MONTREAL – It’s not everyday that you get to visit the White House…in Canada.
Last September, I was among a small group of journalists who visited the elaborate Montreal set of Sony’s upcoming “White House Down,” where stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Joey King and James Woods, director Roland Emmerich, and writer James Vanderbilt were hard at work trying to bring the large-scale action film to life under enormous time constraints.
In the film, Tatum plays a secret service rookie named John Cale, working under a soon-to-be-retired veteran named Walker (Woods). They both answer to the president, played by Foxx.
When terrorists attack the White House — just as the president is laying out an expansive Middle East peace treaty –Tatum and Foxx team up to escape the assault.
It’s the second film to be released this year that could be dubbed “Die Hard in the White House,” alongside “Olympus Has Fallen.”
The scene we saw being shot featured a White House tour that included a meeting between Cale’s precocious daughter Emily (King) and the president. She grills him about his Middle East initiative while taking video for her blog — much to the embarrassment of her dad. Initially taken aback by the tween’s no-nonsense inquisitiveness, President Sawyer makes a plea for peace, hoping that the people of the world can put aside their differences and all just get along. Such worldwide unity won’t be seen in this movie, however.
Some of the film’s other stars — including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke — weren’t on set when we visited.
Emmerich has been to the White House before of course — both on screen and in real life.
In 1996’s sci-fi smash “Independence Day,” the helmer famously blew up the president’s crib. Emmerich was personally invited to the White House to screen the film for then-Commander in Chief Bill Clinton, who also gave the director a guided tour of the building.
More than fifteen years later, Emmerich was back in the White House — only this time it was in Montreal.
Since shooting at the actual White House is strictly forbidden (visitors aren’t even allowed to snap photos while taking the tour), it had to be re-built almost entirely on various massive sound stages in Montreal.
Seemingly as big of an undertaking as the late-18th century construction of the real building, we were told that the film’s sets replicated between 60% and 70% of the iconic residence, including the gargantuan White House lawn.
Here’s what the main White House set looked like
Hundreds of designers, builders, craftspeople and artisans worked virtually non-stop for weeks to re-create one of the most recognizable — and most mysterious — buildings in the world. The public tours of the White House only reveal a small part of the building. It houses 132 rooms, a tennis court, a swimming pool, a jogging track and much more. Very few people have seen the Oval Office and other, even more secretive rooms, such as the President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), which seems to be an integral part of the film.
Emmerich, production designer Kurt Petruccelli and their ace crew of designers, builder and artists had help from the White House Historical Society, but much of the film’s design was based on primary sources, old photographs and some simple guess work. Furniture was shipped in from allover the world (“Ebay is our friend,” Petruccelli explained) and the myriad paintings on the grounds (in addition to those famous presidential portraits, the White House is home to works by Pollock, Rothko and others) were forged specifically for the film. Sadly, all the fakes were destroyed after production wrapped.
“A lot of the movie relies upon the geography [of the White House],” explained Vanderbilt, “and using it to its fullest extent and all the bells and whistles and nooks and crannies and the fact that there’s a greenhouse on the third floor.”
Vanderbilt (whose writing credits also include “Zodiac” and “The Amazing Spider-Man”) proudly noted that the film’s technical consultant/D.C. insider Rick Klein was impressed with the simulated version of the White House.
“We’re very careful about every little tiny detail because you have to believe the majesty and power of the White House,” Woods added. “It has to be a monumentally overwhelming place.”
Likewise, the film’s replica of “The Beast” — the president’s souped-up, fully armored limo — was based on estimations. For the film, they built three “Beasts” in just ten weeks, with plans to sink one in the pool, smash one up with the terrorists’ SUVs and suspend one in mid-air during a particularly intense battle scene.
“The real ‘Beast’ is built on Chevy chassis, basically an armored car,” explained one of the builders. “[There’s] no data on the real car. We reckon that the real car weighs somewhere near 16 tons. It’s basically a truck with a Cadillac-shaped body.”
The film versions of The Beast were built on Suburban chassis, stretched 20″ and scaled up. They feature 400 hp Chevy engines. One of them was only partially built, to be used in blue screen scenes, with “everybody hanging upside down in mid-air from it.”
Here’s a shot of ‘The Beast’ after it has crashed into the pool:
Go to page two to read about the film’s fast shooting schedule, Emmerich’s shooting style, the characters played by Woods and King, and more.
The development of “WHD” moved incredibly fast, especially for a blockbuster. Only 14 months will have elapsed between the sale of Vanderbilt’s script and the film’s release date.
After hatching the film’s log line, Vanderbilt read online that the similar “Olympus” had sold and almost scrapped his idea. His agent encouraged him to go forward with it, and word quickly got out to the studios and the trades. Soon, Sony sold Emmerich on the idea, and Vanderbilt closed the deal with Sony within 24 hours.
Emmerich talked about the film coming together so quickly. “I had a project with Sony 10-12 years ago which was very similar, but we never quite got the script right,” he explained. “When [Sony exec] Amy Pascal read Jaime’s script she immediately thought ‘Oh my God, this is something for Roland,’ because it had the same feel as my old project.”
“We sold it Thursday, on Friday we got Roland, Sunday we sat down with Roland at her [Pascal’s] house and they green lit the movie,” Vanderbilt explained. “It was the fastest. That was four and a half months ago, and now it seems we’re on the south portico of the White House. My head is spinning.”
With “Fallen” in production across town, “WHD” was immediately fast-tracked for production, and was put into overdrive even further in order to accommodate Tatum’s busy schedule. According to Emmerich, the lack of time unsurprisingly presented the film’s biggest challenge, but he had faith in Vanderbilt’s writing.
“I think what this movie does very cleverly is it has a very long first act, which makes everybody always very nervous,” explained Emmerich. “But when you look at good movies they always have long first acts. There’s like this rule that first acts should only be half and hour. It’s a stupid thing, because I can tell you tons of movies — very good movies — which have first acts that are fifty minutes.”
Vanderbilt drew inspiration from 1988’s original “Die Hard” and the deluge of action movies that followed, featuring one man fighting the enemy in a relatively small area. “I grew up with those types of movies,” he recalled. “There were so many versions of them — Jean-Claude Van Damme is trapped in a hockey rink during the Stanley Cup [“Sudden Death”]; Steven Seagal is on a train [“Under Siege II: Dark Territory”]. I love that idea. The idea was ‘what’s the ultimate place where you can do one of those?’ And I figured it was the White House.”
Creating scenes with blackhawk helicopters and tanks attacking the White House, Vanderbilt said he “was able to access the part of my brain that was like a kid playing with G.I. Joes.”
And, as expected, there will be plenty of action in the film. “It’s [got] everything from hand to hand stuff to a lot of gunfire to vehicular mayhem in many forms.” He calls it his “everything and the kitchen sink’ moment [in that genre].”
Speaking of kitchens, we were shown the set’s intricate replica of one of the White House’s many kitchens, and it was revealed that Tatum will throw down with some baddies in that setting.
However, the reason for the film’s terrorist attack will only be discovered when “WHD” hits theaters.
“That’s a question mark going on throughout the movie so there a layers to that,” Vanderbilt said as a way of side-stepping the question “I don’t want to spoil it. There are people attacking the White House and their motives become clear as the movie goes on.”
Emmerich also touched on the film’s fun, even comedic tone.
He said the film is “very irreverent,” starting with Vanderbilt’s words. “When I read the script the first time, it spoke to me so much because it was funny,” Emmerich revealed. “The funniness comes out of the characters, not anything else.”
“In a way, I tend to try to use actors who have comedic talent,” he continued. “After I met Channing, I said there is no other person who could play this part.”
“What was really important to us is that when we say stuff politically that we stay stuff that we believe in. But the movie is not about selling a particular political point.”
“On one hand you show it exactly as it is, but then you do action scene in there,” Emmerich explained. “Scenes that have a slight ironic tinting.”
Emmerich first visited the White House when he was 12. He also saw “Planet of the Apes” at a drive-in, and it’s still one of his favorite movies. Those two early experiences seem to have influenced much of Emmerich’s career.
The frequent comparisons to “Die Hard” aren’t lost on the director.
“‘Die Hard’ is the most ingenious action film of the last 20-30 years,” he stated. “[But] you don’t want to blatantly copy something.”
“On one hand it has this ‘Die Hard’ aspect,” he continued, “but on the other hand it has this [buddy movie style of] two men together who are from very different spectrums — the president and Tatum’s character.”
Another comparison — Foxx’s African-American president being compared to Barack Obama — aren’t lost on him either.
The set visit took place in September 2012, when the presidential election was peaking.
“It’s a no-win situation,” he explained when asked about the president character’s race. “If we choose a white one, it means like we’re not supporting Obama. If Mitt Romney wins, God forbid, we could say ‘We would like Obama back.’ I used a black president in “2012” because I wanted to have Obama win and at that moment nobody even thought he could win.”
Vanderbilt explained it thusly: “We went out and got an Academy Award-winning actor to play the present, because he’s an Academy Award-winning actor, not because ‘he’s Obama.'”
Veteran actor Woods plays a secret service vet who’s on the eve of retirement when the White House is attacked. Or, as Woods put it when describing his character: “I’ve done this all my life, but just a week before retirement, terrorists takeover the White House. Oh good! I was gonna go play golf this weekend, but I guess I’ll deal with that threat.”
The actor, who was also eager to talk about his past films like “Videodrome” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” gave a bit more about the plot. He explained, “my [character’s] son was killed in a covert action, ordered by the president.”
The characters’ history together seems to inform much of the film’s plot development. “He has a tremendous amount of personal complexity,” he said, mysteriously. “You don’t expect him to behave in the way he does.”
Woods actually almost appeared in “Independence Day” and in “2012,” but “WHD” is his first time working with Emmerich.
“It’s a great part. This is the best job you could possibly have. It’s the dream cast of the lifetime.”
King plays Cale’s daughter, an 11-year-old who just happens to be visiting the White House with a school tour on the day of the attack.
The ingenue played the younger, prison-bound version of Marion Cotillard’s character in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and it was a bit odd to see her with a full head of hair on the “White House” set. Spritely and giggly, King seemed to have a friendly bond with Tatum; the two have nicknames for each other (she’s known as “T-Rex” while he’s the unmanly “unicorn”) and even shared a ridiculously elaborate secret handshake that involved silly dance moves, slo-mo fake punches and b-boy posing.
“He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and he acts like a kid,” she said of Tatum. “Channing and I are pranksters,” she added, reminiscing about the time the duo pretended to sneeze on Emmerich, and another where they brought fake cigarettes into a shot.
King called her character sassy and smart, and noted that “she wants to let everyone to know what she’s talking about.”
While Emily isn’t a main character, she does get in on the action in the film. “I do take a little bit of a part in the crazy action scenes,” King announced with notable eagerness. “I’m really excited. We haven’t shot them yet but I can’t wait to.”
Despite her age, King has worked with some other big-name directors, including Christopher Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises.”
King said that “Christopher Nolan is precise and detailed and he likes things a certain way,” whereas she found Emmerich to be “easy-going. If we change up lines he doesn’t care [as long as] he likes the way it flows, but he’ll let us know if it doesn’t. They’re pretty different, but they’re both pretty cool.”
Emmerich seems to be a popular guy among the film’s cast. Woods said he and the director will “be friends for life,” while Tatum admired his work ethic. “He uses that feeling of fun,” the actor said . “You see some directors who are stressed out [on the set], but he’s just having fun”
King’s feelings about working with Emmerich were made crystal clear. “Roland is awesome,” she gushed. “[He’s] easy-going, super-nice and super-cool.”
Vaderbilt perhaps summed it up best when, citing Emmerich’s laid-back mindset, he noted that the set is fun, as it should be for a film like “White House Down.”
“We’re putting on a show,” he reasoned. We’re not curing cancer.”
Read more about Tatum’s role in the film, his aspirations as a filmmaker, and more here.
“White House Down” opens June 28.