Gillian Flynn
June 04, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A big, big freeze has hit Manhattan. The New York Public Library is all white and fluffy, its great windows (and great books) frosted over, chandeliers iced like upside-down wedding cakes. Slippery, soapy ”snowfakes” are everywhere — they trail from the library to a massive warehouse across the way, where a Russian freighter has smashed into a row of buildings.

See, ”The Day After Tomorrow,” director Roland Emmerich’s latest grand disaster flick (see review on page 54), revolves around a fast-descending Ice Age, which kills off most of the Northern Hemisphere — and a paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) determined to save his teenage son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s trapped in New York City. Thus the film demands not just killer tornadoes and insta-freeze hurricanes, not just a storm swell that swallows much of Manhattan, but the aforementioned freighter busting down Fifth Avenue in the wake of a wave the size of the Statue of Liberty. And wolves — did we mention wolves? Their furry animatronic heads loll on a lunch table nearby for a scene in which Sam, after scrounging food and medicine from the ship, must outrun the pack back to his library safe house.

On the massive Montreal set, star Gyllenhaal, late of such very non-actiony films as ”Donnie Darko” and ”The Good Girl,” gets his cheeks pinked and bangs frosted, then begins an odd chase scene around the freighter, as he flees from…nothing — the wolves will be added later. After a few takes, Emmerich remarks to his young actor that he’s terribly fleet of foot. Gyllenhaal grins beneath frosty eyebrows and replies in perfect movie trailerese, ”Faster’s better: Bigger…faster…funnier!”

If an oeuvre can be described with a suffix, Roland Emmerich’s would be ”-er.” ”Day After Tomorrow” is certainly bigger than the German director’s previous event flicks — it boasts a budget and special effects that seek to shame Emmerich’s ”Stargate,” ”Independence Day,” and ”Godzilla.” Faster? That’d be ”DAT”’s global-warming-triggered Ice Age, which rocks the world in a speedy (and scientifically impossible) few days — plus the swiftness with which real-life environmental groups have launched awareness campaigns around the film. For funnier, you gotta go with the casting of Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh as ”DAT”’s villainous, Kyoto-hating Vice President. Welsh is a ringer, you see, for a Veep Named Dick. ”Somebody said, ‘But he looks like Cheney, we cannot cast him!”’ the director recalls. ”I said, ‘He looks like Cheney? Well, then he’s cast!’ I think it’s strange how people in America constantly dance around things.”

Emmerich’s latest blockbuster almost didn’t happen. With ”The Patriot,” he’d planned to leave disaster flicks behind. Then he read Art Bell and Whitley Strieber’s nonfiction book ”The Coming Global Superstorm” and decided, well, maybe ”one more.” Emmerich roughed out a screenplay, teamed with rookie writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff — and a few months later CAA initiated a bold auction on May 1, 2002. The terms: Any studio that bought the script bought it as is, and agreed to a budget sources put at about $125 million. ”When everyone wants your movie, you can ask for certain things you’d normally never get,” says Emmerich, who also had final cut. ”But it’s the only way to do this movie. Otherwise they’ll all of a sudden say, ‘We want a happy ending!’ And what do you do then?”

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