“Hi my name is Donnie! Welcome to the White House!” says actor Nicolas Wright, who appropriately enough plays a tour guide in Sony’s big summer slice of star spangled mayhem, White House Down.
We arrived on set in late August of 2012 as the whirlwind production scrambled to make its release date, under the assured directorial guidance of disaster master Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012). Though plates/helicopter shots will be done in D.C., the massive sets replicating the most famous building in the world were housed at ADF Studios in Montreal, which used to be a bridge building factory. That should tell you something about the scale of this thing.
We come up through the South Portico of the White House, with its huge pillars and rosebushes. Inside the soundstage was the Blue Room, Red Room, Presidential bedroom, family dining room, all the state rooms, the Center Hall, and of course the Oval Office. Having taken a tour of the White House before, this reporter can tell you the scale of everything is dead-on. All told, they’ve created a working facsimile of at least 60% of the White House interior, including an actual full-size pool representing the Pool House built for FDR. We’re promised that the Presidential limousine will take a dive into said pool.
Did we mention artwork? Every painting on the wall is to scale where they’re placed at the actual 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. There’s Aaron Shikler’s famous painting of JFK with his eyes cast down, and also Bill Clinton’s portrait along with several Rothkos, a Jackson Pollack, and other masterpieces from various eras. These recreations are painted so well that by law they have to destroy them as forgeries. The producers went to great lengths to obtain accuracy through consulting from the White House Historical Society. Having been on many a film set before, it is rare to see so many with ceilings.
The detail is immense. Marble floors bare the Presidential seal. They had 32 set designers working seven days a week with construction going 24-hours a day to get these up in time given the film’s super-rushed schedule. Part of that was due to star Channing Tatum’s professional commitments, which only allowed the actor two months to shoot his LEAD role for the action blockbuster. Considering films of this scale usually require four to sixth months, minimum, that’s insane. We got to snag Tatum during a moment when he was neither acting nor tweeting during this eight-week window and asked him what its like shooting a tentpole movie on an indie schedule.
“It’s intense,” said the Magic Mike star. “We’re shooting six-day weeks and sometimes 13- to 14-hour days, but I’m thankful. I didn’t plan to do this, it just caught fire. I was already scheduled to do two movies on top of this date, but they moved heaven and earth to make it happen and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Indeed, with the release of competing film Olympus Has Fallen nipping at their heels, Sony greenlit White House Down with a speed unheard of. According to screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man), he had been secretly toiling away on this script for a while and had just finished it when “Olympus” was announced. Discouraged, his agent told him to send it around anyway and Sony snatched it up the very same day they received it, sending it through perhaps the fastest script-to-production ramp-up in history.
“We sold it Thursday, on Friday we got Roland, on Sunday we sat down with Roland at Amy Pascal’s house and they greenlit the movie,” said Vanderbilt. “It was the fastest I will ever be involved with something, and that was four-and-a-half months ago and now we’re at the South Portico of the White House. My head is spinning.”
The man in charge, Roland Emmerich, stands behind a huge supertechno crane orchestrating a key scene where lawman John Cale (Tatum) is taking a White House tour when he and his young daughter Emily (Joey King) have a fateful run-in President James W. Sawyer, played with laid-back charm by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx.
Donnie the tour guide says “Follow me, follow me The White House is BIG!” He then rambles off a list of facts to his tour group, including name-dropping a mysterious location that will undoubtedly play a big part: The PEOC, or Presidential Emergency Operating Center, basically a POTUS panic room. Joey King, child actor du jour as seen in The Dark Knight Rises and Oz The Great and Powerful, precociously asks “Where’s the PEOC?”
DONNIE: “The PEOC is a really cool vault below ground behind ten feet of concrete that can withstand a nuclear blast. The President can run the country for up to six months from there.”
EMILY: “On WikiLeaks it says the PEOC is around the East Wing ”
Foxx’s President Sawyer then comes down the stairs with his Secret Service detail and approaches the group for a brief photo op.
EMILY: (pointing her iPhone at him) “Mr. President, can I ask you a question for my YouTube channel? How do you expect twenty Arab nations with different regional and religious interests to agree on a single treaty?”
If we didn’t know any better, we’d say King sounded like the real terrorist threat. She then introduces him to Channing.
EMILY: “This is my dad, John. He’s gonna be on your Secret Service detail.”
JOHN: “Capital Police. I interviewed this morning.”
SAWYER: “You know how many death threats I got this morning? More than my predecessor in two terms, and that was just in Texas.”
JOHN: “I’ll be sure to stay out of Texas, sir.”
SAWYER: “See you on the detail. (whispers to John) Oh, and stop lying to your daughter. (end whisper) You guys have a good one. I need your vote, now!”
Channing is in the corner tweeting between takes. After rehearsals they remove the tape markers. Channing is playing John Cale (not to be confused with the founding member of The Velvet Underground), a Capital Police officer who gets swept up in the terror attacks and becomes President Sawyer’s valiant protector. Ultimately it’s Die Hard in the White House, a concept which appealed to Emmerich’s bombastic sensibilities.
“It has several elements which attracted me,” Emmerich told us. “There’s the political aspects, which is always very important, then there’s the historical aspect of the house itself, then there’s the action. It comes together really nicely.”
Of his cinematic antecedent, Emmerich said that, “‘Die Hard’ is the most ingenious action film of the last twenty or thirty years. That’s why they keep making sequels, even though they’re not as good. We studied that, but you don’t want to blatantly copy something. It has the ‘Die Hard’ aspect, but also the two men together from different backdrops.”
In the wings waiting for Sawyer as he leaves the tour group is James Woods, playing the head of Secret Service, Agent Walker, and our guess is he’s playing the bad guy who tries to undo the White House from the inside. When he comes to sit down with us in video village he’s completely gregarious, totally at ease, and immediately sings the praises of his co-stars. In terms of Jamie Fox’s laid-back attitude in his performance, Woods wisely says that “You don’t play the king. Other people play to the king.” He then points to Channing on the screen and assuredly says, “Big star. He’s gonna be HUGE.”
“There’s a scene before this where its my week of retirement,” Woods says of his Vietnam-vet agent, whose son was killed in acovert action ordered by Sawyer. “I get a cake, and I send Maggie Gyllenhaal on her way out of the White House. Tell her to pick herself up by the bootstraps and get her life going again. She’s going through a breakup and depressed about her divorce. It’s my last week protecting the President, she’s like my favorite person and he just happens to be here and he’s her ex-boyfriend applying for a job. It’s a perfect storm, everybody’s paths are crossing.”
Woods is a testament to the kind of ad-libbing Emmerich thrives on, even for a small scene like the one by the staircase.
Says Woods, “I was just supposed to say, ‘Mr. President you have a call with the congressional leadership about the Middle East initiative,’ but it wasn’t impressive enough. Now he comes in and says, ‘You’re late.’ So it’s like, ‘Who’s this guy who’s so powerful he can talk like that to the President like that?’”
“It’s exactly what I feel like movies should be,” says Tatum of Roland Emmerich’s style. “Even he’ll tell you we’re not curing brain cancer, we’re having fun. We get to blow up the White House and do a bunch of crazy stunts, and he wants it to be as fun as it possibly can be. You see some directors get really stressed out, but Roland’s at the monitors all wide-eyed and excited.”
In the dining room set there are sticky notes where squibs are embedded into the wall for gunfire. This is apparently where Channing is going to have a very violent fight involving kitchen knives and a microwave. One thing that distinguishes this bigger-budget production from its March competitor Olympus Has Fallen is it will have a more accessible PG-13 rating, meaning the White House walls won’t be drenched in quite as much blood as they were in Antoine Fuqua’s film.
I recognize the first assistant director calling the shots as actor Joe Reidy, who besides his work as an AD for Martin Scorsese and many others, is probably best remembered as the guy in Casino who Robert De Niro catches cheating and tells him he can “have the money and the hammer or you can walk out of here. You can’t have both. What do you want?”
We then take a little field trip to see The Beast, the armored Presidential vehicle which weighs close to 16 tons. It’s meant to look like a modest sedan to TV cameras, but it’s actually a Cadillac body built over a truck. In a special hanger they built three of them. They will all be smashed up during a chase scene along the South Lawn of the White House or wind up in that pool we mentioned. Modified Suburbans, usually part of the motorcade, will give chase to the Caddy with a mini-gun on the roof firing 3000 rounds a minute. Luckily, this Caddy is bulletproof.
It’s all part of the “Die Hard in a ______” Mad Libs formula that producers have been exploiting for years, and which allowed Vanderbilt to indulge his inner 12 year old.
“I grew up with those kinds of movies,” Vanderbilt exclaimed, “and there were so many different versions of them. There was Jean-Claude Van Damme trapped in a hockey rink, Steven Seagal is on a train. The idea was, ‘What is the ultimate place you can do one of those?’ The White House. You don’t have to nuke half of America, you can do close-quarters stuff. There’s a Black Hawk assault on the White House, we have a tank shoot at the White House. I was able to access the part of my brain that loved playing with G.I. Joes.”
Emmerich was excited to do an action movie that had such a silly sensibility, telling us “I have my own tone, and Jamie Vanderbilt has a very similar tone to his writing. That’s why the script spoke to me so much, because it was serious but funny, and the funniness comes out of the characters and not anything else.”
At the time of shooting the November presidential election was still several frightening months away, and Emmerich was weighing his decision to cast Jamie Foxx as an Obama-type leader of the free world, and how the election outcome might effect that decision. In hindsight, it was definitely the right move.
“It’s unavoidable,” Emmerich intoned in his German accent. “Its a no-win situation. If we choose the white one it means we’re not supporting Obama. If Mitt Romney wins, God forbid, then we can say we’d like Obama back. (laughs) I used a black president in ’2012′ because I wanted to have Obama win, and at that moment nobody thought he could win.”
Channing relished his chance to work with the Django Unchained star, and recounted an earlier action scene they had shot together in an elevator shaft where Tatum leapt across from one side to another, and Foxx ad-libbed the line “I’m not doing that s**t.”
“He was great, he makes it a bigger deal,” says Tatum of Foxx. “He’s like, ‘I can’t do this no more but I’m gonna keep up with you.’ He’s an athlete, I don’t care what he says. He’s more than keeping up.”
With only a few more weeks to go on White House Down, the same could be said of Tatum, Foxx, and Emmerich They are more than keeping up. As we leave, we’re given a fitting send-off sight: Channing Tatum, practicing winging a toaster at a terrorist.