'2012' proves Hollywood doomsayers wrong

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When a movie opens to $230 million in worldwide gross as "2012" did this past weekend, it hammers home how healthy Hollywood really is.

Doomsayers and bean counters who thrive on predicting a bleak future for the movie biz explain away success as the product of good luck and talk about how the movie gods must have been smiling. But the fact is, moviegoing remains a prime source of affordable entertainment and escape from troubled times for audiences worldwide.

Clearly, with "2012," Sony's Columbia Pictures and Roland Emmerich's Centropolis gave a lot of people what they wanted to see. The film's story -- about the world ending in 2012, as the Mayans predicted -- is the perfect vehicle for the effects-driven action for which Emmerich ("Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow"), who directed and co-wrote with Harald Kloser, is known.

The film might have cost $200 million, but at least they put those dollars on the screen and not in bloated paychecks for superstars who no longer make a difference at the boxoffice. Emmerich's ensemble cast was fine: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover and Woody Harrelson.

Emmerich was heading for JFK and a flight to Germany when he called to tell me how "2012" came about.

He'd been in London with Kloser in 2007 as they finished working on their prehistoric epic "10,000 B.C."

"We were sitting around asking what we could do next," he says. "We had in '10,000 B.C.' these people who were the pyramid builders, survivors of a flood."

Kloser said to Emmerich, "Maybe that's going to be our movie, a modern retelling of a biblical flood."

Says Emmerich: "We searched around for the right theory which could make this possible. We found this obscure '50s earthquake-displacement theory, and that was the starting point."

They wrote the script in 2008, rushing so it could be shot in time for release last summer, though they knew they couldn't make that timetable work.

"I asked Sony very early on to give us more time for the visual effects, and they were very gracious and said, 'Why don't we put you guys in the fall?' " Emmerich says.

As it turned out, "2012" opened to summer-like grosses anyway.

Although Emmerich knows his way around effects, he ran into challenges bringing "2012" to life during the 100 days of shooting.

"For the earthquake sequences, we built what we call the shaky floor, which was a stage with a platform in it which behaves in shaking ways like an earthquake," he says.

But there's plenty more involved when you add actors to the scene. "They came up with a smart system where they put markers on the bluescreen and had cameras recording the movement," he says. Then the visual effects team translated what the actors did on the bluescreen so it fit seamlessly with the shaky floor's motion.

Another challenge, Emmerich says, was that he'd never done underwater shoots. "I was a little bit nervous because I'd heard all these nightmares about it," he admits. Those scenes were scheduled to be shot last, when there were fewer demands on the director's attention.

"I got very lucky that John Cusack is a diver in his private life, and it actually was much easier than I thought it would be," he says.

It also helped that Emmerich is organized when he goes on set, which enables him to focus on his actors.

"I always like to start with storyboards and then transfer into a pre-visualization," he says. "So we did the pre-visualization relatively elaborate. People who saw it could not believe it was pre-viz, but it was."


Roland Emmerich
 
Using pre-viz in effect gave Emmerich an animated version of the movie to look at as he went along. That let him determine which shots needed work or could be eliminated altogether.

He's not keen on rehearsing with his actors because "it takes the spontaneity out of it," he says. "They're all really good actors, so it's quite exciting when they come in in the morning and nobody, including me, knows exactly how they will act it. If everything's rehearsed, it becomes very mechanical."

Mostly, Emmerich had two cameras rolling for dialogue scenes. For action scenes, he'd use three or four but never more.

Told that other directors sometimes use as many as seven cameras to shoot action, he says he didn't know why. "They don't know what they want," he says after thinking about it.

Emmerich says that "2012" is his "biggest movie, but it went really smoothly, and '10,000 B.C.' was exactly the other way around; everything went wrong that could go wrong. But that's how movies go: One movie works great, and others are only problems."

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