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Roland Emmerich talks through a special on-set album

Image for Roland Emmerich talks through a special on-set album

Since his first movie, The Noah's Ark Principle, in 1984, Roland Emmerich has spent the best part of 30 years patrolling sets, sound stages and the odd pyrotechnics cupboard in the service of epic Hollywood blockbusters. Today, Empire's guest editor looks back over his filmmaking career in a unique on-set gallery.

With Dolph Lundgren on the set of Universal Soldier (1992)

With Dolph Lundgren on Universal Soldiers

"I'm so young in this picture! I was a heavy-smoker back then but I gave up 15 or 16 years ago. I smoked six, seven packs a day. I think people hated me for it, especially when I started smoking cigars. I'd sit in my trailer, smoking one cigar after the other and everyone would have to come and see me. I'd later hear from them that it was horrible and they'd have to change clothes. If I can give up smoking, anyone can."

310, or so, in Yuma (1994)

On the set of Stargate

"Stargate was a fun shoot. All of these extras were from Mexico, because we shot in Yuma, Arizona which is close to the border. We had as many as 1500 extras for some scenes. It was a little daunting! My Spanish was non-existent but they all spoke English. Will there be another Stargate? I just handed in a script to MGM and they're really excited about it. I love James Spader – he won't be the hero because it's a reboot – but we have to give him a really cool part, maybe a general. Kurt Russell, too."

Model work on Independence Day (1996)

Modelling on Independence Day

"This is how we did the whirling up cars in Independence Day when the aliens fire their laser. We put bigger ones in the foreground, smaller ones for the mid-ground and then really, really small ones for the background. The ones in the picture are the smallest ones. The better CG becomes, the less I miss models."

At Independence Day's premiere in LA (1996)

At the Independence Day premiere in LA

"That was a really great premiere – more like a rave. It was at the university in Westwood, Los Angeles. I always get super-nervous before my films come out. Everyone told I should stay in LA before Independence Day, but I couldn't. I had a house in Mexico and I went there. I was sitting in my house, a little bit drunk, with a couple of friends when the first numbers came in. The telephone rings and I'm thinking, "Okay, it's the moment of truth..." It was 20th Century Fox on the line. They told me it was incredible – I think we did $11 million at midnight shows, which was unheard of. So I got a little bit more drunk. But a very happy drunk."

With Team 'Zilla (1998)

On the set of Godzilla

"This was taken in the warehouse where Matthew Broderick's character meets Jean Reno for the first time in Godzilla. Jean is a cool guy. He always has this English teacher with him, who's always correcting his English. His brand of acting is very unique. The only person who's even a little like him is the Italian actor Lino Ventura."

Very big in Japan (1998)

In Japan on the Godzilla press tour

"This was in Japan with a fan-made Godzilla that was inspired by our Godzilla. It was a dream come true, making the biggest movie of the year and what we thought would be the biggest franchise. The only thing I regret is not having more time. The schedule was murderous. But the shoot was fun and I love Jean Reno and Matthew Broderick... and Hank Azaria. Funny people!"

On the set of The Patriot (2000)

Emmerich on the set of The Patriot

"I knew we had a really great script and our ideal cast for The Patriot – Mel Gibson was born to play this part – but I'd never done a movie like this, so I was insistent that we prepared everything down to a T. We had one hurricane after another, and we lost ten days on it. Overall, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. What did I have against the English? Nothing! I have a place in London – I love you English guys."

Watching playback on The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Playback on The Day After Tomorrow

"There are certain theories about playback; for instance, Steven Spielberg never records anything, he only wants to see it once and then he knows. I'm not as secure as him, so it's really important for me to play it back and know I've got it and we can move on. But with digital now you have such a big monitor that you see everything, so I hardly play back anymore."

Staying frosty on 10,000 BC (2008)

In the snow on 10,000 BC

"This was in New Zealand. It was summer but because we were at 9000-feet, there was still snow. We'd drop the cast off by helicopter at the top of high mountains. This kid here was from South Africa and had never seen snow before, except on the TV. He couldn't stop smiling. We'd be like, "Stop smiling!"

In Anonymous's replica Rose Theatre (2009)

Rose Theatre for Anonymous

"This set was awesome. Mark Rylance was the first actor to perform in this theatre. It was so emotional for everyone when he gave the prologue from Henry V. I sent him an email immediately after he won the Oscar. He's a super, super nice man. Very down to Earth."

White House downed (2013)

In White House Down's situation room

"I always used to say, 'How stupid can people be, making two movies at the same time? Why don't they just call each other?!' But then it happened to me with White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. I'd heard there was another movie being made but been told it didn't have a director. Then they said, 'Oh yes, that movie starts shooting in six weeks.' I said, 'I thought it didn't have a director?' 'They started preparing it without a director, but now they have one.' I said, 'Are you kidding me? Someone's making exactly the same movie. When's it coming out?' 'Really fast,' they said, 'January or February.' I said, 'Bullshit!' And that's how it happened. I was really pissed about it, but you can't go to the studio and stop it because by that point they'd built spent millions. I'm still really proud of the movie.

I love this photo! I should have it framed. I always had baseball caps when I was a kid. For the last four or five movies, I'll buy one cap but get ten of them – it's my good-luck charm."

Introducing Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

On the set of Independence Day Resurgence

"We laughed that it was like a class reunion with new kids. I loved this combination of actors: Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Brent Spiner. I always try to have a fun set where everybody can be creative and not be afraid to try things."

For more features from Empire, including the current issue on Independence Day: Resurgence, subscribe now. Hear Emmerich answer reader questions in our special 'ask the editor' Q&A. See Emmerich's list of his favourite disaster movies and read his critique of Empire's 1996 Independence Day feature.