‘2012’ Director Roland Emmerich on Making Will Smith a Star

With 2012, Roland Emmerich has briefly resurrected and subsequently destroyed the disaster film trend he started. After his mega-hit Independence Day made it a guilty pleasure to watch landmarks get decimated, a slew of movies with names like Volcano and Armageddon ended the world as we know it with sociopathic glee. But long after superheroes and sequels took over the summer blockbuster business, every two years or so Emmerich somehow feels the need to seriously fuck shit up all over again (except New York). He did it with The Day After Tomorrow a few years back, and now he’s at it again, for what he says is his disaster curtain call. With earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes all in one movie, there’s nothing left to do. We spoke to the director about Obama’s influence on his movie, the suspension of disbelief, and why he cast Will Smith in Independence Day. (And can we attribute his iffy quote about Smith’s African-American-ness to, um, a language barrier?)

What can you say about the recent brouhaha about you leaving out the destruction of Muslim holy site for fear of a fatwa? It says a lot about the state of the word that a couple of religious fanatics can influence movies in a way.

What was your favorite destruction scene to work on? Well, Christ the Redeemer was fun because I flew to Rio myself. It was just me and a few people who kind of shot it. Then we digitized it and made it fall apart.

Did Barack Obama influence your casting of a black President? Yeah. I was always a big supporter of Hilary but I kind of thought Obama would be a cooler president. I didn’t think he would win, but when he did I kind of thought we have to just make it an African-American president.

In your movie, humanity organizes relatively quickly to try and save itself from extinction. Would we be able to do it in real life? I don’t know if they’re organized enough. I don’t know how much we like each other.

Do you concede that when you make films like this you have to abandon logic? You have to feel believability and it’s a very fine line because you also want to provoke and entertain, but it has to have the feel of believability. It’s a suspension of disbelief but not too much because then it becomes ridiculous.

Do you ever take credit for launching one of the biggest film careers of all time with Will Smith? No, not really. I first got the idea to cast him when I saw him in a very small movie called Six Degrees of Separation, and when I saw him in that I immediately called [producer] Dean Devlin, saw it again, and he agreed with me that this kid is kind of gold. Because even as an African-American, he feels like the most American person I have ever met. We were looking for the ultimate American hero for our fighter pilot, and then on top of it because he was African-American, we also had this idea that it was a multicultural thing. It’s kind of like the nations come together that case — America, Jewish, African-American, WASPy, comes together. And then I had to fight for Will Smith for a long time, because they wanted someone else.

Who did they want? I can’t tell you because these people have careers too, but you would laugh. Not as big as Will, though.

How did you conceive of that in your head? We were just discussing how we could destroy the White House. I kind of refused actually because I had done it already. But in this case it made sense because there was a character in the White House, you know the president who stays behind, so we had to deal with it. It was a little bit a given that we had to deal with the White House and I wanted to do it as original as possible so I thought long and hard and then I came up with the JFK aircraft carrier who wipes out the White House.

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