It was just a year ago that Sony snatched up James Vanderbilt's "Die Hard in the White House script White House Down. With a story that involves one brave man versus a band of paramilitary mercenaries ravaging the White House to abduct the President of the United States, there was one director whose name stood out to exec Amy Pascal. German-born helmer Roland Emmerich has memorably destroyed the White House twice, first in Independence Day where he blew it to bits, and then in 2012 where he smashed it to smithereens with a tidal wave and an aircraft carrier. Despite his apparent affection for tearing apart America's hallowed House, Emmerich has also made some deeply patriotic American action movies, including Independence Day and The Patriot. So from what I gathered from my visit to White House Down's set, Emmerich was the perfect fit for this material.
Emmerich's enthusiasm for the script as well as a chance to work with rising star Channing Tatum urged him to put aside his big budget sci-fi epic Singularity, and dig in to get White House Down in theaters by Independence Day 2013. By September, when myself and three other bloggers, walked onto to the sprawling soundstages occupied by this ambitious production, Emmerich and Tatum were deeply bonded over a love of action movies and passion for movie making. When we sat down with Emmerich, he talked with us about how this White House movie is different, what makes Tatum a unique action star, and even dropped details on the White House thriller he almost made about an ex-President gone rogue. For more on White House Down, check out our full set visit report and our interview with Channing Tatum.
So you’re sitting at home, working on Singularity, it’s got a release date and then White House Down. What made you decide to jump ship and do this?
Well it’s like this, we had got a little bit stuck with Singularity. We had this idea to bring Ray Kurtzweil onboard, which was a really good idea and start pretty much from scratch. And all of a sudden this project (White House Down), which was a “go” project was all of a sudden, you know. And I talked with Sony about it and they were totally okay and so they knew. It was roughly two weeks before they offered me White House Down. And they pretty much brought the project on a Friday at night or so, and they thought it was perfect for me and I kind of think they were right.
You’ve done many movies. Is this the fastest you’ve ever done anything?
No. 2012 was also very fast.
Specifically with this one, you got the project so quick. It’s like fourteen months from when they bought it to when it’s going to be in theaters, which is crazy.
Well then also it’s good, because you’re like—I don’t necessarily think longer is better. It’s just tougher because nobody really does it any more like that. But let’s say in the '80s and '90s, especially in the '90s when I came to Los Angeles, it was not so unusual to start a production and have it in fourteen months in the theater. The Fugitive for example was like that, or even less. So the good thing is when it’s right, it’s right. So, you’re not fiddling around on it too long. And we had also had—let’s say bad luck—that the actor we wanted was Channing Tatum. And Channing Tatum had another movie to shoot come the tenth of October, so we have just his end date and that forced us to accelerate the whole preproduction, which is tough on the production designer (Kirk Petruccelli). But he pulled it off. And then it’s maybe tough on editing and visual effects, but that’s the only departments where it really matters that you have less time.
If you had more time, would you have shot more or at all in DC or anything like that? Or would it always have been shot mostly on soundstages?
No, it’s like a movie which takes place in two hours or three hours. And you would never ever get the weather that's consistent, and the look that's consistent (on location). Since we have digital cameras, the blue screen composites are so good that I would rather shoot on a stage than there, especially the complicated sequences. The sun never sets in a studio stage.
You’re known for very, very big summer movies with “holy shit” effects. Do you feel a pressure in all of your films not to raise the bar over yourself? Are you doing anything in this one that’s going to raise the bar?
Well this will look quite different than all of my other movies. The look is quite different, and it has a sense of Universal Soldier, the first true action movie I did. So it’s a true action movie. It’s like in the vein of Die Hard and stuff like that.
How is it going to look different?
Because I’m working with the same DP as in Anonymous. And we just fell in love with wide lenses and a certain kind of lighting and normally action movies don’t get shot with wide lenses, but we do, so it has a very grand look in a way. Even in the action sequences it’s like there's nothing to hide really.
Getting back to my thing about “holy shit” effects, are you doing anything in this one that falls under that banner?
Oh yeah. There are a couple sequences, which are quite exciting. I mean there’s like a Beast chase.
We keep hearing about this. I’m so excited about this already.
Yeah, the movie has a real serious underpinning, but it has some times fun elements that come more out of the fact that it’s the White House and it’s the president. And the president naturally knows his house a little bit better than the Channing character, and they end up at one point cornered in the motor pool and they take these armored vehicles into the garden. And they can’t leave the garden, and then all hell breaks loose, because the bad guys follow them in the heavy weapon vehicles. That’s just fun in itself, but it’s also like super exciting. And it’s a six or seven minute sequence.
It sounds like you’re turning the president of the United States into Batman. He’s got the cool car, he’s got the caves under the White House.
It is a little bit like that. The President of the United States has super star status. He’s not a normal person, because he’s protected like no other person in the world. And if this man’s life is in danger, the whole world is kind of in peril in a way. Because if the leader of the free world could fall into the hands of terrorists, it’s not a good thing, you know? Actually the whole security and how the White House operates and what is in the White House--or what we claim is in the White House--has a little bit of the feel of a giant Bat Cave. But it’s not really.
We have certain things where we know they exist or “everybody knows they exist,” but naturally nobody can photograph them, because they are so super secret. For example, the PEOC--the Presidential Emergency Operations Center--exists, but nobody knows how it looks. But it’s a so-called bunker where he can survive a nuclear attack. That all takes place in our movie. Or the Presidential Limosine, called The Beast. And it’s like this incredible car. The cool thing is in movies you can rebuild it, but no plans exist, I mean god forbid. So our car dudes had to kind of figure this out without plans. They are based on photographs. Nobody knows how the interior looks.