When it comes to getting sequels to mega-blockbusters off the ground, size doesn't matter. Just ask Dean Devlin. Working with his regular collaborator, director Roland Emmerich, the multihyphenate producer-writer-director oversaw three massive '90s hits: 1994's Stargate, 1996's Independence Day and 1998's Godzilla, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on May 20. And the duo had specific sequel plans for each of those mega-productions after they racked up hundreds of millions of box-office dollars at home and abroad.
But due to a confluence of factors, only one of those follow-ups ever made it to the big screen, 2016's Independence Day: Resurgence, and it wasn't the version that Devlin and Emmerich hoped to make. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year as he prepared to launch his latest venture — the Syfy series The Ark, which recently scored a Season 2 pick-up — Devlin walked us through his trio of never-were sequels including a monster-heavy Godzilla 2, the Will Smith version of Independence Day 2 and a second trip through the Stargate that would have involved... the Mayans.
Never-Were No. 1: Godzilla 2
Heading into the 1998 summer movie season, you couldn't escape Godzilla sightings. Japan's No. 1 movie monster had been a global sensation since the franchise-launching 1954 film, and Devlin and Emmerich's movie marked the first time that a major Hollywood studio — the Sony-owned TriStar Pictures — would be making a feature film starring the giant atomic beam-breathing lizard. Posters and billboards for Godzilla's papered major metropolitan areas hyping up the scale of the movie and its reptilian star with the signature catchphrase: "Size does matter."
And the movie's box-office grosses were certainly sizable: Released over Memorial Day weekend, Godzilla banked nearly $140 million in the U.S. and another $240 million overseas during its theatrical run. But Sony's sky-high expectations for the movie made those numbers seem small. And Devlin acknowledges now that the film wasn't the best (giant) foot forward for an American-made Godzilla franchise.
"We made an intellectual decision that sounds good in the room, but is really terrible for making a movie," Devlin says of the exact moment where his Godzilla went wrong. "We decided that Godzilla was neither good nor evil — it was just an animal looking to reproduce. It was a threat to us because it puts us at risk in order to survive.
"That's an interesting way to approach it, but it doesn't tell the audience how they're supposed to feel about the title character," Devlin continues, pointing to a King Kong-like moment late in the film where Godzilla is fatally wounded, and the audience has no idea how to react. "They were like, 'Am I happy he's dying? Am I crying? I don't get it.' So that was a huge mistake: Had I been able to do it over again, I would have made Godzilla an absolute hero, and everyone would have been rooting for him the whole time."
That's a mistake that Devlin and Emmerich would have instantly corrected in their planned sequel. "I said, 'All right, we can redeem ourselves,'" the writer recounts, laughing. Godzilla ends with the titular creature's death, but also the revelation that one of the eggs it was destroying Manhattan to protect had produced a tiny hatchling. That offspring would have been discovered by the previous movie's human hero, Matthew Broderick's scientist, Nick Tatopoulos, and they would have set off for the mysterious location well-known to Godzilla stans as... Monster Island.
"We really wanted to go to Monster Island," Devlin recalls. "In the original Godzilla movies, Godzilla started off as a monster, but became a hero by the time Monster Island was introduced." Once on the island, li'l Godzilla would have encountered some of his ancestor's most famous frenemies — think Mothra and Rodan. Devlin remembers that Broderick would likely have been the only returning flesh-and-blood actor from the first movie, although the actor might have needed some additional convincing to reprise the role.
"He was a joy to work with, but he felt bad that the movie [didn't do well]," Devlin says. "I think he took it on himself, like it was somehow his fault! I was like, 'Dude, you're terrific in everything you do. This is all me — I screwed this up.'"
Ultimately, Sony passed on Devlin and Emmerich's Monster Island pitch due to the mixed response to their first movie. It didn't help that Toho — the Japanese studio that owns the character — wasn't thrilled with the film either. But Devlin did have an opportunity to put some of his sequel ideas to use in a short-lived Godzilla animated series that had a two-season run as part of the Fox Kids lineup. That show completed Godzilla's transformation into a hero and also brought back Nick, now voiced by Ian Ziering in place of Broderick.
"The animated series and our sequel lived separately," he says. "But they did have the same idea of converting Godzilla into a hero so that when we got to the next movie, Godzilla would be the one who is going to save us, not kill us. It was all part of us going, 'We knew we screwed up, but we can make this right!'"
Godzilla didn't return to Hollywood until 2014, when Gareth Edwards directed a new film for Legendary Pictures that launched the company's MonsterVerse — a cinematic universe that also encompasses Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and, most recently, Godzilla vs. Kong. Asked if he's been following the giant lizard's more recent American adventures, Devlin indicates that he's out of the monster game.
"I have so much PTSD from my experience with Godzilla, I could never bring myself to watch the new version," he says, chuckling. "That chapter of my life is closed."
Never-Were No. 2: Will Smith's Independence Day: Resurgence
Will Smith had been percolating as a Hollywood A-lister since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air launched in 1990, but it was Independence Day that really blew him up into a major movie star. Naturally, Emmerich and Devlin hoped the rapper-turned-actor would be part of a follow-up to their alien invasion blockbuster, which grossed more than $800 million worldwide in the summer of 1996. They even told him as much before sitting down to write the sequel script well over a decade after the original film hit theaters.
"Roland and I wrote it ourselves — we weren't paid by the studio," Devlin says, referring to 20th Century Fox, which released the first Independence Day. (Fox is now owned by the Walt Disney Company.) "Before we wrote one word, we met with Will Smith and said, 'This is the idea we have.' He loved it and was super-excited to do it. We wrote not just one, but two sequels with him in mind and we handed them into the studio. They went crazy and greenlit immediately; the told us, 'This is the best first draft we've ever read of any script.'"
In that version of Independence Day 2 — which Emmerich has said would have been called ID Forever Part 1, with the third film known as ID Forever Part II — Smith's Marine pilot, Steven Hiller, would have been needed to get back into fighting shape when the aliens return to Earth for a grudge match. "It was a bit like Rocky III," Devlin reveals. "He'd gotten rich and he'd gotten famous, and he had to get the eye of the tiger back you know? He's a little too comfortable and it's his chance to bring the old Will Smith out of retirement."
While Devlin and Emmerich had an arc in mind for Smith, they also left room for the star to improvise — a strategy that had resulted in some of his most memorable moments in the first movie, including his oft-quoted "Welcome to Earth" close encounter with one of the invading aliens. "The line I originally wrote for that scene was, 'Now that's what I call a close encounter,'" Devlin says, laughing. "But him punching the alien and going, 'Welcome to Earth,' was what he said when we did it. I looked forward to having that kind of experience with him again where we would get to set and he'd come up with all this great stuff."
But just as Fox prepared to rush both sequels into production, Smith got cold feet. "All of a sudden, he turned it down," Devlin says. "We were shocked. Looking back, I think he felt a little burned because he had done that sci-fi movie [2013's After Earth] that didn't do well and he was generally worried about doing sequels. Ultimately, he wouldn't do it, but the studio wanted to go forward anyway and we kind of ended up in development hell for a bit."
Eventually, ID Forever Part 1 became Independence Day: Resurgence, and Jessie T. Usher represented the Hiller clan as Steven's now-grown stepson, Dylan, with Vivica A. Fox briefly returning as his mother, Jasmine. (Jeff Goldlbum, Bill Pullman and Judd Hirsch were among the other actors from the original movie that said yes to the sequel.) Steven himself has died in the 20-year time gap between movies, and Jasmine joins him in the afterlife when the aliens attack again. Resurgence leaves the door open for a third film, but disappointing box-office returns closed that door fairly quickly.
"I think Roland directed a really interesting movie, but the studio asked us to make changes that didn't make any sense to me and ultimately we put out a movie that I'm not crazy about," he says candidly, mentioning that Fox seemed particularly intent on eliminating any comedy from the film. "They said, 'Modern tentpole movies don't have comedy in them anymore,' and I was like, 'Have you ever seen a Marvel movie?'
"They also wanted to concentrate on the younger pilots, who didn't have as much to do with the original Independence Day," Devlin continues. "They thought that young people wouldn't want to watch Jeff Goldblum, which I thought was crazy. There was a great movie to be made there, and I wish we had made it."
Never-Were No. 3: Stargate 2
Stargate was the film that first put Devlin and Emmerich on the Hollywood map — and it was a case where they bet big on themselves. "You have to remember that the original film is an independent movie," Devlin says. "We raised the financing ourselves, and then MGM distributed it. Then just before the movie came out, the studio bought the film away from our financiers and suddenly we didn't own the film anymore."
That was a good strategic move on MGM's part as Stargate became incredibly profitable, earning nearly $200 million worldwide. But it complicated the attempts of the film's creators to move straight ahead into a sequel. "Roland and I had fallen in love with the idea of taking things that are part of our own mythological subconscious," Devlin says of the film's Chariots of the Gods-influenced premise. "The first movie asks, 'Did aliens build the pyramids?' The second one was going to deal with, 'Why are there pyramids in Mayan culture?'"
As with Independence Day, the duo also had ideas for a third film. "The third one was going to tie everything together," Devlin explains. "We were gonna have the Yeti, we were gonna have the Loch Ness Monster. It was all going to make sense how these things are tied together." And the stars of the original film, James Spader and Kurt Russell, would absolutely have been part of getting to the bottom of the mythological mystery... provided they didn't price themselves out of the sequels. "It would have been very expensive to bring them back," Devlin says, laughing. "But I think they would have come back, because we all enjoyed making the first movie."
One person who definitely would not have returned for Stargate 2 was Jaye Davidson, the breakout star of The Crying Game. Stargate was Davidson's follow-up to that 1992 hit, and it also proved to be the actor's final onscreen appearance — one that Devlin says was a troubled experience. "He had a terrible substance abuse problem and was uninsurable," says the writer, revealing that Davidson's role in the film changed substantially during production.
"In the version of Stargate that we shot, he wasn't an alien — he was an ancient Egyptian who worked for the aliens," Devlin explains. "But because he had been so inebriated, his performance was weird. In test screenings, audiences were like, 'Can't Kurt Russell just beat the crap out of that person?'" In a Hail Mary pass, Emmerich and Devlin used editing room tricks to turn the character into an alien — altering Davidson's voice and using VFX to give the actor's eyes a literal glow-up. "It worked spectacularly, and our test scores went way up!
"The movie was about to open and we realized that nobody had told Jaye," Devlin continues. "I flew to New York to meet him and before I could say a word, he said, 'I'm so sorry that I ruined the movie!' But I told him, 'Jaye, you didn't ruin the movie. We turned your character into a space alien.' And he was overjoyed instead of being angry with me."
Rather than pursue Devlin and Emmerich's feature film trilogy, MGM decided to take the Stargate franchise to television. Stargate SG-1 — which starred Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks in Russell and Spader's respective roles — premiered on Showtime in 1997 before moving to the Syfy Channel where it launched additional spinoffs.
These days, Stargate is something of a dormant franchise, but Amazon's recent acquisition of MGM may yet bring it back to life. Devlin says that he and Emmerich had a fleeting opportunity in the recent past to resurrect it on their terms. "It looked like we were going to reboot it from the beginning and do all three films, but that didn't happen," he says. "I think my run on Stargate is probably done at this point."