Roland Emmerich has destroyed Los Angeles twice before -- twisters razed the city in "The Day After Tomorrow" and aliens did the honors in "Independence Day" -- but those mondo-destructo efforts pale in comparison to the way Emmerich bids goodbye to Hollywood in his latest apocalyptic nightmare, "2012."
Taken from an extremely pessimistic reading of the Mayan calendar, "2012" is a Noah's Ark story that sees the end of the world as we know it, including a 10.9 earthquake that sends Southern California sliding into the sea. There is one shard of hope, though: Apparently, it is possible, if you drive fast enough, to make it from Brentwood to the Santa Monica Airport during the Big One and leave on a jet plane before being swallowed into the earth.
"Yes, well, we cheated a little bit," Emmerich chuckles during an interview from his Hollywood home. "I've lived here for 20 years and like Los Angeles but, I must say, it's always fun to lay it to ruin."
Emmerich, 53, swears he wasn't keen on making another apocalyptic movie but was talked into the idea by longtime friend Harald Kloser, who shares a screenwriting credit on "2012" and Emmerich's last movie, "10,000 BC." Besides, Emmerich says, the film's focal point isn't what's being destroyed but what is being saved.
Here's the deal: Solar eruptions (the biggest in history!) are heating up the Earth's core, destabilizing the crust and making life as we know it unsustainable. The government has known about it (for years!), but has kept the information classified so as not to incite, you know, a worldwide panic. Naturally, after a tidal wave special delivers an aircraft carrier to the White House and St. Peter's Basilica topples upon the praying masses, the cat's out of the bag and it's time to make haste and start a new world order.
"I always say to Harald, 'See all those guys demonstrating at the G8 Summit? What would happen if they're right and they are lying to us?' " Emmerich says. "That kind of conspiracy was a starting point."
Adds Kloser, speaking by phone from Vienna: "For us, the fascination didn't lie in the disaster but in the fact if there was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions and the government knew about it ahead of time, what would you save and who would make those terrible decisions? The plants, the animals, the arts? What would you take?"
If you're the filmmakers, the answer is: elephants and the "Mona Lisa."
In the midst of these thorny dilemmas, "2012" (in theaters Nov. 13) offers a multitude of character subplots a la "Independence Day," with John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing three of the humans not destroyed by the initial cataclysms.
"The movie has the biggest visual effects I've ever done, but I'm also really proud because I think it takes character more seriously than these movies normally do," Emmerich says of the 157-minute epic. "When we auctioned the script, certain parameters were set in stone -- the title, the length and the budget. We stayed true to ourselves with this one."
Interest in the year 2012 gained momentum long before the movie. New Agers believe a series of astronomical alignments will bring about a change in consciousness, and doomsday advocates see imminent destruction via solar flares, black holes or planetary collisions.
Emmerich knew a bit about the Mayan calendar from researching another project but had no idea about the scope of the 2012 phenomenon until making a Google search much like the one promotional billboards are now encouraging.
"I had my assistant buy two boxes of 2012 books on Amazon," Emmerich says. "I kept the survival guide because, well, you never know."