Midway Director Roland Emmerich Talks Blending History With Spectacle

Filmmaker Roland Emmerich has specialized in films that draw on a fantastical premise and play them out in blockbuster scale, like Independence Day, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow. But for his most recent project, the World War II drama Midway and its focus on the theater of war in the Pacific, he blended his flair for spectacle with a reverence for the realities and costs of war and the real people who rise and fall in battle.

With Midway making its debut on home video February 18th and already available on digital, Emmerich joined ComicBook.com for a look at how he changed up his established filmmaking patterns to infuse the film with the kind of historical import and real-world impact the incidents in the Pacific conveyed, while still tacking the technical challenge of using modern digital tools to accurately recreate the war zone of the era.

midway movie blu ray cover
(Photo: Lionsgate)

ComicBook.com: Now that you had time to get the film out to the audience and to get the reaction – especially from people in military service and the veterans that are still with us from that era – how did that affect you?

Roland Emmerich: I was very touched by their reaction because they really, really liked the movie a lot. You hear back from people: they kind of send you notes and stuff, and the overall reaction was really, really amazing. We still are doing veterans screenings. It's an ongoing thing.

For you to really delve into that story in that moment in history, how did it affect you digging that deep to be able to make this movie? Did you come out of that process a little changed?

Well, it's, for me, sort of a first, where I tried to be as accurate as possible, so a lot of research went into it. You'll always learn a lot of things, but you also get a real respect for the people who you portray. You all of the sudden feel this incredible responsibility, because a lot of these families of these guys who fought, they still exist. And you have that responsibility to do them right.

The other thing is that, which also was quite interesting, just how the actors in this movie also took on that responsibility. They had all their own research going on. They tried to contact people from the families, etc. Some visited the graves, really went to the Nimitz Museum in Texas somewhere, so there was a lot of this feeling of what they're doing here, important people history, and they have to all do it right. You feel a responsibility.

I was very interested in the way you handled the tone because you were able to deliver on the spectacle of what was happening with the warfare, but also do it in a respectful way and a sincere way of telling the story. Tell me how you went about striking the right tone of making a visually sumptuous and entertaining film, but doing it with the proper degree of paying tribute to what that moment in time meant.

Well, when you analyze the film, you realize all this stuff that, at the end, when normally in a war movie, the cheering starts. But there is no cheering, because war is not a good thing. You don't want to in any way feel somebody cheering anything, because also what you'll realize pretty fast is the enormous loss on both sides. Both the Japanese and the Americans, they lost enormous amounts of equipment and people. And naturally, these pilots who survived and won the battle had lost many, many of their friends. You cannot cheer the moments like that.

Also, what was really, really important for me, is that you can show bravery, but also people who are not that brave, who just feel that it's their duty to go out there, and are super happy that they survived it. Because I know this also from my dad: whenever he talked about the war, and he was on the German side, he always said, "You were just happy that it was over." And that was a feeling I tried to infuse into the film, because I guess the Americans won, but it was not a feeling of victory, really. My message was really for everybody: "Look, these guys risked their lives, and a lot have died for freedom and democracy against fascism.” That's what my underlying theme of the whole film.

One of the great things about a movie like this coming out on home video is that people can freeze frame and slow it down and really explore all of the details that you put on screen. Is there something that you'd like to point people to, to say, "Hey, if you really want to spelunk around in this film, here's some extra things you can look for,"?

I think there's some features on the DVD that's probably interesting for people to see, because the amazing thing about this film, when I finally was able to do it, I realized very fast there's nothing existing. One of us had to film so we had to create everything I learned in real effects or in the computer. And that was just such a big undertaking. And normally in movies, you can find some locations, something. But in this one, we couldn't. There was nothing existing.

And so what you do is you build everything, and you recreate everything. We built planes, we built flight decks of aircraft carriers, we built the inside of aircraft carriers. It was a huge undertaking, and that we did it all for the money we had was a just a miracle, that this all worked out.

Because it's history, it's hard to envision any actual sort of sequel. But in franchise-driven Hollywood, would you be interested in more films kind of in this vein? To continue sort of the themes in the territory you explore in Midway?

Well, maybe. I don't plan anything right now. I have two or three other projects I want to tackle next. I'm already preparing my next movie, which we shoot in May. And then after that, I have one or two or three other projects. You always have to plan ahead in this business because these projects don't come out of thin air.

And I also tend to develop my own movies, so I'm not like, “Let's take a script and then shoot it.”

What can you say about Moonfall, your next film, in terms of the thing that got you creatively excited about doing it?

I've just been forever fascinated by the Moon. I don't know why that is, but I'm just fascinated by the Moon. And one day I read a book called "Who Built The Moon" by two English guys and I was just so fascinated. And then I came up with this story off the Moon falling to Earth, but the Moon is not what we think it is.

And that it's such a simple idea, but it's also a really complex idea because then you have to all of a sudden say, "Oh, what is the Moon? Who built the Moon? Why is the Moon there? Why is the Moon falling? What can we do against it? How can we stop it? Where do we come from? Where is life coming from? How is Earth's only system we know of where life exists?" It's all these questions all of a sudden come up, and that's a super interesting subject for me.

With all of the filmmaking expertise that you've developed throughout the course of your career, how do you try to challenge yourself with each new film? Do you have ways that you look for to up your own game every time out?

Well, I mean since Midway, I'm back into the independent film industry. It’s quite a different feel because all of a sudden I have to ... I mean Midway, I had to shoot in 55 days, and that was quite difficult. And my next movie I have 65 days. That's a change, and then you constantly try to create new challenges for you.

For me, this was a real challenge to make a historic, accurate film about a naval battle because everybody said, "You're crazy. Nothing exists. This water – how do you want to do all that?" And I said, "We'll figure it out." And that's just what keeps you on your toes. And trust me, there were a couple of moments in Midway where I was saying, "Oh my God. How are we ever, ever going to finish this film?" But we did, and that's what keeps you on your toes and just gets you motivated.

I have to say, I just love shooting films. That's my favorite thing in the world.

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Midway is available now on Digital HD and hits Blu-ray and DVD on February 18th.

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