Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kevin Carr listens to director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin talk about the iconic 1996 disasterpiece Independence Day.
In the summer of 1996, Will Smith became a bona fide box office star with the blockbuster hit Independence Day. It was a time of sunny outlooks for all involved. Co-star Jeff Goldblum was fresh off two successful Jurassic Park movies. Director Roland Emmerich had not yet made the disastrous Godzilla. Smith was a good decade away from making movies that star his yet-to-be-born son Jaden.
Emmerich and writing/producing partner Dean Devlin recorded a commentary for Independence Day several years after its release when it hit DVD. Recorded at a time before full-blown CGI effects were the norm for pretty much everything in a Hollywood production, Emmerich and Devlin tend to focus on the spectacle of the film, but they still offer some interesting insight into its development and writing.
Independence Day (1996)
Commentators: Roland Emmerich (director, co-writer, executive producer) and Dean Devlin (producer, co-writer)
1. The idea for the script came to Emmerich while he was doing press for his previous film Stargate. A reporter asked him if he believed in aliens, and he said he didn’t. Then he said, “What if tomorrow morning, we woke up and space ships were hovering over the 30 biggest cities on Earth?” The next morning, he started working on the script with Dean Devlin.
2. Even though digital effects are applied throughout the film, many of the effects were done with practical elements, including models and miniatures. For example, all the opening shots of the moon (including the footprints on the surface) were miniatures, and many of the aircraft were models composited with other elements. The cloud formations of the ships entering the atmosphere were done in a cloud tank. All explosions were done practically.
3. Most interior sets were built in the old airplane hangar where the Spruce Goose was built. At the time of recording the commentary, this hangar was owned by DreamWorks.
4. On set, Emmerich and Devlin called Robert Loggia “The Turtle” because he has a hard outer shell but is a soft, cuddly guy on the inside.
5. During the screening of the film at the White House for President Bill Clinton, both Emmerich and Devlin were embarrassed when Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group says, “They elected a warrior, and they got a wimp.”
6. Several of the sets in the film were borrowed from other productions, including the submarine interior from Crimson Tide and the interior of the stealth bomber from Broken Arrow.
7. There were approximately 400 speaking parts in the movie.
8. Boomer, the dog owned by Will Smith’s character, was played by Dakota, who had previously starred in the family film Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.
9. Devlin claims that the morning pee that Will Smith’s character takes caused many audience members to have to make a trip to the bathroom.
10. The scenes of New Yorkers fleeing the city and looting were shot in SoHo. The production had to minimize shooting during these scenes because Emmerich says the extras “got carried away.”
11. When the production filmed the helicopter fitted with communication lighting, the police received calls about a UFO sighting.
12. Almost every shot of the White House had to be faked, using interior sets, exterior models, miniatures with forced perspective, and an exterior set in an L.A. parking lot.
13. The First Lady’s Secret Service agent is played by Matthew Perry’s father, John Bennett Perry. Matthew Perry himself was originally set to play Harry Connick Jr.’s character.
14. Volker Engle, who won the film’s only Oscar for Visual Effects, has a cameo in the film as the lone man in the Los Angeles office building who is obliterated during the initial attack.
15. Many of the near misses that occur during the aerial chase through the Grand Canyon were added later in production to make the sequence more exciting. Some of these shots include Smith’s character threading the needle through two rock formations and the alien ship shooting a giant rock tower that almost falls on the fighter jet.
16. The U.S. military was originally going to support the film, offering supplies and planes, but they required the removal of all references to Area 51. The production did not comply, and the military pulled its support. Because they had no military support, the production had only one full-sized working fighter jet. This resulted in the same plane having to be re-used for various shots. All other shots of jets were models, often used in the background or FX composite shots.
17. During the test screening of the film in Las Vegas, the audience cheered when the Area 51 title card appeared.
18. Dean Devlin incorrectly pronounces the name of Brent Spiner’s Star Trek: The Next Generation character of Data, using a short “a” in the first syllable rather than a long “a.”
19. Even though it is about an alien invasion, the film is patterned after the disaster films of the ’70s rather than the alien invasion films of the ’50s. This includes a large cast, scenes of mass destruction, and the introduction of one of the heroes relatively late in the first act.
20. The son of Vivica Fox’s character has several Godzilla toys, which is a nod to Emmerich and Devlin’s involvement in the 1998 film, a deal which was inked before the production of Independence Day.
21. The plot point of giving the alien mother ship a computer virus was an homage to The War of the Worlds in which the aliens are defeated by the biological pathogen.
22. The last line of the President’s speech to the fighter pilots, “Today we celebrate our Independence Day,” was not in the original script. It was added because the studio was pressuring Emmerich and Devlin to change the name of the picture, and they thought that would galvanize the name into the film.
23. Much of the dialogue between Goldblum and Judd Hirsh, as well as between Goldblum and Smith, was improvised. In particular, Goldblum and Smith improvised the majority of their dialogue when they fly the alien fighter into space to dock with the mother ship.
24. According to Devlin, James Brown’s voice was added to the sound mix when Randy Quaid’s fighter jet collides with the alien ship’s weapon.
25. Goldblum’s line, “Must go faster! Must go faster!” as they are flying out of the mother ship was dropped into the film as a direct homage to Goldblum saying the same thing in Jurassic Park when he’s on the jeep being chased by the T-Rex.
Best in Commentary
- Emmerich: “This was actually the first day of shooting.” Devlin: “That’s right. I was doing an interview with a newspaper, and a pigeon took a dump on my head. A sign of good luck!”
- Devlin: “People were more concerned about this dog than about the millions of people in the cities. I think it says a lot about us as a culture.”
- Devlin: “I always thought it was an interesting idea to have a person play a President who is incapable of lying. Wouldn’t we all love to have that?”
A good sign of a timeless commentary is one that can be a decade or more old and still offer some interesting insight into the movie. For the most part, Emmerich and Devlin stay on topic and don’t gush too much over the cast (which would be quite a danger considering how large the cast is and how many iconic actors are in it). Even considering how much filmmaking has changed since the film was made and the commentary recorded, there’s a lot of interesting and relevant information in there.
However, Emmerich and Devlin do noticeably slow down in their discussion – and pretty much drop out of it entirely – as the second act comes to a close. This possibly led to the cover box of the DVD claiming this is a “scene specific commentary,” though I never got the sense they actually left the room. Instead, like some filmmakers do, it seems that the duo got caught up into their own movie.
There’s not a lot said about the characters and their actual arcs, and when they do talk about it, things tend to be really dumbed down to a play-by-play explanation. What’s most interesting is hearing them talk about their constraints on the film (due to the fact they weren’t huge names at the time) and how different effects were achieved as movies were just starting to really enter into the digital age.