Roland Emmerich Interview: Talking ‘White House Down,’ What’s Coming for ‘Independence Day 2′ and His Thoughts on ‘Godzilla’
Roland Emmerich, the director of such disaster-heavy films as 'Independence Day,' '2012,' 'The Day After Tomorrow' and the last 'Godzilla' movie, set his sights on the White House in 'White House Down.' Starring Channing Tatum as Secret Service hopeful John Cale and Jamie Foxx as US President James Sawyer, this "Die Hard in the White House" film starts like any other day until a team of domestic terrorists infiltrate and bring down the White House.
Before the film hits theaters this Friday, Jun. 28, we had the opportunity to speak with Emmerich about his directorial return to the action genre -- his last one being 2009's '2012.' 'White House Down,' however, is only the beginning, as Emmerich is currently developing a sequel to his classic 'Independence Day.'
Read on as the director reveals some behind-the-scenes facts you might not have known about 'White House Down' -- including what the original script looked like -- the 'Independence Day 2' cast, and even his thoughts on the upcoming 'Godzilla' reboot. [Be careful of minor SPOILERS.]
You’ve said before in interviews and even in some of the behind-the-scenes footage of ‘White House Down’ that this is your first big action film in a while. What was it about ‘White House Down’ that piqued your interest and, so to speak, brought you out of retirement?
[Laughs] I’m always saying it’s a classic action movie. It takes place over a short period of time. For me, it was interesting that it’s all in the same place, more or less. I just was intrigued by the fact that the lead character does everything, is motivated only by – he wants to reconnect with his little daughter. It’s a very unique thing because it reminds you naturally of something like ‘Die Hard’; this man also wants to reconnect with his family. In that case, it goes through the whole film and it becomes, pretty much, a part of the film. And then what I really liked about this was just the fact that because he was in Afghanistan, she watched TV, she thought she saw him, and then she got interested in politics and then she found a new hero in this president. And then this man [Tatum] has to, at one point, protect the President, but he also knows his daughter is a hostage. So he has this huge dilemma throughout the film, which is always sort of something that I’m looking for. I mean, action is action, but so is the core of emotion, which I’m interested in.
I thought it was interesting too because, before you were announced to direct this project, you were working on ‘Singularity.’ And a lot of people thought that was going to be your next project.
Me too. [Laughs] It’s still happening. I was just stuck in the script and then this other script [for ‘White House Down’] ended up on my table, and I called ['Singularity' co-writer] Harald [Kloser] and was like, “You should immediately read this. This is good. Maybe we should do that and then keep going with ‘Singularity.’" So we did.
So you’re saying you were interested in 'WHD' because you were having some writer’s block with ‘Singularity’ and this project was more readily available?
Yes, exactly. Sometimes it’s good to have a breath of fresh air because Harald and I just kept writing and writing and writing and it just didn’t go anywhere. I think it got way too complicated. Our script got way too complicated and I realized that. And then, all of a sudden, another script comes on your table. I read ‘White House Down’ and was like, “No. I’m not gonna do that.” And then, out of respect, I started reading and then I couldn’t put it down. That’s always a good sign.
Were you at all worried about either making this film or the reception of this film because of the competing project, ‘Olympus Has Fallen,’ which came out in March?
When I took the job, I didn’t know ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ existed. To my shock. I had already cast Channing, and someone said, “You know this other movie has now finally a director,” and I said, “What other movie?” [Laughs] Everyone knew this besides me. Anyway, I was always the guy who said, “How can Hollywood always do two of the same movie?”
Well, that seems to be the formula nowadays.
But then, on the other, they’re doing three or four ‘Iron Man’ movies; they’re doing six or seven ‘Fast and Furious.’ It’s centrally the same film.
Getting back to Channing Tatum, since you brought him up, I recently had the opportunity to see [‘White House Down’] last week. I thought his chemistry, banter with Jamie Foxx was great. I was wondering if there was a point for you where everything clicked and you knew Tatum and Foxx were going to be your two leads.
Yeah, there was this moment – maybe a week into shooting with these two guys – where I was coming to the set and I saw them both chatting with each other when they were supposed to go to their trailers. They excitably told me that they had friends in common. They became, during this movie, friends, which is very rare in this business. And you felt it, and they were very supportive of each other. I often credit these two guys … the overall experience of this film was a really special one because everyone felt that, if these two guys were this supportive of each other, we [have to] be like that. You know what I mean?
There was this whole feel -- every actor always stayed on the set. Nobody ever went to their trailer, which is a very rare thing. They were all hanging out by the monitors. And then Channing developed this very special friendship with Joey King. They had this elaborate handshake every morning, they were constantly rehearsing the handshake. Because Channing himself is a bit of a kid.
And he has a kid now, too.
Yeah. He’s like our dad, too.
Watch Channing Tatum and Joey King's Secret Handshake
Both Channing and Jamie said that they put a lot of trust in you, especially in scenes and action sequences that they were maybe a little more hesitant about. And they said you had a very clear vision and they had to trust in your vision. What was your original vision for this film, and what, if anything, ended up changing through the production process?
Whenever I read a script, and then read it again and again to try to improve it, slowly some sort of movie in my head forms, which I then, on the set, just follow. I know pretty much in the morning what I will shoot – what’s shot first, what’s shot next. I have whole scenes in my head and then I just shoot them. I think actors, pretty fast, understand I’m not a director where you come in the morning and you rehearse and then maybe you’ll think how to shoot this. I immediately start right away. … it’s just all clear in my head. I don’t know how other people shoot their movies, but that’s the only way I can shoot a movie. I’m trying to follow my inner film how I imagine it. And some times out of time reasons you have to make some comprises, but most of the time it’s exactly how I wanted it.
So in that movie, I said I have to glorify the White House. I have to make the White House a character in this film, which is why we shot with a lot of really wide lenses, and in action scenes you have to do that too, otherwise they look like another element. That’s very demanding and tough when you shoot very wide, for the cameraman and for the stunt people, for the actors, everybody because you can’t hide much.
How important were the political themes in this film for you?
That goes back to one of the very first meetings I had with the writer and the studio and the producers. I said, “This movie has to be about something this president wants to do.” It’s not in the original script. I love the characters, I love everything, but this movie is about some people who want to have money. It’s unrealistic to me. You have to find a bigger reason for that. And then we came up with the fact that this man, the President, wants peace because he’s feeling he’s f***** up and has cost some soldiers [their] lives in a secret mission. And out of that the whole plot evolves. I said we just have to make a coop d'état movie out of this, and there has to be a ‘Seven Days in May’ element to this, otherwise I’m probably not gonna make this movie. [laughs] I’m always trying to threaten people.
But once I said that they were all on board. I also said, “Look, what’s missing for me was also the fact that, when the White House goes down, there is a political vacuum created," which, naturally, is of international interest – everybody is nervous. What will happen? Because everybody knows, or these people know, if America is destabilized, what will happen. And nobody knows who’s running America, and so that’s the third act problem that escalates into a worldwide crisis.
So now, for after ‘White House Down,’ have you officially signed on for ‘Independence Day 2’?
Well, you know, it’s like this – they asked me if they could set the date. We don’t have an approved script yet, and I’m always very careful. I was already greenlit for ‘Singularity’ and I pulled the plug because I just didn’t feel good about the script anymore. I’m pretty sure this will all come together and that this will be my next movie, yeah. It’s not 100% because nothing ever is 100%. It only is on the first shooting day.
You said recently that Will Smith will not be returning, mainly because of financial issues, but that some of the original cast, like Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman are. Have any other stars from the first one signed on or expressed interest?
We don’t have a script yet, but I already talked to some well-known actors about availability. But I don’t want to reveal anything because it’s just — you don’t do that. It’ll be a mix … You bring old, original characters back, but also you bring younger, newer characters. And then you invent a couple of side characters, which are also kind of well-known actors. It will be a very complex, big cast. I think, also, that’s what the people expect from ‘Independence Day ‘ because the first one had so many characters and there were no clear leads in the movie. There were actually three leads. There was Bill Pullman, the Jeff Goldblum character — and the most screen time actually had Jeff Goldblum in the movie.
Are those two, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman’s characters, going to be two of the main leads?
Yeah. They will be leads. … I don’t think it’s good to reveal anything because in the middle of the process of writing the script – actually, I just hired Jamie Vanderbilt from ‘White House Down’ to do a rewrite of ['Independence Day' co-writer] Dean [Devlin]'s and my script. There will be many more rewrites until we shoot the film, so a lot of things will maybe still change.
That’s fair. Well, the studio already has a tentative release date for this film. Do you have a tentative production start time?
Yeah, I have in mind next year, the beginning of next year.
Because another thing I wanted to bring up was that we recently found out your production company took over a new title, ‘Emergence.’ Do you have an idea of your future slate, of which projects you want to work on next?
I definitely want to do ‘Singularity.’ Actually, while Jamie is working on the new ‘ID4’ script, Harold and I are doing a new rewrite of ‘Singularity’ as we speak, on our travel, maybe our flight together because I have to do press all day and Harold is writing in his room. [Laughs]
So that’s your next priority?
Yeah, hopefully. I mean you never know, but that will be the next priority after ‘Independence Day.’
Let me ask you, considering you’ve worked on the last ‘Godzilla’ film, I wanted to see if you had any thoughts on the upcoming reboot.
I think they chose a really interesting director, [Gareth Edwards]. I think it’s also a very gutsy move, but it’s a good move. I saw his film, which he did for no money, and it was a really good movie.
… The only thing that I’m really concerned about is that it becomes only that, only rebooting, only tie-ins. Nobody comes up with something new. Christopher Nolan is doing ‘Interstellar,’ which I’m really curious about. His last original movie was stunning. I would like to see more original movies, that’s why I’m also interested in ‘Singularity.’ It’s a very new and interesting concept.