Roland Emmerich on the set of Midway.

Blockbuster director Roland Emmerich on his new WWII epic

Thanks to the wonders of CGI, Midway was shot in Montreal.

Roland Emmerich’s entire career has been spent in large-scale, spectacular blockbusters of all genres: sci-fi, war, straight action, disaster films and even historical period pieces like The Patriot and 10,000 BC.

None of Emmerich’s films, however, told true stories; though a few historical figures cropped up in The Patriot, the central characters and their stories were made up. Emmerich’s latest film, Midway, is a fact-based account of the Battle of Midway that centres around Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a pilot who finds himself in the middle of one of the defining battles of WWII. Best, like every other character in Midway, was a real character; he appears alongside more traditionally famous American WWII figures like Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), who represent the forces on the ground during the battle. Midway is a surprisingly old-fashioned war movie for the man behind the Independence Day films. Though it has his signature flair and sense of the spectacular, it represented something of a different approach for Emmerich.

Dick Best (Ed Skrein, left) and Clarence Dickinson (Luke Kleintank, right) in Midway.

“Twenty years ago, I saw an English documentary about the biggest battles in the world,” he says. “One of them was the Battle of Midway. I immediately said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is like a movie!’ and so I checked out the movie they did in the ’70s. I realized that they had used stock footage and stuff. I started reading every book about it and it became very clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to do everything exactly as it happened. In war movies, you know, you cannot invent stuff. The writer, who comes from a Navy family, has a lot of respect for Navy history, and together, over three or four years, we wrote the script. It was always really important: everything existed. Everything had to be a real story or a real character. That was our guideline. At the beginning, of course, the script was too long; we honed it down to the essence and that’s what the movie is now.”

As Emmerich mentions, the Battle of Midway was filmed at least once in a similar fashion by Jack Smight in 1976. That film is very typical of ’60s and ’70s war movies — all-star casts, a very clear delimitation between combat sequences and tactical sequences and a superlative attention to historical detail. Midway, though significantly glitzier and more modern than those films (this is, after all, a Roland Emmerich joint), still pulls on those traditions.

“My favourite war movie of all time is A Bridge Too Far,” says Emmerich, citing the 1977 Richard Attenborough movie (scripted by William Goldman) that’s possibly the purest example of the aforementioned type of war film. “That was exactly the same concept. You saw different people, different characters, generals as much as ground patrols. Actually, 20 years ago when I first wanted to make the movie, I talked to William Goldman about it. He actually wanted to write it, but at that time I had a big Columbia deal and Columbia had just been bought by Sony, and so Sony wasn’t very happy to be making a $130-million-plus movie about a battle they lost! That was exactly our intention: to make one of these old-fashioned kinds of movies, but with modern technology. There’s another really great movie called Battle of Britain — but in that you see the limits of technology then. Naturally, today, you can pretty much do anything and for a much smaller price!”

Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and Ann Best (Mandy Moore) in Midway.

One of the great Hollywood adages (besides never working with children or animals) is that there’s no harder shoot than a water shoot; water shoots are behind some of the most notoriously out-of-control productions in history. But CGI has made water shoots practically a thing of the past, as evidenced by the fact that practically all of the water in the Montreal-shot Midway is computer-generated.

“We did one water day in Hawaii, where people are kind of floating in the water, and the rest is all CGI,” says Emmerich. “Actually, the good news is that water becomes easier and easier. If you hire the right companies, they can handle it really well. That was, in fact, really really easy. The big problem of this movie was that nothing existed, so we had to figure out how to do it. Naturally, we built the SBD and the TBD — two planes. In the movie, there are many more planes sitting around, and we had to do those in CGI.”

Midway is Emmerich’s fourth film to be shot in Montreal, after The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down and Stonewall. It seems clear to me that filming in Montreal is a deliberate choice for Emmerich — which he handily confirms. 

“I would say it’s the food,” he laughs. “You know what? It’s the crew. I love shooting in Montreal because I love the crew. We’ve become friends; whenever I come there, it feels like a homecoming. A couple of years ago, I bought an apartment in Old Montreal so it became, in a weird way, like a second home. You spend so many months on a movie — first, preparing it, then shooting it — that you better be in a town with people you like, you know? I love Montreal! Four movies, and the next one is going to be shot there, too.” ■

Midway opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 8.