Writing Independence Day Became A Frantic Race Against Time

"Independence Day" changed the way the world looked at blockbusters. It's responsible for jump-starting Will Smith's movie career, to the point where Smith was nicknamed "Mr. Fourth of July" as his subsequent films ended up being box office hits that happened to open over the 4th of July weekend (the other was "Men in Black"). It positioned Roland Emmerich as a director who could bring massive action sequences to the screen — sometimes this works (see: "2012") and sometimes it doesn't (see: the 1998 version of "Godzilla" and most recently, "Moonfall".) It's even inspired a host of blockbusters (especially "The Tomorrow War," which flat-out references the film at the beginning of its second act ... and soon makes you wish you were watching "Independence Day" instead.)

Emmerich joined other cast and crew members to give an oral history of "Independence Day" to The Hollywood Reporter last year for its 25th anniversary. During this article, he and former partner Dean Devlin discussed the writing process and how another director's upcoming sci-fi film about invading aliens forced them to write "Independence Day" faster than expected.

'Pack your stuff, we're writing'

The genesis of "Independence Day" came after Emmerich had a meeting with Warner Bros. for a prison escape movie with Harrison Ford — this would eventually become the action classic "The Fugitive." After the meeting, Emmerich bought H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" and that book, coupled with an off-handed comment to Devlin while they were promoting "Stargate," led to the creation of "Independence Day." 

But Emmerich soon heard that Tim Burton was gearing up to do "Mars Attacks," and he didn't want to be beaten to the alien invasion punch:

"I heard through the grapevine that Tim Burton was shooting a movie (Mars Attacks) very close to what I wanted to do. I called up Lorenzo [Di Bonaventura]...I said, 'When is that movie coming out?' He said, 'Well, it's slated for August [1996].' So I immediately looked at my calendar and I said, 'Dean, pack your stuff. We are writing.'"

Heading to Mexico, Emmerich and Devlin wrote the "Independence Day" script in three and a half weeks — and that included storyboards. 

War of the (Studio) Worlds

After finishing the "Independence Day" script, Emmerich and Devlin gave it to their agent Michael Wimer — and sparked off a bidding war in Hollywood. Eventually, 20th Century Fox won out, with Emmerich gaining final cut of the film and the ability to keep the existing script. But the specter of "Mars Attacks," and hesitance over the "Independence Day" title, led to some hesitance from Fox — until Emmerich pulled his weight:

"I told the studio, 'There is this Tim Burton movie. It is a comedy. The comedy cannot come out first. So we have to tie in Independence Day.' At one point Bill Mechanic, who took over the studio, came to me and said, 'We tested the title. It's not working really well. We want to open this movie on Memorial Day.' I said, 'Tough luck. It stays Independence Day. It will be released on Independence Day.'"

Looking back it's hard to believe that "Independence Day" was rushed into existence solely to beat "Mars Attacks" — the former is a more straightforward alien invasion action-adventure, while the latter takes a more satirical approach to the genre. But to quote Ricky Bobby: "If you ain't first, you're last."