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.
When you are making a movie that looks like this that’s so jam packed with “wow” moments and explosions and fighting, we were kind of blown away by the attention to detail on the White House. What goes into making the decision to actually bother?
Well, I think we film people have a certain pride, and one is research. We research everything really, really well. For example, it’s not my first movie in the White House and in these other movies it’s like “Whatever the room is, it needs to look like the White House and the Oval Office needs to be oval.”…This time we said “Let’s really rebuild it exactly like it looks.” And we did tours, public tours, (looking around and thinking) like, “we could blow up this. We could blow up that.” I was actually once privately in the White House like invited by (Bill) Clinton to screen Independence Day. So I know how the private residence looks. I didn’t snap a picture, but I have a photographic memory. And then I could take a guided tour in the West Wing. We could only get that through like somebody who works in the White House, so we found that person. And so a lot of research goes in and then you recreate it as good as you can, and it was very expensive. The only thing we changed a lot of times is they have a lot of carpets and we wanted to have shiny floors, obviously that looks better. That’s really it.
When you took that tour or when you got to go in there and look around, did you tell them “I’m getting ready to do something to the White House?”
Nobody cares. So many people (come and go in those tours).
I meant more of the private thing when you called someone.
Yeah, I think they knew what we were doing. I think they knew, though I’m not sure. I didn’t really tell that lady that much about the film, I just said, “Okay, here we are. Let’s go.”
The question you’re going to get asked several times in the coming months is how aware were you that “I’m the guy who famously on the Super Bowl and in Independence Day blew up the White House. Now I’m making a movie about the White House.” I mean how aware were you when you took the project that that was going to be the thing?
I had myself a White House project. It was called One Nation and it was also at Sony and I think that’s why they thought about me for that movie, because it had similar elements. It was also like the White House in peril. It was not a terrorist attack, it was a president who refused to leave, you know. But it had similar elements. It was a little more complicated script, so that’s why it never got made in a way, but it had certain military elements we have (in White House Down) too. So I think Amy (Pascal) thought “That’s right up Roland’s alley” and she was right. I mean immediately--it’s so hard these days to find projects, which you think have a chance in the marketplace. Because most of the time when you see big summer blockbusters they are based on comic book characters or like a famous book, which is a bestseller and already a well known title, or its sequels. It’s very, very rare you find something really original. And also because a lot of original stuff, most of the time has no chance, because it’s so expensive to make something famous or kind of put it in people’s head that they want to see it.
It’s like awareness has to be almost like at eighty or ninety percent if you make an expensive summer movie and that’s very hard to do with anything which is not (already established). And the White House naturally is in itself some sort of a trademark. Everybody in the world knows the White House, so when it says "White House Down" it’s pretty much in the title you know what’s happened. And that’s also the cool part about this one and gives you the filmmaker the freedom to say “Okay, so what do we want?” And were very ambitious with what we wanted to say. We have a political story. We have an action story. We have an emotional story. So it’s all like these things are possible in a movie like that, and so I’m quite excited about the script. It’s really good.
We had heard earlier that some of the elements of the script had been kind of tailored to better suit Channing. I’m curious if similarly--
It was like a perfect fit. (Laughs) It came to him and it was like “Oh, he’s John Cale.”
I’m curious if you were talking about shooting wide and that is such an unexpected turn for a lot of action movies, were you inspired by his physicality that we have seen?
I’m going to tell you, he is probably the most physical actor I have ever met in my life and it’s really interesting we’re talking a lot about it, because a lot of the best stunt people most of the time come from the dance world and he too. And they have just more coordination of their body and it’s amazing what he does in this film and he did every stunt himself. It's pretty much--I mean you have to talk him out of a stunt and the only way you can talk him out of a stunt is like “It’s really high risk and you don’t see his face.”
He’s always very concerned that you see his face, because he’s very proud that he does his own stunts and it’s a little bit lost in the last ten years that people are proud of doing it. But it’s actually when you see him doing it, it’s like “Oh yeah, this is the real thing.” There’s no face replacement. It’s Channing and you could not do that many face replacements anywhere, so it’s cool. I like it.
When you first got the project we heard that you gave some notes on the script and to like alter the villain, the antagonist a little bit. I’m just curious when you got involved, how the script changed at all.
Well just like with every movie I do, I have to stand for it politically. And I just wanted it to be so I can go out in the world and promote it with a good conscience. And for that I wanted to have it altered in a certain way, but it was not such a big deal. I just wanted to have the villains more realistic than it was in the original. It’s just based now in reality. When you see the movie, you will know what I mean. It’s always good to have villains you understand. When you don’t understand your villain, you’re done.
Definitely. Were there any films that you looked at as they did right, in terms of the action and balancing the tone that you’re going for?
Yeah, I looked at a couple of movies, which I remembered very fondly, like Die Hard, Man on Fire, I mean a lot of Tony Scott films, who I think was a great action director. So, yeah, that kind of stuff. Die Hard is one of my favorites. I was actually surprised how dated it feels when you see. I mean I haven’t seen it since then. And now when you see it, it’s dated and it was only the early nineties, and it feels a little dated.
Yeah, the fact that Channing is wearing the wife beater, at least in the scene we saw, like the dirty T-shirt like John McClane, was that intentional?
That’s a total homage…but he's not barefoot.