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Roland Emmerich Says Studio Feared Bleak ‘Day After Tomorrow’ Ending, Film’s Climate Change Warning

The master of disaster looks back at his 2004 mega-hit, while urging big studio movies like the Marvel films to step up and address issues of climate change.

Roland Emmerich attends the 15th Zurich Film Festival (ZFF), in Zurich, Switzerland, 29 September 2019. The festival runs from 26 September to 06 October 2019.15th Zurich Film Festival, Switzerland - 29 Sep 2019

Roland Emmerich

WALTER BIERI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Director Roland Emmerich has, for better or worse, been identified as the “Master of Disaster” ever since he sent aliens to destroy the White House and evaporate all of mankind in 1996’s box-office force of nature “Independence Day.” Since then, he’s brought Godzilla down upon us with his 1998 version of the Japanese monster saga, torched the planet with “2012,” recreated a pivotal but violent moment of LGBT history with “Stonewall,” and, of course, in 2004, imagined what a new global Ice Age might look like with “The Day After Tomorrow.”

While promoting his upcoming film “Midway,” which releases November 8 and recreates an iconic WWII naval battle, Emmerich spoke with Variety’s Matt Donnelly about the mountain of resistance he climbed in getting “The Day After Tomorrow” out the door. With its bleak, but cautionary message of impending environmental collapse, the film depicts a superstorm that takes hold of the planet, plunging New York City beneath ice, and sending the world into panic and its ecosystem into ruin.

“When I did ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ one or two of the studios who wanted it when I took the movie to auction said, ‘Can you not explode an atomic bomb or break a dam, [so that] everything gets flooded, and it all goes away?’” Emmerich told Variety. “The moment we walked out, I said to my producer: ‘Yeah, not them. They don’t understand what I’m doing here.’”

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The film ultimately went to Twentieth Century Fox, but even that studio’s executives were wary of the film’s less-than-hopeful ending — which sees Earth fully in a new Ice Age — even though the film’s heroes, headed by Jake Gyllenhaal as a paleoclimatologist, are led to safety. Though Fox had previously green-lit the script, the final product and Emmerich’s intended warnings about the threats of climate change did not sit easily with the studio.

“When they finally saw the movie, they had a little trouble with it,” Emmerich said. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, there is no real happy ending.’ It was there on the page, but it really hit them when they saw it. I said, ‘Guys, I can’t make this a happy ending because if humanity keeps going like this, there will be no happy ending.’”

Releasing in the summer of 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow” did gangbusters at the worldwide box office, earning more than $542 million worldwide and hanging on in the top 10 for a month.

Historically, audiences love a good natural disaster, and not just because it’s fun to watch the world’s landmarks crumble, but also because these films reflect the times we’re living in. (2017’s box-office bellyflop “Geostorm,” however, showed that moviegoers may also be fatigued by environmental horrors playing out onscreen.)

To that point, however, Emmerich also decried the dearth of climate change’s representation in many of today’s big studio movies, such as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where disaster is often of a different nature. “It’s a little bit of what I hate about Hollywood so much right now,” Emmerich said. “They could very easily, in one of the Marvel movies, create a situation which is clearly a climate crisis. But they don’t.”

IndieWire has reached out to Emmerich’s team for additional comment.

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