ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
The story is presented from two points of view: those who know about the cataclysmic events that await the earth and those who remain in the dark. John Cusack's Jackson Curtis is a civilian who stumbles into the news that the world as we know it is coming to an end.
Harald Kloser says the part is not only a stand-in for the audience, but for certain filmmakers as well. "I know the Jackson character really well because I have two kids, I'm divorced and I'm a writer. You see where this is going?" he laughs.
"John is perfect, just picture perfect. I couldn't see anybody else in the part," Kloser enthuses. Jackson, however, is not a picture-perfect family man. A failed author, Jackson works as a limousine driver by day, as he watches his children bond with his ex-wife's new boyfriend.
"He tried to keep his life together," Cusack concurs. But it was something else about the script that lured the actor in. "It's kind of an unusual, funny script. I don't know if I thought the end of the world could be fun, but this movie has a gallows humor to it that I found pretty interesting."
Amanda Peet, who joins the cast as Jackson's ex, Kate, was attracted by the opportunity to work with Emmerich. "He's a master of the crazy action sequences," she says. "But I also think he has a light touch and a sense of humor. The characters are very appealing. But most importantly, he has a big heart that not only shows in his movies, but when you work with him. He's very considerate. He spread out shooting in the water tanks, and when I asked him why - 'Why not get it all done at once?' - he said, 'Do you want to go day after day in the water?' The scheduling was for us - he didn't want to put us through that."
From Peet's first day on the set, she was dropped straight into a Roland Emmerich movie. "My first scene was the grocery store scene," she says. In the scene, Kate is trapped as her local grocery store is ripped to shreds by a major earthquake. "Luckily, I was with my pal, Tom McCarthy, and we were both laughing because we were both so new to the action genre. Roland kept telling us to play it down: 'Smaller, smaller. So many horrible things are going to happen - you can't think this is horrible.'"
The everyman point of view is counter-balanced by the story inside the halls of power in Washington, as seen through the eyes of Chiwetel Ejiofor's Adrian Helmsley.
Helmsley is a government scientist who makes the fast track to the inner-workings of the White House when he discovers a sequence of changes in the earth's core, crust and atmosphere. "Adrian is the counterpart to Jackson. From the beginning of the movie, he knows what is going to happen and what the government plans to do, but throughout the course of the film, he has second thoughts - he wonders if the plan is really the right thing to do," explains Kloser.
Ejiofor found "the central themes fascinating. The script read incredibly well to me, a wonderful kind of page-turner. A great idea. It's a story about people and humanity and struggling against the kind of natural chaos that can ensue. I think that's something that we're all acutely aware of at this particular time. We all ask ourselves, what is our responsibility?"
Helmsley eventually brings his conflict to the chief of staff, Carl Anheuser, as played by Oliver Platt. "He was probably the most straightforward guy," says Kloser of Anheuser. "The guy in the White House, the tough guy, the guy who is the hawk. But then Mark Gordon brought Oliver Platt in for the role of Anheuser. That immediately changed everything." Platt brought a more human dimension to Anheuser who stands firm by the argument that you can't tell people what's going on - for their own well-being (if not for the fact that everyone on the planet could not be saved).
"He's a practical guy," Platt says of Anheuser, "trying to figure out an incredibly complex moral situation. And as a pragmatist, he sees his plan as being ultimately very moral. it's about carrying on the human race. But the fact that not everybody can go is very, very tricky."
It's that very conflict that drew Platt to the part. "We've had end-of-the-world movies, but I don't think we ever had end-of-the-world movies where the government, which is supposed to be the ultimate authority, has to make a decision about who they're going to tell and who they're going to save," says Platt.
It was that angle, too, that convinced Kloser that the government story should be a part of the film. "At first, we wanted to tell this story without the Washington storyline," recalls Kloser. "Roland has done it in his previous movies. But after talking about it for a while, you can't do an undertaking of government in such a magnitude without showing the people who do it."
At first, Emmerich and Kloser were writing during the US presidential primaries, their president was a woman. Kloser recalls, "When Iowa's results came in, I yelled out to Roland, 'Hey, it doesn't look good for a woman president,'" Kloser laughs. They cast Danny Glover as the wise, compassionate president. Says Gordon, "He's a magnificent actor. He brings enormous gravity to the role. And I think audiences haven't seen him in this kind of movie, in a big Hollywood movie, in quite some time."
"I love the saying 'human beings don't make history; history makes them.' Every one of us is defined by the history that we live, the time that we live," says Glover. "President Wilson has to make some difficult decisions on circumstances that were unimaginable when he took office.
"I don't think he'd describe himself as a 'strong leader,' even if that's how others see him," Glover adds. "He would say he's simply ordinary and attempting to be extraordinary. He is the kind of person that motivates people, gets others to move and act."
Ultimately, the President shares their scientific discoveries with other nations and a plan is put into place years before 2012 to save heads of state, scientists, artists, plants, animals and prized artifacts of civilization.
Leading the task to procure cherished works of art for preservation is the President's daughter, Laura, played by Thandie Newton, although she is unaware of the true nature of her assignment until the disaster is imminent. Eventually, Adrian and Laura form a close bond and together navigate the moral terrain of their journey.
In 2012, Newton re-teams with Glover, with whom she starred in Beloved, and Ejiofor, with whom she appeared in the film It Was an Accident. "It's always lovely working with people you like the second time around," she says. "It's been ten years, and Chiwetel has evolved so much as an actor. He's got that charisma - you want him to save the world. You want to put your faith in him, his strength and moral goodness. Danny is fatherly - he really cares about me. It's pretty cool, to have that relationship."
"Charlie has set up a pirate radio program, broadcasting out of Yellowstone National Park, living in his RV and pronouncing to the world that the end is coming," says the actor. "I like playing guys like Charlie - it's nice to have a chance to go over the top. In fact, in Charlie's case, there was no top to go over."
"If you only know Roland's movies, you'd think he was really aggressive, tough, brutal - and then he turns out to be the sweetest, nicest guy in the world," Harrelson continues. "He really knows what he's doing and really sure of what he wants. He pulls you in, you're on the edge of your seat - and you can't help but go with it."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
2012 was filmed in Vancouver, Canada, over a period of five months. The production utilized more than 13 soundstages at five different facilities, and a couple of make-shift outdoor "stages" comprised of a vast "shaky floor" complete with palm trees and blue screen. The areas around Kamloops doubled for Yellowstone Park and Tibet, where the company shot for one week. Principal photography was completed in Los Angeles with a few exterior shots.
Special Effects Supervisor Mike Vezina says that before shots could be filmed, before any sets were built, before any stunts were planned, the filmmakers would have to decide which sequences would be handled by the computer with visual effects and which would be created in the camera using special effects. "The lines are drawn quite early in preproduction," he says.
Vezina was responsible for all of the story's seismic activity - which he achieved by shaking the sets. "We've had some of the biggest rigs I've ever seen," he says. "We went though 500,000 tons of steel just to build all of these big rigs for all the big shaky decks. Roland likes to see everything real. So all of these effects, running out of the house, earthquake scenes, or at the airport and there's an earthquake scene, we actually build these huge decks that float and shake. They are about 8,000 square feet, so that he could build his set, put cars on it, put trucks, planes, and everything would shake accordingly. It was quite easy for him to make it real for the actors to react to an earthquake of that magnitude."
The first shaky set company worked on was also the most physically completed element, with green screen that would provide the background of the White House. Danny Glover, along with hundreds of extras, emergency equipment, and tons of ash, sat atop a 7,200-square-foot deck that took up most of the soundstage.
Vezina explains, "We floated the decks with an air system, then used a hydraulic and air pneumatic system to shake it up and down and back and forth. There was a valve system that we controlled electronically. So, Roland could say, 'I want a different type of frequency on this one, it's just a small shake and then move to a bigger shake.' We were able to shut off different rounds on the fly to make the quake smaller and then ramp up. We have total control, and one person controls the whole deck with a joystick."
Another physical challenge for the actors was working in water, which a large portion of the third act would require.
Several sets were built, and each had its own water tank. The actors and crew would climb up a flight of stairs to reach the set, then, as the scene called for water, the set itself was lowered into the tank with winches.
Vezina says, "We built three or four different types of tanks that did different things. We had a hallway we called the shaky hallway, and a dump tank. We had a lot of people run down the hallway, and then, with the dump tank, we were dumping about eight to ten thousand gallons at a time, so the water could chase all the people and flood the hallway. All the sets could be raised and lowered in a twelve-foot tank."
Vezina also created a circulation system linking together all the stages with water tanks. "We were able to circulate a lot of water throughout different sets. Just by using a pump system, we would pump from one station to the next stage. We had what we called a sister pool. And that pool would heat and chlorinate and filter the water which then was distributed to different sets. At the end of the day, we would pump water back into the sister pool."
When lighting or cameras needed to be adjusted, the set and actors would be lifted out of the water, changes were made, actors and crew were loaded back in and the set was lowered again into the water.
"Strangely," says Cusack, "the water stuff was hard, but I liked the water and I thought it was pretty cool. You have the sensation that it's sinking because the camera goes down with it."
ABOUT THE VISUAL EFFECTS
2012 reunites co-producers and visual effects supervisors Volker Engel and Marc Weigert with Roland Emmerich and his specific vision. Engel and Emmerich go back to 1988 in Stuttgart where Engel was a film student. Emmerich hired him to work on Moon 44, and the two re-paired on Universal Soldier, Godzilla and Independence Day. Weigert and Engel began their partnership with Independence Day.
Weigert says, "One of the biggest challenges is the sheer number of different types of disasters that happen in the film: earthquakes, fissures opening in the ground, several cities are destroyed, floods, huge volcanic eruptions. And each one of these needs to be designed. We needed to do research and development for things that had never been done before."
Says Weigert, "Obviously, as visual effects get better and better, audiences become more and more sophisticated and pick up on any little thing we get wrong. So we have to up our quality level and make sure that whatever we're doing is one hundred percent seamless. A lot of things that we're doing would not have been possible just a couple of years ago."
Producer Larry Franco says that marrying the live action portions with visual effects was a case of taking it bit by bit. "If you think of the project as a whole, you'd go, 'There's no way this could be done. We can't do this. This is insane.' But Roland has a saying: 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.' You break it down into little chunks. 'We only need this little piece and the rest is going to be blue screen. How are we going to get the element that goes on the blue screen?' If you break it down, it's not as difficult as it may sound."
The first step for Engel and Weigert was creating what is called pre-visualization, which is something akin to a moving storyboard. Weigert describes it as "fairly simple 3-D representation of the entire scene. It's a long development, some six to seven months, where we take every major sequence in the movie and pre-visualize it."
To illustrate just how complicated the visual effects elements are, Weigert describes the Los Angeles earthquake sequence. "It started out with us trying to figure out where we could shoot the sequence, so we started a location scout in Los Angeles. Then, after a while, it became clear that it didn't make sense to shoot this anywhere, because everything crumbles. Everything had to move in the earthquake: every palm tree, every mailbox, every car, every building has to either crumble or fall down. Eventually we decided to build a huge blue screen. We built one that is over six hundred feet long and forty feet high."
That blue screen was placed next to Vezina's shaky floor. "The shaky floor that Mike Vezina designed is a brilliant thing, because it really allows the actor to walk on a floor as if they are in a 10.5 earthquake. Whatever they do, however they act, is as real as it gets. Everything else that's placed on that floor is going to be shaking. In the computer, we re-create exactly the same kind of movement because wherever there's blue screen, we have to extend the environment with our computer animated environment and it has to match exactly what we shoot. We have to track the motion of the camera and track the motion of the floor that shakes totally independently of anything else."
Adding to this, the director had a specific visual in mind for the final product. "Roland was always very adamant about the look of the earthquake," explains Weigert. "The ground was supposed to behave like ocean waves, almost. The shaky floor supplied that look. Volker and I took everything off that shaky floor, painted a grid on it, and filmed that, so we could see exactly what the shaky floor was doing - we could match the shake of the floor exactly."
"Everything else in the scene - everything that wasn't on the shaky floor - was computer generated. We built everything that moves - everything that is in, on, or above that street is in the computer. It had to have the correct color and texture to it."
Traditionally, visual effects often incorporate plate shots which are later dropped into the composition where the blue screen was during the live-action filming. However, in 2012, the overall movement and seismic activity would not allow for typical plate shots. "This is Los Angeles," Weigert says. "People have been there. People have seen it. They know what it looks like. If there's something wrong in terms of lighting, shading, texture, you'll immediately see it and it will look like a videogame. That's something we constantly have to fight."
Engel concurs, "Everything we do, we try to base in reality as much as possible. You have the physics of crumbling buildings, or airplanes behaving in a certain way. We always stretch reality a bit to make it work for the movie, to tell the story. But there's only so much you can stretch it, or you're going to lose the audience. It's my job to take it back and place it in reality."
After each component is carefully created in the computer, it is just as carefully destroyed. Weigert goes on, "A building has to be cut apart into millions of little pieces, so then a physics-based simulation can be done on that building that shows how a building would crumble when the ground would move under it. And that we do with literally, hundreds of buildings that are along the road and thousands of little small elements that have to be in the picture and have to be moving."
And all this is just for one single sequence. "It takes an enormous amount of people and hardware and software resources to make a movie like this," Weigert concludes. "We had ten to twelve different companies all over the world working on this. Each of these companies dedicated anywhere from sixty to a hundred people. We also had an in-house unit over at Sony Pictures to create two of the major sequences. So, overall, we had well over a thousand people working on the effects. Time-wise, Volker and I are basically there from the very first minutes. Just the two sequences that we're doing in-house have over a hundred terabytes of additional storage that stores all the information that every single frame generates. We had a 250-machine render farm set up for these two sequences. In a movie like this, overall you have easily a petabyte [one million gigs] of information."
All for Emmerich's vision of the end of the world. "Roland Emmerich is first and foremost an entertainer," says Weigert. "He knows that whichever movie he does, he wants to have an audience, to begin with, and to please that audience."
The longtime partnership works well for all parties. "Roland's need to constantly show something new, something different, " says Weigert, "is great for us because that's what gets us going. It would be horribly boring if we were to do the same thing over and over again. We constantly have new things that have never been done before, new things that we have to research. We're always standing there scratching our heads, 'How're we supposed to do this?' But you figure it out." Weigert laughs.