“I’m the Robert Altman of action movies… maybe”, Roland Emmerich cheekily offers to a crowd of a hundred. We’re all here to watch a screening of Emmerich’s own Short Cuts — Independence Day. The Altman comparison sort-of works if you squint hard enough. Emmerich takes the Altman blueprint – a large number of interconnected people struggling to maintain and mend their fragile relationships – and then adds a dollop of alien invasion, explosions and, well, more explosions. A lot has changed in the action movie landscape since the 1996 film though. In the quaint 90s, alien invasion films blew up New York or Washington DC. Nowadays – everyone blows up London. Before: explosions would be done practically with miniatures. Now: it’s all computers. Before: William Fichtner would be your go-to ‘crazy’ character actor. Now: William Fichtner is… still your go-to ‘crazy’ character actor.
At the Independence Day Event, Emmerich was joined by cast-members Jeff Goldblum and Vivica A. Fox to reminisce about the original film’s impact and relevance, while also previewing the soon-to-be-released sequel — Independence Day: Resurgence. For highlights from the panel, read below.
Roland Emmerich attributed Independence Day’s continued relevance, twenty years later, to the sincerity of the picture. “The movie wasn’t done to get money or anything” Emmerich confided, “Dean and I just had this idea. We found some great actors and we [did] this movie… It was a relatively innocent approach to a big idea and I think that made the movie successful. People didn’t have the idea that it was selling something.” Vivica A. Fox added that Twentieth Century Fox did a terrific job of keeping the film in the public conscious. “Every Fourth of July, there’s always Independence Day playing. [Fox has] kept it alive for the last twenty years…”
- Jeff Goldblum praised Roland Emmerich and his approach to storytelling. “No one had seen [his] special storytelling…” the actor stated, “It’s been twenty years but no one makes these things like [he does]. It’s from [his] heart. It’s not just visually spectacular, but this whole idea of a world united in the face of adversity… how the world comes together in the darkest hour, how people figure out what’s important to each other and how much they love each other and are united across a national scale.”
- On casting, Emmerich revealed that he and Dean Devlin (co-writer) “already had certain actors in mind” when they were writing Independence Day — in particular Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith. Per Emmerich – “Dean is probably the biggest Jeff Goldblum fan — Buckaroo Banzai and stuff like that. I remember when we were writing we saw Six Degrees of Separation with Will Smith and we said he’s our pilot. We chose people that we loved and then we cast them. It was interesting because we didn’t need to get a superstar. It was clear the movie was more an ensemble piece. When you look at all my movies, they’re all ensemble pieces. When you do that, you can hire great actors — which I think is the most important thing in a film.”
How long did it take Emmerich and Dean Devlin to write Independence Day? “Three weeks,” Emmerich admitted. The writing duo spent their time in Puerto Vallarta coming up with the alien sci-fi romp. “We weren’t swimming a lot” he joked, “We didn’t go to the beach.”
- Seventies disaster films played a big role influencing the structure of Independence Day. According to Emmerich, he and Devlin “watched The Towering Inferno. When you watch [that movie], you see certain characters come in very late. That’s why our pilot [Will Smith] comes in very late. We tried to be inspired by that. I always wanted to make movies with a lot of people… I’m drawn to these kinds of stories. Even when I do a movie like The Patriot, I’m trying to get a lot of characters going. That’s me. I don’t know what to do in movies with two or three people.”
- Emmerich waxed nostalgic for the effects of yesteryear. “At that time [of Independence Day], it was a different world visual effects-wise. I had to do most of it with models and motion control cameras. We had to really build models and explode them in slow motion cameras… Thinking back on it, I get a little bit sentimental because you went on stage and there were these models and they were lit and they looked really good. Nowadays you look at it in a computer and yes – it’s may be better – but it’s just not the same.”
- Vivica A. Fox revealed the wild story behind getting cast in Independence Day: “Twenty years ago, I remember hearing about Independence Day and calling my agent. I said, ‘They’re seeing everybody. How come I’m not getting an audition?’ I was just on a soap opera at the time. I’ll never forget my agent saying ‘Honey – you don’t have a big enough name.’ Two weeks later, I got the call – ‘you’re going to get the opportunity [to audition].’ So I auditioned and took the character very literal. The very first audition, I heard she was a stripper and I showed up in tight, pad-leather white pants and a jumpsuit with the boobs and everything. The casting director told me, ‘It’s a good thing you can act because I wouldn’t have called you back. This character is a stripper with a heart of gold.’ She gave me some instructions for how to return for the call back. She said ‘Go watch Speed and see the girl next door with the heart of gold. Don’t come back here with that pad-leather white outfit.’ I got it though. I had to audition six times… but I’ll never forget getting the call after the sixth audition where they said ‘Vivica – you got the part.’”
Emmerich was actually invited to the White House to screen Independence Day. “Bill Clinton invited us because he’s a science-fiction fan. He watched the movie before anybody else. Hillary actually said to me [after the screening] ‘Wow — it looks like Bill has to get a pilot’s license now…”
- The discussion then turned to the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence. Goldblum revealed the state of his character David Levinson at the beginning of the sequel: ”Since [the first film], I’ve been given this job — Director of Earth Space Defense. It’s my job to be one of the leaders with this new [alien] technology and to anticipate and analyze if anything’s coming back. So there’s new technology from the downed spacecraft that we can use for those purposes. We have a military base on the moon and one on the moon of Saturn, orbiting things, anticipating; but the question of who [the aliens] were is very interesting and some of those questions get answered in this movie. I’ve also used the [alien] technology to handle environmental challenges on the planet. The ‘War of 96’ was a species changing, world defining event. Three billion people died. So we’ve spent twenty years grieving but rebuilding effectively. Not a shot has been fired amongst ourselves. The human family has transcended all religious, political, national petty differences and come together.”
- Will Smith’s character Steven Hiller has passed away in the years between the original and the sequel. Although per Fox, “you’re still going to feel his presence…” How does Fox deal with the death of her husband? “She’s very proud of the sacrifices Steven Hiller made for our country. She mentors Dillon [their son]. It’s just another sacrifice. She embraces it. And I’m so proud of Jessie T. Usher [who plays Dillon]. This is another young man that Roland Emmerich [found]. He has the most amazing presence on screen. I was honored to play his mother.”
Independence Day: Resurgence opens June 24th.
Independence Day was re-released on Blu-ray this week. It’s available everywhere.