Judging by our conversation with him, producer-director Roland Emmerich doesn't seem megalomaniacal. In fact, he seems so down-home and unassuming, that you just want to grab him, a beer — being the good German that he is — and sit in rapt attention as he tells how he's destroyed the world ... again.
Emmerich, of course, is the great manipulator who has ravaged cities and continents thanks to the wonders of cinema. He destroyed New York via his remake of Godzilla (1998) and had the world's capitals blasted through an alien invasion in Independence Day (1996). The 54-year-old former painter and sculptor has ravaged this planet in other ways; he even had it frozen under sheets of ice when he produced and directed The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
But now he's gone all out shuffling all the continents into the oceans; in 2012, newly out on DVD, it's not just the cites or mankind he attacks — he entirely redesigns the configuration of the planet. Based on the myth of the Mayan calendar's 2012 prediction, the Teutonic-accented Emmerich came to New York to tell a bunch of journalists how much fun it is to destroy us all. Well, not quite all of us; stars John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amanda Peet survived on screen and the off-camera experience as well.
Q: Had you studied the Mayan calendar prior to doing this film?
RE: I've had a project about a gentleman named Gonzalo Guerro, one of the first Spaniards who set foot in the Yucatan and encountered the Mayas after being shipwrecked. But he went native. He was the only guy who went native and fought his people.
Because of that, I had studied Mayan culture so I was very aware of it. When Harald [Kloster, the co-writer and co-producer of the film with Emmerich, and its composer]and I had an idea to do this movie, Harald said, "We have to incorporate the Mayan calendar into this a little bit." it was Harald's idea to call the movie 2012.
Q: Do you give any credence to the Mayan calendar?
RE: The Mayans were very exact people. They had a calendar, and had created these cycles. There are only five cycles, and the last one ends on a very exact date: the 21st of December in 2012 [A.D.]. It's the only culture in the world which has a prophecy like that.
This is the only culture that gave an exact date and even set a time of day. [It's] like a miracle. But it's [one] day, and with the rise of this day, time ends. They don't even say "destroy" [but] obviously, it does [mean] the earth gets destroyed.
Q: What do you believe?
RE: I think if you look at disasters, what is really important for people? Their first thought is the people they love. Sometimes we get so carried away with silly things, like my car, the house, clothes. We should actually live each day like it's the last.
Q: So was it a little slap to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to have him die in the destruction of California?
RE: I don't know where these ideas come from. We felt that every politician should be in the ark. The Pope too — I dare to kill my own people. [Emmerich is Catholic.] But the Arnold moment, or why Arnold [didn't get on the ark], I cannot tell you anymore. It's too long ago.
Most of the time, Harald and I talk — Harald is Austrian [like Schwarzenegger], you know — we talk about things and ideas, and most of the time we laugh a lot. We have terrible fun in what we do. It's hard, showbiz, [so] we have fun with it.
I know certain things that I can explain to you exactly where they come from. For example, the Sistine Chapel came from the discussion that certain art can be taken off the wall and put on the ark. They cannot put the whole ceiling away. So I said, "This looks so great. We can have [the portion where] God creates Adam and have a crack [between the fingers]. It pretty much tells the people that God will not help you."
Q: Was that the first thing you thought of?
RE: Yeah. One of the first images I came up with — and I was really excited when I told Harald about it — I said, "I see water coming over the Himalayas, over the roof of the world." That was, for me, what this movie should be.
Q: What kind of budget did you have and did you ever go over budget?
RE: Nope. We stayed in budget. I learned from [fellow 2012 producer] Larry Franco, our money guy, that we pretty much came in on budget, which is rare. But the budget was already big. It was $200 million.
I always stay in budget, or as close as I can. There's always one or two million [left over].
Q: How did you decide to pick off your characters? Why were those people picked for death and others weren't?
RE: Well, most of the time, it's the economy of the story. Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) didn't have anywhere to go because she lost Sasha (Johann Urb). But whatever she was as a character, at the end, she would have been unfinished, in a way. And you have to kill some people, otherwise it's not serious anymore.
Gordon (Tom McCarthy) is not a bad guy, and he saved their ass because he flew all these planes. But he could not be anywhere on this boat. And then Yuri (Zlatko Buric), the Russian guy — OK, he's a terrible guy, but it's also not good to make him totally terrible, so he sacrifices himself for the twins. A lot of people said to me, "Why didn't the twins die?" I said, "They are children."
Q: You have rules. No kids?
Q: What are the other rules?
RE: Animals. You have to be [kind to animals]. It was mainly a nice little thing, because this girl's best friend was this dog. To be really cruel, you have to have the twins go away with the dog, because it's actually their dog. And then [she] reunited with the dog, which worked well with the story. And then she gave Yuri the finger. In movies, it has to work like that.
Q: The cliffhanger with the Rusian twins — where will they go?
RE: You know you cannot ask. Maybe one line, "You're one of us" kind of thing. But it would have been awfully cheesy.
Q: What about Woody Harrelson's character [radio doomsayer Charlie Frost]? What were you trying to say?
RE: It's great. We realized through the Internet that there's a lot of crazy people [who] believe in a lot of crazy things about 2012. So we thought, we have to have a character like that.
And then on the other hand, at one point, we said, we have to explain what the theory is. Earth crust displacement — how do you describe this in scientific terms? Then all of a sudden, I said, "We can have him tell the audience how this whole thing [works]." And we came up with a little YouTube film he made. And that was such a clever way to do that, I think, because normally the scientists explain it to you and it's a little bit boring. But here, the people have fun with it, because it's a sarcastic way to do it. It's science and movies, it's always a little bit forced.
Q: He talks about the religious [aspect].
RE: He also explains to us why politicians will not tell us, because they say, "What will happen?" And he was right. The stock market crashed, pandemonium in the street, people will kill each other. And he thinks there are spaceships anyway, which I think is funny because they're not. They're just regular ships.
Q: How much free will did you give Woody to do his stuff? I know he improvised quite a bit here.
RE: Yeah, but it's good. John Cusack and everybody in this movie improvised. You want to have your actors contribute because it makes it come alive. And that's why as a writer, especially, you want to have good actors.
Q: You like to show presidents and scientists. Why are you so fascinated with them?
RE: I make movies [set] in America and when something really, really big happens, the president naturally has to be involved. I lately saw a movie from Fox, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and they so avoid the president, it's kind of comical. It just doesn't work.
Q: You've gotten pretty good at destroying the earth. What are the rules?
RE: Well, I always like saying the pictures have to be super-impossible. Only when it's impossible [am] I interested in doing it. And that's always hard to explain.
One of the first things I saw in my mind when we were talking about the earthquake scene is [that] the ground needs to open up. And I just realized what that means. It's a little bit of when the bottom falls out under your feet.
I'm terribly afraid of heights. I'm always trying to put my fear in these movies. And the other thing I've talked about, is water coming over the roof of the world. And then, have a monk witness that and strike his bell one last time. These images come to Harald and me and we get terribly excited, because we feel these movie scenes.
Q: Any other rules?
RE: Well, the characters help you a lot — people from all walks of life. These movies are so expensive that they have to work for pretty much everybody. Every audience member has different people he likes in the movie and follows them. For young people, for men and women, everybody finds some sort of access.
Old people will like [President Wilson, played by Danny Glover] or Harry Helmsley [Blu Mankuma] and Tony [Delgatto, played by George Segal], as these two jazz musicians. Young people get relatable [characters as well]. Kids get wrapped up in our two kids. You create all the characters so everybody has some sort of figure to identify with.
I'm always saying that I'm a person who doesn't like superhero movies. I like some of them, but I can't really relate to superhero. I have trouble with fantasy stories. And then famous books aren't an option for me. I write my own stuff.
There's very little left in the big movie genre of what you can do. So it's science fiction or disaster movies. You know yourself, look at what is the most successful movie of all time: Titanic. And the great thing is also, with a disaster movie there's no sequel. I hate sequels.
Q: Well, speaking of sequels, the word is that you're interested in making a TV show called 2013.
RE: Well, that's different because that's something like Lost, which has a totally different feel to it. It's more a little bit of [the 2009 film] District 9. These ships show up in Africa, there are some survivors and they're not happy people because they were left behind. Now how do you start off a new society? That has nearly no visual effects. It's all about characters and what will the future bring, hold for us.
Q: 2013 is going to happen pretty soon after this movie comes out. Do you have any actors or places in mind?
RE: No. We just made a deal with ABC, and we're very happy about that. I'm already discussing with the people who write it, and tried to help them with what this could be.
The original idea is from Harald, me and [2012 executive producer] Mark Gordon. Mark is big on TV. Harald and I had an idea that everyone should do a TV show, because there were a lot of things that we couldn't incorporate into 2012 and it was so interesting.
What happens after all of this? We couldn't be riding the script. We had to end it at one point. We left at where they just discovered Africa is still existing and has risen a couple thousand feet, but that's it. And we ended on a really, really small note about a little girl who overcame her fear in a way. It's a very small way, which is very important and ends in something very personal.
I think a sequel is silly. There are certain sequels that work for me. But to make a sequel for a disaster movie, the people would expect a certain kind of visual effects. But [for 2013] there would actually be only what's happening between people, and that you can do a TV show week after week.
Q: What would you like to see happen in 2013?
RE: It's not the bright happy future everybody was envisioning. It's the same old problems.
Q: What do you expect people to walk away with after seeing this film?
RE: First of all, I am very conservative in that way, because I said they should have fun. A movie of this kind, I want people to enjoy it and have fun watching it.
And then, the great thing that I learned lately — I tried it first in The Day After Tomorrow, that in these big movies, you can pack some sort of message that you believe in. And that's what they should take away from all this.
Q: When you planned this particular apocalypse — as opposed to your other apocalypses — you've destroyed certain buildings several times in your movies. Did you say, "I'm not going to destroy the White House [again]," or can I find a different way to destroy the White House?
RE: When we had the idea, I said, "Harald, I'm not going to do it. I cannot destroy the White House again. I don't want to repeat myself."
Then Harald rightly said, "Look, Roland, this is such a good idea. We heard inklings that other people were working with something similar, even also with the title '2012,' [and] we said, somebody else will do it. Do you really want to not be the person to do it? Look at your movies. You're perfect for this. Just come up with something new. Make this your crowning achievement."
I personally know how most visual effects came along. I know that I don't have to use any models anymore. I can do whatever I want. So out of that, what other images? It has to be very original, otherwise you don't do it.
I remembered that as a kid, after we visited the White House, we drove in the Chesapeake Bay somewhere, where they have all the warships. They had just inaugurated the JFK Aircraft Carrier [USS John F. Kennedy (C67)], and I was terribly impressed with how big it is.
I don't know how that clicked, [but] we knew there had to be a wave. I said, "I can have this [aircraft carrier] crashing into the White House." Because we knew, in one of the first waves, we had to put objects in which are gigantic, to show how big the waves are — maybe tankers or warships. This is how you think.
I was doing a lot of reading then on the Kennedys, so I said, "Oh, let's [do] something ironic." And then we came up with this image that JFK returns to the White House [literally].
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour