Jake Gyllenhaal treks through a super-storm in blinding snow leading a small group of survivors to safety. A spaceship hovers over the White House, then destroys the seat of executive power with a single shot of its deadly laser. On Mount Corcovado, the statue of Christ that keeps watch over Rio de Janeiro crumbles to pieces as it’s overcome by a massive tidal wave.
These images, from three of the highest-grossing movies of all time — The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and 2012, respectively — are indelible examples of Hollywood’s contemporary disaster epic. All of them were made by one man, Roland Emmerich, but most moviegoers couldn’t pick him out in a lineup, let alone name him. And that’s fine by him.
While the eight Hollywood studio films Emmerich has directed have collectively grossed more than $1 billion, the German expat has flown under the radar, rarely doing interviews and shying away from public speaking. But as he prepares to release his latest film, Anonymous, a more personally meaningful movie than any of his previous work, Emmerich is ready to loosen the grip on his public image, making himself significantly less anonymous.
Anonymous is a (mostly) disaster-free tale of literary and palace intrigue in Elizabethan England. It stars a cavalcade of respected British actors, including Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, and Mark Rylance, in a story that brings to life one theory about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays — that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans), was the true Bard.
“A writer doesn’t work out of nowhere,” Emmerich explains in heavily accented English, clearly displaying the passion he has in believing that Shakespeare cannot be the man history has made him. “The more I read about it the more it pissed me off about Stratfordians,” he says of scholars who maintain that William Shakespeare’s plays were written by the actor of that name from Stratford-upon-Avon. “They believe that art comes out of nowhere, out of the thin air. Like you’re just a genius and you write about things, you know about everything all of a sudden.”
The whole Shakespeare’s-not-who-you-thought-he-was scenario is a departure for Emmerich, but it turns out that Anonymous is only the beginning of Emmerich’s transformation as a filmmaker. What he really wants to do is direct a gay film.
When Emmerich began making films in his home country, he was driven to not become a gay filmmaker. “When you were in Germany and a gay director, you could only do gay films. I didn’t want to fall into that,” he explains. “So I kept my mouth shut. All my friends knew that I was gay, but I was not publicly gay.”
He moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s and started making movies, beginning with the Jean-Claude Van Damme–Dolph Lundgren vehicle Universal Soldier. Little by little, he came out publicly.
“It happened naturally,” he says. “You get more famous, then you take your boyfriend to some [red-carpet event] and they ask, ‘Oh, who’s that?’ You say, ‘My boyfriend.’ You kind of just don’t hide it anymore.” Emmerich lives with his musician boyfriend of three years, Omar de Soto, on a five-acre Los Angeles estate built in 1919.
“I actually avoid premieres,” Emmerich says. “I avoid everything. I have to be talked into going to my own premieres.”
Still, within Los Angeles’s gay community, Emmerich is well-known for hosting boy parties that attract hundreds — even more than a thousand, he says—scantily clad twinks (his word) to do “God knows what” in and around his pool. But Emmerich has sworn off what had become an annual Pride weekend pool party that he cohosted with his longtime friend Bryan Singer, director of X-Men and X2.
“That got out of hand,” says the filmmaker, leaning forward on his living room couch to take another sip of an espresso. “Four or five years ago I kind of proposed to Bryan that it should be no more than 400 [people]. You know what Bryan said? ‘You want to make it that exclusive?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But then I kind of realized when [Singer] makes a New Year’s party there’s like 600, 700 twinks running around and he’s hiding in his room. That’s quite typical.”
Emmerich estimates that the last party they hosted, in 2009, drew 1,200 guests. “I didn’t know anybody anymore because all my friends said, ‘Oh, fuck it, I’m leaving.’ I said, ‘No more. This is becoming a circuit party.’ ” Indeed, photos on gay blogs make the whole thing look like the prelude to an orgy, but Emmerich insists that whatever happened, he didn’t partake. “We had security, and I said, ‘I’m going to bed now. Just throw them all out.’ ”
Emmerich seems to have more highbrow gay pursuits in mind now. Asked to name his favorite gay movie of the past 10 years, he doesn’t hesitate: A Single Man, Tom Ford’s 2009 adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s classic gay novel. “It’s something like that I could see myself doing too. Totally underappreciated film. I think Colin Firth should have won the Oscar.”
The filmmaker has yet to find his gay project. But, he says, “Now I’m pretty soon turning 56 and saying, ‘Where is my gay film? I’m really looking for it.’ ”
Still, he does not foresee a day when a big-budget disaster movie will have a gay protagonist. “I don’t think this will work because if you have four quadrants, I would say 15% of the audience are gay,” he says, referring to the industry practice of breaking down the audience into four big chunks — parents, kids, men, and women. The big-budget disaster genre is one of the few that appeals to all four, almost guaranteeing huge crowds and box office revenue.
In other words, no studio will mess with that potential by making a gay character the lead. Emmerich understands that.
“I think these movies work a lot about identification, that you kind of feel like you’re that person. A gay person can feel like being Jake Gyllenhaal or something even though he’s not gay.”
That’s because he’s so hot, right? “Because he’s hot. Exactly,” confirms Emmerich. “A lot happens like that in a lot of films. If a good-looking actor exposes his body and he looks super-hot, then the girls shriek and the gays shriek.” But the assumption is that a straight audience is less inclined to identify with a gay character.
He has made a point of casting openly gay actors in some smaller roles. Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game) played the evil sun god Ra in Stargate, and Harvey Fierstein was essentially the gay comic relief in Independence Day, a role about which Emmerich now expresses regret. “I don’t feel very good about it,” he says. “There [were] criticisms from the gays, and they’re right. Why do we always have to be the funny dudes?”
Emmerich faced a completely different kind of challenge in making Anonymous. Though his success rate and his Hollywood relationships paved the way for Emmerich to be able to make this movie, he was constrained by budgetary restrictions. Since it’s no four-quadrant film, he had to make it for less than $30 million, roughly one sixth of the reported $200 million budget for 2012. His initial proposed budget landed around $60 million, but he realized that instead of shooting in England, as he had planned, he would make do with cheaper soundstages in Berlin and “construct” the sets digitally, using computer graphics, as he did for 2012.
And then there was the casting. He wanted only English actors, and he had his heart set on Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson to play older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth I. The director had worked with Richardson on The Patriot. “I talked to her first,” he says. Richardson told him that her mother had always wanted to play Queen Elizabeth, but she would have to love the script.
So Richardson spoke with her mother, and luckily Redgrave approved. Filming was a whole new experience for both the director and the legendary (and famously political) actress. Redgrave, Emmerich says, was constantly smoking when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“So she is in this big kind of queen outfit smoking a cigarette and [the costume people are] trying to stuff some tissue so that it doesn’t ash on her clothes,” he says. Meanwhile, she was constantly discussing hot political topics like Iraq and Guantanamo. Redgrave had to adjust to the unusually digitized nature of this particular costume drama, as she doesn’t often act in front of a blue screen. “She seemed a little bit weirded out by it at first, but then it seemed fine.”
Likewise, critics might be a little bit weirded out by the thought of Roland Emmerich making a historical drama in which the only disaster that occurs is the burning of the Globe Theatre — an incident that is not quite historically accurate. But he hopes they’ll come around, particularly because he has plenty of other ideas.
“I always wanted to make a movie about Tutankhamen. King Tut,” he says. “That could be great.” No doubt Emmerich can find something in ancient Egypt to blow up.