Filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin met 10 years ago in Germany, when Emmerich was filming the feature Moon 44, in which Devlin had a starring role. Impressed with the actor's talent for improvising dialogue, Emmerich enlisted his help in writing the screenplay for his next feature, the science fiction action film Universal Soldier, and an enduring creative partnership was born. The two subsequently re-teamed for Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Patriot, under the banner Centropolis Entertainment, with Emmerich directing and Devlin producing, and both of them sharing screenplay credit on all but The Patriot.
The two movie buffs often discussed their favourite films with one another. In particular, they both loved the low-budget B-movie thrillers of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Them or Tarantula, films whose enduring popularity over the years has earned them classic status and made them a genre unto themselves.
As Devlin recalls, "we were wondering if there was a way to recreate that kind of film with more sophisticated visual effects and state-of-the-art production values, to bring it into the modern era but not lose the charm and humour that made those films distinctive in the first place."
It was essential that any such updated version, regardless of its modern effects and polish, "did not take itself too seriously or deny its origins," adds Emmerich.
What they didn't know at the time was that New Zealand filmmaker Ellory Elkayem had recently written, produced and directed Larger Than Life, his own homage to the genre, a 13-minute, black and white, 1950s-style science fiction film about a small spider that gets exposed to a toxic substance, grows to monumental proportions and terrorizes a woman in her house. The film played to enthusiastic audiences at film festivals around the world and eventually earned $50,000 for the New Zealand Film Commission, a remarkable figure for a short.
After Larger Than Life screened at the l998 Telluride Film Festival, executive producer Peter Winther showed it to Emmerich and Devlin. "Ellory's short film was precisely in the vein we had been discussing," Devlin says. "It was hilarious, stylish and well-made. We knew immediately that this was the opportunity we'd been hoping for, to revitalize a dormant style that we both loved."
The three met to discuss the potential for a feature-length version of the spider short, featuring not one giant arachnid but thousands. Emmerich and Devlin wanted Elkayem to direct because, as Devlin explains, "we wanted him to express his vision the way he did so effectively in the short, only on a larger scale, with the resources of a full production team behind him, our combined experience as filmmakers, plus the best effects. In other words, let's drop a Porsche engine into a Volkswagen and see what happens."