Director Roland Emmerich has been making movies for 40 years, including some of the biggest blockbusters outside the superhero and “Star Wars” realm – movies like Will Smith’s early hit Independence Day, and the disaster films The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Emmerich’s new movie Midway isn’t the director’s first foray into American history, but it’s one that goes out of its way to pay tribute to the actual men who fought in the famed WWII battle in the Pacific Theater that helped turn the tide after the horrible events of Pearl Harbor.

Unlike Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which was mostly based on created composite characters, Midway features actors like Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Ed Skrein (Deadpool) and Dennis Quaid playing actual naval officers who were involved in the war with Japan’s overwhelming fleet and airpower. There’s also a younger group of actors playing Navy pilots, including Nick Jonas, Darren Criss (Glee), Jake Weber, Luke Kleintank and Keean Johnson (Alita: Battle Angel).

That cast and Emmerich’s usual mastery over visual FX has helped to create a striking new take on the famed WWII battle, and The Beat got on the phone with Emmerich last week to talk about the film.

Roland Emmerich
On the set of Midway. Photo: Lionsgate.

THE BEAT: You’ve directed a lot of different types of movies over the years – you’ve done science fiction and a prehistoric movie – had you been wanting to make a war movie for a while? What got you into going this route and making Midway?

Roland Emmerich: It’s a complicated story, because I wanted to make the movie already twenty years ago. At that time, I had a really big deal I had signed with Columbia/Tristar, and at that time, John Kelly was running the show there. I got really excited about it. I saw a documentary, read a couple of books. I walked into his office and said, “I know what I want to do as my next movie.” I told him what I wanted to do, and it’s pretty much what I did now. He was also very excited about it, and he greenlit it. Then what happened really fast was that we realized this is a huge budget, because nothing exists, so it would have to be a lot of visual effects. He said that this was going to be way over $100 million, and I said, “Yes.” So he said, “Then I have to talk about the Sony Corporation,” [Note: A Japanese corporation] and he called them up and they said, “We’re not spending that kind of money on a movie where we’re the losers of a battle,” and that was that. At that time, they had another script called The Patriot, so I did The Patriot, because I’ve always wanted to do a war movie.

I never forgot about the WWII battle I wanted to do, and with Pearl Harbor coming out, I had to wait. Then maybe four or five years ago, I met Wes Tooke, a young writer. Every young writer I meet, I ask him the trick question, “What do you really want to write?” He said without hesitation, “Midway.” We talked, and he told me he comes from a navy family, and I told him a little about my family, and then we started working on the script. Now, we finally did it.

THE BEAT: We’ve spoken over the years, and you’ve always mentioned things you wanted to make but were limited by the budget for visual effects, and they have improved a lot and I assume they’re either easier to do or less expensive than they were 20 years ago?

Emmerich: It got so much easier. At that time, I probably could have only afforded like 200 or 300 shots. Remember when they did Pearl Harbor, and it constantly had budget problems and had to cut down the visual effects budget. At that time, they were a super-difficult thing to do.

THE BEAT: A lot of your peers like Paul Verhoeven and Robert Schwentke, they’ve made WWII movies, but they always situate them in Europe. What was it about the war in the Pacific Theater that captured your fancy back then and more recently?

Emmerich: It’s an amazing comeback story. It was immediately clear for me, becausePearl Harbor was probably the darkest day in America. It was also clear that Europe was so much more important, so that when England was falling, [the U.S.] was like, “We really, really have a problem.” They concentrated a lot on the Western Front and sent Nimitz to the Pacific and said, “We don’t give you much, so you don’t have much. Just hold the line.” Nimitz went there, and he was a very, very good leader of men, and he went more on the attack. He did all the right things, and Americans were the underdog. They were not as well equipped like the Japanese. The Japanese had much better planes. They had ten carriers, while the Americans only had three. It was a lot of luck and bravery, and naturally, the help of Naval codebreakers, they turned the war around. This is a very decisive battle, and from that moment on, the Japanese were shell-shocked and didn’t advance anymore.

THE BEAT: Obviously, there was another movie called Midway back in the ‘70s. Had you seen it before?

Emmerich: Yeah, I had seen it as a kid. It had “Sensurround,” that’s what I remember. There were these huge boxes, and it was very exciting, but they had to use stock footage, which was a little bit… also, they didn’t include Pearl Harbor. I always thought it’s very to important in understanding Midway, to show Pearl Harbor, how it came out of the blue, what it meant. Look at it like this. What I learned from Wes is that the navy is like a family. It was not very big, and they all knew each other, so everybody knew somebody who got killed in Pearl Harbor. There was this motivation, this feeling of revenge, and it worked out for them.

THE BEAT: The cast has three very specific parts – the older officers, including a few actors you’ve worked with before; the younger pilots, which is a lot of new people including Nick Jonas (who was kind of a surprise when I saw him in this); and then also the Japanese characters. Let’s talk about casting the younger actors because I’m curious about how you go about finding new actors to work with.

Emmerich: I always say this. Casting is where I’m the most nervous, because every choice you make will make or break your film. I always that to cast a movie is 80% of your directing. You look just around. You look at people and actors. What I do a lot is I Skype with people, just Skype with them. Everybody cannot say no, when they Skype with you, so you meet these people over the computer and then you like them or they like you, and you talk about the project and the part. It was actually really good that we first had Woody Harrelson. He immediately said “Yes,” so that was always a good thing, and then Mandy Moore came right after. She said “Yes,” and there were one or two other name actors already on board, which is a good start.

Midway. Photo: Lionsgate.

THE BEAT: What about casting the Japanese actors and handling that aspect of the movie?

Emmerich: Well, I don’t speak Japanese. (laughs) I met somebody who was involved in Silence, the movie from Martin Scorsese, and they worked with woman, a really smart Japanese woman, who speak English perfectly. She helped us getting theseactors. She first sent me tons and tons of material, and then we chose a list for every character, and we went pretty much to the biggest actors they have, and for every one of them, we actually got lucky. Everybody wanted to do the part. It needed a little bit of convincing from my side. For example, with Etsushi [Tokoyama], I Skyped three or four times until he was willing to do it, and now I see him as my friend. He’s just an amazing actor.

THE BEAT: You mentioned Skype a few times, and I think that’s a good transition for the technology. The visual effects in all your movies are amazing, but in this movie, it was harder to tell whether you were on a soundstage with green screen the whole time or did you actually shoot on a tank of water at all?

Emmerich: (laughs) That’s good. It’s 95% computer. We definitely did some stuff in real water with Nick Jonas and with the guy who played the torpedo bomber who ends up into the water, but the rest is all computer-work. Water got really, really good, I have to say. It’s not as big a problem anymore. It was still a problem, because I’m a perfectionist, but I had to say but we had two amazing companies, both old friends of mine own them, which helped – Pixomondo and Scanline. They did excellent, excellent work.

THE BEAT: This movie is based on so many real people, many who probably have families still around. Have you shown them the film yet?

Emmerich: Oh, yeah. We were approached by many, many of them, but only lately finally by someone who knows the Dick Best family, because we couldn’t find them. As we speak, we’re organizing a screening for them, so they can all watch their grandfather be a hero.

THE BEAT: I was curious about that, because with the real people out there, I wondered how much research you had to do to be faithful to their stories and keep their respective families happy.

Emmerich: We went out of our way to do that. A lot of them are recorded on film, so you get a feeling for them. There’s characters who are not in the film but there was another guy who did what Dick Best did. There were two pilots that destroyed two aircraft carriers in one single day in world’s history. The other guy is called Dusty Klein, and his daughter was just visiting us.

THE BEAT: Did you always plan for Midway to come out on Veteran’s Day? Were you always working towards that goal?

Emmerich: Lionsgate called us up, and they said, “We don’t think that Bond will go. Let’s put our movie on Veteran’s Day.” We put it on Veteran’s Day, and then they pulled Bond. It’s a good date.

THE BEAT: It’s great you’ve been able to get this done after twenty years, but you always have a number of other projects on your plate, so is there one you think you might tackle next?

Emmerich: I have already a plan for my next movie, it’s called Moonfall. It’s a science fiction slash disaster movie about the moon, and then I want to probably do something smaller again.

THE BEAT: Do you consider Stonewall or Anonymous “smaller” for you?

Emmerich: More Anonymous size. Anomymous was $28 million. I think we can do [this one] for $25 million or so. It’s about the silent movie days – it’s a little bit like my love letter to making movies.

Midway opens on Friday, November 8 with previews on Thursday night.