COVER STORY:No one has destroyed the world quite as often as Roland Emmerich. The German director's over-egged depictions of global disaster may be short on science, but his depictions of an annihilated planet still have the power to make viewers go green with environmental angst. With the imminent release of the über-destructive 2012, DONALD CLARKEasks Emmerich why he feels the need to keep destroying a perfectly good planet
ONE OF the tinier outrages of the appalling Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was the visible frustration displayed by rolling-news anchors when confronted with footage of the advancing waves. "Send us in your own film of the disaster," they said plaintively after shrugging their shoulders at the insufficiently terrifying images.
The implication was clear: we know what the end of the world looks like and it doesn't look like this. A wave capable of such ghastly destruction would surely block out the sun and send plumes of foam streaming halfway across the planet. This surging, modestly dramatic swell may well have killed hundreds of thousands, but it just wasn't what we were promised by the movies.
After all, only six months earlier, Roland Emmerich had shown us how the world was really supposed to end: not with a whimper, but with several thousand bangs of ever escalating volume followed by a roaring that could heard on Venus. In The Day After Tomorrow, the boringly steady advance of climate change was discarded for a catastrophic meteorological realignment that sent typhoons racing through Los Angeles and turned the waters round New York into a glacier.
"When we made that film we immediately thought: what's the best way to represent that disaster?" Emmerich says. "There was no question. We had to show the Statue of Liberty covered in ice. That was the only thing that would work."
For all the sober pontificating of Al Gore, the most stubbornly resonant images of the end of the world come from big, bold mainstream movies. Why bother worrying about green issues? Well, look what happens in The Day After Tomorrow, Mad Max, Soylent Greenand Silent Running. Later this weekend, The Road, John Hillcoat's unremittingly sombre adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, closes the Corona Cork Film Festival. Is this how you want the world to look? No? Well, you'd better start separating your used bottles from your discarded plastics then.
The science may be dubious in these films - never more so than in The Day After Tomorrow- but one glimpse of an annihilated planet may still have the power to make viewers ponder their responsibilities as consumers.
So, Roland Emmerich must, in some small way, be regarded as an accidental hero of the green movement. Nobody has destroyed the world quite so often. Nobody has done a better job of showing what might happen if we keep driving around in jeeps and feeding mercury to dolphins (or whatever).
The apocalyptophile is back with another amusing calamity next week. Thirteen years after he orchestrated the levelling of the White House in Independence Dayand just five since he helmed The Day After Tomorrow, the German now offers us "a displacement of the Earth's crust" for the epically destructive 2012. About as long as winter and as noisy as a war, the film, which draws its inspiration from a supposed warning in the Mayan calendar, once again lays waste to LA, New York, Paris and London.
This is beginning to look like a minor psychosis. What is it with Emmerich? Why does he feel the need to keep destroying a perfectly good planet?
"I was very reluctant to take this on after The Day After Tomorrow," he says. "That was it for me and disaster movies. What won me over was that it is a moral retelling of the Noah's Ark myth. That story of a flood is something that appears not just in the bible, but in any number of major religions."
Sure enough, after the likes of John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor evade the hurtling boulders and advancing oceans, they set about trying to shepherd representative groups of the earth's citizens into modern-day arks. Though the film is most notable for the creative way it demolishes popular urban landmarks, there are, it is true, moments when we encounter something a little like a moral dilemma.
"I think so. Elements of 2012 ask questions about what's worth saving in such a situation. Those are very serious dilemmas, I think."
So what sort of man is this serial destroyer of worlds? Now 53, neat with closely cropped grey hair, Roland Emmerich was born and raised in the vicinity of Stuttgart. Do the sums and you realise that he is just a decade or so younger than compatriots such as Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, who reinvented German cinema in the 1970s. Yet Emmerich's work could not be less like that of those experimentalists.
Root through his CV and you find no dark, avant-garde treatises on the meaning of the Baader-Meinhof gang or the emptiness of the German economic miracle. Born a safe distance from the war, Emmerich has always been an unapologetic populist with a taste for mainstream American bombast. Foreshadowing adventures to come in 2012, his first movie was a modestly budgeted German science fiction flick called The Noah's Ark Principle.
So he was never tempted to join the highfalutin art-house boys?
"I was the one who said I don't like those movies and I was attacked when I said so openly. They are boring. They just don't entertain me. My German hero is a guy called Alfred Vohrer, who made all these adaptations of Edgar Wallace thrillers. I said that to provoke in a way. But I was serious and, though we didn't have much money, I continued to make those exciting films that looked more expensive than they were. That's why Hollywood hired me."
The big, noisy films that Emmerich makes are very often producer-driven. To survive in those waters you must either learn to co-operate or, if you do decide to defy authority, develop the strength to stand your ground without flinching. It sounds as if Roland took the latter option. His first job in the US was on a stillborn sci-fier called Isobar. Right from the start he ran into trouble with the notoriously robust producer Joel Silver.
"Well, I was hired to do the film because Ridley Scott dropped out," he says. "I was just being used as a glorified cameraman, but, in the end, it was a good experience. The script was lousy and I couldn't get it fixed. I asked my dad and he said: 'In life it is often more important what you say 'no' to.' So I walked away."
How did Silver take that? "He shouted at me for about two hours. 'What do you mean no? You can't just no!' It was horrible. He said the most outrageous things. Eventually, he threw me out and said: 'You will never work in Hollywood again.'" My word. He actually used that cliché? "Yes. He actually said those words."
It was, I believe, a German who said that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Sure enough, Emmerich never really looked back. In 1992 he directed the decent Dolph Lundgren vehicle Universal Soldier. Two years later he delivered Stargate, a significant hit, and then, in 1996, the staggeringly massive Independence Day.
There have been so many overhyped blockbusters since - are you looking forward to Avatar, people? - that it becomes hard to remember the furore that surrounded the release of the alien invasion epic. Every newspaper carried meditations on the meaning of the film. Was it to do with pre-millennial angst? Had the end of the Soviet threat left us hungry for new, more outlandish anxieties?
"That surprised me somewhat," he says. "I mean, they didn't write that stuff about Jurassic Parka few years earlier. But it was a watershed moment in movies. The real success of the movie was that we showed the impossible. It was important that way. From then on other movies also tried to show the impossible too."
Like blowing up the White House?
"Yeah. Everyone was saying: 'Well, you are going to blow up the Capitol Building.' And they were appalled when we said: 'No. We have to blow up the White House.' This is a story about the king under threat from invaders and that's where the king resides. It was like showing the Statue of Liberty in 2012. Nothing else really would do. A lot of people were really quite shocked."
You do have to hand it to Roland Emmerich. You may find his films as bombastic as an evening spent curled up in Motörhead's subwoofer, but he does exhibit a certain kind of stubborn integrity. Nobody tells him what to blow up and what not to blow up. If he wants to dispatch the earth into oblivion twice in five years, then who the hell can stop him?
Nobody, moreover, can tell him to trim a second's footage from his increasingly lengthy films. Fans of going to the lavatory may be alarmed to hear that 2012 is a bum-numbing 158 minutes long. It may actually be 2012 by the time you emerge.
"Oh, whenever you test-screen movies they always say: 'The film is too long.' But if you cut the film you end up losing all these important little details. Look, I say go and look at the list of the top money-earners of all time. See how long they are? Titanic? The Dark Knight? They are all pretty long."
Emmerich also deserves credit for making no secrecy of his homosexuality in an industry that is still not quite as tolerant of gay lifestyles as it pretends. In earlier interviews he has said that, even in supposedly tolerant Hollywood, he encountered a fair degree of homophobia in his early years.
"Yes, homophobia is still a problem for actors certainly," he says. "You can't come out because it might ruin your career. If they came out they really still can be limited to playing homosexuals. Still nobody wants to make a romantic comedy with actors who are openly gay."
But surely directors have less of a problem. No director is going to have to sell himself as, say, Jennifer Aniston's boyfriend in the latest romcom.
"That has changed, thankfully. There is definitely something there. You have quite a few openly gay directors, such as myself and Bryan Singer."
Emmerich credits David Geffen, veteran record executive and co-founder of DreamWorks, for opening up attitudes in this respect.
"I think so. I remember meeting David on his boat once and I was proud to tell him that he had opened doors for us. He was just about the first openly gay executive and he really inspired me. But for actors they still feel that, if they come out, they will only be allowed to play token gay characters."
So there you have it. Roland Emmerich is a pioneer of the gay community and a constructor of iconic images for the green movement. Jeez. If he made sensitive little films about sculptors in lofts, they'd have named some huggy, liberal award after him by now.
- 2012 is released next Friday