Skies of the Pacific Theater: Roland Emmerich’s WWII Drama Midway Debuts after Decades in the Making

June 1942’s Battle of Midway was a turning point on the Pacific front. The battle gave the Japanese their first major decisive loss at America’s hands after Pearl Harbor, at the cost of 3,364 total dead on both sides. That monumental story comes to theaters on Friday, November 8, with Lionsgate’s Midway. Director Roland Emmerich has previously directed such blockbusters as Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, Godzilla, and The Patriot. He spoke to Boxoffice Pro about his 20-year-plus effort to get Midway made, directing foreign-language scenes for the first time in his career, and why today’s audiences have higher expectations for films based on true stories.

You’d wanted to make your own version of this movie for more than 20 years. Why did it take so long to get this project off the ground?

I had a huge deal at Sony Pictures, 21 or 22 years ago. I was doing Godzilla for them, but I wanted to follow that up with something more realistic. I watched a lot of different documentaries, because I felt a big battle movie would be a great thing. I came across a documentary on the Battle of Midway and immediately fell in love with it. I went to [Sony’s then-chairman] John Calley, who also thought it was a really good idea.

But at that time, it was much more difficult to make a movie like this, because visual effects—the water, the explosions—were just really difficult. He asked me if I could do it under $100 million. I said, “I don’t think I can.” So we had to go to the Japanese. They said, “We’re not financing a $120 million movie where we’re the losers.” At that time, a friend of mine was running TriStar Pictures, which also belonged to Sony/Columbia. They offered me the script of The Patriot. I fell in love with that, so that’s what I did. But I never, ever forgot that [Midway] story.

Then maybe five years ago, I came across this young writer, Wes Tooke. I ask every young writer, “What is the picture which you think you should write?” Without even thinking, he said, “The Battle of Midway.” Oh, that’s interesting. We started talking and made the decision to develop a script together. That’s how it got started.

The Patriot, which you directed, was about the American Revolutionary War. What was similar and different about directing a World War II movie?

In the case of a Revolutionary War movie, you need a lot of muskets, a lot of people, a lot of horses. Only then can you start shooting. When you’re doing World War II sea battles, you realize there’s nothing left. Not one ship is still in its original state. What you learn pretty fast is you have to build everything, do a lot of CGI, a lot of blue screen. It’s a tough undertaking. And it’s a movie where you have to have really good visual effects, because if the visual effects don’t hold up, people immediately feel cheated. 

What were the other most challenging aspects of making this film?

Let’s take an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier is quite big, so we had to build a big enough platform to sell it. Then you realize all this other stuff. You have to bring in wind machines, because these things drive by fast. All these endless things which add on, add on, add on. Then you realize that some of these planes no longer exist, and the ones that do aren’t the exact same color they were then. So we pretty much had to build everything. Then you do the flying scenes and realize, oh my God, most of the time their canopy’s open. So we had to give the cockpits wind. Endless stuff like that, which make the whole shoot quite challenging for everybody.

But a nice thing when we came to Oahu and Pearl Harbor, they have a real submarine there. I asked very politely if maybe they could stop showing it to tourists. They closed it down for two days and we shot in a real submarine. It was pretty hot. It was super tight, too. The flight deck was shot on a stage in Montreal, which is the biggest indoor film stage in North America. It’s huge. That stage is 400 feet or something like that.

What are some of your best stories from the set?

The interesting thing for me was first we did all the American stuff, then at the very end it became a Japanese movie. It was kind of strange. I had never done that, to shoot a movie in a different language. But that’s maybe 25 or 30 percent of the film. I was quite nervous. People were speaking in Japanese and I don’t speak Japanese, so you turn around and talk to the woman you hired for that job. She’ll give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or say, “This one line was not quite right.” They’re actually some of the strongest scenes.

I very clearly realized the differences of culture. Everything is much stiffer; they don’t like to show emotions. So I didn’t move the camera much when it comes to the Japanese. It’s quite interesting to see the contrast between the American scenes and the Japanese scenes. When we tested it, it was quite nice to see the audience liked it very much. The Japanese are real characters and not just “the bad guys.” Because they were not bad guys, they were just doing their jobs—like everybody else.

What other films did you look to when directing this?

I have a couple of real favorite movies and I watched them all again. I watched A Bridge Too Far, which I think is probably one of the best war movies ever made. The Longest Day, which is also a great war movie. Then Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which I also love a lot. I also saw Tora! Tora! Tora! again. That one actually had different directors for the American part and the Japanese part. Those were the movies I really studied carefully. It’s always interesting how other directors did it.

Did you similarly consider getting a different director for the Japanese parts of Midway?

No [laughs]. I like directing the whole movie. But even when doing the American parts, you constantly have all these military advisers around. They correct you, they correct the actors. As a director, you have to find the fine line, where you listen to them and where you don’t.

We had this great old gentleman, Chuck, who was working in the ’60s on aircraft carriers. In the ’60s, they were still the aircraft carriers from World War II, but they had altered them. He gave us a lot of insight on how life on an aircraft carrier was. There’s a great documentary called Our Fighting Lady. It was shot in 1943 and won the Oscar for best documentary that year. We watched it together.

Which of the film’s aspects diverge most from the history?

Don’t forget, you have characters in there and dialogue for the historical figures, but you never know what they said exactly. So there’s always a certain dramatic license you have to use. But we tried to be as close as possible to history, because we felt that’s important. Naturally, it’s still a movie, not a documentary. So once in a while you have to tell it in a shorter form or a simpler form. The battle itself was a very complicated battle, so we tried to simplify it so people could understand what’s going on.

Ten years ago or 15 years ago, you would have gone, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” Today, you cannot [fabricate] as much anymore. I think because of the internet and people’s attitudes, it has changed. Real-life stories, people love them, but they want to have them more real-life now. For example, look at a movie like Pearl Harbor [the seventh highest-grossing film of 2001, even though it was critically panned]. I don’t know if it would be as successful today, because it’s just a totally invented story. They even used different planes! Today, people would not buy into that as much.

The real Battle of Midway occurred in June. Was there any thought to releasing this movie in June? Most of your big-budget movies of the past 25 years have been summer releases.

I think it’s a good idea to release it on Veterans Day weekend. It feels better. In the summer, you would compete with other big movies. Veterans Day weekend is a better release date for us. I’m quite happy about that. 

In this era of streaming and home entertainment, why is it important for audiences to see this at a cinema?

Because it’s a big movie [laughs]! I think when you see it, you will understand. The most exciting thing is our dive-bombing scenes. When you see it on a TV, you like it too, but it’s not as impressive. 

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