Roland Emmerich Brings Ancient Rome to Life in ‘Those About To Die’

The Colosseum roars back to life this summer with German director Roland Emmerich’s first official tryst with television, thanks to his ambitious new series Those About to Die. Set against the backdrop of the Flavian dynasty of the Roman Empire, this 10-episode spectacle premieres on July 18, just in time to whet appetites for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Celebrated for his mastery in large-scale, high-stakes filmmaking, Emmerich directs five of the episodes with his undiminished passion for storytelling. Known for blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, Emmerich’s signature style — marked by grandiosity, absurdly-scaled production, and a curious knack for depicting societal collapse — seems to have all the makings to elevate Those About to Die into a stunning and charged epic.

The series, inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book and developed by Robert Rodat (the screenwriter behind Saving Private Ryan), offers yet another portrayal of the political and social intricacies of ancient Rome — Hollywood seems quite taken with the idea lately — through the lens of its most brutal and popular spectacles: the games.

A still from ‘Those About To Die’ | Photo Credit: Peacock

Emmerich’s ability to capture the chaotic beauty of the great civilization in turmoil shines through in this series. He brings ancient Rome to vivid life, not just through the spectacles in the arena, but also through the personal and political dramas unfolding behind the scenes that have the Machievellian smear of its seasoned successors, Game of Thrones and Succession. Its cast is led by two-time Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as the Emperor Vespasian and also features Iwan Rheon of Game of Thrones fame, as well as The Irregulars star Jojo Macari.

In an exclusive interview with Emmerich, he shared insights into the series’ development and his directorial approach and reflected on his own filmography, dropping hints about future projects and fondly recalling a certain Oscar-winning reptilian icon.

“Well, it’s an interesting period because Vespasian, who became emperor, came from a family of mule breeders. He became a significant general and was sent to Judea to quell the rebellion there in his old age,” Emmerich explained. “He was the last of the four emperors after Nero killed himself. There were three other generals fighting for the Emperorship, and Vespasian was the last one standing. He brought stability after the civil war and rebuilt Rome, including constructing the Colosseum, a grand gesture at the time. He had two sons, which was unique among emperors before him, and his reign lasted 12 years.”

“We wanted to show how multi-colored and multi-ethnic Rome truly was. Don’t forget, a third of everybody who lived in Rome was a slave. They had to come from somewhere, right? And they were not Romans; they were conquered people who were taken as slaves and made to work. This led to a significant influx from other countries, and we wanted to represent that. Rome was also the center of the world at that time; it was a city with more than a million people. Can you imagine? That was a big city.”

A still from ‘Those About To Die’ | Photo Credit: Peacock

“Yes, that was an idea we had,” Emmerich continued. “Amongst the characters, we made Domitian who was openly gay, and he had his boy with him everywhere. It was widely accepted in Rome at that time, so we could portray that aspect authentically.”

Emmerich also praised Hopkins’ portrayal of Vespasian, stating, “He had the character completely figured out and portrayed him as a soldier who never shows weakness. Even when weak, he hides it and wants to die standing. His performance was incredibly impressive.”

A still from ‘Those About To Die’ | Photo Credit: Peacock

Reflecting on the series, Emmerich said, “Look, I don’t know how successful the show will be — time will tell. But I had a lot of fun making it because there’s so much going on and so many different characters. At its core, it has a nearly Shakespearean element where the old man has to choose one of his two sons to succeed him, and naturally, he chooses the military dude because he kind of likes him more and he’s more like him. It’s about succession, but it’s also very much like a sports show of that era. If they had TV back then, they would have had sports shows like this.

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“We shot in Rome and had the advantage of a volume stage, which made everything look big even if it wasn’t. We also used a super accurate model of Ancient Rome built by German guys for a museum and rendered it in Unreal Engine. It was complicated and I don’t want to belittle it. You don’t have much time to begin with and you have to work much faster than you normally do because every problem lasts half a day or so. So you have to be very, very careful with what you do and how you do it.”

A still from ‘Those About To Die’ | Photo Credit: Peacock

“When something is successful, who really cares? But when it goes down, it’s always more interesting. The decline is always more interesting than the success. And here you have constant cycles of success and decline. The Roman Empire, for example, was famously dying out because it was too big. It fell apart. There was no way to keep it going for that long.”

Laughing, Emmerich added, “I have had the pleasure to come out first! But honestly, it’s a coincidence. Creating a movie about the Roman Empire is really expensive and requires a lot of planning. Our show was very complex and complicated to produce. We had a budget of $150 million, which is much smaller compared to Ridley Scott’s $200-250 million, but we managed to accomplish a lot with it.”

A still from ‘Those About To Die’ | Photo Credit: Peacock

Discussing future projects, Emmerich revealed, “Yes, I found a great writer, Anthony McCarten, who wrote The Theory of Everything, The Darkest Hour, and the last version of Bohemian Rhapsody. We already have a pilot script, so it’s in the works.”

He also touched upon his thoughts on the Independence Day sequel, saying, “The last one wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped for and then Will Smith opted out… and now he slapped somebody else. I don’t think it will happen again. I still have other film projects in the works, so don’t worry. But I did really have a clear blueprint in mind for the film.”

Reflecting on his previous work, Emmerich defended his take on Godzilla. “Yes, I like the film and never understood the criticism. It was a clever way to tell a modern Godzilla story, much more realistic than previous versions. The old Godzilla was a suit that had to be bottom-heavy to work. I thought our Godzilla was better, faster, and could procreate, which made it more dynamic and I really thought it was a very, very clever film.”

Finally, when asked if he had seen the latest Godzilla films, Emmerich said, “I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list. I’ve heard it’s a fantastic movie.”

Those About To Die premieres on Prime Video on July 18, promising a majestic blend of historical drama, political intrigue, and gladiatorial spectacle, sure to captivate audiences worldwide.

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