It was a chilly day in September when a small team of bloggers—myself included—strode into the White House up in Montreal. Okay, so it wasn't the real White House, but the makers of this "Die Hard at the White House" movie defy you to notice the difference as they barrel audiences through their high-octane action-adventure White House Down. Director Roland Emmerich is notorious for destroying this particular historical landmark. "(In Independence Day,) he blew it up," Emmerich's longtime producer and composer Harald Kloser offered, "In 2012, we had an aircraft carrier crash into it. And, now, this is actually the best movie for the White House, because it survives." Still, a tour of the sets and a fascinating conversation with production designer Kirk Petruccelli—another frequent Emmerich collaborator—revealed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will see plenty of damage.
White House Down stars Channing Tatum as Officer John Cale, a character whose name, profession, and preference for white tank tops are just a few of the allusions to his inspiration, Die Hard's John McClane. Like McClane, Cale is a cop trapped in a David vs. Goliath scenario, in his case single-handedly protecting the President of the United States when Washington D.C. and the White House are under attack by a mysterious mercenary force. Jamie Foxx stars as POTUS, while Jason Clarke plays the leader of this invading enemy.
You can see some of the insane action this premise entails in the film's first trailer. But perhaps more extraordinary than its plotline is White House Down's lightning fast path from script to screen in a span of just 14 months! Kloser understandably compared the production's demanding schedule to a race, while producer Brad Fischer says the short lead-time is "a testament to (James Vanderbilt's) script. It's a testament to Sony's desire to work with Roland again, and Channing. It's come together in a great way." But it wasn't just a question of enthusiasm. Pulling the project together this fast was a necessity to score the casting coup that is Tatum, who at the time he was cast was already poised to be Hollywood's newest A-lister.
Sony exec Amy Pascal was the one who contacted Tatum's producing partner Reid Carolin about White House Down. At the time, Magic Mike was in post-production, and Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects (then called Bitter Pill) was close to wrapping. Carolin explains, "(Amy) said, 'Would Channing be interested in meeting Roland?' And I said, 'Yeah, of course!' Roland was literally on his way to the airport to fly to Germany…we're making all these calls so that he could divert his flight, land in New York, meet Channing in like seven in the morning for a coffee at his hotel, and see if they liked each other, and then get back on the plane and keeping going to Germany." The two men hit it off, and then it was up to White House Down's producers to figure out a shooting schedule that could fit into Tatum's fast-filling dance card.
White House Down was eying a shoot in late October, early November. But then Tatum's next project, the Bennett Miller drama Foxcatcher shifted its dates, forcing producers to make a tough decision. In order to make their pre-ordained 2014 release date, they'd either have to dump Tatum or push production forward by seven weeks. That cut the prep time for Petruccelli and his army of craftsman nearly in half! With almost 100% of the production shot on stages, this is herculean task called for Petrucelli's team to build 65% of the White House residence, the South Lawn, pool, West and East Wings, the Kennedy Gardens, a greenhouse, the secretive Presidential Emergency Operations Center, as well as sets for The Capitol, The Pentagon, and two the Oval Offices in just eight weeks. Fischer declared Petruccelli "the hero of our film for being able to pull all these sets together as quickly and well as he did."
By Petruccelli's count, that is 45 sets, constructed by an international crew of 32 designers, and hundreds of craftsmen, who sought to recreate what is known of the White House's interior and exterior down to the finest detail. This army of craftsmen and designers worked around the clock seven days a week, building sets from scratch, then scrapping them and building a new set in its place again as soon as a location was wrapped. Wandering from one stage space to the next, I was astonished as we moved from the roof of the White House, past the remnants of the South Lawn, through the buzz of saws and flurry of sawdust to an in-construction Oval Office. Realizing this is as close to the hallowed room as I'd ever be, my jaw dropped in complete awe to Petrucelli's apparent delight.