2012 crashes into theaters this weekend with all the destruction you could possibly hope for. A few weeks ago in Wyoming not far from the highly explosive Yellowstone National Park, we got to talk to director Roland Emmerich, John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Chiwetel Ejiofor on their thoughts about big budget action films, the myths behind 2012, and how Roland decides which monuments to destroy and which to leave alone.
If you’re too lazy to read the edited version of the press conference below, you can listen to full press conference here (you might want to skip to about 4 minutes in, there’s a lot of babbling until about 3:10 after Amanda Peet comes in):
What are your personal thoughts of what will happen in 2012?
Roland Emmerich: It is peculiar how 2012 is this date that there are a lot of ideas about it, and we chose the destructive one. I think destruction works better in the movie. The preparations, well, I will go ski. It is December 21st, which is skiing season. I will chose the highest mountain there is. If the world ends, you know, what can I do? If not, I will ski down.
John Cusack: I will try to get on Roland’s trip to be on that mountain.
Amanda Peet: Yeah, can I come?
John Cusack: Do you know the book, The Return of Queztacoatl? That book, I think, is a little more in line with what I think will happen; a shift in consciousness. That seemed to be more of what I think will happen rather than an actual end of days.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: I don’t ski, so I can’t join them. Unfortunately. Besides, I think avalanches are something to worry about, so I’ll just spend it kind of quietly with family and friends and hope for the best. I don’t have a real opinion about 2012. I think it is, like John said, a shift in consciousness. It feels like things are converging and that something has to change, and maybe it will center around that time.
Amanda Peet: I am kind of a hypochondriac, and I worry about a lot of things, so I’m really going try to not worry about it too much.
How much scientific research was done for this script?
Emmerich: From the beginning, there was the Earth’s crust displacement theory, which we found was a theory that was big enough, in a way, to cause all this flooding. That was the main reason why I chose this one. Before we started writing the script, we actually met with a professor of science at USC, in Los Angeles, and asked him how it could all unfold. He told us first that he doesn’t believe in the displacement theory. We asked him if he could give us some insight, and he said the only way this could work is if a molecule mutated into another kind of particle. He said from that moment, all bets are off. No scientist would say that this could not happen because this has never happened before. That was the concept we chose. I also believe that there has some sort of feeling of believability in the movie.
In earlier versions of the script, did you ever have a stronger focus on the cosmology or was that already figured out and get to the disasters?
Emmerich: We discussed that too. We said we wanted a little bit of that at the beginning. First of all, there are so many theories and so many different ways to do it. We just felt it has to be over relatively fast. At the end, it is not only a story about 2012, but it is a modern retelling of Noah’s Ark.
Do you think of this film as a sort of cautionary tale?
Emmerich: I don’t think the film is to warn about anything, so it is not a cautionary tale. It is a cautionary tale in a way, maybe in a way of if this is going to happen, what is important in life and what is savable, and how should we save things. For me, I am always a little suspicious of governments, so it is also an expression of that. Then I always think movies have to be fun. If a movie is not fun, I don’t want to do it.
Cusack: I think it also taps into the paranoia around the world.
Ejiofor: People tend to in tragedies. Obviously, in the tragedies we see in the world now. People tend to find great unity in that. I think that is one of the things this story talks about. I think you have to have a lot of optimism in humanity and people. I think that is part of this story and what it is getting at. There is an inherent good and these things bring them out sometimes.
For the actors, was this the most physical movie you have ever done, and what was it like working in front of a green screen?
Cusack: Yeah, this was pretty action packed for sure. It wasn’t any different than a lot of films, in a way, because of the production design. Usually, you have the entire set built, and then in back of the set would be a green screen. There was a massive production design team working on the set. When we were on the mountain at the end, there would be a huge glacier field and there would be blue screens in the background, so we were always acting with regular sets; it was the backgrounds that were being digitally enhanced…Yeah, a lot of running, jumping, and tumbling. You got to stay stretched out or you could pull a hamstring, for sure.
Ejiofor: I got off pretty lightly being in the government. Yeah, I had a couple of days of fun work, but that was it. I was slightly envious not to be able to work on the shaky floor. It looked pretty cool.
John, what was the hardest thing for you to do in this movie?
Cusack: I thought it was pretty fun actually. It was a great group of people, the story was great, and the studio was great. Roland has done this so many times before. What would be a crushing technical process for other directors, he seems to do very effortlessly, so he just focuses on the characters. I got to work with Amanda again. It was a great part. It was kind of a good gig all the way around.
Amanda, can you talk about you saw your character’s relationship with John’s character when you read the script?
Peet: John’s character was my true love and I was really hurt by different things. I kind of chose a different path. That’s the end of the story. I think that’s how I saw it and obviously.
Chiwetel, how much did you learn from the experience of making Endgame? And what is the importance of helping young filmmakers?
Ejiofor: I had a really interesting time on that project. I didn’t know anything about the talks at all. I knew that Thabo Mbeki had been exiled to London…I knew that they were being hunted down by the secret police in South Africa, but I didn’t know that William Young had organized these talks between the Africans. When I read the script and got involved in the project, I was really amazed by how quiet the story was, how accurate the film is, and how much those talks did progress the movement for the release of Nelson Mandela. I think it is an amazing period of history and a real indication that these negotiated talks can really bring extraordinary results.
Roland, you tend to add in a lot of humor with the disaster films, and this film had a lot of funny dialogue. Did you intentionally try to insert the funny dialogue to offset the catastrophic events?
Emmerich: Yeah, it was a little like that in a way. I had this discussion with, Harold, my co-writer. We kind of asked ourselves what the tone of the movie should be. I always believe that when such an extreme thing happens, and it is about survival, you have to give the people release. If they cannot laugh once in a while, they will not enjoy the movie. We went for the tone of Independence Day, which is similar. For The Day After Tomorrow, I didn’t want to do that because I thought with the theme of the movie, and what I wanted to tell, it was too serious.
Do you like to choose which places you will destroy in your films?
Emmerich: Well, it is not like I walk around and I think, “Well I could destroy this or I can destroy that.” It is like a world tour, “Why did you destroy our city?” It is just the fact that it has to come out of the story. Jackson Curtis lives in LA, and I live in LA. You know, everyone in LA constantly talks about when California will sink into the ocean, and then we just decided to do that. It was like a starting point. Yellowstone Park was kind of intricate in the story too. Yes, we knew in the beginning that we wanted to have certain events and then we kind of followed that. Then sometimes it is born from something quite interesting. For example, at one point, we discussed some part you could not save. For example, the Sistine Chapel and the famous painting where God and Adam touch fingers. I said, “Oh great, we have to show how this gets destroyed.” Then we said, “Well we are already there, why don’t we have the church fall on people’s heads?” I am against organized religion so that is how we thought of it.
Cusack: You have to be careful if you are standing outside the church.
Emmerich: The message is never pray in front of a big church. Pray by yourself. Then there is this funny thing, where we had one angle where you see the Pope in the background, and these shots were done in England by the same guys who did Angels & Demons. They conveniently left out the Pope, and I said, “We have to see a little bit of him. He is the Chairman after all.”
What about the JFK Aircraft carrier destroying the White House?
Emmerich: Again, Harold said, “If you don’t destroy the White House, you will be asked about that.” I said, “ I cannot destroy the White House again.” He said, “Well, just do it in a different way.” At that time, I was reading a lot about the Kennedys. As a kid, maybe about twelve and a half, I visited these old war ships in the Chesapeake Bay and they had just inaugurated JFK there. I was really excited as a kid. It was about a wave, and then you know JFK comes back to the White House. I thought it was kind of clever. I told Harold, “Let’s go for it!”
Roland, you previously mentioned that you are against organized religion and we see these Christian monuments destroyed. Why not do something really controversial and do another Islamic site?
Emmerich: I wanted to do that, but my co-writer, Harold, said, “I will not want to have a target on my head because of a movie.” He was right. In the Western world, we have to think about it.
Did you have any visual references of the destruction to know how to react properly?
Emmerich: It was a Scottish accent.
Peet: Do it John, come on.
Cusack: It was a mascot for me. Does Scottish accent. He is screaming. He is the most fantastic guy in the world.
Peet: You have a camera this close to you, and obviously you are looking at nothing. He would have to narrate, basically bit-by-bit, what tragic [event] we were responding to.
Emmerich: When it comes down to the scene, you want to do it in one take because you cannot ask the actors to do it in pieces. You have to figure out how to do it. Tommy came to me and said, “Okay, give me the key points.” Then we wrote them down and he was just reading them off a piece of paper with great emotion. Everyday he was as enthusiastic as it gets.
Peet: It was hard for us new people to know how to calibrate our responses to this incredible destruction.
Cusack: He had it all rigged out, almost like a video game. You wouldn’t really see it in all it’s detail, but you knew that you were going to be flying through these two buildings with a train going over your head, so you knew the sequence. The planes and the cars were all on hydraulics. When I come to pick them up, there is an entire city block with white picket fences and houses and the whole thing was on hydraulics. A whole city block with cars on it was pulsating, so it was like walking onto a pretty wild set. It wasn’t all green screen and imagination.
You tend to have a lot of melodramatic elements in your films, why do you add in these elements as opposed to just action?
Emmerich: When you tell stories about human beings, some people call it melodramatic. I call it heartfelt and true. I think when you make movies like this, you have to make people laugh, cry, and scared. I try to do that.
Check out the film in theaters November 13th!
- John Cusack on Becoming an Action Star
- Our Roland Emmerich Drinking Game
- Roland Tackles Shakespeare!