Roland Emmerich has made some of the biggest movies of the last decade. Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and now 10,000 B.C. Paul Byrne chats to the director about the new blockbuster opening this week.
Like Emmerich’s previous $100m blockbusters Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC is unashamedly B-movie at heart. Which means we could and should forgive the cliched, Lucas-esque dialogue, and the simpleminded plot – prehistoric young hunk sets out to rescue his prehistoric young babe from slave traders. What’s harder to forgive though is the constantly shifting tone.
One minute, it’s dirty big CGI mammoths being herded by D’Leh (Steven Strait) and his buddies, the next it’s tribe elder, Old Mother (Mona Hammond), having another one of her turns as she sees and feels the fate of her people. Clearly, this is a woman it would be interesting to watch whenever D’Leh finally gets to lay down with the beautiful Evolet (Camilla Belle).
Having said all that, I’d be at pains to describe this movie to anyone in a sentence or two. Apocalypto meets Ice Age meets Jurassic Park? Quest For Fire meets Fraggle Rock?
Roland Emmerich is a man who’s very much aware of the one-sentence pitch. He may have grown up in the country that gave us Fassbinder and Herzog, but his heroes have always been Spielberg and Lucas. And that means, when it comes to making movies, the one-line pitch is king.
If a studio executive can be hooked with that one line, so can the average cinema-goer.
Thirteen years ago, Emmerich and his producing partner, Dean Devlin, hooked the suits at Fox in their Culver City HQ when he pitched Independence Day with the line, “We want to blow up the White House”. So, what line did he use to sell 10,000 BC?
“Ah, no line this time,” answers the German director, with a wry smile. “This is a movie that grew and grew out of a vague notion of wanting to set a movie in those times. There was no flash of lightning, no alien strike, no one big monster coming to crush the world.
“To be honest, it didn’t really take shape until I put ’10,000 BC’ into Google, and the first thing that came up was The Mystery Of The Sphinx, and the theory that it wasn’t the Egyptians who had built these pyramids, but a much earlier civilisation. That was the spark that turned this rescue story into something much bigger.”
Bigger maybe, but better? Emmerich wrote the first draft of the script with composer Harald Kloser, that script getting a rewrite at the hand of John Orloff before the original studio, Sony, decided the project wasn’t for them, and it ended up finding a new home with Warners. Where the script underwent two more drafts, the last being with Robert Rodat, the worked before with Emmerich on 2000’s The Patriot. So, is it the same movie up there on screen, or was it all set in space at one point?
“No, it’s the same movie, at its core,” says Emmerich, “but, of course, points changed, characters changed, the path of the story changed. That’s something that happens every step of the way though, as other people become involved, and you actually start shooting too. You realise that a certain location works better than another, that a certain actor has a better way of delivering what’s on the page.”
The shoot itself may read like the perfect round-the-world jaunt – the crew hitting South Africa, Namibia, southern New Zealand and Thailand – but, with a cast drawn from all over the world, and the great wide, unpredictable open being your studio when you’re not holed up in the special effects department designing scary mammoths and super tigers, well, fun often had to wait.
“This is certainly the most ambitious movie I’ve done,” nods Emmerich, “in terms of locations, of the CGI creatures, the historical detail, right down to what sort of tongue these various tribes might speak. No, it wasn’t always fun…”
Talking of tongues, it was Irishman Brendan Gunn who helped create the fictitious languages that greet D’Leh and his small band of brave warriors as they rally the troops against these “four-legged demons” (actually, warlords on horseback) who’ve raided their village, taking the lovely Evolet with them. So dedicated was Brendan in his job that he became, according to Emmerich, “pretty darn anal”. Nice.
“The man was just so obsessed with getting the languages to sound authentic, and that meant the cast really had to follow his instructions carefully. Get every phonetic just right, every syllable in the right place. It meant a lot to Brendan, and, hopefully, there are a few people out there who can appreciate all his hard work.”
That Emmerich was unable to come up with a simple explanation of what he was aiming for with 10,000 BC unsurprisingly had some studio executives worried.
“It was definitely a problem, not being able to say, well, this one line sums the entire movie up,” says the director. “I felt it just wasn’t one of those movies that could be summed up too quickly, and I would tell them again and again, you’re going to have to wait to see it on the big screen.
“To be honest, I’m not sure if any other director could have gotten this film made. These people were basically trusted my instincts, entirely. They must have reckoned, well, this guy has been right four or five times before, so, let’s trust him.”
Bad move. It’s unlikely that 10,000 BC is going to find an appreciative audience with anyone over the age of 12. Still, you can see why the studios were willing to trust Emmerich. Thanks to movies such as Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, the Stuttgart-born filmmaker has managed to generate almost $2billion at the box-office. Which is nice.
So, does Roland Emmerich still get nervous when one of his movies is about to be unleashed upon the world?
“I think you’re always nervous,” he answers. “It wouldn’t matter if it was a ten million dollar movie or a two hundred dollar movie – you’ve put so much work into it, and other people have trusted you enough to pay for the whole thing. So, yeah, you get nervous. I’ll be able to sleep the night before it opens, but that day will be a long one.”
There’s little chance that, should 10,000 BC receive a bashing from both the critics and the public, that it’ll have the good fortune to ‘fail upwards’, a phenomenon that first occurred with Emmerich’s much-derided Godzilla epic in 1998. Panned by the critics, dissed by the public, and even somewhat disowned by its makers (Emmerich and Dean claiming they’d been forced to rush through the production), Godzilla went on to make $375million at the box-office. Enough people had simply been curious enough to see what all the hype/stink was about. As Spielberg has said of the blockbuster culture that he had heralded in with Jaws, they can sell it before the public can smell it.
“That was a pretty spectacular result,” nods Emmerich, “but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. We ended up making a movie that we weren’t proud of, but the machine was so big, the marketing, the tie-ins, everything else just took over, and we simply weren’t given enough time in the end.
“I learnt some very valuable lessons making that movie. Hopefully, Hollywood learnt a few lessons too…”
Words : Paul Byrne 10,000 BC hits Irish cinemas March 14th
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