Q & A with Writer-Director Roland Emmerich

Director Roland Emmerich on the set of  Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009. © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Director Roland Emmerich on the set of Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009.
© 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Roland Emmerich about the making of his latest blockbuster epic adventure “2012”, from Columbia Pictures and Centropolis. Directed by Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), “2012” is produced by Harald Kloser, Mark Gordon and Larry Franco. Its screenplay is by Harald Kloser & Roland Emmerich. It was executive produced by Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and Michael Wimer.

Starring are John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and Thandie Newton, with Danny Glover and Woody Harrelson.

The Story (warning - possible spoilers): Centuries ago, the Maya left us their calendar, with a clear end date and all that it implies. Since then, astrologists have discovered it, numerologists have found patterns that predict it, geologists say the earth is overdue for it, and even government scientists cannot deny the cataclysm of epic proportions that awaits the earth in 2012. A prophecy that began with the Maya has now been well-chronicled, discussed, taken apart and examined. By 2012, we’ll know — we were warned.

John Cusack stars as Jackson Curtis, a writer whose devotion to his failed-but-possibly-brilliant novel broke up his marriage and left his family in flux. But Jackson remains a loyal dad and will prove he’ll do anything to save his family. Amanda Peet plays Jackson’s ex-wife, Kate, who maintains friendly contact with him but has long tired of competing with his work for his attention. As the earth’s plates start to shift — destroying L.A. in the process — Jackson and his family begin a desperate journey by land and air to survive to see the new world.

Meanwhile, at the highest reaches of the world’s governments, there is a plan. They will not be able to save the entire human race, but they will be able to save some, and those few will have the chance to begin society anew. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), is quick to understand the crisis the world is about to face — and equally quick to prevent mass hysteria by keeping the information secret. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the president’s chief science advisor, Adrian Helmsley, who’s managed to decode the earth’s messages and is determined to do what he can to help as many people as possible.

Carl Anheuser, the president’s chief of staff (Oliver Platt), might be pompous and quick-tempered, but he is equally determined to see society — at least, those in society who can afford it — survive. Thandie Newton as the president’s daughter Laura is shocked to find out what her father’s government has hidden from the world. In fact, it seems the only man outside the government with any clue as to what is about to happen is radio host — and, maybe, prophet — Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who broadcasts his predictions to anyone who will listen.

Roland Emmerich most recently directed, wrote and produced the prehistoric epic “10,000 B.C.” Among his previous films are the boxoffice hits “Independence Day” starring Will Smith, “The Day After Tomorrow” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, “The Patriot” starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, “Godzilla”, “Stargate”, and “Universal Soldier”, his first American film.

Emmerich began his career in his native Germany where he studied at the Munich Film School. His student thesis, the feature length film “The Noah’s Ark Principle” competed in the 1984 Berlin Film Festival and was subsequently released in more than 20 countries. Buoyed by his early success, Emmerich formed Centropolis Film Productions where he produced, wrote and directed “Making Contact” (aka “Joey”), “Ghost Chase”, and “Moon 44”.

In 2007 Emmerich produced the drama “Trade” about human trafficking in Mexico and the U.S.

I was happy to have an opportunity to talk recently to Emmerich about the making of “2012”.

Q: How did the idea for “2012” come about and how did you become involved in wanting to make the film?
A: Harald and I were finishing “10,000 B.C.” in London and were sitting around asking what we could do next. We had in “10,000 B.C.” these people who were the pyramid builders, survivors of a flood and Harald said, “Maybe that’s going to be our movie — making a modern retelling of a Biblical flood.” That was kind of the first idea. We searched around for the right theory which could make this possible. We found this obscure ’50s earthquake displacement theory and that was the starting point.
Q: How long ago was that?
A: That was in the second half of 2007. In 2008 we wrote the script. We wanted to be able to release the movie for summer so we had to hurry up, but then I asked Sony very early on to give us more time for the visual effects and they were very gracious and said, “Why not? Why don’t we put you guys in the fall?”
A scene from Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009. © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A scene from Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009.
© 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: And your movie is very heavy with visual effects.
A: I always knew that we would be heavy in visual effects. We tried to counter this with more character development and stories. It was really our goal. Yes, we have more effects than I’ve ever had, but I think we also have more character development than I ever had in a movie. So it’s kind of a balance that we have.
Q: You’ve done so much over the years in terms of special effects. What were the challenges for you in making “2012”?
A: I think the challenges were just the number of visual effects. And that all the visual effects were natural phenomena. We had a lot of development to do like simulations of how buildings fall apart or how the earth crumbles and how ash clouds behave. There was a lot of development going in. But on the other hand it was for me a luxury — the first time we did everything in the computer. So there was no real visual effects model for it. It was quite a relief for me because I didn’t have to commit to anything in that phase. I could always fine tune it until the very end.
Q: You’ve combined special effects, which are real, with computerized visual effects. How hard is it to make that work seamlessly?
A: For the earthquake sequences, for example, we built what we call the shaky floor, which was a stage with a platform in it which behaves exactly in shaking ways. It’s like an earthquake. The problem there is how you track that (with cameras). They came up with a smart system where they put markers on the blue screen and they had cameras recording exactly the movement and then they translated from them the movement the platform did. They were very smart. I had two terrific visual effects supervisors — Volker Engel and Marc Weigert. I’ve worked with them since “Independence Day” and they know what they’re doing.
Q: But what were the big challenges that you, yourself, had to meet here?
A: I had never done underwater stuff and I was a little bit nervous about it because I’d heard all these nightmares about it. But then we decided to put (filming) these scenes at the very end of the movie and reduce the crew down to the absolute minimum. And I got very lucky that John Cusack is a diver in his private life and it actually was much easier (to shoot) than I thought it would be.
Q: Did you storyboard “2012”?
A: I always like to start with storyboards and then that’s good to transfer into a pre-visualization. I know out of experience that pre-visualization is all that I will have (to work with) for a very long time. So we did the pre-visualization relatively elaborate and people who saw it could not believe it was pre-viz, but it was. Because you have to test the movie and everything, you can just see something (in pre-viz) and realize which shots have to be improved or not improved. You can at a very early stage lose certain shots because you don’t need them and stuff like that.
Q: Would you explain what pre-viz is for those who may not know?
A: It looks a little like an animated movie. The people are like animated. You can show it to the actors so they know what’s happening (in a scene they’re shooting) and what they will see.
Q: Do you rehearse with your actors?
A: No, not much. When I’m shooting a movie, it’s now so much easier than it was before. You can really concentrate on the actors when you make a movie because you don’t have to do a lot of physical effects. So in a way it became much easier to direct this movie because I only had to concentrate on the actors so they have a lot of attention and they like that.
A scene from Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009. © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A scene from Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009.
© 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: By not rehearsing do you feel that you get a more spontaneous performance?
A: I like to rehearse once in a while, but I think it takes the spontaneity out of it. I tried it twice (on earlier films) and I was never really happy with it so I stopped it. They’re all really good actors so it’s quite exciting when they come in in the morning and nobody, including me, knows exactly how they will act it. It’s just a process which I like very much and it animates everybody. But if everything’s rehearsed it becomes very mechanical.
Q: Did you use multiple cameras while you were shooting?
A: We always do that. Most of the time for dialogue scenes it’s two cameras. And if it’s a little more complicated and there’s some action involved I sometimes use three or four cameras. But never more.
Q: I’ve heard of directors who use as many as seven cameras for big action scenes.
A: I don’t know why. (Laughing) They don’t know what they want.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot exactly 100 days.
Q: It must have been a massive job to edit this?
A: Well, I think I have one of the best editors in the business — David Brenner. And he has a co-editor (Peter S. Elliot) I’ve also worked with for a long time. So the editing was actually the fun part of this whole thing. I’m always amazed when you come in the editing room and you see these scenes and you kind of say to yourself, “I have shot that? It looks like a movie.”
Q: I guess when you see things with the special effects put in for the first time that must be very exciting.
A: Oh, yes, it’s a very exciting process. And it’s interesting because once in a while it goes in these waves where visual effects houses hold shots back until they can send you a whole (group) of shots like 10, 20 or 30. They only do it because you’ve kind of put a gun to their head and said, “We have a test. You have to give it to us.” And then all these shots get cut in and it’s always the most amazing moment when you see for the first time how it really will look. It can be sometimes good and it can be sometimes scary.
Q: Looking back at production, was there any particular scene that was a major issue for you to cope with?
A: No. This was the most amazing thing about this movie. It was my biggest movie, but it went really smoothly, and “10,000 B.C.” was exactly the other way around — everything went wrong that could go wrong. But that’s how movies go. One movie works great and others are only problems.