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Roland Emmerich on science, streaming, and Moonfall’s origin

Director and screenwriter Roland Emmerich has pitted the protagonists of his films against all manner of cataclysmic threats, from aliens and rampaging kaiju to superstorms and apocalyptic Mayan prophesies, but his latest cinematic thriller adds another source of potential disaster to the list: The moon.

In Moonfall, a mysterious event knocks the moon out of its orbit, sending it on a new path that has it colliding with Earth. The planet soon finds its fate resting in the hands of a pair of former astronauts (Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson) and a brilliant conspiracy theorist (John Bradley) who must journey to the lunar surface — and possibly beyond — to discover why the moon changed course and what secrets it holds. As they do so, those left behind on Earth must contend with the environmental impacts of the moon’s changing orbit, including fluctuating gravity, tidal waves, and other catastrophic events.

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Emmerich, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Moonfall, spoke with Digital Trends about the origins of the film’s wild lunar conspiracy premise, the process of bringing its spectacular sci-fi and disaster sequences to the screen, and his thoughts on the tug-of-war between theatrical and streaming release strategies that continues to unfold in Hollywood.

Roland Emmerich stands on the set of the film Moonfall.

Digital Trends: Moonfall has such a wild, fascinating concept for a film. Can you give me a brief overview of where the idea came from and how you refined it to get to the point where you were ready to make a movie out of it?

Roland Emmerich: I read a book maybe 9 or 10 years ago that had this provocative title, Who Built The Moon? That actually started everything, and I said to myself” “If the Moon is falling to Earth, it has to have a reason.” And that led to the idea of a nanoswarm that whirls toward the moon and then sort of drills itself into the moon’s surface. But it all started with that book. The idea came to mind a while ago, but it took quite some time to actually figure out how to do it.

There were a lot of scientists and NASA researchers consulted on various elements of the film. How did their input shape Moonfall?

Our visual effects supervisor, Peter Travers, told us a couple of things which weren’t going to work in the script. So from there, we went and looked for some opinions about how to make certain things work. It was a slow but sure process. When we were shooting, for example, we had an astronaut with us when we did all the shuttle scenes.

That certainly helps.

Yeah, that definitely helped, because nobody knew what buttons to push in the shuttle! So there were a lot of scientists involved. You always need that to kind of ground things in reality, because the idea is so crazy.

Patrick Wilson floats through space in an astronaut suit in a scene from Moonfall.

While watching the film, I was struck by how difficult it’s becoming to create escapist disaster films. Climate change and other potential threats feel a little too real these days, but a mysterious enemy sending the moon out of orbit is so crazy it works. Do you find yourself having to go further out there for disaster premises that are entertaining rather than depressing? 

Well, first, Moonfall is meant as escapist adventure, yes. The Earth is in danger, but the story is really about the adventure of flying to the moon, going inside the moon, and experiencing everything inside. So it’s an adventure film more than a disaster film, I think, because the disaster is secondary. […] But it is a little hard these days to do movies like this — especially without an established IP or franchise. That’s really, really hard.

So many of your films involve epic visual-effects shots. What’s your process like in working with the VFX team? How much of the scenes do you typically have mapped out and envisioned — whether through the previsualization process or concept art — when you begin production?

I have to pre-vis all the visual effects scenes. That’s a given with me: That I’ll work with the VFX guys for four or five months and create all the visual effects scenes. You’ll need them later for cutting them in anyways, so that’s the only way to do these films. Of course, some of it will probably get cut at some point, because you end up shortening it and doing your thing, and it will still be a race against time at the end. There’s always a quality level you want to reach, though. That’s always the hardest part of it. There are usually 10, 20, or 30 shots which just don’t want to work in the end, no matter how much time you could spend on them. It’s tough.

You also occasionally have believability problems you need to work out [with visual effects] that come up later on. For example, for a big jump scene they have to do in the film, we had to add a dust cloud coming towards the characters, and it was a relatively late addition. So [the VFX team] had to undo the shot, basically, and then put the dust cloud in and then finish it off again. It’s never easy to make things like that look real.

A shuttle floats through space with the moon in the background in a scene from Moonfall.

Without spoiling too much, is there a particular scene you’re really excited for audiences to see in Moonfall

I really like when they go inside the moon. It’s probably the most exciting sequence for me. When they’re flying into the moon and have no idea what to expect, that was so exciting for me.

Again, without spoiling anything, is there a particular element of the film that changed a lot as you went along, and ended up a lot different than how you initially planned it?

We ended up putting more things inside the moon than we planned, in order to give it more dimensions and let you see more of the depth inside it. We also realized pretty early on that we had to put the light source inside the moon not totally in the middle, but a little bit more like a backlight, because it looked so much better that way and the shadows didn’t cause as many problems. There were lots of little things like that we changed along the way.

John Bradley, from left, Halle Berry, and Patrick Wilson have a discussion in Moonfall.

Moonfall is heading to theaters at a time when there’s a lot of debate around streaming and theatrical releases, and a pandemic reshaping the traditional distribution model. Where do you see things headed with respect to all of those elements?

I’m just really curious about how many people will go and see this film in the end, because I really have no idea what to expect. We have tracking numbers and everything as always, but the tracking numbers don’t tell the full story anymore.

The studio, Lionsgate, asked me not to write an advance review of the film because I didn’t see it in a theater, even though I enjoyed it at home. Home theater technology has come a long way in recent years, and you can get a theater-level experience at home now, so what do you think a film like this still loses when you don’t see it in a theater?

I would say it’s more the sound than the picture, because you can see something on a big screen that’s like 60 or 70 inches in diameter, and if you sit really close, you can have a very theatrical feeling in your living room. But the sound is not as good [outside of a theater]. You need a bigger room to have that sound quality. We have things like Dolby Atmos now [in theaters], and you really feel everything around you in the sound, and that gets lost at home.

Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall premieres February 4 in theaters.

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