The director of movies like Independence Day and 2012, Roland Emmerich’s name has long been associated with explosive, crowd-pleasing entertainments. Yet beneath all the special effects, there’s a political, even mischievous mind working away. There’s certainly a hint of that in White House Down, his latest film about the US President’s residency being taken over by terrorists.
The other stuff on his schedule mixes the thoughtful with the lucrative, too – he has a TV series about TE Lawrence coming up, plus his long-in-gestation sequel to Independence Day. Ahead of White House Down’s UK release, we sat down with Mr Emmerich to discuss all of this and lots more.
White House Down is unusual for you as it’s a project that wasn’t generated by you. How did you come to be involved in the film?
Basically, I’d sort of got stuck with everything I was developing on my own. I was working on a project called Singularity, which is a film I still want to do, but the script needed more work and the development process kind of slowed down. Roughly around that same time Sony acquired White House Down as a spec script for an enormous amount of money and – through my agent – they sent it over to me. I then read the title page and just laughed! [laughs] ‘White House Down? Are you kidding?’ [laughs] Anyway, that night I came back from dinner and thought I should probably read at least 10 pages – just to be respectful – and I couldn’t put it down!
What did you find so compelling?
I just fell in love with the lead character that [writer] James Vanderbilt had created. I also felt that the idea of this guy who just wants to reconcile with his daughter, to become a hero for her and to get his life back in order, was a great motor for a story like this. So I decided on the spur of the moment to make the movie. Y’know, it’s good sometimes to not just cook your own stuff. [laughs]
It’s definitely a very well structured script.
Very well structured and yet all the characters immediately popped off the page so you could immediately see who they were. For example, I had Maggie Gyllenhaal in mind for the role of Finnerty right away and the same for James Woods as Walker.
When did you start working on the film?
I think I started around May last year. So it was quite quick and – I have to say – very painless, both in terms of deciding to direct the movie and also during the actual shoot.
When did Channing Tatum become attached to the project?
Sony already wanted to set up a meeting between us for Singularity, so we went ahead with that and just met for White House Down instead. On the flight out to that meeting I actually watched 21 Jump Street for the first time and saw how funny and charming Channing could be, so from that point on I kind of knew that he’d be perfect for the movie.
Even though this was clearly a very highly regarded script did you change anything after coming on board?
I had one problem with the script and that was that in the original draft the motivation of the villains was simply money. It was basically a heist movie. And I said: ‘Guys, this doesn’t work for me. Everything else works for me, but it has to be for another reason.’ They asked me what that could be and I said: ‘It has to be a coup d’etat.’ I just feel these types of films have to have a bigger point to justify the scale. Thankfully, every one bought into that and structurally it was very easy to make the changes without unbalancing the rest of the script.
The whole coup d’etat aspect is unusual. In the past these films have tended to have overseas enemies as the primary villains, whether that be the Russians, the Chinese…
Or the North Koreans! [laughs] It was also interesting to me to make a movie about the division of America, which is pretty much equally divided along ideological lines these days.
Why did you want to do that?
Well, I suppose I like a bit of rebel raising and I just like to provoke people!
It’s just my sensibility I guess and I always pride myself on that. White House Down wasn’t my script, but I made it my script in a way. I have a tendency to pack more humour into a film, which I think we did do, but also I told the producers that we have to shock people a little bit with the politics.
Well, the President’s peace plan in this story threatens the people who make money out of war. We actually had a line in the film which was cut, but which I now really miss, where Jamie (Foxx) as the President asks Channing if he knows how much America spends on defence. Channing’s character doesn’t know the answer and Jamie tells him that they spend as much as England, Russia, China, Germany and France… times two. So the question then becomes: what are we protecting?
The ballooning of the budget deficit through excessive military spending has been an issue for the US for years though.
That’s right. But as a country the US doesn’t spend anywhere near enough money on itself. Infrastructure, education and healthcare are all underfunded. There was a list published a few years back which outlines the average salary of a CEO in a given country and then compares it to the average income of a worker in that same country. For example, the smallest gap was in Japan where the ratio was 10-to-1 [ie: a CEO earns 10 times the salary of an average worker]. In the UK this gap was 20-to-1, while in a state like Mexico it was something like 50-to-1. What is the gap in the US?
At a guess? A lot higher than that!
This is what I always say. ‘Jesus!’ [laughs] It’s a country of thieves!
And yet Hollywood is a vital cog in that economic model. How hard is it to slide through ideas like that within very mainstream, populist pieces of corporate entertainment?
Look, when your movie tests well – and my movies have always tested well. They’re crowd pleasers. That’s my talent! – they allow you to get away with stuff like that because… well, they don’t care anymore! And don’t forget, in comparison to the rest of America, the people who run Hollywood today are left-wing. Old Hollywood was very Republican, but these days it’s very liberal.
You mention the film testing well, but despite that the film’s underperformed at the US box office.
Do you think that’s down to the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen opening earlier this year or the overcrowded summer marketplace?
I do think the other film hurt us a lot, but the crowded market didn’t help either. And for those reasons combined maybe the film didn’t establish itself as one that people had to see. Also, the thing we probably did wrong was that we didn’t want to do any promotion that might be seen as helping the other film and that was probably a mistake. But we have an extremely good Cinemascore rating and we’ve been trending very positively on Twitter, so we’ll see.
You’d imagine the film would play well internationally, as most of your films seem to do.
Well, my films are American films, but I don’t think they’re American-centric. This is despite everyone at the beginning of my career always accusing me of being overly patriotic towards America. I’d always say: ‘Am I?’ Look at Independence Day. You have an African-American, a Jew and loads of other ethnically and culturally diverse people working together to save the world. And yet no one saw that in the film.
Perhaps it didn’t help that perception of you when you made a film about the American Revolution called The Patriot.
[Laughs] A movie which didn’t go over at all well here in England!
Nor did Anonymous.
[Laughs] Shakespeare and the American Revolution. Two very touchy subjects in this country!
And yet, interestingly, you’re just about to embark on another project – this time for television – that deals with yet another iconic figure from Britain’s past: Lawrence of Arabia.
Considering the historical and cinematic legacy of that character, why take this on?
Well, firstly the David Lean film is one of my favourite films, but I’m also acutely aware of what Lean was up against. That was a movie made in the 60s, which had to concentrate on certain things and had to deal with the censorship of the time. Also, movies then moved much slower, which obviously is one of the reasons why it’s so great, but we just felt that to do this story justice now it had to be a mini-series.
In six or eight hours you can cover so much more and there’s so much about this character than Lean was ever able to show. What about his early life in England? Or his early career when he was working on archaeological digs? All this is hugely interesting and all of it comes before he ultimately becomes this untrained military leader and – in many respects – terrorist.
Is that the angle you have for the show?
Not really. I think the main reason I want to make this is to remind people that Lawrence went into the region fully aware that the Western Axis of France and Great Britain had already divided up the Arab world. Alongside that we also really want to show what Lawrence did after the events of Lean’s film, including the Paris Peace Conference. But even after that period he remains hugely interesting. Did you know that in the 1920s Lawrence wanted to go back into the military and that he managed to re-enlist under a false name?
No, I didn’t know that.
That’s what we want to show in the mini-series. There’s a great story about Lawrence that tells you exactly what kind of man he was. After the Paris Peace Conference he came back to England and wrote a book about the Arab Revolt. After he’d finished the manuscript, Lawrence took it on a train with him to read and during that journey he lost the manuscript. Never seen again. What did he do? He rewrote all 800 pages of the book from memory.
Are you planning to only executive produce the project or are you looking to direct some of it as well?
I want to be involved as much as I can, but it’s ultimately about timing. That said, I’ll definitely be on the set in some capacity when the show’s in production.
The rest of the behind-the-camera talent is very impressive. Alongside you there’s also the writing team of Clive Bradley and, of course, Rod Lurie.
I love Rod. The Contender is one of my favourite movies. I think Rod should go back to those types of movies. I keep telling him this. (laughs)
Is the show set up with a particular network?
No, we’re developing this with Freemantle and then when it’s ready we’ll get different cable networks around the world to come on board. This show really has to be for cable as we want to push things pretty far in terms of content.
Well, it certainly sounds like a major project, but then your slate in the next few years seems packed with projects of a similar scale. And then there’s the not inconsiderable matter of a certain sequel that’s just been announced looming on the horizon…
[Laughs] Yes, there is.
When does that film [Independence Day 2] start shooting?
Nothing is fixed yet, but we hope to start shooting in February next year for release in summer 2015.
Roland Emmerich, thank you very much.
White House Down is out in UK cinemas on the 13th September.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.