Climate disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow faced criticism across the political spectrum

Roland Emmerich's prescient 2004 movie was criticised by the right and left when it was released 20 years ago

Jake Gyllenhaal starred in the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)
Jake Gyllenhaal starred in the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)

Roland Emmerich’s disaster epic launched 2004’s summer blockbuster season with extreme temperatures and a flood taking out New York City. But is it one of the most polemical popcorn movies ever? We caught up with co-screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff to find out.

Of all the millions of people writer/director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) kills in 2004 disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, Brits got a particular shock with the destruction of one family.

"I'm going to now laugh at you for being a Brit and asking me that," says co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff when Yahoo UK asks whether he feels getting for offing the British Royal Family.

"We killed off half of the global population. This by the way proves Roland's point. In Independence Day, he destroys all of Los Angeles and there's one golden retriever that escapes from the flames. And without fail, Roland told me, in movie theatres, the audience would burst into applause when that golden retriever would come out of the flames and nobody minded that you just immolated 10 million people."

Nachmanoff was making his way in the industry when he was brought onto The Day After Tomorrow by Emmerich, who was already known as the modern disaster movie king.

(dpa) - (From L:) Script writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, producer Mark Gordon, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, actress Emmy Rossum and the German director Roland Emmerich pose during a photo session for the promotion of their movie 'The Day After Tomorrow' in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday 5 May 2004. The film's plot centres around a change in the world's climate and a resulting ice age. The movi
The Day After Tomorrow screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff (left), with producer producer Mark Gordon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum and director Roland Emmerich in 2004. (Alamy)

"He had the idea for the film already," Nachmanoff remembers (which was based on the book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber). "I did write the first draft in a room, so to speak, but very quickly he and I sat down together and went over every line, every beat of it. And Roland described an image and either I sort of found a way to sort of describe that in the screenplay or I pitched a different image."

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"For example, Roland really loved the visual idea of a tanker truck scraping down Fifth Avenue in New York," he continues. "He recognises the power of the image as opposed to the word sometimes. And so I tried to sort of get into the spirit of that and learn from him."

The Day After Tomorrow  2004 USA Director: Roland Emmerich
2004's The Day After Tomorrow saw the world being ravaged by climate disasters. (Alamy)

The story sees scientist Dennis Quaid realise the world is on the brink of a cataclysmic climate crisis and after failing to convince the usual arrogant political wonks, finds himself trekking across the freezing tundra that America has become to rescue his son Jake Gyllenhaal in New York, which has been decimated by a tsunami.

Of course, to have the tidal wave take the Big Apple required state-of-the-art special effects. Gollum and orc armies existed by this point, but CGI water still left a lot to be desired.

"I think what they'd always had trouble with was the chaotic movement of water," says Nachmanoff. "The ability to mathematically calculate and predict that in a realistic way with all the different surfaces that have to change and the light reflecting, that was something that hadn't really been done that successfully at that scale before."

But while CGI played a huge part in the film, Emmerich also built enormous practical sets for Gyllenhaal, Quaid and co-star Emmy Rossum to act on.

The Day After Tomorrow featured a frozen New York library for a large part of the action. (Alamy)
The Day After Tomorrow featured a frozen New York library for a large part of the action. (Alamy)

"If were a fan of the movies, you can imagine back in the olden days going onto a set and seeing Cecil B. DeMille constructing ancient Egypt or something like that on a backstage," remembers Nachmanoff.

"That was what it felt like watching Roland recreate New York on a huge soundstage in Montreal. The filmmakers rebuilt about a block in front of the New York Public Library on a soundstage.

"There were hundreds of extras, dozens and dozens of cars, all of which had to have their engines taken out so that when they were flooded with water you didn't have the oil and the toxic chemicals coming out of them. It was sort of one giant bathtub, about three feet deep of water. And then they had pumps circulating to rain heads in the ceiling of the soundstage several stories up."

Behind the scenes of The Day After Tomorrow, which was filmed in Canada. (Alamy)
Behind the scenes of The Day After Tomorrow, which was filmed in Canada. (Alamy)

The writer even got to experience what it must have been like for the actors spending all day soaking wet. "I have one vivid memory of a scene happening down on the stage and I made a suggestion to Roland at the monitor that the actor should say something slightly differently. And he said, ‘Oh, Jeffrey, that's a good idea. Go down and tell them.’ You know, normally the director talks to the actors, but he snaps his fingers and an AD [assistant director][ comes over with a set of waders for me.

Read more: Emmerich calls for Hollywood to focus more on climate crisis

"And I'm then sent down onto the stage, like wading through the water to go tell the actor this other line that I'd come up with, which was, I mean, obviously super fun. It never occurred to me at the time that Roland didn't feel like getting himself in the water to go down and tell them the line."

The frozen Statue of Liberty was a recurring theme in the marketing of The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)

In a world of Reddit and social media, audiences are quick to jump on a movie that gets things wrong. Yet The Day After Tomorrow faced a unique dilemma: making entertainment out of a science that takes literal epochs to happen rather than 90 minutes and what’s more, something that a swathe of the audience didn’t even believe was real. Nachmanoff turned to the research of late geochemist Professor Wally Broecker of Columbia University.

"I guess the short answer is we were very aware of the places where we took great liberties and we tried to make conscious choices," Nachmanoff explains. "An abrupt climate change really means, instead of something that takes millions of years, something that could happen in a few hundred.

"That's a shocking timescale for the climate to change in geological terms. And so in order to do that with characters that don't age, we changed that down to a few weeks. That's a huge change in terms of what's realistic, but in another way it's incredibly small because the difference if you're talking in geological terms between a million-year change and hundred-year change, making it happen over a week or two is not that different. What we're talking about is a real potential disaster, which is something that happens far too quickly for humanity to adapt."

Dennis Quaid's scientist Jack sets out to find his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) after disaster strikes. (Alamy)
Dennis Quaid's scientist Jack sets out to find his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) after disaster strikes. (Alamy)

And in terms of spreading the word about climate change — then better known as global warming — the film had a huge impact.

"I had one science consultant, Michael Molitor, who is a climate scientist," says Nachmanoff. "He said to me, ‘I've been working in this field for 25 years and I feel like I have been speaking into the wind. I think I've probably reached a few hundred people in my career. In the one six-month period I've worked with you on this movie, I have touched millions of people about this issue in a different way.’"

But did the filmmakers intend a this to be a truly polemical blockbuster? There are shots in the movie of Americans fleeing across the Rio Grande to Mexico and the rest of the Global South that feels particularly acute two decades on as immigration debates continue to rage. Or should we just treat The Day After Tomorrow as two hours of fun, weather-based carnage.

Prod DB © Centropolis Entertainment / DR LE JOUR D'APRES (THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW) de Roland Emmerich 2004 USA avec Roland Emmerich et Emmy Rossum sur le tournage
Roland Emmerich (centre) giving direction to Emily Rossum on the set of 2004's The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)

"We were sort of hammered by the conservative right for being Hollywood pearl-clutching liberals who were sort of fomenting hysteria over the hoax of global warming," remembers Nachmanoff. "And from the, let's call it, old school, dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist left, we were hammered for being disrespectfully frivolous filmmakers, essentially taking a serious issue and making it into popcorn entertainment. And I like to think if you're being kind of criticised from both sides, maybe that's a good thing."

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He adds, "I think for Roland and for me, we felt that we were making entertainment first and if in the process we also sparked a little bit of thought or provoked a conversation about a serious issue that led to them learning a little bit more about the real challenges that we're facing with climate change, then that would be a politically successful thing to do."

He's proud of the balance they ultimately achieved, even if it did mean killing off Her Maj.

Roland Emmerich on the set of his 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)
Roland Emmerich on the set of his 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. (Alamy)

"We were dealing with a subject that was and still is politically fraught, that the science has been distorted and politicised for essentially financial and economic reasons for a long time by the fossil fuels industry," he says.

"I used to use some stock funny answers [when I did press interviews at the time]. I said the most unrealistic thing in the movie is when the American vice-president apologises and admits he was wrong at the end… [But] it's always been an easier conversation with European journalists, because for whatever reason that the disinformation campaign launched by the fossil fuels industry, which of course are multinational, always took root and had more success and I think still to this day has had more success among the American public than it has in Europe."

The Day After Tomorrow is streaming on Disney+.