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6 Filmmaking Tips From Roland Emmerich

There’s more to his magic than just destroying landmarks.
Roland Emmerich
By  · Published on June 23rd, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Roland Emmerich.

There are only a handful of names really associated with blockbuster filmmaking. You’ve got Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Michael Bay, James Cameron, and Roland Emmerich. Never mind if Emmerich’s movies aren’t consistently as well-crafted or popular as the other guys’, he’s still been riding a 20-year wave following Independence Day (appropriately that’s a huge wave), and his name is forever synonymous with big disaster flicks.

Tons of directors would love to have his level of success and significance in Hollywood. If you’re one of them, you’ll want to follow his advice. He hasn’t always done a lot of interviews or discussed his techniques in a manner that can be taken as guidance, but we’ve found six tips he’s given, in some form or another, for how to make movies the way he does.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Roland Emmerich

1. Throw Science Towards the Window

It’s easy to pick apart the accuracy of Emmerich’s movies, but he’s not really going for realism in his blockbusters. His historical films he researches, sure, but the disaster, sci-fi, and action movies merely need to be acceptable for the narrative, not for Neil deGrasse Tyson. Even the scientifically driven The Day After Tomorrow played loose with the facts regarding climate change to better serve the point of the movie, which is entertainment.

Here’s what he has to say on being creative with the science in his “guide to disaster movies” for Time Out London in 2009, ahead of the release of 2012:

I always wanted to do a biblical flood movie, but I never felt I had the hook. I first read about the Earth’s Crust Displacement Theory in Graham Hancock’s “Fingerprints of the Gods”. When I discussed it with Harald [Kloser, his writing partner], I said we need a “plausible” reason, not a scientific one. Show this film to a scientist and they would probably laugh.

Actually, he’s not completely against having some scientific truth. He doesn’t throw science out the window, just towards it. Obviously, he can’t hate science since so many of his heroes are scientists. Also, here’s what he told Blackfilm in 2004 while promoting The Day After Tomorrow:

I’m a filmmaker, not a scientist. But I had a very smart and intelligent screenwriter, who did a lot of research, and he tried to keep it as accurate as possible.

2. Have a Message

The reason The Day After Tomorrow was more important in terms of scientific accuracy for Emmerich is that he was passionate about the cause of climate change. Emmerich is a very political guy (he even hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2007 in his home, though he did not attend it), and he tends to include some sort of message in all his movies. It’s just not always so front and center. As he told CNN in 2008, “In every movie, I say: How can I slip something in?” ‐ however, in 2011, he told Film International, “I prefer to make entertainment with a message, rather than not, but I wouldn’t say it’s a prerogative of mine.”

Here is what he told Hunger magazine in 2011 while promoting Anonymous:

You have to have guts to make an entertaining movie; if you do it by numbers it’s not going to work. In every film I integrate some provocative images or concepts. For example, in The Day After Tomorrow, there’s this storm in America and the kids survive by burning books. Americans have to go illegally into Mexico, which is a reversal of what we know to be true. In Independence Day, we had an African-American, a Jew and a white American President working together to save the world. Everyone knew what that message meant, but when we cast that movie, I had long discussions with Fox about it and they were not very happy.

Unfortunately, the message is sometimes lost on his audience. He shared the reason why Independence Day was misunderstood as overly jingoistic and patriotic to So Film magazine a couple of years ago:

Americans want storytelling and patriotism, that’s what you have to do at the beginning before you can really deliver a message: “God bless America.” In Independence Day, you have three characters. A Jew, an African American and a white East Coast intellectual. They save the world together, but no one seemed to notice that. No one! Everybody was criticising me because of excessive patriotism, but I mean, come on, it’s the 4th of July, Independence Day. It’s quite normal to see national flags everywhere, isn’t it? And anyway, that’s what I wanted, that’s all. I ‘m going to tell you something I never said before: at the time, I knew Mars Attacks was being produced and I wanted to beat them. My film had to be released before theirs. I did not want the satire to be released before the disaster movie. I knew it was scheduled for release in August so I made the studios accept my whole concept: the story must be happening on Independence Day, the title isIndependence Day and it must also be released on Independence day. For the speech scene, it’s simple: US Presidents are usually great orators, they know how to tell stories. Obama knows about speeches whereas the idiot before him you couldn’t understand a word he said. Hillary is talented too.

But it’s not always necessarily for the audience anyway so much as for his personal motivation. In the Blackfilm interview, he says:

When you find something where you can give people a message and still make it an exciting movie, you get very, very excited about something. You probably even work harder than you normally do.

3. Be Confident!

If you’re going to be so message motivated, you have to have guts, as Emmerich says. And confidence is key to a lot of his work, not just politically but creatively. In his DVD commentary track for The Day After Tomorrow, he says he had to stand his ground with Fox on that movie’s interracial couple and previously with Will Smith’s casting for Independence Day. But with the later movie, he made sure he wouldn’t have to change any of its content. He told Cinema Confidential in 2004 how he got away with making the movie with such a conservative studio:

When we felt the script was right, we went to all the studios. All the studios wanted to have us and we did an auction. They had to decide very, very fast if they wanted to have this thing. They had to approve the script. They had to approve the script and title but I had final cut and budget approval. From that point on, they had no real influence anymore. We did this on purpose because I knew that the movie was quite subversive and has a lot of political things in there that they knew they could not change.

As for creative confidence, here he explains in the Time Out London piece why he knew 2012 would be more successful than 10,000 B.C.:

I’m not just saying this, I think this is the best cast I’ve ever had. Why? Because it’s a really good script. I know I wrote it, but it just feels good. Harald and I wrote 10,000 B.C. and I’m totally willing to admit that was not a good script. Actually, it was a good script at the beginning, but we made too many compromises. So I said to Harald, “This time, no compromises.” And he said, “Roland, I’m so happy you said that.”

Basically, to be like Emmerich is to be, in his words to Rotten Tomatoes in 2009, “egoistic”. He explains:

It’s like, if you don’t write about what you’d like to see, I don’t think you can do anything. I think there are too many movies written, speculating with audiences, and I think the audiences feel that.

Two years later, in The Scotsman, he gave this direct advice to Godzilla reboot director Gareth Edwards: “He should stick with his own thing and not listen too much to the people who give him the money. He should trust his guts.”

4. Use Special Effects For Every Movie

When Emmerich followed 2012 with Anonymous, it seemed to be a major departure for the filmmaker. But he approached it much the same way he approaches any of his movies, including with his use of special effects. They’re not just for big movies anymore but also smaller historical dramas. He explains in the Hunger interview:

I always wanted to make the movie but I tried it in a very traditional way six or seven years ago, and the costs were too big. We couldn’t get the cast on that kind of budget so we stopped it. Then we did 2012, pretty much creating the whole thing on a blue screen and I wondered, “Why don’t we do this for my Shakespeare movie?” We forgot about shooting on location, and decided on somewhere cheap with a lot of good people working with us. It worked like a charm because most of the original backgrounds don’t exist anyway ‐ there’s no medieval England anymore.

And here he discusses the benefit of the digital effects use for Anonymous in a video interview with Tribute.ca:

5. The Movie Should Be the Star

Relevant to his consistent interest in special effects is the notion that the movie itself and all of its spectacle ought to be the primary draw for audiences. If his actors have any box office appeal, that’s apparently just a coincidence (or added bonus?). He recognizes this idea in the Time Out London piece, specifically addressing the cast of 2012:

My next movie’s going to star Woody Allen. No, only joking! Luckily, I make movies where the movie itself is the star, so the studios allow me to cast people you wouldn’t always associate with this kind of film. So here we have John Cusack.

6. Tiered Testing

Despite all his talk of confidence and his apparent integrity with his storytelling and messages and even running times, Emmerich is a fan of audience-testing his movies. But he has a method to the sharing and the receiving of feedback. In a sort of tiered fashion, he starts off by showing the movie to people close to him, and then eventually the tests are with the public. He explains in a 2013 interview with Fast Company:

“You test the movie so you know what works and what doesn’t,” he says, matter-of-factly. Then again, he does early tests with a friendly crowd. “I always like a lot of friends and family at the first test screenings because I don’t want to immediately expose myself to a big audience of vicious people who don’t like me.” So he conducts three or four screenings for them first. “Your friends tell you, ‘Yes. It’s great, but, Roland, make it shorter.’ And then you feel it yourself, and you sit in the audience and say, Oh, my God. That falls flat, and that falls flat. And then you just make it shorter,; that’s just the job you have.” He hones the movie so much that by the time he gets to the big screening in front of real people eating popcorn, “I’m sometimes surprised how well the movie plays because we have tested it already so many times. That’s a cool feeling, when you sit in a movie theater and people cheer and laugh and clap and have a good time.”

Then again, in the past, to GQ, he’s said, “Normally I hate to go to screenings.” And in the Time Out London piece he seemed to reject all that he says above:

Whenever you test a movie, people always say “It’s just 15 minutes too long” ‐ so you cut it. You show it to them again and they say “It’s still a bit too long” ‐ so you cut another ten minutes. Then you end up cutting all the things that make it really great. The ten most successful movies of all time are all around three hours long. My favourite movie, Lawrence of Arabia, is four hours. So there!’

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Well, we learned that Emmerich can be a bit wishy-washy in terms of his filmmaking beliefs. But we can still see some core ideas to follow. You should confidently put focus on the story and what you want to say with it, using entertainment and effects spectacle as a means to get it through to an audience. Don’t worry about what scientists think of your movie, or what studio executives think, or what critics think. But maybe see what your friends and test audiences think.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.