Though he was raised on a steady diet of independent-minded German filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, director Roland Emmerich aspired early in his career to make blockbuster Hollywood movies. After making a name for himself by helming "The Noah's Ark Principle" (1981), the most expensive student film ever made in Germany, Emmerich crossed the Atlantic Ocean to make mainstream studio films. His first, "Universal Soldier" (1992), was an unexpected hit, which paved the way for him to direct his pet project, "Stargate" (1994). Along with writing and producing partner, Dean Devlin, Emmerich established himself as a resourceful sci-fi specialist who earned a reputation for meticulous preparation and remarkable cost-efficiency. Emmerich launched himself to the top of the Hollywood food chain with "Independence Day" (1996), a big, loud, sci-fi film that was long on computer-generated special effects but short on narrative and character development. Despite the campy, clichéd storyline and action sequences, the film made a name for the director. He went on to direct several big budget mega-disaster flicks like "Godzilla" (1998), "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) and "10,000 B.C." (2008), all of which were panned by critics, lambasted by experts for lack of authenticity and gobbled up by audiences clamoring to see the destruction of the world through variously wild scenarios. By the time he directed "2012" (2009), Emmerich was by far one of the few directors capable of consistently making critically-derided movies that nonetheless made enormous amounts of money.
Born on Nov. 10, 1955 in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, Emmerich was raised the son of Hans Emmerich, the wealthy owner of Solo, a successful garden equipment manufacturing company. Originally intending to become a production designer when he enrolled at the University of Television and Film Munich, he switched to filmmaking after watching "Star Wars" (1977). Immediately casting off the influence of New German Cinema heroes Fassbinder and Wenders, Emmerich instead became enamored with Hollywood movies. He made an immediate impression while still a film student with his first feature, "The Noah's Ark Principle" (1981), reportedly the most expensive student project ever produced in Germany. After opening the competition section of the 1984 Berlin Film Festival, the tense tale of two astronauts trapped in a futuristic space lab eventually played in more than 20 countries. The film's financial success allowed Emmerich to launch his own production company, Centropolis Films, through which he produced many of his subsequent projects. Thrift and inventiveness became necessary professional trademarks, as he financed his first five films out of his own pocket.
Looking early to America as a market, Emmerich began making English-language films with his second feature, "Making Contact/Joey" (1985), a laboriously Spielbergian affair about an 11-year-old with telekinetic powers that demonstrated the director's flair for visual fantasy. He followed with "Ghost Chase" (1988), a leaden teenage fantasy about breaking into the movie business, followed by the sci-fi action thriller "Moon 44" (1990), which introduced him to future collaborator Dean Devlin, who at the time appeared as an actor in the film. Brought to the United States at the behest of producer Mario Kassar, the director was tapped to direct his first major film, "Isotar," an ill-fated action flick that was to cost $90 million and star Sylvester Stallone, until the financing company went under and took the film with it. Emmerich moved on to direct "Universal Soldier" (1992) a minor, but entertaining sci-fi adventure which paired action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam vets who become members of a unit of genetically engineered soldiers. Marking his first writing collaboration with Devlin, the film proved to be a success, grossing more than $100 million worldwide on an investment of $20 million, and giving Emmerich carte blanche for his next film.
Emmerich immediately followed up with a long-cherished pet project, "Stargate" (1994), a pseudo-Egyptian epic that joined the lavish costume epics of the 1950s and 1960s with the high-tech sci-fi razzle-dazzle popularized in the late 1970s and 1980s. "Stargate" starred James Spader as an Egyptologist who discovers an interstellar portal to another world. Accompanied by a suicidal Air Force colonel (Kurt Russell), he travels through the portal and discovers a desert planet ruled by the oppressive Egyptian sun god, Ra (Jaye Davidson). At first, Kassar hated the Emmerich-Devlin cut and hired his own editor, excising the character scenes and hyping the action. After it tested terribly, he called the pair back in and let them recut the picture their way. Because of the post-production battles, Hollywood buzz deemed the film unreleasable. But its strong performance at the box office, particularly overseas, turned the film into a surprise hit that spawned a few theatrical sequels, several televisions series - including the long-running "Stargate SG-1" (Showtime/Sci-Fi, 1997-2007) - and multiple videogames on numerous platforms. Most importantly, "Stargate" ushered in Emmerich and Devlin as successful practitioners of CGI-laden event movies, for better or worse.
Having gained the respect of Hollywood's money men, the relatively inexperienced creative team of Emmerich and Devlin raised around $70 million for the ambitious "Independence Day" (1996), a big, glossy disaster flick about an alien invasion of Earth that made tons of money despite the twosome earning heaps of scorn for their overuse of cliché genre conventions. Overloaded with computer-generated special effects and gargantuan set pieces, the production would have required over $100 million to fully realize its pulpy vision of an alien invasion of Earth in the hands of most producers. But Emmerich and Devlin enhanced their status as miracle workers with this old-fashioned adventure that owed equal debts to 1950s alien invasion movies and 1970s star-studded disaster flicks. Critical quibbles about shallow characterizations, as well as lack of originality and dramatic drive, failed to deter the mad rush to the multiplexes. "Independence Day" swiftly shattered box office records, garnering over $100 million in domestic box-office receipts in less than a week, while helping to turn Will Smith - previously known for his kid-friendly rap music and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (NBC, 1990-96) - into a bona fide action star. Continuing their exploration of the sci-fi genre, Emmerich and Devlin scripted the pilot for and co-executive produced the short-lived drama, "The Visitor" (Fox, 1997), starring John Corbett as a man who has returned to the present after mysteriously disappearing 40 years earlier.
Effectively allowed to make anything they wanted, Emmerich and Devlin undertook to re-imagine "Godzilla" (1998), a weak and humorless take on the classic Japanese monster flicks. Starring Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno and Hank Azaria, the director and his producing partner failed immensely to make an entertaining - let alone coherent - movie. Instead of the goofy, but amiable guy in the rubber suit trouncing on Tokyo, audiences were treated to a CGI recreation that neither looked nor acted like the legendary monster. Despite decent returns at the box office, "Godzilla" was a resounding failure on several fronts and earned the duo enough derision to last them a lifetime. For their next film, Emmerich and Devlin opted for a more people-oriented historical epic, "The Patriot" (2000). Working from a screenplay by Robert Rodat and using Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" (1993) and Michael Mann's "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) as prototypes, Emmerich took the unprecedented step of involving the Smithsonian Institute in order to insure the historical accuracy of what was essentially a biopic of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion (Gibson). But with the original script playing fast-and-loose with the facts, Emmerich and team quieted the purists by changing the lead character's name to Benjamin Martin, allowing them to sit back and enjoy an old-fashioned Western-style shoot-'em-up with Gibson as a reluctant warrior pushed to the brink before exacting his vengeance.
After dissolving Centropolis and his partnership with Devlin in 2000, Emmerich took his time before settling on his next big budget project. Having read a few scientific books and articles about the potentially catastrophic effects of a radical planetary climate change, Emmerich realized he had found the topic for his next mega-disaster outing, "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004). Touted as something of a companion piece to "Independence Day," with nature standing in for aliens, the film featured Dennis Quaid as a climatologist trying to reach his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) amid the onslaught of a new ice age in which tornadoes rip apart Los Angeles, a snowstorm buries New Delhi, giant hail batters Tokyo, and temperatures freeze New York City. Well aware that exploding buildings might repulse some audiences in the wake of 9/11, Emmerich focused instead on the real-life repercussions as they affected the film's many characters. The big-budget disaster epic also briefly became a political football when environmentalists embraced it as a warning about the perils of greenhouse-gas emissions. NASA - which did not participate in the making of the film - sent an email to its scientists urging them to avoid publicly discussing the real-life consequences of an ice age; a move they later reconsidered. Meanwhile, a rally featuring former vice president and environmental advocate Al Gore was held a couple of blocks away from the film's May 24th premiere in New York. Despite critically mixed reviews, the film was a return to financial form for Emmerich, earning over $500 million worldwide.
Following a venture into strictly producing with the gritty sex trafficking thriller, "Trade" (2007), Emmerich returned to meta-filmmaking with "10,000 BC" (2008), an all-too-serious imagining of what life was like 12,000 years ago. Once again, the director was tagged with criticism by historians, as well as archeologists, for the film's many inaccuracies, including the use of wholly mammoths to build the pyramids (which were not built until 7,500 years later), humans riding domesticated horse (which did not occur until 3,500 BC), various species of animals that were long extinct, and even the brief appearance of a telescope (which was not invented until the 17th century). Critics Added to the overwhelmingly negative response by citing the movie's lack of any real plot or characters. "10,000 BC" was without doubt one of Emmerich's worst efforts to date. Jumping right back into the game, he directed "2012" (2009), a mega-disaster flick in the vein of "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," which used the idea of the world coming to an end on Dec. 12, 2012 - the last day of the ancient Mayan calendar - as an excuse to level the entire world with CGI-recreations of floods, earthquakes and meteor showers. Emmerich returned with "Anonymous" (2011), a historical thriller based on the literary theory that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. The action thriller "White House Down" (2013) was followed by "Stonewall" (2015), a drama about the 1969 riots that sparked the modern gay rights movement.
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While attending film school, wrote and directed "The Noah's Ark Principle"; film opened the 1984 Berlin Film Festival
Formed Centropolis Film Productions (now Centropolis Entertainment) with his sister, producer Ute Emmerich
Helmed (also wrote) the West German feature "Joey"
Met future writing/producing collaborator Dean Devlin (then an actor) on his West German sci-fi film "Moon 44"
Executive produced the German feature "Eye of the Storm"
Scripted and executive produced (with Devlin) the short-lived Fox drama "The Visitor"
Signed (with Devlin) a multi-year deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment for productions from Centropolis
Helmed (also executive produced) the American Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot"
Dissolved his company Centropolis after not renewing with Sony Pictures Entertainment
Executive produced the horror/comedy "Eight Legged Freaks"
Produced "Trade," a film based on a The New York Times Magazine article about sex slaves entitled "The Girls Next Door"
Helmed the big-budget, prehistoric era drama "10,000 BC"
Directed Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis in the drama "Anonymous"
Directed and produced "Stonewall," a drama about the riot that began at a gay bar in New York City in 1969, credited with starting the gay rights movement