Hollywood hit-maker Roland Emmerich, whose White House Down has just released, talks to Sudhish Kamath about audiences’ fascination for all things frightening.
He is one of the highest grossing directors of all time (No.17 on the list, his films collectively grossing over three billion dollars), significant because he got there without any trilogy or franchise to accelerate his growth.
His films have mostly opened to bad reviews and very good money. If you were to draw up a list of guilty pleasures you are likely to find many of his films in there. Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012... Now, you can add White House Down to that list.
Roland Emmerich spoke to The Hindu CinemaPlus over the phone from his room at the Regis Hotel in Beijing for fifteen minutes. Excerpts.
You love disasters, blowing up the world, monuments... The White House especially. Third time now in White House Down?
Well, it’s more of a political disaster this time than a physical disaster. It’s more about the bigger idea of what the White House stands for. It’s a western symbol that stands for freedom and leadership. White House is the main character this time.
I was trying to understand why you, or we as people, love to see destruction or disasters? Even children love to break things. So do you think there is a devil lurking in our heads? Do you play on our secret fantasies or our worst fears?
I don't know. That’s a very complex answer. Every culture, or religion, in the world has referred to the end of time, and in most prophecies, there is talk about a big flood or something. So every culture is familiar with the idea of the end or destruction. People watched images of 9/11 again and again because channels kept playing them over and over again. I think the answer is both, we see these things as both fascinating and frightening.
Maybe an action movie is the last place to look for political correctness, but did you need a white man to save the black President?
I see them both as partners in crime. They wouldn't survive without each other. It’s got the buddy movie dynamic.
But there are many elements that are different because it is a political thriller. It's got a bit of how I feel about things. I wish we would stop military spending; I want to ask why we start wars and keep them going...
The whole idea of the US President going Rambo or doing a buddy movie with a John McLane (Die Hard) type one-man army... How do you decide how much the audience will buy when it comes to willing suspension of disbelief and how much of it is intended as comedy?
It’s a fine line. We test movies on audiences from time to time to see if we are getting things right. Here, the idea was not to be too serious but you don't want to be silly. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. I wouldn’t call it dumbing down. The audience is smarter, you just figure out how to incorporate elements into films to entertain them.
Do you watch Indian movies? We have our heroes saving Prime Ministers and Presidents all the time in our action movies too.
Not really, I haven’t seen too many. They feel like a mix which I don't quite understand. India has its own film language. They make films not for the international market and it’s great when a country makes films specific to its culture.
Does your cinema emerge out of a grand visual of destruction or any visual effects-related spectacle or do you only do what’s in the script?
It always comes out of the story. What I make is always written, though I may sneak in a couple of shots later but the visual effects have to suit the story. The audience gets bored if they are not emotionally connected.
Cinema started off as a spectacle when someone put a camera on a train track. People ran out of halls fearing they would be run over by a train. That was always what cinema was about. To create a spectacle. Summer films have to be a spectacle.
We heard about the Independence Day sequel and then you are doing Stonewall. You did 2012 but also did Anonymous. Which of these do you do for studios and which for you? I bet the blockbusters pay more.
I do everything for myself. I like big movies. But the older I get, I get interested in other stuff. The big films, I get easily financed than a small film about gay rights set in 1969 (Stonewall). But I am doing what I can do and let’s see where it takes me.