2012 Director Roland Emmerich: The Movieline Interview

After once laying waste to the White House and and twice devastating New York, disaster-genre kingpin Roland Emmerich leaves no metropolis unwrecked in his new blockbuster 2012. The whole globe, in fact, gets the Emmerich treatment, from a 10.5 Los Angeles quake from which Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) flees with his family to a mile-high tsunami that drowns the lower Himalayas. It's the epic culmination of Emmerich's weird dualistic vision -- utopia through dystopia, loving families bound by peril and death, cataclysm as a social movement. And it's actually kind of a blast. The filmmaker spoke to Movieline recently about why we love disasters, why his imagination can't be stopped, and why Adam Lambert isn't as big a spoiler as you might have thought.

I have to admit I had a lot of fun watching 2012, even while billions of people died onscreen. Is something wrong with me?

Well, it's like this: When a person in a movie dies, you only feel it when you know them. So when you know characters who are introduced, and they die, you feel something. But all the unknown people, you don't feel it. It just goes by you. When you see a movie like I Am Legend, everybody dies. In the end, it's only Will Smith. So I think people are just used to the effect in these kinds of movies where it's the end of the world and everybody dies. They accept it and see it as a genre convention.

What is it about this genre and these conventions that appeals enough to you to revisit or expand on them?

It's really interesting. You do something in your life, and you're like, "Oh, that works really well." For me, that was Independence Day. Independence Day blew up a lot of things for me. It was the aliens, and it felt like the end of the world. But it wasn't; it was a fight between good and evil. So I used this genre to tell something that was very dear to my heart [in The Day After Tomorrow], which was a global climate shift. I used the memory of Independence Day; I knew that every studio wants the next Independence Day, and so I wrote the script to feel more like an Independence Day kind of movie. But that wasn't even really about the end of the world. It was just that an ice age is coming, and the humans have to deal with it.

So when we talked about a global flood movie, I said, "No, no, no, this is kind of an end-of-the-world scenario again." And Harold [Kloser, Emmerich's writing partner] kind of kept talking to me, and I realized pretty soon that it's actually the oldest story ever told in any culture. In the Bible, there's a flood story. In every culture and every religion, there's a flood myth. I almost have the feeling that these flood myths are interesting because the whole world gets wiped out except for one man or one group who are on an ark -- who will survive. And the question is, "Who will survive?" It's just an incredible, interesting story when you analyze it. The more I analyze it, the more I said, "I have to make this movie." And then you realize it's not caused by anybody. It just happens. So it raises all these questions: If the world were to end, who will survive? Who's worth [saving]? What would we take? Is it moral? Is it ethical? It's very cool to have philosophical themes like that in a movie that has big visual effects.

When you're writing a script, is there ever an effect or situation you visualize that you haven't been able to realize?

No. Not on this movie. I had that before; I even cut some sequences or shots out of movies before. But on this one I didn't have to do that. First of all I had enough time, and secondly, everything is done in the computer. You can dream up whatever you want, and you can do it as long as you have the right amount of time and money.

Then how much were you looking to push the envelope of what can be done?

I don't know. I didn't have any scissors in my head; I didn't say, "No, we can't do this or that." I said, "Hell, let's write it, and we can do it." And I was right. We did it. It was kind of amusing to me that we're living in a time when if you can dream up images, you can do them.

Science and bureaucracy clash pretty dramatically in 2012, but your point of view is more ambiguous than it was in The Day After Tomorrow. Scientists see the meltdown coming, but miscalculated the time these relatively altruistic governments had to build arks for their people. And they're covering the whole thing up.

They're keeping it secret because they have to. That's the moral dilemma of it. That's what I like about this movie: There are no absolutes in this movie. There's nobody who's right or who is wrong. There's also no real bad guy in this piece, which I also really like. Even the bad guys like Yuri kind of turns out to be a good father. So everyone has good and bad qualities. It's about questions, and not everything gets answered.

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    Roland Emmerich's "Say Anything">
    Lloyd Dobler stands beneath Diane Court's window. He is holding a jambox which is playing,
    "In your eyes
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    Suddenly, a malfunction causes a spark which leads to the jambox exploding which then causes the end of the world as we know it.
    Fade out.

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