July 28, 1995. Press releases from Twentieth Century Fox herald today as ”the countdown to the end of the world,” but it’s looking like a pretty silly apocalypse. At 8:30 a.m., 340 days before the opening of Independence Day, an alien war of the worlds that features Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and some extremely slimy extraterrestrials, the film’s crew begin to set up shop on the highway beside Manhattan’s East River for day one of the 72 they will spend together. Their sweaty, first-day-of-school jitters aren’t being helped by the temperature, which is already up to 85 degrees. The neighboring Fulton Fish Market is smelling like its fishy self. Suddenly, with a German-accented order from the pacing, chain-smoking, green-high-top-wearing director, Roland Emmerich, cars crash and garbage cans go flying. Twenty-odd extras, trying their hardest to appear horrified by what they’re supposed to be seeing, spring to the river’s edge and look up at the cloudless expanse above Brooklyn’s skyline.
”It’s a spaceship that covers the entire city,” cowriter-producer Dean Devlin says breathlessly, gesturing to the featureless horizon like a 10-year-old talking to invisible friends. As he turns back to the set, a speck appears overhead and begins circling. Finding its mark, a lone pigeon lets loose a New York sign of luck on Devlin’s head.
One year, $70 million, and tens of thousands of man-hours later, Devlin’s enthusiasm no longer seems laughable; even Twister producer Steven Spielberg is predicting that Independence Day will be the year’s No. 1 film. For Emmerich, 40, and Devlin, 33, the partners whose most notable previous credit was StarGate, 1994’s against-all-odds sci-fi hit, ID is a bit like Cinderella returning to the ball in haute couture to push her luck. Emmerich’s pre-StarGate efforts ran to such fare as Moon 44 (1990); Devlin was a failed TV actor who appeared in the short-lived CBS drama series Hard Copy. The success of StarGate shocked even the filmmakers: ”Everyone thought we were nuts making that film,” admits Devlin, who often does the talking for his partner. ”We thought we were nuts. The studio [MGM, which bought the film after completion] thought we were nuts. The actors thought we were nuts. And really, who’s to blame them? We were the guys who just made a Dolph Lundgren movie [Universal Soldier].”
StarGate’s ultimate $200 million worldwide gross granted the filmmakers breathing room on their next project. The idea of an unlikely band of heroes saving the world from nasty invaders came to Emmerich at the StarGate press junket in October 1994, when a reporter asked the director if he believed in aliens. Within days, Devlin and Emmerich were pounding out a script. They sent it out on a Thursday two months later; on Friday, the filmmakers were in the middle of an intense bidding war. That night, Twentieth Century Fox promised to pay them a salary of $7.5 million (plus a percentage of the profits), and Emmerich and Devlin began preproduction. With an eye on an ensemble cast that would allow the concept to take center stage, Emmerich and Devlin recruited Pullman as the President of the United States, Goldblum as a chess genius anticipating the invaders’ moves, and Smith as a fighter pilot. In a few days, three conceptual artists had drawn the first storyboards of the tentacled aliens with an attitude.