“The Day I Stop Making Movies I’ll Die”

Hollywood director Roland Emmerich has made spectacular disaster movies like "Independence Day", "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow". In his latest film "2012" he takes on another doomsday scenario. The German-born filmmaker talks about motivation, fear, money and power.

Interview: Peter Hossli

emmerichMister Emmerich, in three of your eleven feature films you’ve viciously destroyed Manhattan. What do you have against New York?
Roland Emmerich: Nothing, but New York is such a symbol of America and the Western world that when you destroy something, you have to destroy New York. In my new film, “2012”, I purposely leave New York out. I can’t destroy it ever again.

During the September 11 terrorist attack, many people said, “This looks just like your movies.” Visually, it reminded them of your films “Independence Day” and “Godzilla”. How did you react to this day?
Emmerich: I had the same reaction. It was so unreal. It was the perfect day with a perfect blue sky. You had never seen such a vicious attack on U.S. soil. On top of that there were so many people filming it from all different angles. It would have been possible to cut their material together like a real film.

In a very violent way, life was imitating your art?
Emmerich: These terrorists were trying to destroy a symbol. In my movies, I work a lot with the same symbolic buildings. That made it so eerie.

How has this day changed filmmaking?
Emmerich: It changed it for one or two years. I was writing “The Day After Tomorrow” when it happened. And I immediately stopped. I said, “Nobody can show destruction on the big screen anymore.” After a year I realized that this was not really true, and I went back to writing. But you see a difference in my finished film. When a huge wave flows into New York, no building gets destroyed.

In your new film “2012” the world is threatened once again to collapse. It is inspired by ancient Mayan predictions that a doomsday event in 2012 erases the world. What drives you to those end-of-theworld scenarios?
Emmerich: Personally, I like disaster movies. A normal person, a family man, can become a hero in these films. There’s the quarrel over who’ll be the first one off the boat. But at the same time, there are also acts of bravery and of heroism. I can revisit this scenario again and again.

Family, country, freedom and religion are also repeating themes in your films. All of them are universal topics. How important are they to you personally?
Emmerich: Family is really important. I love my family. I had a very good relationship with my father. That’s why you see a lot of very positive father/son stories in my movies. My father had a positive influence on my life. I’m also fascinated with the question what drives people to churches. Why do people pray? Why do they need that? I don’t need it. Everything I’m interested in naturally flows into my movies. I normally sit down with an empty piece of paper and fill it with thoughts I have in private.

Your movies are tremendously successful, even though they frighten audiences enormously. What attracts us to fear?
Emmerich: Personally, I’m afraid of everything. And I let it slip into my movies. I’m the biggest wimp. It’s easy for me to make those big movies, but getting on a plane and not being afraid, that’s hard. I’m phobic about everything.

You overcome your own fear by creating even bigger jolts on screen?
Emmerich: Yes. But I’m also intellectually stimulated by the question “what would I do in a situation like that?”

When “Independence Day” came out in 1996, it was described as a movie dealing with the chaos that resulted from the end of Communism. Now we’re experiencing a global economic crisis – and you come out with a movie in which the world is again on the brink of ending. Why is your timing often just right?
Emmerich: I’m conscious. For two or three years, I’ve been very pessimistic about the future of mankind. I’m constantly saying, “Well, the rest of the world will go down.” It inspired me to write “2012”. Then I wanted to do one more disaster movie, like a culmination of all fears. Of course, I was surprised by the current crisis.

You also have a black actor in the role of the American president.
Emmerich: My co-screenwriter Harold Kloser is Austrian. I’m German. We have both lived in America for about 20 years. We were hoping that Barack Obama would win the presidency. That’s why we put a black president in “2012”. We told ourselves, “If he doesn’t win, it’s still cool because this country should have a black president.”

Why is Hollywood exceptionally well predicting the zeitgeist?
Emmerich: Most of the time you wish for things, or you wish certain things would happen and then they happen. Also, movies are still done by artists. I’m an independent filmmaker. I write the scripts myself. Most of the time I produce the movies myself. I’m always doing auctions for my films at all the studios. Because of that, I have all the rights. I have final cut. The script is pre-approved, and the title is pre-approved. The only thing the studio can do is having a 50/50 say over the actors.

Your films are well timed, they scare the audience – and they are big. Why?
Emmerich: For me, these movies are not that big. My first student film was 110 minutes long, and it was shot in cinemascope. It had four-channel Dolby stereo sound. It was about weather control at a space station that Americans secretly had – and that’s just how I got started. I couldn’t go back to make small movies.

Your movies have been tremendously successful. What does success give you?
Emmerich: Success is freedom. I don’t have to worry about money for my next project. I’ve been lucky, as I’ve had success at a very early stage in my career. I never really felt that I had to work for money. So for me, from the very beginning, starting in film school, I was doing my own movies, I produced them, I wrote them, and I made money with them. When I came to Hollywood, I already had a certain financial security. I could say no to things. My father always said to me, “It’s more important what you say no to than what you say yes to.” It’s a very good advice. Today, I have the freedom to do whatever I want to. When I have an idea for a movie, the chance that it gets made stands at 99 percent.

You have almost unlimited financial resources. Why do you keep making films?
Emmerich: The day I stop making movies I’ll die. I hope that I will fall down on a set, collapse into the sand, and somebody else has to take over and finish the film. I admire people like John Huston, who made movies with an oxygen tube going up his nose.

What do you enjoy about the filmmaking process?
Emmerich: Every movie is a huge new adventure. And every movie, when you get in the phase of writing the script – whenever I have a new idea for a new movie, I cannot sleep for two or three days. It’s like – whhhoooo. It has nothing to do with money.

Still, money keeps the film industry going. What does money mean to you?
Emmerich: I can help other people, and I can buy whatever I want. Money is freedom. I go with a couple of friends to Thailand. I charter a boat. And I’m on the boat for one hour, and I decide to buy it. That’s freedom. When you can do something on the spur of the moment and don’t even have to sit down and say, “I don’t have the money to do that.” That’s kind of cool.

Next to money, power is Hollywood’s elixir. How do you define it?
Emmerich: Power is what you’ve done. So far, I haven’t had a real flop. I had some movies that made less, but they always made money. I have this amazing track record. That’s power. I can push certain things through which the studios don’t want. When I don’t get a certain actor, I just pick up the phone and call the studio head and say, “Please approve this actor now. I really want him.” And most of the time, they say, “You got it.” I can get any meeting, anywhere I want. But I’m not a power-person.

You said you’re always frightened. Are you afraid of ever losing your power after a flop?
Emmerich: I have such a consistent track record that one or two flops would not change much for me. But with every movie I have this feeling of, “Oh my God, this movie is so bad that the people will throw tomatoes at me or at the screen.” I’m living with this incredible fear of failure. That’s why I’m saying I’m afraid of everything. Even of my own movies. I’ve never had as good a reaction for any movie I’ve ever made as for “2012”. But I still don’t believe people will like it.

Well, you’re last film, “10,000 BC”, was not well received by reviewers.
Emmerich: My movies, in general, are not well received. I got so many bad reviews in my life, I’ve stopped to care. I have a theory where this comes from. I didn’t start out with some small little interesting character study that was loved by reviewers. Instead, I started with successful, good-looking movies. Reviewers don’t like that.

What drives you?
Emmerich: I’m always dismayed about what I did so that I want to do it better. That is the real force behind my creativity. Also, once in a while I make a better movie and then I realize how good that feels. So I want to have that feeling again.

You’re a German in exile. Will you ever go back to Germany?
Emmerich: I’ve purchased an apartment in Berlin. But I don’t think I’ll live there. The weather is so much better here in Hollywood. I want to spend some more time in Europe. Eight or nine years ago, I bought a house in London.

In “Independence Day” the American president saves the day. After this movie you were called a true American patriot. In “The Day After Tomorrow” the president is blamed for ignoring the signs of global warming. Why did you lose faith in the United States?
Emmerich: When I arrived in America, Bill Clinton came to power. He was a very smart guy, and a very good president. Then George W. Bush came to power, and he pretty much ran this country into the ground. I openly criticized him. Today, we’re still suffering from his two terms in the White House.

Have you regained your faith in America?
Emmerich: Yes, Obama did that for me. He has a tough job, though. But he is the right man at the right time doing a great job. Had John McCain won, I would have left the U.S.

You’re politically very outspoken. Back in 2004, you said you’d leave should Bush be re-elected. Why did you stay?
Emmerich: In a way, I left. I lived mainly in London when I did “10,000 BC”. I prepared the movie in England, and I shot it in Africa and New Zealand. The entire post-production was done in England. So I was out of the U.S. for two and a half years. I didn’t burn all my bridges, but I’ve just had it. I couldn’t believe the collective stupidity that was behind re-electing Bush.

Will you ever become an American citizen?
Emmerich: I’m now applying for a passport. I’m just tired of these suspicious faces when I go through immigration. And most of the time they ask me what I do, and I say I make movies, and they say, “What movies?” And I go, “Maybe you know Independence Day,” and then they all get friendly. But I just don’t want to do that anymore. Because I think when you have a passport, they aren’t allowed to ask what you do. Also, I will have dual citizenship.

Roland Emmerich, 53, is one of the most successful Hollywood directors of the last twenty years. His films are loaded with special effects. Usually they tell the story of an underdog that succeeds against all odds. The German-born filmmaker tackled an alien invasion in “Independence Day” (1996), a giant reptile that destroys New York in “Godzilla” (1998), and the British crown that wants to keep the American colonies in its empire in “The Patriot” (2000). The tall and slender Emmerich is an outspoken advocate for environmental causes. In his 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, global warming brings devastation to the northern hemisphere. His latest film “2012” opens in November. It is inspired by ancient Mayan predictions that a doomsday event in 2012 erases planet earth. Emmerich lives in the Hollywood Hills, but he also owns homes in New York, Berlin and London.