Roland Emmerich: Hollywood’s Soulful Master of Disaster

He’s wreaked more destruction than a thousand hurricanes, but beneath the mayhem, the Chinese Theatres' newest hand-and-footprint honoree aims to bring people together

roland Emmerich Imprint Ceremony
John Russo

Director Roland Emmerich has destroyed plenty of iconic landmarks in his 30-year career — he’s blown up the White House on three separate occasions — but there’s one oft-filmed locale that has somehow managed to escape his appetite for destruction: the TCL Chinese Theatres, where Emmerich will immortalize his hands and feet in cement June 20.

“Maybe in one of the next films, they can show my hand and footprints getting something dropped on them,” the director laughs.

Emmerich undoubtedly enjoys his work; he recalls a previous instance of Los Angeles-inspired carnage in “The Day After Tomorrow”: “I envisioned these images that, because of climate shifts, tornadoes race through Los Angeles. It was naturally fun then to have a little twister erase the Hollywood sign.” He grins with the giddiness of a child, like the world is his sandbox with castles ripe for kicking down.

REUNITED: Emmerich, left, with Bill Pullman on the set of “Independence Day: Resurgence

But while it would be easy to dismiss Emmerich’s penchant for property damage as gratuitous, the director maintains, “I’m not blowing up stuff just to blow up; there’s always a story point to it.”

In breakout 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day,” Emmerich and his writing and producing partner, Dean Devlin, set out to replicate the passion and creativity they observed in the ’70s disaster movies they loved — while still offering audiences a deeper message.

“It has to have an element beyond what the story at its surface is. ‘Independence Day’ was about three people from three different ethnic groups joining together to save the world — that was very important for me,” he says. “And I think that message also made the movie that successful. When I did ‘Day After Tomorrow,’ I was really concerned about the environment.”

“Independence Day” star Jeff Goldblum, who is reuniting with Emmerich for sequel “Resurgence,” recalls hearing the director’s initial hopes for the film. “He and Dean Devlin originally said, ‘You know those Irwin Allen disaster movies of the ’70s like “The Towering Inferno”? Let’s make a cool version of one of those with a contemporary sensibility.’”

This was back in the mid-’90s, and that’s what they pursued, and they did it with not so much a careerist ambition, but a real artist’s love. And this idea of a diverse group of people from all over the world that have to unify and band together, which is the theme in the first one and even more so in [“Resurgence”], is dear to his real, authentic heart.”
The alien invasion hit grossed more than $817 million worldwide, establishing Emmerich as Hollywood’s master of disaster.

“It was a seminal movie, because all of a sudden people realized if you have a certain tone … the movie had a very big, international feel to it that was also something totally new,” Emmerich says. “But Steven Spielberg told me and Dean when we met him afterwards, ‘this will be one of the most imitated movies for the next 20, 30 years.’ And it was, in a way.”

Devlin — who has collaborated with Emmerich for 27 years, since they met on the set of “Moon 44” — says they approached “Independence Day” with the desire to recapture the action-packed escapism of such films as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”

“I think that there’s a tendency in blockbusters today to take themselves very, very seriously, and while that’s created some very compelling content, it doesn’t quite have that same joyous feeling,” Devlin notes, attributing part of “Independence Day’s” success to its self-awareness. “There were a lot of references in the movie. There’s a lot of saying to the audience, ‘Hey, this is part of a type of popcorn movie that we’ve loved and we’ve forgotten about. Let’s bring it back.’”

“Steven Spielberg told me and Dean, ‘This will be one of the most imitated movies for the next 20, 30 years.’ And it was, in a way.”
Roland Emmerich

Growing up in Germany, Emmerich studied at the University of Television and Film Munich, where he initially intended to be a production designer. When discussing his early career, Emmerich describes himself as “a little bit of an odd duck,” who eschewed the popular style of German cinema of the time, which drew its influences from the French and British New Wave and Italian neorealism that was in vogue across Europe.

“I was always looking to America, and I just thought the movies were were more entertaining, more to my taste,” he says. “I was relatively strongly supported at first from the [German] funding system, but when they realized what movies I really wanted to do, they backed off, so I had to look for outside financing.”

Help arrived in the form of Robert Little, who owned Overseas Filmgroup, a worldwide sales and production company. The shingle helped finance Emmerich’s early pictures, allowing him the autonomy to film them in English and appeal to a wider audience.

These days, financing isn’t a concern for the multi-hyphenate, whose films have grossed over $3 billion worldwide.

“Here’s a filmmaker that generated franchises,” says James A. Woods, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Resurgence” with Emmerich, Devlin, and Nicolas Wright. “This is a time in cinema where, if you don’t have a brand, whether it’s an X-Men or a Batman or a Transformers or a Ninja Turtles, it’s really difficult to make those big-scale movies, and Roland was able to create those, a few times in his career, which is kind of incredible as a filmmaker; you’re also a storyteller who’s generated franchise-worthy material. That’s like if Stan Lee was also Matt Vaughn together as one human being.”

PULP FIXATION: Dean Devlin, Ellory Elkayem, and Roland Emmerich on the set of “Eight Legged Freaks” in 2002; Emmerich on the set of “Stargate” eight legged freaks: warner bros/photofest; stargate: Claudette Barius/mgm/photofest

Despite his success in the disaster movie genre — apocalyptic drama “2012” grossed $769 million worldwide, second only to “Independence Day” in his filmography — it’s telling that Emmerich’s favorite film is one of his smallest, both in budget and gross.

“For the longest time, ‘Anonymous’ was my dream project,” he says. “It’s so different, people didn’t even know that I did it.”

Despite the underwhelming box office performance of his smaller films, Emmerich still intends to pursue those personal projects in addition to his blockbuster crowd-pleasers. “When you make smaller pictures, it’s a little bit more family-oriented,” he says. “You feel more that you’re making a movie. These bigger movies, it’s a little bit like you’re running a company.”

What: Roland Emmerich imprint ceremony
When: 5:30 p.m., June 20
Where: TCL Chinese
Theatres, Hollywood
Web: tclchinesetheatres.com/imprint-ceremonies