It’s been just over 25 years since German writer-director Roland Emmerich started making films in Hollywood. In his case, making films translates as dazzling viewers with scenes of rampant destruction, sometimes caused by creatures (“Godzilla”), others times by alien - as in intergalactic - forces (“Independence Day”), yet others by natural elements that have gone unnatural (“The Day After Tomorrow”). But that sort of mayhem hasn’t been Emmerich’s only palette. “The Patriot” was about the Revolutionary War, “Anonymous” went at the mystery behind the works of William Shakespeare, and “Stonewall” looked into the birth of the gay rights movement in late-’60s New York City.
Emmerich seems to enjoy jumping back and forth between big blowouts of chaos and smaller, character-based films. His newest, “Midway,” takes on a bit of both types. It’s the true story of the Battle of Midway, during which the David-like American Navy went up against the Goliath of the Japanese Navy in the late-spring 1942. It was, as is flashed across the screen at the film’s start, the turning point in the naval war for the Allies. Emmerich tells the story through the eyes of the military leaders and the fighting men on both sides. It’s one of his talkiest films. But don’t worry, there’s action to spare.
Emmerich, 63, spoke about the film and his career by phone from a publicity stop in Stockholm.
Q: You made your first feature film “Franzmann” 40 years ago. What got you interested in this career?
A: I’ve always loved movies. I was one of those kids who, if I wasn’t going to a movie at least two or three times a week, I was unhappy. I was eventually accepted by the film school in Munich, but before I went there, I visited a friend in Paris, and I saw an English version of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on the Champs-Élysées. That was a kind of religious moment for me. That was when I realized it was what I wanted to do with my life.
Q: It was quite a few years later when you came to America to make “Stargate.” Did you know by that time that you had made the right career choice?
A: I had done did four movies in Germany before that, and I wasn’t sure if directing was the right thing for me. But when I came to America, I thought, let’s see what happens. I have to say that “Stargate” was a movie that I always wanted to do. Then when I did it, it was the first movie that was completely me, where I cowrote the script and helped produce it. And luckily it turned out to be relatively successful.
Q: So, the success of that movie allowed you to make the even more-successful “Independence Day?”
A: Well, after “Stargate,” all of a sudden everybody wanted to do movies with me. But I said, “No, I’m doing my own thing.” I had a dream of doing a big alien invasion movie, but I also had the idea to combine that with another genre I really liked, which is ’70s disaster movies. So, I kind of combined those two genres with “Independence Day.”
Q: Is it true that you thought about making “Midway” back then?
A: It was after “Godzilla.” I wanted to do something very different. I came across a documentary about the Battle of Midway and it felt like it was the right story to do. I immediately saw that it was the biggest comeback story in WWII. The Japanese Navy was the most powerful navy in the world, and the Americans were good but had faulty little planes and equipment.
Q: There were so many now-familiar names involved in Midway, from Admiral Nimitz to Vice Admiral Halsey to Lieutenant Doolittle, all of whom are in the film. Why did you choose to focus on the pilot Dick Best?
A: I was working with a young screenwriter, Wes Tooke. We discussed a lot how to approach the story. For me it was important to include Pearl Harbor at the beginning and then we went through all the characters that could be important. I was enticed to use a dive-bombing pilot. An interesting thing about Dick Best is that he’s described pretty well in his best friend Clarence Dickinson’s book (“The Flying Guns: Cockpit Record of a Naval Pilot from Pearl Harbor Through Midway”) where it said he had this wild streak to him, and of course, he was a great pilot.
Q: Were you making this film as much for audiences who love history as for those who go for the visual effects of battle scenes?
A: You know, these days you have to figure out how to get people to go to movies which have original content. I always knew it had to be really opulent. I love the dive bombing. I thought what these guys did and how they did it was just incredible. But I also had the feeling, during these times, with nationalism on the rise again, and rightwing parties all over the world, that it’s good to remind people that there were at one point some young Americans who lost their lives fighting fascists.
Q: One of your most popular films was “The Day After Tomorrow,” which back in 2004 warned about our impending climate problems. Did you become a hero to environmental groups for making that?
A: Well, a little bit. I also donated a lot of money to them (laughs), so that definitely made me a hero. Look, I’m still deeply concerned about the subject. When you look at it, not much has happened. It’s actually accelerated. It’s a catastrophe. I think people have no idea what’s going to happen. My outlook is a pretty dark one.
Q: You’ve been a prolific filmmaker. Are you already working on your next one?
A: Yes, it’s called “Moonfall” and I start shooting in April.
Q: Is it another science-fiction film?
A: Yes. It’s about the moon falling on Earth, but the moon is not what we think it is. It’s going to be kind of a classic Roland Emmerich film.
“Midway” opens on Nov. 8.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.