Director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Dean Devlin have been longtime collaborators that started with the hit Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi action film “Universal Soldier.” Their most well-liked film is easily the 1996 alien invasion film “Independence Day” that helped launch a new era of disaster films, most made by Emmerich.
“Independence Day” was done on a budget of $75 million that sci-fi call back to classic alien invasion films ended up earning a massive $817.4 million at the global box office, making it one of the most popular films of the 1990s.
However, according to the duo, the winning formula of having Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith leading the blockbuster almost didn’t happen. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, the pair revealed that they considered a young Ethan Hawke (“Before Sunrise“) to play Captain Hiller but decided against it due to his age and instead went with Will Smith. The rapper-turned-actor had recently shot Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys” and was mainly known for his NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” However, 20th Century Fox had reservations about what hiring a black lead would mean for the international box office, a long-established studio myth used to gatekeep minority actors from big blockbuster roles.
“Ethan Hawke was on our list too, but I thought at that time he was too young. It was pretty clear it had to be Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. That was the combo we thought. The studio said, ‘No, we don’t like Will Smith. He’s unproven. He doesn’t work in international [markets],'” Roland told THR.
Devlin revealed that studio bias and racism was the main issue folks had with Will Smith’s casting, “They said, ‘You cast a Black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign [box office].’ Our argument was, ‘Well, the movie is about space aliens. It’s going to do fine foreign.’ It was a big war, and Roland really stood up for [Smith] — and we ultimately won that war.”
Emmerich put his foot down about Smith’s casting and threatened to take the sci-fi pic to Universal Pictures, “It was pretty shortly before the shoot, and we still hadn’t locked in Will and Jeff. I put my foot down. ‘Universal people are calling every day, so give me these two actors, or I move over there.’ I don’t think it would have been a possibility [to actually move studios], but it was a great threat.”
Luckily, as Will Smith went on to become a mega-star in Hollywood, things worked out, changing the landscape of blockbusters, and “Independence Day” ultimately became one of the most successful summer films. Good on Emmerich and Devlin for sticking to their guns.