It’s fitting that the sprawling, five-acre estate Roland Emmerich calls home once belonged to Jesse L. Lasky, the vaudeville performer and Broadway producer who, along with Cecil B. DeMille, created the first feature-length motion picture filmed in Hollywood, “The Squaw Man,” in 1914.
A century later, Emmerich seems a clear extension of DeMille’s legacy, the creator of unpretentious, larger-than-life bigscreen spectacles that run the gamut from the prehistoric to the futuristic. His iconic image — the destruction of the White House by alien spacecraft in “Independence Day” — is perhaps as famous as DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea.
This month, Emmerich is back to wreaking havoc on Pennsylvania Avenue in “White House Down,” an ’80s-style action-drama that could bring welcome news to Sony’s largely sagging box office fortunes. Made for $150 million from a $3 million spec script, the movie follows an off-duty policeman (Channing Tatum) touring the White House with his daughter when bad guys (led by James Woods’ rogue Secret Service agent) commandeer the place and threaten to start World War III. Riding shotgun is Jamie Foxx as a thinly veiled Obama surrogate.
“It’s a crowdpleaser,” says a smiling, relaxed Emmerich on the back porch of his three-bedroom, Mission Revival-style home in Hollywood. The night before, he had traveled to a West L.A. multiplex to personally introduce a “White House Down” promotional screening. “I always test my movies very thoroughly.”
Though Emmerich has rarely had critics or cinephiles in his corner, his nine feature films in the 20 years since his American debut, “Universal Soldier,” have collectively grossed more than $3 billion globally, placing him in the elite company of the two filmmakers he admires most: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
“I was a big fan of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Poltergeist,’ and none of my fellow students were into that,” the German-born filmmaker recalls of his days at Munich’s U. of Television and Film, where he enrolled thinking he wanted to become a production designer, but soon felt bitten by the directing bug.
Dean Devlin, who became Emmerich’s writing and producing partner for most of the 1990s, was a struggling Hollywood actor when he signed on for a prominent supporting role in Emmerich’s 1990 German sci-fi film “Moon 44,” which his agent told him had little chance of ever being released. “But when I got to Germany and saw the sets, I was blown away,” Devlin recalls. “Roland’s work with the camera was phenomenal, the way he worked with the actors was incredible.”
When Emmerich relocated to Los Angeles in 1990 with his kid sister Ute (also a producer on his films), he hired Devlin to rewrite “Universal Soldier,” after which the two teamed again for the surprise 1994 hit “Stargate” and then “Independence Day.” That 1996 movie grew out of an idea to tell an alien invasion story in the style of a “Towering Inferno” or “Poseidon Adventure” disaster film. Emmerich and Devlin holed up in a Mexico hotel room to hammer out the script, at which point they learned there was a rival alien invasion project, Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks.” “So I said, ‘Dean, we have to build something into our script which is earlier,’” recounts Emmerich. “And Dean said, ‘What about July Fourth weekend?’ Then we had no title, and at one point Dean said, ‘Let’s call it ‘Independence Day.’ We will find a better title later.’ ”
Emmerich also has felt the sting of failure. In 2011, he turned more than a few heads by directing pet project “Anonymous,” an Elizabethan drama based on the controversial theory that Shakespeare was not the true author of the plays that bear his name. The $28 million pic grossed just $7 million worldwide.
Going forward, the 57-year-old director wants to be able to pivot between bigger and smaller projects, including one about the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, by acclaimed Broadway playwright Jon Robin Baitz.
“It’s hard,” Emmerich says, “because nobody wants to have these films from me, because I’m able to do big movies which make money.”
For those worrying that Emmerich is turning his back on such pics, fear not. The director says he’s reuniting with Devlin for an “Independence Day” sequel.