'Midway' Director Roland Emmerich On Crafting A WWII Epic And The Worst Moment Of His Career [Interview]

For much of the 1990s, Roland Emmerich was the king of blockbuster cinema. The Stutgart born director found in Hollywood the perfect toolbox for his grand visions, hitting big with sci-fi thrillers like Stargate and Independence Day, the late-90s Godzilla chapter, and old-school disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. After 2016's sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, he returns to the big screen with his Word War II epic Midway.The film, with an ensemble including the likes of Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa, Mandy Moore and Dennis Quaid, tells the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual battle in the mid-pacific through the eyes of these characters. Splitting the decision-making of the leadership from quotidian bravery (or cowardice) of the regular soldier, the film's expansive look at the battle rarely descends into dogma, instead tries through its mix of spectacle and character beats to provide a thrilling film that still feels at its core more than mere escapism./Film spoke to Emmerich about this push to provide nuance in the telling of the story, how other productions shaped the long genesis of this production, and what how he feels the creation of these kinds of stories have changed over the last few decades.Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarityYou are a German-American, doing a film about the Pacific war that humanizes both sides of the conflict. Can you talk about your own conflicts and expectations and realizations in this project?I am German, and heard war stories from my dad, but not constantly. We knew that he was not a party member. He told us, look, there were the Nazis, even we didn't like them. It was a small group of people who felt totally entitled. Always watch out – when you look at history, don't believe certain things. 20 years ago I saw a documentary about Midway. I realized the Japanese were this rigid culture and for whatever reason they attacked. It was actually Yamamoto designing the whole thing, but they got unlucky because the aircraftcarriers were gone. Yamamoto just knew that if these aircraft carriers would survive the Japanese would lose the war. The Americans were already building two or three more, while the Japanese had problems with getting metal and oil and stuff. Yamamoto knew that in the long run they cannot win, so it was this whole chess game between Nimitz and the Japanese Navy. I thought it was super interesting story to tell. In the middle of all this are the sailors, the pilots, the radio men and all of these people who just do their jobs. There are brave ones, there are not so brave ones, there are daredevils, there are more reserved guys, so it was just this mix of all of these people in one movie. Your film reminded me a little bit of Das Boot, how we're thrust into the centre of what is taking place and we are feeling. Were there other projects that you looked to for inspiration?My favourite movie is A Bridge Too Far. When the Midway project first discovered, Sony's Columbia Tri-Star division was really excited about it. I went to actually William Goldman in New York and he wanted to write it. I was super excited about it, but then we learned somebody said at one point, Roland, what do you think this will cost? I said, well, at least, maybe even $150 million. Then everybody said uh oh. John Kelly, who was then running the studio, had to go back to the Japanese and they said categorically no, they weren't going to spend $150 million a movie where they lose the battle. The last time there was a major Pearl Harbor film, Michael Bay went out of his way to show that somehow the Americans kinda won at Pearl Harbor. It's so historically fatuous. Without denigrating a colleague, I'm just wondering if you could talk about the pitfalls you saw on this film to try to avoid?Pearl Harbor was done in the 90s, this was a different time. I'm actually friends with the writer.You yourself were making lots of these 90s films.I did some of them too. But it was just a different time. And they used Spitfires! Why? Because they had some Spitfires. They still have some in Hawaii and they offered them to me and I said they're wrong. We don't use Spitfire, we use SPDs, Dauntless, and all of these kinds of things. Because of Pearl Harbor, I had to wait years to make Midway. In Hollywood, you cannot say, oh, somebody's doing Pearl Harbor, next year comes Midway.Although White House Down in proximity to Olympus Has Fallen happens sometimes. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career! Don't talk about it! [laughs]. Ants to Bug's Life, etc.Don't talk about it, really. It's like depression sets in. I had no idea when I took White House Down that the other film existed. So you felt greater pressure in 2019 to be more accurate.I think filmmakers more and more realize when you do something historical, you have to do it absolutely correct.That being said, you still have to tell a story, and you have to heighten a story and there's a balance between being documentary and being truthful. We still do that. Everything plot-wise that happens and is portrayed in the film really happened. Then what they talk about, the dialogue, that's a whole different story, because who knows what Dick Best said? Was he laying on the bed with his wife discussing all of this? Who knows?The fact that you have a character named Dick Best seems preposterous. Ed Skrein was crying at the very beginning when he read the script. He Googled "Dick Best" and all he got porn sites! [laughs]Is there something specific you can point to that you know you had to aggrandize for the sake of narrative? Is there stuff that was almost too big that nobody would believe it, but was in the film?We had a couple of moments where we just cut things a little bit shorter. That thing where the guy rides on a torpedo and stops it with his feet? It just happened exactly that way, but they all returned. There was stuff like that we had to just tone it a little bit down and it worked. But that's why you always test movies. We have to test movies – there's no way around it, nobody likes it, but everybody knows it's necessary. For filmmakers this is always the worst time. You invite like 450 film critics to your movie and say fill something out. But they're not critics, per se, they're general audience. Sometimes, with critics, I think you'd get something different, and not always something better. Maybe better, most of the time worse, I tell you, this movie tested as well as Independence Day. I'm just saying.Speaking of Independence Day, that was known for its groundbreaking effects, this huge extravaganza. Midway also feels like an enormous undertaking on that front. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, have you found that the tools have made these films be able to be made in a way, or are you finding that the budgets are now so crazy that you are in some ways limited?You could not ever make this with models. I mean, yes, they did it for Tora! Tora! Tora!, but it doesn't hold up. People are so sophisticated these days, they know immediately if this is this or that. When you have a war movie, you'd better have good visual effects, otherwise, you disqualify yourself. But I can tell you one thing, I still miss going into a stage where there are models and you just shoot them and you explode them and there's a certain magic which is gone. It's now all on a computer.Would this have been a 40 million dollar film instead of a 150 million dollar film if you did it with models?It would have been more expensive. With CGI, when you have once built a carrier and you have figured out the water and everything, you can make all kinds of different lights, different shots. When you do this with models, to get this together with the water and everything, it would have been more complicated and difficult. This was actually Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer's problem when they did Pearl Harbor. They had to cut down their budget from $180 to $138 million. And that was only from visual effects. I believe that too many visual effects is also not good for a film anyhow. That said, I'm quite amazed at how we got this movie made and shot in 65 days without any second unit, with no long days. In cash we spent only like 76 or 77 million dollars. But, look at the movie! Everybody else would think this cost $150 or 170 million or so!