Roland Emmerich opens up about making new World War II epic Midway and his plan to bring the Moon down to Earth...
Right from his 1984 debut, which managed to stretch a budget of $600,000 to tell the story of two warring factions plotting to use a space station as a weapon against each other, director Roland Emmerich has shown very little interest in doing anything on a scale that wasn’t absolutely epic.
He brought Godzilla to New York, he brought aliens to earth in Independence Day and he’s tried to bring about the end of the world on at least three occasions.
Now though, he’s doing a different kind of epic. Midway is a re-telling of the battle of Midway, a skirmish that saw the US win a decisive victory against the Japanese in the battle for the Pacific.
The film has an all-star cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Patrick Wilson, Ed Skrein, Luke Kleintank, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Darren Criss and Dennis Quaid.
It follows a series of US Navy sailors and aviators and their loved ones as they make their way through the battle.
The movie is Emmerich's follow-up to Independence Day: Resurgence and features a script from newcomer Wes Tooke. We spoke to Emmerich about why this is a movie 20 years in the making and his plans to bring the moon down to earth for his next trick...
When did this project first come into your orbit? Has it been around for a while?
“I’d seen a documentary about it, that was maybe 20 years ago? Then I read a couple of books about it. I had signed a huge deal with Sony and I was shooting Godzilla and I really, really wanted it to be my next thing. I talked to the head of the studio about it and he was interested, but then I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it for under $100 million and the Japanese heads at the studio said you cannot do this with our money. So that was that.”
When did it come back to life?
“At that time, I decided to The Patriot instead, which was another war movie, another period piece. But it never left my mind. Five years ago, I had a young writer in my office for another project. With every young writer I meet, I always ask them ‘What is the script you believe you are meant to write?’. And, without even thinking, he said Midway. So we decided to work on it together and we developed it for three or four years.”
That writer, Wes Tooke, it’s his first movie. Were you nervous about doing a project of this size with a first-time writer?
“Not at all. He’s a very accomplished TV writer, it’s not his first day at the rodeo. It was a huge deal for him though. When you make a movie like this, a real responsibility comes with that. He knew that. He’s from a Navy family and he wanted to honour that. My idea was always that we couldn’t just do the battle. We had to build up to it over the six months that led there. Without Pearl Harbour, it’s really hard to show how it all came to be.”
How was development? With a project like this, on this scale, there’s no limit to how much you could spend…
“You are limited by the time you have. The script was very long at the beginning and it took some time to hone it down to what’s really important. In a strange way, the story tells itself. Pearl Harbour is your big opening and then you have this big build-up to the battle."
"It’s a real comeback story. The Americans get attacked. The only time that’s ever happened to them. A lot of trauma and death comes, but then America enters the war. They say to Nimitz (Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II), we’re not giving you much, but see what you can do…”
You’ve cast Woody Harrelson as Nimitz, why was he the right guy?
“I don’t write with actors in mind, but we did cast very strategically. I’d used Woody for a small part in 2012, it was just a week, but he was so much fun. I wanted him for the part and he liked it. He signed on and that helped us a lot. When you have Woody Harrelson, you can get a lot done. Every actor likes him and they all want to be in movies with him. Which was lucky, because we didn’t have a lot of money for the cast. The visual effects took a lot of the budget and we were a little strapped for money.”
How was the rest of the casting? You’ve got a lot of British actors playing Americans…
“At first, I didn’t want any British actors. Then I started thinking about who would work and straight away I thought that Luke Evans would a great McClusky (Clarence Wade McClusky, key Midway aviator) and I Skyped with him and he agreed, so the rule went out the window after that. I also couldn’t find my Dick Best (Richard 'Dick' Best, a dive bomber pilot and squadron commander during Midway) for the longest time. That a very nerve-wracking process. Then somebody mentioned Ed Skrein and I hadn’t even heard of him…”
“I realised I had seen him in many things, but he was everywhere and so different in everything. I Skyped with him and he was the coolest guy. He had to be cocky and tormented and he was very good at doing both.”
How was the shoot? You worked in Hawaii and Quebec...
“It was a 65 day shoot, it’s the shortest time span you could do for a movie of this size. I had no second unit so there were no long days. It was very tough, but it was good. I had to keep a good pace going and I couldn’t indulge too much. I like intense shoots. We were shooting three or four scenes a day, going at a real click.”
You’ve made a career of making big spectacles and working with lots of visual effects, is it challenging to show your actors what the final vision will look like, when you’re working with so much green and blue screen...
“I have drawings, paintings and books that always help things along. But in this case, we had a great script and I made sure every actor was well researched and had really read up on their characters. They knew they had a responsibility. They all understood the importance of what we were doing.”
With 20 years of technological advances, you must have been able to make a completely different movie now to the one you imagined back then…
“It came with a totally different set of problems. It’s still not perfect, but it is close to perfect. I’m happy that I made it now, it wouldn’t have been as convincing then. When they made Pearl Harbour, they built a lot of stuff and only had 150 visual effects shots. I had 1500 effect shots and difficult ones to do. Diving into water is a really difficult shot to pull off.”
Moonfall is your next project, what can you tell us about that?
“It’s a very simple concept. The moon is falling towards Earth and the moon is not what we think it is. We’re in the design phase right now and we hope to shoot in April. It’s a bigger film than Midway. I like these big ideas, they are always the ones I want. When I did my graduation film in school it became a one-hour 10-minute film about a space station. You only learn by doing and I’m always drawn to big challenges.”
Is getting these things off the ground more difficult now?
“Every original movie is difficult to do. Fewer and fewer people are going to movies and there’s a huge surge in superheroes and Star Wars. It’s 250 or 300 million to make and then the same again to market. There is not a lot left for everyone else. And being in someone else’s franchise is not my thing. I arrived in Hollywood as a blockbuster filmmaker and that’s how I see myself. I just invent my own stories. Now, I’m totally independent. Midway and now Moonfall I got the financing myself.”
How was that?
“Getting it for Midway was hard. I’ve only worked with studios, even for my early movies, I had American partners. But I did it and now we know how to do it.”
You’re still attached to do Maya Lord, this 16th century Mexican/Spanish epic, how’s that coming along?
“I want to shoot it in Mexico and that’s complicated. Mexico has a new government and no tax rebate for filmmakers. I cannot shoot there until that changes, no studio would do it. I have a place to build the set and I have permission to build a big set, a permanent Maya city that can stay. If the government wants to do a tax rebate program, then we will do it. The script is ready and I have begun casting, but I have to wait for the situation to change.”
Finally, you’re perennially linked with a return to Stargate, how’s that?
“It’s always ongoing. I know if I do it as a TV show, people will think it was the other TV show and I would never do that. Then, if we do it as a film, MGM owns the theatrical rights and somebody else owns the home entertainment rights and it’s so difficult to bring companies together. It is a shame because I have such a great idea for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a miniseries or a film, it will work for both.”
Midway is released into UK cinemas on Friday (November 8th) and will be released on DVD in 2020.