Roland Emmerich interview: Independence Day Resurgence

Director Roland Emmerich talks about the impact of the original Independence Day, its critical reaction, and making this year's sequel...

Released in 1996, Independence Day marked something of a crossroads in the evolution of summer movies. Its ensemble cast and city-wide destruction anticipated the 21st century wave of effects-driven blockbusters: it’s possible to see elements of Independence Day in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, Marvel’s Avengers and DC-Warner’s Man Of Steel.

At the same time, Independence Day was also one of the last major Hollywood movies to make extensive use of miniature effects, particularly in the sequences where our planet’s landmarks are reduced to rubble. Director Roland Emmerich’s next film, 1998’s Godzilla, made overwhelming use of CGI to generate its 400 or so effects shots.

It’s taken 20 years for Emmerich to make an Independence Day sequel, and much has changed in the intervening years. That gulf of time, and the changing face of the multiplex landscape, is obliquely addressed in Independence Day: Resurgence, out this week. It’s now set in a world of flat screens and instant communication – though thanks to the previous invasion, it’s also a world where aircraft are powered by alien technology. And in a response to the huge visual effects sequences mentioned in the modern blockbusters above, Resurgence comes back with a new invasion of even bigger alien craft and even bigger scenes of destruction.

On the eve of Resurgence’s release, we met with Mr Emmerich to talk about Resurgence, how its making contrasts with that of the original Independence Day, and how that 1996 film has provided a strong influence on Hollywood filmmakers.

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I remember reading about when you made the first one in 1996, you had all those effects shots to do…

It was something like 450 visual effects shots, and that was a lot for us then. This time, we had nearly, like, 2000.

Right. I remember last time you got a German film school over to help you make all those shots made on-budget.

Yeah. Volker [Engel] was a teacher at Ludwigsburg Film Academy, which has a really strong visual effects component. I wanted to have him as my visual effects supervisor, and he said “Yes, I can do it, but I have to bring some of my students, so they at least get the chance to work on a big film. It would be good for them.” So he brought at least, I think it was 10 or so people over. And all of them ended up, like, not going back – they were sucked up by ILM and all kinds of companies! Because they were really good. 

So what were the challenges this time? Previously you used a lot of practical effects, but this time it’s a lot more digital. Are there any practical elements left?

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There’s very little practical. There were only a couple of tentacles, you know, around, like, Bill [Pullman]’s neck and that was it. There was nearly no practical effects – which is a bit of a shame, because certain practical effects are really good, and it’s really hard to do them with digital. But on the other hand, we had companies like Weta and MPC – those really world [class] companies. It’s amazing what they can do.

Do you see the influence of the first Independence Day on films now? Have you spotted it?

[Decisively] Yes. I do. That’s a little bit of the reason why I said, “I think we should do a sequel,” because it felt that the mixture of humour, the disaster element, alien invasion… it’s used a lot in the Marvel universe. And because of that…. I think, when people kept saying to me, “Wow, Independence Day holds up so well”. I think it’s exactly that. It’s like the elements felt very familiar to people.

How did you go about imagining some of the sequences we have in this film? Because obviously, when you made Independence Day, it was quite new to see these landmarks being hit. So you now have to come up with something else.

Well, it’s a business, you know, where everybody wants to outdo each other, and I’m very aware of that. But I always have the feeling that if you do these shots the right way, they look fresh and new. Because I think the size relationships of things are really what makes the music. And still, in other films, they just don’t quite understand what sizes really mean.

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At the very beginning, my first idea for this film was, let’s have the mothership come down to Earth and land on the Atlantic Ocean. And everybody says, “Where in the Atlantic Ocean?” And I say, “All of it!”

Sometimes, these very simple ideas lead to certain sequences and scenes. I can imagine these enormous feet, you know, setting down in a city… Just these first images pop into my head. 

Scale’s really important point, isn’t it? Because in the first film, the shot of the White House exploding, what makes that work is the helicopter in the foreground. You get the large and the small.

Yeah. And it’s one of these things. I always make about 20 or 30 production paintings where everybody who works on the film says, “Ah, this is like Roland’s vision.” All of these big spectacular images, they’re already in the first 25 or so drawings. It’s important, so that everybody says, “Ah. This is how it has to look.”

Do you think of yourself as quite an iconoclastic film director?

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Pfff… I don’t know!

I mean, in the sense that you enjoy playing around with iconic images. Destroying the White House. But also making Shakespeare into a buffoon in Anonymous.

I’m very into images, let’s say. What I like is a classical kind of cinema. I don’t like it when it’s too fast-cut. I always hate that, when movies are like, “dak-dak-dak-dak-dak!” That just doesn’t make sense to me. The rhythm of editing has got so much faster over the last 20 years, and then, you know, I have these images in my head. And if I don’t have these images, I don’t feel the need to make the film, you know what I mean?

The same thing in Anonymous. I always saw a funeral march over a frozen Thames. Even though I knew Elizabeth died in August, but for me this was Edward De Vere’s life freezing, in a way. It becomes very cold and uncomfortable. He becomes close to death. That felt for me, it had to be cold. I read somewhere that the Thames sometimes froze over and they held fairs there. I said, “Oh my God, that’s great”. So have the funeral procession on the frozen Thames. Images. That’s what I have to have in my head, otherwise I’m not interested in making the movie.

So that’s what piques your interest, then – whether it’s your story or someone else has written it, it has to interest you visually.

Exactly. That’s why I’m not a writer. Well, I’m a writer too but not really. I like to be involved in my scripts but not totally. So I’m very visual that way. 

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How do you think Hollywood’s changed? A lot of your 90s films were originals – Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day. Do you think it would be harder to get those films made now?

Yeah. It is harder. Definitely harder. If there isn’t a cape, or like, some funny clothes or superpowers, you’re going to have a hard time these days. Or at least, it has to be a famous youth novel or something like that. I wish the film industry could see that this can lead to disaster, because there are still shrinking audiences. Which is, like, the reason for that, I think. I hope that original movies come back, because I’m a fan of original movies. I’ve kept doing them over the last 15 years, but it gets harder and harder to do them.

I’d say Independence Day was one of the last big high-concept movies of that period. It seems that high-concept has been replaced by corporate branding, in a way.

Disney, Star Wars, Pixar. It’s like it’s never-ending.

So do you think Hollywood’s become too corporate to ever go back to those high-concept type movies?

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You have to see one thing: the studios, most of the time, the bosses are also filmmakers. You can’t say they’re only lawyers. They’re very passionate people. You have to be. On the other hand, they have to also make movies that make these corporations money, and if there’s a tendency lately, that if it’s a franchise movie then it’s a comic book hero,then the chances of making a return are higher than if you’re going out there and risking something. Interstellar or Gravity are a serious risk. And for every one of them that is a hit, there are three or four of them which are not. They’re losing money. So I can understand it, but on the other hand, if you’re a lover of films, you don’t necessarily want to see number five or six. You want to see a new movie, you know? Not a sequel of a sequel of a sequel.

Your films are always very self-aware anyway, but this one’s very aware of its status as a sequel. That everything has to be bigger.

[Chuckles] Yeah, sure. The first Independence Day, I remember going to Dean Devlin, “I know what we have to do next. We have to do a big alien invasion movie.” And he said, “What?” I said, “Come here. Look out the window. You see the sky? All of that will be the underbelly of a space ship.” And he immediately said, “Oh, that’s cool!” It’s just a different way of seeing an alien invasion movie. 

Again, it’s having a defined image in your head. I seem to recall there was a bit of studio resistance to that image of the White House being blown up.

It was in the script, but then they said, “Okay. What’s going to be the first teaser?” And then I’d pitched that as the part of the teaser. They said, “It’s all great, but you can NOT blow up the White House in the teaser.” I said, “Well, it’s in the movie.” They said, “Yeah Roland, but you’re not American. You have to understand it’s a very touchy issue!” I said, “Why don’t we do it like this. We’ll produce the whole teaser, one with the White House and one without the White House.”

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So I pulled the whole explosion of the White House forward very early in the schedule. And I never, ever heard back from them about the White House! [Laughs] I made it! It was clear that the impact was much bigger. Yeah, but there was resistance. They were not sure. They were not really sure what was going to happen.

And people said that they cheered when the White House exploded. But that wasn’t it – they cheered when Boomer was saved. You know, the dog was saved! You know, three billion people died but a dog made it! That’s when they cheered! [Laughs] In the trailer, they cheered the trailer because it felt so unique at that time. Also, it was a movie trailer where there was not one lead character in it. Not one!

I hadn’t thought of that. What did you make of the whole critical reaction at the time? Because the funny thing was that audiences loved it. But at one point, critics were openly wondering why people were still going to see it despite the reviews. I remember there was a quote somewhere…

Yes! It’s like all my movies. It’s kind of weird, you know? If you went by the critics, I shouldn’t make movies! But I make them anyway. At that time, the LA Times wrote, “The Day The Script Stood Still”.

That’s it! That’s the quote I was trying to remember.

I was like, “What is that supposed to mean?” They called it a throwback. But it holds up pretty well, right? And other films they didn’t call throwbacks now feel pretty dated. It’s always, let’s say, “Time will tell.”

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I once talked to Ridley Scott about this. I asked him about Blade Runner, because it’s one of my all-time favourites. And I said, how did he see that? He said [adopts quite funny dour Ridley Scott accent] “Everybody hated it. Didn’t make no money and now it’s on everybody’s 10-best list! That’s just how it goes.” [Laughs]

I said, “Okay!”

I really see it like that. I remember seeing Blade Runner and I’d just read the review in a big German newspaper. It ripped it apart. I went in to see this movie, and I was in an another world. I forgot I was a film student and everything, I was just blown away by it. I said to myself, “What did this guy [the film critic] see? Didn’t he see what everybody else saw?”

Because the reception was so bad for Blade Runner, nobody went to see it. 

Did Independence Day have a similar longevity for you? So, a decade or so after it first came out, people were still talking to you about it?

Oh yeah. It actually started with journalists – film people, media people. They’d keep saying, “When is the sequel coming?” And I said, “There won’t be a sequel. It’s a standalone film.” And because they kept saying that, I started thinking, “Maybe I should do that – but normally I don’t really like sequels.”

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Yeah, this is your first.

It’s my first, which maybe is good because it’s something new. But then, actually a friend of mine who’s one of the producers, he said, “Roland, don’t make a sequel, make a continuation. It’s after 20 years, and it’ll be great. People want to revisit that universe – just make it bigger.”

Maybe, if we want to, we’ll do a third one. Maybe I want to do a third one – I don’t know yet, but I’m open to it.

There’s the sci-fi film, Singularity. You’ve been trying to make that for quite a while as well.

This one we have a little bit of a problem with. But it’s now at another studio, and it very well could get made, but not by me as a director. I’m one of the producers.

So do you know what you’re going to make next if it isn’t Independence Day 3? Do you have a project lined up?

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I have one project I want to do but I never want to talk about it because it always ends up in the newspapers. It’s a very typical Roland Emmerich film.

Will it be an original film again?

[Nods] Mm-hmm!

Intriguing! Roland Emmerich, thank you very much.

Independence Day: Resurgence is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd June.