The Oral History of the President’s Speech in ‘Independence Day’

As ‘Independence Day Resurgence’ continues filming in the desert, re-live the most patriotic and motivational speech in cinematic history.

Independence Day President's Speech Oral History

Image via 20th Century Fox

Independence Day President's Speech Oral History

The Fourth of July is a simple holiday with a few beloved traditions. From coast to coast, the day calls for enjoying some beer, eating a few hot dogs, and trying not to lose a hand while blowing up miniature bombs. However, for 220 years we Americans celebrated the creation of our independent political state without even realizing that things could get even better. Then, in 1996, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin put out a film that would redefine summer blockbusters, launch the career of Will Smith, and give America even more to cheer for on the Fourth.

Independence Day had it all. The explosions, aliens, and global destruction set a new standard (in a pre-9/11 world when you could blow up fake world monuments with little hesitation), earning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The world fell in love with Will Smith, who, combined with his role in Bad Boys, became the leading action star of the decade. The film made over $800 million and became synonymous with the holiday that anchored its theme and story, joining the ranks of Halloween, Groundhog Day, and the marathon of Christmas movies that flood secondary cable channels every year.

Amongst all that, there is one scene in the epic that has persevered through two decades, and has stood above the CGI orgy that thrashes box offices each summer. To kick off the third act, President Thomas J. Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman, only has a few minutes before joining a ragtag team of volunteers who are about to launch a last-ditch effort against an all-powerful alien force. The military hero never got used to the neckties and bureaucratic compromise of politics, but in a short monologue, Whitmore delivers a rousing speech that immediately unites the surviving dregs of the desert who have gathered at Area-51 in the common desire to once again win back mankind's independence. 

Yes, an element of camp and nostalgia have increased the enduring love of this speech among the patriotic hordes that recite it every Fourth of July, but the truth behind this timeless scene only adds further to the greatest cinematic moment in the summer of '96. Not every 90-second sermon remains more engrained in the collective conscious than footage of the White House exploding, so we spoke to the people who made the scene happen (and also Bill Clinton's former speechwriter) to find out why. As Independence Day: Resurgence continues filming in the New Mexico desert and motors to a summer 2016 release, here is the full story on how one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history came to be, and how it very well may have influenced a future, real life president.

Dean Devlin: Not to get spiritual, but it felt like the whole experience in making this movie was somehow channeled. Roland and I wrote the original draft in about three weeks, and we didn’t do a whole lot of rewriting after that. I mean things like that just never happen. The day we filmed the speech was especially magical.

Michael Waldman: The ‘90s were this golden period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terrorism where, at the time, Americans often wondered if we were going soft. Having a fighter pilot president killing aliens was a good escapist alternative history. Also, the White House got blown up over and over again every time I saw the preview; it was very exciting for those of us who worked there.

Roland Emmerich: We made the movie under quite a lot of time pressure because we wanted to beat the Warner movie [Mars Attacks] from Tim Burton that we knew about. We wrote the script really fast, optioned it, and then shot the movie in record time.

Devlin: The real trick to these movies and making the big action sequences work—and I’ve forgotten this sometimes and screwed it up—the characters really have to be humanized. Because you can have the greatest special effects in the world, but if you don’t care about the people in those effects, there’s no impact. So Roland and I took a lot of care in this third act to really give each character a big moment before we went into nonstop action so that you were really invested in them.

Vivica A. Fox: The significance of that scene was just generating huge momentum for the big attack, and the speech had to pull together in unity all the survivors. I loved how in that scene, you saw people from all different walks of life standing together and deciding we would not be defeated; that we would stand up and we would declare our Independence Day and fight back.

Devlin: I said to Roland, “It would be great if we could do a kind of a St. Crispin’s Day speech.” You know, where the king basically rallies the troops.

“I went into the other room and literally in five minutes I whipped the speech out, put it into the script—we didn’t even read it. It was just a placeholder.”
—Dean Devlin

Waldman: The speech is obviously very derivative of Shakespeare’s Henry V and his St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt, where King Henry leads his outnumbered men into battle. In the IndependenceDay speech the president says, “July Fourth will no longer be known as an American holiday…” Henry the Fifth says, “This day is called the Feast of St. Crispian, he that outlives this day and comes safe home will stand a-tip-toe when this day is named.” Basically, they took that and rewrote it. Shakespeare wasn’t gonna sue.

Devlin: Roland turned to me and said, “Oh great. We only have to write a speech as great as the St. Crispin’s Day speech. How are we going to do that?”

Waldman: The vast majority of presidential speeches are not to rally the troops before attacking aliens, but some statement about policy, about education grants or something like that. The key thing in writing a presidential speech is understanding the policies, the president’s policy approach, and their agenda. Usually we would talk with President Clinton about a week before a speech on what his policy and strategic goals were. Very frequently there was close work with the policy advisors, and then typically it would go to the president. Right before he would give it, there would be a meeting in the Oval Office or wherever where he would go over and grill everybody about what this word means and why this, why that, and in his case, he would add quite a bit.

Devlin: I said, “Let me kind of just vomit out something really fast now and then we’ll spend a lot of time on it later and really rewrite it and make it perfect.” So I went into the other room and literally in five minutes I whipped the speech out, put it into the script—we didn’t even read it. It was just a placeholder.

Emmerich: Dean said, “We can always change it.”

Waldman: Hollywood over the decades has had this very interesting relationship with presidents, and Hollywood’s often portrayed the presidents it wish it had.

Emmerich: Bill is such a moderate man, and he totally knew in a weird way what he had to play. When we talked at the very beginning of the film, he said, “I am gonna play this a little bit like a John Wayne figure. Maybe a little bit unsure of himself, but at the end he’s very sure of what he has to do.”

Devlin: Earlier in the film, the president’s people are talking about the criticism in the press about how he always has to compromise and everything is kind of a half measure. So for him, this is a chance to go all the way. And not have to play politics.

Waldman: Liberal Hollywood, which liked Bill Clinton and liked his policies, usually felt uncomfortable in some way with him personally. A lot of liberals in Hollywood thought Bill Clinton was a compromiser, and so Bill Pullman got up there and told it like it is and said what he really thought, which everyone dreamed the real president would do.

“there’s not a lot of phony baloney or posturing in those circumstances. That comes from some place deep down inside that is looking to calm that collective heart racing.”
—bill pullman

Devlin: We always want our leaders to be great leaders. And just this idea that this guy wasn’t just a politician—he went in there. He saw the kids being nervous and he thought, “I’ve gotta rally them.” And really, all that was in my head as we started to work on that scene was, “How can he motivate them? How can he get them on their feet and get ready to fly?”

Bill Pullman: When I first read this scene, I remember thinking that I’d need to think about speeches, and about motivation. I started doing research and had a collection of great speeches from the 20th century. One of them was an amazing speech that Robert Kennedy gave about two minutes after he had been informed that Martin Luther King had been shot.

The recording of the speech just captured the incredible energy in the place. He says, “I regret to inform you that Martin Luther King has been shot.” You hear this horrific gasp from the people in the crowd. And you get the sense that everyone’s collective heart is just beating like a rabbit’s. Then, his ability to frame his thoughts and cite references to Greeks, and of course get over the connection to the fact that he knows something about this—he can speak to the pain because his own brother had been shot.

That was one of those things that always reminded me that there’s not a lot of phony baloney or posturing in those circumstances. That comes from some place deep down inside that is looking to calm that collective heart racing.

Devlin: I remember on the day that we went to shoot it, I had a panic attack. I was like “Oh my god. We never got to rewrite the speech.”

Pullman: Dean reminded me of that just yesterday, and I had forgotten about that part. I don’t think he ever mentioned to me that he planned on editing it. I knew it was really important to him.

Devlin: I came running on the set in a panic thinking, “We had screwed up.” This is a scene we were supposed to spend weeks on and we just never got around to it. And when I got there they were already rehearsing the speech. I was so nervous about it, but when he got to the end of the speech—all of the extras went crazy, applauding and screaming. I looked at Roland and he looked at me and we’re like, “I guess this speech is pretty darn good.”

Pullman: I don’t think we were given a lot of direction. We were shooting nights, and so everyone’s a little bit woozy, but somehow everyone involved in that scene was on the money.

Emmerich: That wasn’t the only thing we shot that day. We shot from the evening until the morning, because we were under so much pressure. I always call it the tragic hour, because there’s a lot of yelling, screaming, and crying because we have such a short amount of time.

Pullman: You’re just trying to do your work, and focus on what you’re concentrating on. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about “Give me more,” or “Do it less.” Really, kind of at the core of Roland, I think at a certain point, he believes that you’re gonna work at it and keep the lines fresh all the way through. Roland was focused on the close-ups and the lighting and the sound. I don’t think anyone was really paying attention to, you know, “Is this great?”

Devlin: Bill Pullman just knocked this one out of the park. None of us were prepared for it until his first rehearsal and then we were just staring in awe and wonder and going, “Man he just owned this thing.”

“They just let it stay. Sometimes that’s how moments happen. If Bill Pullman delivers, why take that moment away from him and from the film?”
—Vivica A. Fox

Emmerich: We had a good feeling when we shot it. It felt like Bill hit a home run with it, but when we saw it in a cut with the music and everything, we all said, “Oh my God.”

Pullman: The next night, it practically seemed like Dean came into my trailer, we were shooting nights, and we were still on the White House set, and he brought in this VHS and said, “Take a look at this.” It was a quick edit of the speech, and it didn’t change much from that first edit.

Emmerich: It was actually never really re-cut. The only thing which was later added was that one shot I did of Randy Quaid and his kids.

Fox: They just let it stay. Sometimes that’s how moments happen; they can just be so organic in the film. If Bill Pullman delivers, why take that moment away from him and from the film?

Pullman: When I saw it for the first time, I remember feeling like the real genius of it is the cutaways to the people in the crowd, the pilots, the soldiers. It had a Capraesque quality, a Capra kind of engagement with humanity. They were all really honest faces that weren’t straining for anything, but were incredibly present. That’s what was going to make the whole speech work.

Fox: I got chills when he delivered it. And then watching it with an audience; I’ll never forget being at the premiere of what, 20 years ago in Westwood Village, and just when that scene, when he did it it was like you could hear a pin drop; everybody was hanging on every single word that he said, and was proud; when he finished it, it was like “Yes! Let’s go kick some alien butt!”

Waldman: I would say that a lot of times when presidents are given words to speak on the screen, both then and now I would wince, because they are always so off. This was not off; this was pretty good.

Devlin: Have you ever gone on YouTube and searched the speech? People do it at weddings. They break into it at bars. It’s hilarious.

Pullman: We didn’t ever imagine that the speech was gonna explode into something that would be a little set piece within the whole story.

Waldman: I wrote a book that was a collection of great presidential speeches, and if in fact the world had been invaded by aliens, this speech would have made the collection, so that’s high praise, I guess.

Devlin: The only thing we changed was we added at the last minute the line, “Today we celebrate our Independence Day.” And the main reason we did that is ‘cause the studio at the time was threatening to change the title to “Doomsday.” So we thought, let’s get it into the speech.

Pullman: I remember that there suddenly came some interest in pushing up the date in the schedule on when we would shoot the speech, because Fox was considering pushing the title “Doomsday.” That would’ve been a horrible title, and I’ve gone through a couple movies that got stuck with bad titles. So it was urgent to get it in and to have the words, “Today we celebrate our Independence Day” to prove why that had to be the title. I felt the urgency to get it right.

“Fox was considering pushing the title ‘Doomsday.’ That would’ve been a
horrible title.”
—bill pullman

Devlin: There was a concern because we wanted to make sure that this was the moment where it wasn’t about America saving the world. It was about mankind around the world coming together for a common good. And it’s interesting because when the film came out, there was a lot of confusion about that when Roland and I toured the world promoting the movie. People kept thinking, “Well isn’t this just saying that America has to be the world’s policeman?” We would always point back to that speech and say, “No. The whole purpose of that speech is to say, ‘Today we speak with one voice.’”

Waldman: Looking at the scene again, what comes to mind a little bit is George W. Bush’s most memorable moments from his presidency. The staging and iconography of his “Mission Accomplished” moment looks like they borrowed a lot from that movie. I mean, Bush wearing his fake fighter pilot outfit on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln [aircraft carrier] looks so much like this scene. And one of the high points of his presidency was when he jumped up on the fire truck at Ground Zero and spoke into a megaphone to the firefighters and the first responders and said, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you.” It is so similar to this scene.

Emmerich: After the speech, when Rob Loggia said to him, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I’m getting in the air. That’s where I belong.” And actually, I always think that George W. Bush stole that, when he was on his aircraft carrier. When I saw that during the Iraq War, I laughed really hard.

Emmerich: This speech was very different from what you’d normally hear from a president.

Waldman: Actually, there was one point that summer when scientists believed they had found some evidence of bacterial life on a meteorite that had come from Mars. It was pretty tenuous, if I recall, but anyway that’s what they thought, and so we wrote a speech for President Clinton and he went out and announced contact with life on Mars. It kind of was quickly forgotten, which is probably a good thing.

Fox: They did a screening at the White House for Bill Clinton, and he loved it. He loved it.  I was working and I couldn’t make it and I was bummed about that, but then later at an event in Washington D.C. I got to introduce myself to Bill Clinton and he was like “I loved you in Independence Day, Vivica!”

Emmerich: When we screened Independence Day in the White House for President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, afterwards Hillary said, “Well, it looks like Bill has to get his pilot license!”

Pullman: There’s a lot that goes into making a speech, and some of it is just the right character at the right time, and you know, I’m fortunate to have been in that position in a movie that has become such a classic.

Devlin: The popularity of this speech blows my mind. It absolutely blows my mind. It’s the thing that I look back in my career and have the most pride about. AFI did a thing recently of the top 10 speeches of all time in movies. And they listed ours at number two behind Patton’s speech.

“I finally realized how big this speech was during the making of Independence Day Resurgence. Everyone’s asking, ‘Is there a speech?’”
—Roland Emmerich

Pullman: I don’t know it by heart. I think of it as a circumstantial thing, you know, being there at that time, and having the words pour through you. That’s just so much more interesting.

Emmerich: I finally realized how big this speech was during the making of Independence Day Resurgence. Everyone’s asking, “Is there a speech?”

Pullman: It’d be boring in a sequel to have a big speech to the troops or something again. That was never an option, really. You wouldn’t want to set yourself up for that kind of failure.

Emmerich: These things happen once in a lifetime. You can’t repeat stuff like that. There’s a lot of great emotional moments in IDR, but there’s no place where a speech like this could fit, so we’re staying away from it. There are some speech-like moments, but I think having a president’s speech would just be like playing with fire.

Devlin: I like to make popcorn movies. It’s my passion. I love the genre. And traditionally, these kinds of movies aren’t celebrated as anything other than movies that make money and are populist. And to have this speech recognized almost separately from the film, it’s a very humbling thing.

Emmerich: Independence Day was so successful and is maybe holding up so well because it has all these very simple human stories. Dean and I met with Steven Spielberg after the film, because he wanted to be involved with the ride, which never happened, but he said to us, “You guys changed something, there’s something different now. Everybody has to see a summer movie differently.” And I knew exactly what he meant, which was combining very big images with very humanized stories. And he meant it; at that time he was shooting Lost World, and he said, “We’re changing the script now.”

Devlin: Spielberg said to Roland and I not long after the movie came out—it was the first time that different genres were combined to try and create a new genre. And that started to become the fashion: taking genres and gene-splicing them together.

Emmerich: In a way we unknowingly invented a new thing, with no plan. I see the influence of Independence Day everywhere: in all the Marvel movies, and all the superheroes of the DC Universe, there’s always an alien invasion, there’s always like a disaster element, but they always try to humanize the characters.

Devlin: The experience of making this movie was unlike anything that ever happened to me before or since. And it was just this odd thing where everything just kept going right every single day. We had no egos from any of the actors. They were all on board and all terrific. There are so many things that go wrong when you make a movie and so many problems and fights with the studio. It’s like every day we kept looking at each other going, “When’s the other shoe gonna drop? When is something gonna go wrong?” And it was kind of just this blessed process of making this film. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or experienced.

Emmerich: It’s amazing how this speech took off. But hey, it’s out of your control, and I’m very proud that we did it, and we had no idea what impact this would have. We didn’t have any idea how successful the movie would be. Nobody was expecting this.

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