It was two decades ago that director Roland Emmerich changed the face of blockbuster filmmaking with Independence Day. His pulpy alien invasion spectacle ushered in a new era of large-scale visual effects and massive cinematic destruction, symbolized by that now iconic shot of the White House being blown to smithereens by a gigantic alien spacecraft. In the 20 years since, sci-fi and action tentpoles have repeatedly paid homage to Emmerich’s over-the-top vision with more and bigger devastation, even as the effects have changed from practical to digital in their execution.
Emmerich himself has gone back to the same well with disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, but after a lengthy period of development he’s returned to where it all started with Independence Day: Resurgence. Some things remain (Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Brent Spiner and Vivica A. Fox are back) while others are different (Will Smith is gone, but Jessie T. Usher plays the adopted son of his late character). The aliens are also back, meaner and bigger than ever, and the movie is offering up a global demolition derby that could make that White House shot look like a house of cards.
Den of Geek got on the phone with Emmerich a few days ago to discuss coming back to the world of Independence Day, the potential for another sequel and more…
Den of Geek: How has the world within the film changed in the 20 years since the first war with the aliens?
Roland Emmerich: It’s changed because it’s a typical post-war generation and because it’s 20 years it’s a real generational shift. They’re referring to the events of the first movie as the War of ’96. And because we know the aliens are coming back, it’s a united world where a Chinese works next to an American. It’s a totally different world than ours in a way.
Seeing the state of the real world, do you think it would be possible for our world today to actually unite like that? These films are very optimistic in a way. Do you feel that kind of optimism about the real world?
I don’t feel it about the real world at all. But you still allow yourself to dream, right? I hope it doesn’t need some bad aliens to unite us. That’s for sure. But it’s a different world. It’s a continuation. It’s not also really a sequel. It’s a continuation of the 20 years; you kind of meet these people and they all have changed quite a lot. They’re in a totally different spot in their lives. And there’s a new generation that grew up just ready to fight and defend their planet.
How has the technology of making the movie actually changed since doing the first one? The first one was certainly groundbreaking for its time…
Even though we won an Oscar for visual effects, I was super frustrated in the first one. I remember that, constantly saying, “Oh my god. Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do that?” We also didn’t have as much money, in a way. When I shot the movie 2012, I shot for the first time with a digital camera and all the visual effects were done in a computer. I felt like everything was possible. That kind of led me, for the first time, to actually get interested in making a sequel or a continuation of Independence Day.
You are not the first director to say that. A lot of times a director has a project they want to do and they say, “Well, I really had to wait for the technology to catch up so that I could put what I saw in my head on the screen.”
Exactly. The technology had to catch up a lot. I have a lot of projects where I have not dared maybe to touch. But now I’m saying, “Oh, maybe I should do this now.” I don’t put any scissors in my head, in my imagination now. That’s kind of the big difference. The first one I said, “OK. I can do this but not that.”
What would some of those projects be? Are they adaptations or original ideas that you have?
I have one project called Happy Birthday, Mr. President, which is about the death of Marilyn Monroe. I don’t like to use actors as historic figures. So this will be actors, but the actors will look exactly like Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy and all these people. That’s not totally possible, but pretty soon.
Independence Day was your seventh film. It was your first real big budget film at the time. And now, in that 20 years, you’ve done so many other movies. How have you changed personally as a director in the way you work?
I’m probably as obsessed as I ever was. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Now because of digital cameras we can make more takes. And on the other hand, I’ve always kind of prided myself in being a nice director, a guy who doesn’t yell. I have to say a lot of people constantly tell me that. Maybe that’s my German side of it. I plan my movies pretty good so when I’m shooting I know exactly what I want. There are some directors who kind of have to find what they want. That’s not me. It actually never was. [laughs]
You are known for coming in on time, sometimes a little ahead of schedule, sometimes a little under budget. And we hear a lot of these films going over budget or needing to go back for reshoots…
That’s not me. I think it’s like a professional pride, in a way.
Was it difficult to make the story fresh without just kind of doing a rerun of the first film?
We said to ourselves all the recurring actors have to start at a totally different point. For example, Jeff Goldblum was an underachiever in the first one and is now like an overachiever, a director of the earth space defense. And somebody like Bill Pullman, who played the President, who led his troops personally into the battle, is now pretty much, at the beginning of the film, a broken man tormented by nightmares. Because whoever had mental contact with aliens, and he had in the first film, is more or less affected by it. Then everybody thought Brent Spiner as Dr. Okun was dead, but he is actually in a coma and will wake up in a very funny way in the beginning of the film.
Then there was this kind of interesting new generation for me. That was, for me, the big thing which we came up with that finally made me do the film. Roughly three years ago we had this idea to choose a new generation, really make it a handoff from the older generation to a new generation. It may be also because I had turned 60 that it made it, for me, really interesting. All these young pilots come from different backgrounds. Two of them are kind of royalty. One is the daughter of Bill Pullman and the other one is the stepson of Will Smith. And then we countered it with some kids who are orphans and sort of grew up in an orphanage and get taken on by the military and trained as pilots.
But the one thing that binds them is they all have this need for fighting for their planet. That’s kind of what unifies them.
There was talk at one point of shooting two sequels back to back. Obviously you haven’t done that. But do you still have an idea for a third film if this one does well?
Yeah. It’s a very concrete idea for the third one. I actually had to do this because a studio will never ever greenlight a movie that expensive, even though the first one was a huge success, after 20 years because it’s never been done before. So they are very careful…We didn’t shoot both back to back because we feel like that’s super arrogant, in a way. And secondly, too many movies have done it now, so it doesn’t have that novel aspect anymore.
You’ve been also attached to a couple of big science-fiction ideas that you’ve worked on or have talked about a little bit. Singularity I think was one of them. Foundation was another one. Foundation is now at HBO. Could you see yourself doing something like that for television at this point?
I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones. That’s very high quality. It would have to be that high quality. I’m a film man. But I mean David Benioff, who I worked with, he’s a great writer and what he pulled off is amazing. Yes, I would love to do something like that. But I have no concrete project.
What happened to Singularity?
It’s still around. It’s actually a project that I, all of a sudden, got cold feet because I thought the script is not finished and not strong enough. But it’s still in the making. It’s at the studio and we’re trying to put it back together. Probably I will not direct because there is absolutely other stuff I want to do.
What’s the next thing…?
Well, you know, I never tell people my next film. Time will tell. I finished a film. I have to promote it for four or five weeks. So the first thing that’s on my agenda is vacation. [laughs]
Independence Day: Resurgence is out in theaters Friday (June 24).