Roland Emmerich on ‘Anonymous’

The epic action filmmaker on his Elizabethan period piece, that Asteroids movie, Isaac Asimov's Foundation and his new original sci-fi film, Singularity!

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

We usually don’t see Roland Emmerich this time of year, with a fall awards-potential movie. Anoynmous is a story articulating the theory that William Shakespeare did not write the classic plays attributed to him. It played at the Toronton Intenrational Film Festival and opens October 28, right when voters start getting serious about their movies. I also tried to talk Emmerich back into directing Astroids and got updates on the Foundation trilogy and Singularity when I interviewed him for Anonymous.


CraveOnline: Have you ever had a festival movie before?

Roland Emmerich: Yes, my first one. The Principal of Noah’s Ark was in competition in Berlin.


Between then and now, how different is the festival scene?

Not so different. Festival-wise, no. I was kind of the art person then and I’m thinking the art person now.


Obviously a filmmaker can make any kind of movie they want, but do you think people will call this your serious movie?

Well, is it? It is kind of a different kind of movie from what I normally do. I’m always saying, like why did you do it, well, I’m older. Definitely one of the reasons but I would love to once in a while do a movie like this without giving up my big tentpole movies I just love to do. I’d love to do in between smaller, more personal movies.


What is your unique take on a costume drama?

The first time I realized it was when I did The Patriot, because on The Patriot I was not very happy with what they did as matte paintings. I was just very unsatisfied but I like very much what they did with crowd multiplication digitally in the battle scenes. So I said that one day there will come a time where we make historical films very cheaply, because we have visual effects. This movie cost a fraction of what it actually looks like. People are always super surprised when they hear what the budget of this film was. It’s the first movie that proves that actually through visual effects, you can make a historical drama much, much cheaper.


But tonally also, you’re not doing the Jane Austen type of period piece.

No, as a director you always try to find the appropriate style of what it is. The movie had to be very realistic in a way. But also I love humor so we show that William Shakespeare from Stratford is actually the comic relief character.


Do you believe the authorship conspiracy like John Orloff does, or is it just a good story to tell?

First of all, whenever people use the word conspiracy, they want to belittle these people. I had a long discussion with Oliver Stone about that. Whenever they say conspiracy theory, then watch out because our society is like everybody who asks questions which hurt the establishment, they will always be called conspiracy theorists. In the old days they called them something else but now we call them conspiracy.


I should call it the alternative theory of Shakespeare’s authorship. I didn’t mean to belittle it, but do you agree with it?

Yes, I agree with Orloff fully and pretty much his script introduced me to the subject matter. I read up on it and I’m still reading as we speak. After nine years, I’m still reading books about it. Every year two or three books are out. I also read the other side. I also read Stratfordian books because I want to see if they can convince me. I’m 100% right now convinced that the man from Stratford hasn't written it. I’d like to think that Oxford wrote it but we’ll probably never know.


Isn’t the angle not to criticize Shakespeare but to celebrate the actual author of these plays?

And that’s what we’re doing. We’re celebrating the work of William Shakespeare, making a big deal out of it. No other movie exists where it’s not like William Shakespeare plays themselves where you see so much Shakespeare being performed in a way that’s as realistic as you can possibly do it.


What was your take on the theatrical performances with all the blood and stage effects?

What you realize is that Shakespeare’s plots were pretty wild. There are people who get their heads hacked off. That’s one thing. At the center of most of Shakespeare’s plays were this young prince who is a juror for himself and his position in court. It’s a lot about succession. We tried to get all the Shakespeare themes and put them in our movie but then on the other hand show Shakespeare’s version on stage. Perform those publicly. Our set piece of the movie was Hamlet because they always say that’s the most autobiographical. Even the Stratfordians think it’s another height of writing.


It reminds me these weren’t the stuffy British plays that are performed now. They were the blockbusters of their time.

Yes, and the audience must have been incredibly smart and intelligent because 90% of the audience which watched could not write or read, but they could listen. These writers like Shakespeare or Ben Jonson had to trick the censorship. Look at what Shakespeare did in his plays, that he never got arrested is only an indication that he must have been very high in court. The secret that actually he wrote it was very well guarded. Ben Jonson and others got arrested for much less.


Is ‘Asteroids’ the blockbuster you were born to make?

No. I will not make that because it’s a little bit like what happens with the internet nowadays. I thought it was a very, very good script. I told the producer who offered it to me that I’m very honored and I think it’s a really, really great project, but I had just written with my writing partner Harald, finished Singularity. I had to ask myself, so what do I want to do? Approach Asteroids which has a great, great script or my own project? I decided for my own project.


It just seems if there’s anyone who can do Asteroids, it’s you.

Yes, but it’s not going to happen.


It’s dangerous territory too, because it’s a video game.

That’s also what was holding me back a little bit. Video games, it’s a little bit like a joke because the original game is more like an arcade game where you shoot upwards, but they wrote a great script. It’s amazing.


Do you have any progress on ‘Foundation?’

Hopefully pretty soon because I get my next script of that project in two or three weeks.


Is that just the first script or all three?

No, no, no, we want to make a trilogy and it’s very complicated and tough to do because on the one hand, you want to stay true to the series of novels. On the other hand, Asimov was famously against action. He didn’t like action, and a movie of that size needs action. So you’re already doing something where a lot of hardcore Asimov fans will start throwing stones at you. Then I think to totally go away from it like I, Robot did, I would never do. So I try to keep everything like it is but also a coherent story that works as a film, so it’s very, very difficult.


What is ‘Singularity’ going to be?

Singularity is about the future. It takes place on earth in 40 years. It’s a story of what happens when we as humans finally created a singularity, which means we created a being that’s a computer but also has consciousness. This being very well could decide that we are unnecessary.


That’s a concept of a lot of science fiction. Do you think a sentient computer being would not be friends with us?

In our story, it’s actually that they download human brains and you know how humans are. They can be good or bad. The creator just puts the right person in, but then this person has to fight off another person which was evil and bad.


Or there’s the other side where the artificial intelligence are kind and the humans are mean.

Yes, but for a movie, I think it’s better. It’s always good to give warnings. I think warnings make better movies than benign things. The two big exceptions are E.T. and Close Encounters which proves me wrong, but the rest is pretty much [cautionary.]