With his new movie, the prehistoric adventure 10,000 BC, Emmerich is indeed credited as co-writer, producer and director. That's pow-wah, as he might say himself in his heavily accented English. I ask him whether he thinks in terms of words, spreadsheets or pictures and he laughs. “All three again”, he says, “but it always comes back to the concept. I got the idea for this film when I saw a documentary about mammoth hunting and how our early ancestors would have hunted these huge animals. From that original spark, it’s a long process until the day we start shooting, but once you have the idea and you believe in it, it’s the perfect start”.
In 10,000 BC, a young hunter from a struggling tribe (played by Steven Strait) leads a vast army across an enormous desert to rescue the woman he loves (Camilla Belle) from slavery, battling a menagerie of toothy prehistoric creatures along the way. The film is typically Emmerich in its sense of scale and dedication to thrills, the story playing second fiddle to the spectacle. So, from the initial idea, did 10,000 BC turn out like he envisioned? “I start out with a movie in my head, but that movie can never be made? How could you do that?” he asks himself. “There is compromise every step of the way, on every aspect of the film. You always end up with a different film, but you work very hard to stay true to the overall vision. Things go because of time and budget.” He waves them away with a flick of his hand. “But sometimes, it can work out better than you imagined. We got heavy snowfall on location and that was definitely not part of the plan, but I had no choice but to work with it and I love it now”.
Snow in the desert, I say, that must have been difficult to stage-manage? “Tell me about it”, Emmerich replies, “this was the hardest movie I’ve made so far, because we shot 98% of it outside, on location in the desert, in all kinds of weather. Madness, ja? We were battling the elements and the location, re-writing whole scenes in our little trailer in this blizzard”. Emmerich taps frantically on the tabletop in front of him. “Then the snow would melt, naturally, and we’d be back in the trailer, type type type!”
Even though his self-consciously epic film is entirely invented, Emmerich was determined to deliver honest thrills when it came to the prehistoric monsters. “We took a lot of liberties with the timeline and the characters but the animals are super accurate. A sabre toothed tiger really was that big. They have found these simply enormous skulls. Terrifying. And the mammoths were terribly powerful and so, so dangerous. We took time over that and we did a lot of research to make those creatures as realistic as possible. Everything else is a fantasy, but you know, I don’t pretend to be making documentaries”. He laughs heartily to himself at the very idea. “As a film director, my job is to tell an entertaining story.”
Pyramids feature strongly in the second half of 10,000 BC, when the searchers come across a huge stone city built beside a river, where tens of thousands of enslaved workers are building a massive structure in the desert. Earlier, Emmerich had mentioned in passing a lost, ancient civilisation, so I asked him what is it about these pseudo-historical mysteries that fires his imagination? “I believe that these early pyramid builders lived alongside early man, for a long time. There are tantalizing hints in the archaeological record. Only the three pyramids of Giza were claimed by the ancient Egyptians, nobody knows for sure who built the others. Around that time and place, there are so many amazing discrepancies. The Sphinx has water marks high up on the stone that were created in 7,000 BC. Did you know that the pyramids are aligned to the star map of Orion, as it was 12,000 years ago? Isn’t that fascinating? Why would they do that and how? Those are interesting questions to me.”
I make the observation that his obsession with ancient Egypt goes all the way back to his second American studio film, the sci-fi adventure Stargate. “Oh, it goes back further than that”, he replies. I remember being 17 years old and standing in front of these extraordinary structures in Cairo. The pyramids have this otherworldly, timeless quality. They are incredibly simple but also deeply complex and mysterious. The experience of being there has stayed with me all my life, and it informs my thinking still.” I go on to say that the two films also share the same science-fiction idea that this ancient society was ruled by alien gods, but Emmerich stops me. “They’re not really gods in 10,000 BC. The leader of the pyramid-builders is from beyond the ocean, not the stars. We never use the word, but I always thought of this king as coming from Atlantis, you know, with advanced technologies for building and making war, those huge ships, that level of organization”.
Another common theme running through Emmerich’s films, and it’s fair to say, a lot of American studio movies, is the relationships between fathers and sons. “Oh, yes”, says Emmerich, “and you know what, I am told it’s in almost every movie I have made but I only realised it for myself when I made my last movie, The Day After Tomorrow. I’m not doing it on purpose, it’s just how these stories turn out, and I really cannot explain it. I had a very good relationship with my own father, who died two years ago, so it’s really not a personal thing.” For Emmerich, regardless of the time and place, the far past or the distant future, the same elemental rules of storytelling apply. “I think it started at the time of this movie, around the camp fire, the first beginnings of the myth of the hero which is the same one we have today. We knew we were writing a hero myth, an old-fashioned story of a selfless man taking responsibility for others. We were thinking the same way when writing the character of Old Mother, who can see visions of the future. Heroes and oracles are basic and ancient parts of telling stories”.
Story aside, Emmerich is best known for his extravagant special effects sequences; huge and hugely expensive scenes that punctuate his films with thrills. Some of his most spectacular moments, like blowing up the White House or flooding New York, have become classic moments in popcorn cinema. He has always wanted to make big, bold statements. “My very first film in Berlin Film School was a science fiction movie with lots of special effects called The Noah's Ark Principle, about weather control. It was on a much cheaper budget, naturally, but the effects were as good as I could make them. Everybody else had two guys talking about philosophy in a small room, but not me. It’s fun to do something that nobody’s ever seen before. Even though I know how the trick is done, I still see the magic even now.”
I tell him that I couldn’t imagine an Emmerich movie as a dialogue-driven chamber piece and he leans forward to tell a story. “My ideas of film are a reaction to what was happening when I was growing up in Germany. I’m 53 now and when I was coming of age, all you could see were Wim Wenders and Fassbinder films, what they called the New Cinema. I couldn’t relate to them, that kind of film didn’t interest me at all. I was drawn to movies like ET or Star Wars or anything by John Carpenter. I saw Close Encounter of the Third Kind in Paris, when I was a student. I was already in film school, but I really wanted to be a production designer. Spielberg blew me completely away. I came out and for the first time I thought, ‘I want to be a director’”.
Emmerich made his name in Hollywood with his first four studio films, science-fiction adventures like Universal Soldier, Stargate and the global blockbuster Independence Day. Since then, the director has enjoyed mixed fortunes; the costly and attention-seeking failure of his Godzilla remake would have been enough to destroy any career. Emmerich found the taint of the giant Japanese mutant lizard a hard one to shake off and the silence that followed its release brought about a re-think in his approach to the business. The director is unusual in that he funds the pre-production on all of his films from his own pocket, before selling them to studios, fully formed. “I am an outsider in Hollywood now” he says. “The normal way of doing things is to wait for the phone to ring or a script to arrive. I have my own creative process and I like to be in control. I make the decisions and I take the risks. When I think it’s ready, I present it to the studio. That’s how I like it and luckily, most of the time, it works out.”
When I ask him about his next film 2012, he advises me to “go check the internet”. When I gently press him for more detail, he laughs and says when the idea came to him last year, the first thing he did was turn go online for information. “It’s about this ancient Mayan prophesy that says that in 2012 the world will face a huge change. All I’ll say is that it is a disaster movie. I’m not telling you anything more”. Another disaster? What is the fascination with killing us all off? “Well, it’s nothing personal, you know, but it's not just my obsession. The fear of witnessing the end of the world is a universal phenomenon. It’s there in all people, all cultures. I really hope it doesn’t happen”, he says with another laugh, “but if it does, I can always say, ‘I told you so!’.”