Roland Emmerich is an interesting filmmaker who has created large scale action films while trying to maintain a certain level of authenticity and realism. He launched his Hollywood career with action classic Universal Soldier in 1992 and then went onto smash the box office in 1996 with his sci-fi disaster film, Independence Day. Emmerich also directed the disappointing 1998 Godzilla but found huge success with his climate change tale, The Day After Tomorrow. More recently, Emmerich experimented by attempting to tell the battle of Midway through his film of the same name in 2019.
While promoting the DVD and Blu-ray release of Midway, which will be available on March 9th, Emmerich spoke to VultureHound to discuss the challenges of creating Midway, attempting to make the film feel real even with the use of VFX, and also his desire to once again tell a story focused on climate change.
The cast is something that stands out about Midway, with the likes of Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, and Ed Skrein, all delivering very strong performances. However, Nick Jonas isn’t a name I would have associated with this type of film, when did the idea come to cast Nick for the role of Bruno?
I was on a scouting trip in Hawaii, and a friend of mine, Tom Rothman, introduced him to me by telling me he was in their film, Jumanji, and he’s a very good actor, and I should consider him. So that’s the first time I thought, “Hmm, okay.” Then we just gave him the script to see who he’d like to portray, and he came back and said that he had very little time, so what did we think about him playing Bruno Gaido. We said it’s a fantastic idea and shot him in like four or five days, and that was that. I was also very surprised by how good he was and how much he got into the character.
Definitely. I was very impressed with his performance, and I thought his charisma was very suited to the role of Bruno. Did you have a level of expectation for his performance?
Well, I saw him in Jumanji, and in Jumanji, he was also very good. He’s a good actor. There is no doubt about that.
One of the things that sticks out about Midway is the way we’re are just thrust into the thick of the action, as it doesn’t take long for the action to start. Was that an important way for you to capture the suddenness and unpredictability of war, especially in this case, as it was a real war?
It was absolutely clear from the very beginning for me that you cannot tell the story of Midway without the surprise attack of Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor pretty much caused America to get into the war. America was not very prepared to go into the war, and especially with the decision to concentrate on the western front, and coming to the help of England, they pretty much sent Nimitz to the pacific and told him that whatever he can do, do, but don’t expect any support from us. It was amazing how in a very short space of time, Nimitz figured out ways to strike back at the Japanese, and he was like a guy that was a very good leader because he listened to people. He encouraged people, and in that way, it was very important to show Pearl Harbor. Everybody who was fighting in the battle of Midway had lost somebody they knew in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It also ties within the idea that there is not a great deal of character building in this early on, which is probably a little unsettling for audiences because it’s so common in other war films like Hacksaw Ridge, and even your film The Patriot.
Yeah, but the movie kind of slows down after that (laughs) and tries to build some characters. It’s interesting, when you make a war movie, and all of a sudden, you don’t need too much character because most of the time it’s all these people that want to do and want to fight, and then some are very courageous, and some are not. That was very interesting to me. When you read a lot about the battle of Midway, not everybody was like this gung-ho pilot. There were careful ones, all types of different personalities. But for me, Dick Best was the most interesting character because he was a guy that loved to fly, who loved to be quite cocky about his abilities, and then he slowly had to learn responsibility for other people. That was quite interesting to me.
I agree. He certainly was the most compelling character. Even though this story is about a real-life event, you return to a common theme that exists in a lot of your previous films like The Patriot and Independence Day, and that’s how men are forced into a war that they don’t necessarily want. Is that reaction and emotional struggle something that fascinates you?
Yes. I mean, if you look at all my films it’s kind of like the common man has to face these incredible odds, and they have to kind of manage them. I’m also always drawn to multi-character casts, the ensemble movies. It’s interesting for me how you see a group of people, the mechanics in between this group, and also how different people react differently to the challenge. That’s pretty much a common theme in all of my films.
Unlike The Patriot and Independence Day, you didn’t really have the luxury of cinematic liberty if you will because you were trying to create an accurate representation of the WW II time. Is there a positive to making a film like this because you are forced to stay grounded and not go too crazy with VFX or wild action scenes?
Well, it’s quite a different thing for me to do. I’m always trying to do different things. My next movie will be the opposite. It’s all invented and full of fictional characters. But this time it was very interesting to do something like that because all of a sudden, you realise, all these characters we portrayed have real families. They’re still living. It’s their grandfather, you know? And you want to get it right, and kind of honour them in a way. So that was a very interesting experience for me because then you naturally turn to a lot of veterans. You want to hear their stories. You have these historians who give you insight into a lot of things, and then all of a sudden, you feel this responsibility building (laughs). Also, the actors felt that responsibility.
It felt like the perfect film for you because you do claim to be a historian, but the scale of it is still very big, and it’s very cinematic.
Well, I’ve wanted to make this movie for more than twenty years (laughs). It was, for me, a movie about dive-bombing. Torpedo bombing was less and less important than dive-bombing because only dive-bombing was able to kind of hit these carriers accurately. But it’s pretty much all replaced by missiles these days, and there were like people who did that, and that was just fascinating to me. I come a little bit from a similar background; my uncle was also a fighter pilot, and he had a similar experience to Dick Best, he didn’t know that he had tuberculosis until it got activated, and he died because of that. Luckily, Dick Best, after three years in the hospital, made it through. But it’s interesting to kind of put a monument to these people because they risked a lot.
I mentioned VFX, and I saw in another interview that despite this film being very visual effects-heavy, you were keen to make it feel very authentic. What was that battle like because I’m sure it’s not easy, especially considering the scale of some battle scenes?
It was like this, the first thing I told all my visual effects people was that the visual effects have to have a certain quality otherwise we’ll look like idiots. There’s no way you can make a movie like this using real things because nothing exists anymore. You have some planes that have different colours, but you cannot use them for filming, and all the carriers that still exist got altered in the sixties. It was clear that we had to kind of create everything. You learn relatively fast that every one of these characters had to feel real, so you had to, first of all, get the right actors for it. Then you had to talk to them and tell them that you have to figure this out and give them reality, which is not easy.
So there was a lot of discussion on the set about how to make them real and how to make this real, and then when you come to the flying scenes, it’s super difficult. We had a fighter pilot always sitting next to me. A guy called Scratch (laughs). He was constantly teaching and telling them whether they were leaning the wrong way, or doing other things wrong, and that kept them really, really focused. They were not only acting, but they were trying to imitate flying. They also wanted to please this fighter pilot by doing it all right (laughs). These kinds of things really helped the actors to make it feel real.
You spoke about how you were happy that this film was made today as opposed to twenty years ago because of its relevance to today’s political climate. Another film of yours, The Day After Tomorrow, dealt with climate change, and after seeing unfortunate incidents as we have seen in Australia, do you think that’s a subject that we need to revisit?
I actually want to revisit it. That movie came out in 2004, and it was kind of the first time everybody had kind of heard about it. The next year, An Inconvenient Truth came out, which kind of enforced it. But I’m amazed that after all these years, we have done nothing. Really, really nothing, and there is definitely another movie on this whole subject. Think about it, you have climate change, and that means people cannot live anymore in the area they are kind of situated, so they become refugees. But not only a couple of million, hundreds of millions, and that I think is worth a movie.
MIDWAY is out now on Digital Download and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD 9th March