‘White House Down’ Set Visit: Channing Tatum and Roland Emmerich Make Quick Work of the Summer Blockbuster
Posted on Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
That dirty wifebeater Channing Tatum is wearing is no coincidence. “I’ve always wanted to do a Die Hard” admitted the actor and in his upcoming action film White House Down, he’s getting that chance. Director Roland Emmerich will once again reign havoc on the White House, this time with the help of John Cale (Tatum), a Secret Service agent who is separated from his daughter when the White House is invaded by a group of mercenaries. It’s an action film in the vein not only of that classic 1988 Bruce Willis movie but The Rock, Air Force One and Emmerich’s own film, Independence Day.
Oddly enough, for a film that takes place largely in Washington D.C. and the World’s most famous residence, filming almost exclusively took place in Montreal, Quebec Canada. In fact, save for a few second unit plates in D.C. and one park scene, all of White House Down will be filmed on stages in Montreal including a place called Mel’s Cite du Cinema. Which is where we were on day 33 of an 82 day shoot, watching Tatum fight on the roof of the White House, destroy a Black Hawk helicopter with a high-tech missile launcher and eventually get thrown over the edge through a huge piece of glass.
It’s September 19, 2012, just six months after James Vanderbilt’s script was purchased by Sony and nine months until the film’s release June 28. Yes, it’s an inhumanly quick turnaround for a major summer blockbuster, but that’s the way Emmerich and his crew like it. Read more after the jump.
You know it’s going to be a fun day on set when the first thing that’s handed to you upon arrival are a pair of earplugs. White House Down is shooting largely sequentially to accommodate the schedules of both Tatum and Jamie Foxx, who plays the President of the United States, and on day 33 they’re a little past the mid-point of the movie. The scene in question is Cale (wearing that unmistakable undershirt) fighting lead bad-guy Stenz (Lawless’ Jason Clarke) on the roof of the White House. The roof is a massive set probably measuring 30 yards across and several feet in the air. Over the course of the day we’ll watch Tatum and Clarke mix it up in what will be a brutal, violent, explosion filled fight scene complete with a high tech rocket launcher called a Javelin, blue screens and a huge piece of glass.
“We Busted Our Ass To Make This Happen”
A scene like this probably seemed impossible just a few short months earlier. Vanderbilt’s White House Down script was sold to Sony in March of 2012, Emmerich read it almost immediately, agreed to do it (putting on hold Singularity, a film that was well into pre-production before getting “a little bit stuck”) and thought Tatum would be perfect for the kick-ass Secret Service agent. Unfortunately, Tatum had already signed on for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, meaning Emmerich could either endure a long wait or, just maybe, rush everything and use him before that film.
That, of course, was dependent on Tatum meeting Emmerich, which happened as the actor had a one-day, pre-vacation layover in New York and Emmerich diverted his flight from Los Angeles to Germany. “Sony had to weigh the option of, if we’re going to do this movie with Channing, we have to move everything up to make it happen,” said Tatum’s producing partner and the film’s executive producer Reid Carolin. “I guess everyone was stoked enough about Chan that they bent over backwards and made it work. We busted our ass to make this happen”
They decided to cut a planned 15 weeks of pre-production to eight, a nightmare for production designer Kurt Petruccelli. Petruccelli, described as “the hero of our film” by producer Brad Fischer, was tasked not only with recreating the entire White House, but its grounds, the Pentagon, Capitol Building and more. However, everyone felt it was worth it not only for their star but a more exciting release date. A more Roland Emmerich appropriate release date. “This is a movie about the White House, directed by the director of Independence Day,” said producer Harald Kloser. “We’re staring at the calendar and, in the middle of the year, the Fourth of July weekend is looking at us the whole time. We kind of said ‘C’mon, we can’t less this pass.'”
It’s also of note that Emmerich doesn’t think his other July 4th movie with a ruckus at the White House is why he’s doing this one. He had been developing another a third White House movie at Sony called One Nation. The director said that film, not Independence Day, is why the head of Sony, Amy Pascal, approached him.
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, so I think Amy thought “That’s right up Roland’s alley” and she was right.
Of course, that lucrative summer release date and big action meant things would, and will continue to be, very hectic, all the way through release.
“The Magnitude of the Undertaking Was So Enormous”
Walking around Mel’s just a month into the near three months shoot, there’s active construction in almost every room. (There were also sound stages at two other locations we didn’t see). Room after room of painting, hammering, sawing, and once a set is completed and shot, it’ll be immediately torn down and something built behind it. We walked from a secretary’s room into one Oval Office (they’re making two). There’s a fully functional, multi-floor elevator shaft, the aforementioned rooftop and tons of half built/half destroyed sets along the way. It was the most active, energy filled set I’ve ever been on.
All in all 45 total sets are being worked on over two and half months by 32 set designers and innumerable laborers. “I have 32 set designers running seven days a week for five weeks plus we had 200-300 different tradesmen working seven days a week, plus crews at night,” said Petruccelli. “We’ve hired from all over Canada, all over the US, London. The effects crew came from London and Quebec, Toronto, and LA. And really it’s just a matter of the scale and the magnitude of the undertaking was so enormous.” All in all and 65% of the White House itself will be built in one way, shape or another.
Plus, it’s the White House, so it’s both totally familiar to most and but also infinitely mysterious. We all know the visages, the press room, the Oval Office, but White House Down will go to places other films have never gone and it was up to Petruccelli to make sure everything was as accurate as possible. A lot of that was thanks of the White House Historical Society, who provided details on much of the artwork, furnishing, and provided guidance over “architectural dignity.” Ultimately, the film will have no official government stamp of approval however. But they were aware, and made suggestions where they were needed. “This is a fun, exciting picture. It’s not going to jeopardize national intelligence, necessarily. I hope to God they come and say we’re damn close, but it’s not meant to be disruptive to anything. It’s meant to be a re-enactment of what’s potential,” Petruccelli said.
Then there’s the small detail that none of the actors or crew will ever set foot in Washington D.C. for filming. (The reason? Emmerich felt, since movie takes place over just a few hours, weather was too hard to predict on location). Almost all of the crew did location scouting and research in D.C. (as much as was legally possible, at least, which isn’t much) and took the public tour multiple. Plus Emmerich had been in the depths of the White House almost two decades ago when Bill Clinton asked him to screen Independence Day and they had an in with a member of John McCain’s family. Still, the movie will be shot indoors and completed with virtual sets, which visual effects superviors Volker Engel & Marc Weigert are both advising on. In post, and on the day, they’ll be using a prototype NCam system. It helps Emmerich and his DP, Anna Foerster, visualize the famous geography they’re shooting in blue screen. “Just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have though of building the entire White House, plus the gardens, everything, in the computer. You couldn’t. But we can now,” said Weigert.
“He is the Most Physical Actor I Have Ever Met In My Life”
For an example of how the sets and digital effects are being blended on set, we’ll go back to the roof fight. At the start of the day, Tatum and Clarke did a few rehearsals of their scuffle in half speed, just to make sure the choreography was fluid. When they finally fight at full speed, a huge fan blows on them hoping to emulate Black Hawk helicopters that will be flying over the pair at the time (something that’s completely illegal in White House airspace, hence CG). Just as Stenz is about to fire the Javelin, Cale shoulder blocks him into a chimney, a series of semi-realistic elbows and knees are exchanged, but as Cale gets Stenz in a choke hold, it leaves just the briefest instant for him to fire the massive missile launcher. “Fire…Boom” screams the assistant director, marking the launch of the digital tracking weapon and explosion of the helicopter it hits. On the fifth take, this same sequence will be mimicked again, just this time, not only will the fan be blowing up debris, dozens of loud squibs will be going off everywhere. Now, where did I put my ear plugs?
Meanwhile the only reality in this scene are the two massive cranes filming the action, the Javelin prop, the actors, a large section of the room and Tatum’s undershirt. Later during shooting, Emmerich will insert a dynamic camera move from an angle behind the pair complete with an on set effect of the Javelin firing off Clarke’s shoulder (yes, real flames on set two inches from Channing Tatum’s face) and the actors will both track the missile with their gaze as it “fires” out and around in a U shape before the explosion happens. Filming on the scene will continue long past the seven hours we spent on set and Tatum is doing every single one of his stunts, some of which are shot in long master takes that require 60 second plus of high energy choreography. “He is probably the most physical actor I have ever met in my life,” said Emmerich.
Producer Brad Fischer also mentions this entire scene, which like the rest of the movie is being shot on Alexa, is being framed with the thought that it could released in digital IMAX. Another interesting tech note, the monitor readouts said “48 frames per second” on them, but everyone was quick to clarify the film was only shooting that way in particular scenes to be able to mess around with the speed of the on-screen action.
“A Guy Ends Up Saving The Leader Of The Free World Through The Love Of His Daughter”
Despite all that physical action, and the very serious tone of the first trailer, Tatum sees White House Down as a much more personal story.
“We always try to figure out, either for my character or the movie, what is [the movie] if you had to say it in one sentence?” Tatum explained. “We tried to sum it up like this: ‘A guy that ends up saving the leader or the free world through the love of his daughter.’ I think we hoped, in a roundabout way, that was the reason he ended up in this situation. It was all because of his daughter.”
That emotional core is what separates White House Down from the film it’s so obviously inspired by and paying homage to, Die Hard. “In Die Hard it was certainly about getting Holly back, but it was also ‘I’m going to be a thorn in these people’s sides,'” Carolin said. “And for Channing, all the ass kicking comes through this emotional journey of his. So you get to have fun with it but it’s all with the understanding of ‘Go and get your daughter back, earn your self worth back.’ I think it’s gonna be a fun way to watch him do it where you still care the whole time.”
And, in the end, time is what you’re left pondering after a day on the set of White House Down. The incredibly fast time with which the cast and crew – which also includes James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and others – came together. The even faster construction. And how all of it, while incredibly daunting, is forcing things to come together under the watchful eye of Emmerich who is more than happy to be screwing up the White House once again. This time, though, it’s in a much more detailed, straightforward action packed fashion. Fashion that, of course, had to include Channing in a wife beater.
White House Down opens June 28. Check back later this week for our full interview’s with Tatum, Emmerich and More.