Bill and me, because we became, all of a sudden, the old guys! We were like the geezer squad, the old advisors and everyone was very kind to us. And then these young actors, they come into a movie like this really excited, so it was great. And then Judd Hirsch, who is 82, is fitter than all of us! That was a great feeling on the set, and we have an even younger generation, a couple of kids in the movie. So it had a really nice feeling that this is a different world, it has different characters; we have African characters, Chinese characters, it’s more of a worldwide idea. And that was very cool to do, as a filmmaker, to re-visit certain characters in the story but with all this new input.
It has been 20 years since Independence Day. Are you a different filmmaker from the man who made the original?
Not that much! I’m like Germany’s oldest teenager, the only one that has grey hair and looks like an old man, but I’m still the same. But you do have what they call the YIBS, which is the Years In The Business, and you maybe don’t freak out as fast and you know what’s coming.
But this time, you have a much bigger toy box to play with this time…
From the very beginning I made it very clear that you need a much bigger visual effects budget than the first one, because it was a different time then. In 1996 we had 400-450 visual effects shots and that was big. Now in the time of Marvel and all these other movies, you have to have 2,000 or so otherwise you can’t compete.
Is there anything that you wanted to do in the original film that you can now do?
Yes. In the original with the aliens, I was very disappointed because we had to have little stick figures and puppets and it looked… When I saw it again, I said, “Oh my god…” And I always imagined the volumetric clouds around the ships for the first one were all done in a cloud tank, which looks real but didn’t really look good enough. Today we can do so much better stuff. Some people are still very nostalgic about the whole model thing, but I’m not, really. I don’t have to do that anymore and I’m relieved! Now I’m very relaxed, saying, “Okay, a little bit here, a little bit there… Let’s do a new simulation…”
How was it rounding the old cast back up again?
It was like a family or a class reunion! And nobody talks about it, but to get Brent Spiner back in the film as Dr. Okun… We started this already in the novelisations, there were two or three sequels to the original novelisation of the movie and at one point, Dean called me up and said, “I was just talking to this publisher, I think Brent Spiner should be alive! He should be in a coma.” And I said, “Great!” And it was really cool because Brent is such an amazing actor and he adds so much quirkiness to the film. He wakes up after 20 years and everything is astounding! But he will make another friend in this film…
You and Dean helped to re-ignite and push forward the disaster spectacle genre. In some ways, are you competing with yourself here?
Yeah, but I’m always saying, it’s a little bit like asking Woody Allen or Alfred Hitchcock why they were doing their movies. You find your own genre in a way. I’m not a particular fan of superhero movies or comic book films, because I grew up in Germany and didn’t have that stuff. So in a weird way I had to invent my own genre, which is science fiction blended with disaster, and I always try to combine it a little bit. In every one of these movies, you can have a different aspect, such as with The Day After Tomorrow, where it was climate change and how it could affect our lives. And in 2012 is pretty much a re-telling of Noah’s Ark in a modern way, and there’s probably 10 or 20 other movies that I could make which just reflect one aspect and the genre is disaster movie, but it’s also more than that. So in a way I’m quite happy to do these things because it’s my genre, it’s what I’m interested in.
So what does Independence Day: Resurgence have to tell us?
There’s the message of unity for a very divided world that might not have major conflicts but a lot of smaller ones, it’s amazing actually how fractured our world really still is. And then shows what we could accomplish if we work together. Then there’s the whole fact that when you’re the older generation and you tell the younger generation that if you work really hard and train well, we can beat them back. And then they come and you have nearly no chance. And you have a certain responsibility, and there’s a dialogue between Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman where they talk about that. They say, “we cannot give up, because if we give up, what will the younger generation think about us?” It’s a little bit born out of the idea that I turned 60, so I’m now the older generation. And Jeff too. We don’t feel old in ourselves, but we are! That means you think about where you’re going, and the movie reflects that a lot.
And then aliens themselves feel like a warning to us about not being greedy and wanting to destroy everything to get resources…
Yes, but it’s a little bit more that we invented an alien that is like a form of locust or cancer. They come in and destroy. But then we learn in this film that there’s more than that. There’s a whole other universe out there which is at war with them…
Do we assume there might be other things out there?
It’s a big universe! There might just be more!
Are there ideas, then, from the original plan to make two follow-up movies, that can be put into this one but also spread to other movies?
There can! We made a huge step after the first film with alien technology. We can’t build it, but we can harvest it and we have anti-gravity devices, we have fusion drive, we have all these elements. And in this movie, we add even more knowledge.
What do you have against London? What has that city done to you that you must keep taking it down?
Nothing! (Laughs) It’s a little bit my sarcastic sense of humour. The aliens’ new ship is so big that it has its own gravity, so when it lands, it sucks up Asia and dumps it on Europe!