Panic on Pennsylvania Avenue: Roland Emmerich envisions Washington under siege in 'White House Down'


In the movies, destruction can be a form of reverence. There’s a sense of awe and appreciation that only comes when the things we value most burst into flames. The moment when waves consume the Statue of Liberty, or a sleek sports car somersaults off a bridge. And there’s one iconic building that Americans hold so dear, director Roland Emmerich has destroyed it three times, in Independence Day, 2012, and now, White House Down. That building is, of course, the White House.

“It’s one of the only places where the actual President of a country lives and works,” Emmerich reflects on the building’s significance. “The White House is a symbol of democracy, and everybody in the world knows what it means.”

In this most secure of locations, a worst-case scenario unfolds, as terrorists attack the building, taking hostages and causing the President to go on the run. Columbia Pictures is releasing the feature on June 28, a week before the time slot given to Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day.

When Emmerich first read the script, however, the prospect of returning to the White House gave him pause. “I knew already, doing the movie, everybody would say, ‘Oooo, the White House again,’” he says, adopting a teasing tone. But the quality of the script from James Vanderbilt, whose credits include The Amazing Spider-Man and Zodiac, made him decide it would be worth enduring any banter about repeating himself. Emmerich usually directs from his own scripts, but in this case, he was impressed with Vanderbilt’s ability to pen a story he felt he could have written. “The tone of White House Down is very close to the one of Independence Day. I said to Jamie [Vanderbilt], ‘This is exactly how I make my movies.’ I write little small stories in the larger scenario.”

White House Down came together unusually quickly by Hollywood standards. While working on the script for another project, "I heard through the grapevine there’s a new spec script out, everyone wants to have it,” Emmerich recalls. “Amy Pascal [Sony Pictures co-chairman] called and said, ‘I got it, you want to read it?’ I said, ‘Today?’ She said, ‘Yeah, because tomorrow I give it to someone else.” He tore through the script that night, and told producer Harald Klosner the next morning he wanted to direct. “Two days later, I’m sitting with the writer and group at [Pascal’s] house. It was that fast.”

One reason the project moved forward so quickly was because it had competition. Millennium Entertainment had another White House project, Olympus Has Fallen, in development. Both made plans to shoot in the summer of 2012. “The other movie,” he jokes. “Let’s always refer to it as the other movie.” In March, Olympus Has Fallen earned over $96 million in the U.S., exceeding industry expectations.

“We have the same concept, and that’s kind of hard to say, which concepts will work again. It’s a crapshoot,” Emmerich says. In the long tradition of competing films, from meteor movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, to animated crawly features Antz and A Bug’s Life, it hasn’t always paid off to be first. In fact, in both those cases, the movie that released second earned more. Historical data is on Emmerich’s side, and he’s also buoyed by early responses to the film. “Everybody likes our trailer, and the movie tested super-high. I think Sony’s very comfortable,” he assures.

While some directors like to complain about test screenings, Emmerich finds them helpful—maybe because the feedback he’s received has been so positive. At a preview screening the month before, the audience liked the movie despite the fact that many of the visual effects weren’t complete, which he attributes to the strength of the film’s characters and story. “They expect from my movies that the original characters will be brilliant and everything,” he elaborates. “They enjoyed the movie very much.” His sky-high test scores meant fewer test screenings. “Normally you do like four or five test screenings. We did only two.”

Emmerich also uses early feedback to gauge the pacing of the film and make small corrections. “I think you feel it in the audience. When you look at a big audience, you see exactly where you are a little bit too slow.” Originally, the filmmakers were “holding back” on the humor, worried that the movie would cross the border into action-comedy. After tests, they added a couple of jokes back in. “We learned that people were actually enjoying how funny the movie is.” He sees the laughs as a balance to the suspense. “It’s great for release. The movie’s very intense, and the humor can release the tension.”

Emmerich’s disaster movies tend to focus on the plight of individuals as the world crumbles. The characters who save the day are usually capable people who have never had a chance to prove themselves. Think of Will Smith as the Top Gun-esque fighter pilot who suddenly has a real mission piloting an alien ship in Independence Day. Or Jake Gyllenhaal, a climatologist who thrives amidst catastrophic weather changes in The Day After Tomorrow. In White House Down, that underestimated hero is Channing Tatum, a former soldier who has just been turned down for a job in the Secret Service when the White House comes under attack. He ends up protecting the President (Jamie Foxx) while also trying to save his young daughter (Joey King), who has been taken hostage. “I like when people have to rise to the challenge,” Emmerich says, summing up the kind of characters that populate his movies.

Tatum, who broke out in the dance romance Step Up in 2006, has made one successful movie after the other in recent years, including Magic Mike, 21 Jump Street, The Vow and the G.I. Joe franchise. In order to fit into the busy star’s schedule, Emmerich had to move production up six weeks so it wouldn’t interfere with Tatum’s role in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which was shooting that fall. Emmerich recalls breaking the news about the new start date over the phone to the production and art departments, who were prepping for the shoot in Montreal. “There was a long silence,” he recalls, “and then they said, ‘Okay.’ I told them that I found the perfect actor for this, and we can only have him if we go now. They pulled it off, but it was quite a race.”

Before they were cast opposite each other, Tatum and Foxx had met at a Sony event in Cancun, Mexico. Onscreen, they have a jokey banter, and that vibe continued even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “They like to hang out, and not go into their trailers,” Emmerich notes. “There was always this group behind the monitors, remarking on the shots and hanging out.” Based on the rapport Tatum built with King, his movie daughter, he predicts that the actor, whose wife just gave birth to a baby girl, will be a “terrific father.” Emmerich describes his own on-set manner as one of calm. Movies can be stressful, he says, so it’s better to be a leveling force.

Post 9/11, it’s impossible to shoot a project like this in Washington, D.C., so almost the entire movie had to be created on a soundstage or through visual effects. Emmerich praises the team of visual-effects designers who keep on the “cutting edge” on the latest technology, and found a device called the n-cam particularly useful. While shooting an actor against a blue screen, for example, they could interlock the image with the background. Although the rendering was about the level of a comic book, the technology allowed for proper framing of the shot, particularly important when shooting within and outside an iconic building like the White House.

With a black President and a soldier returning from multiple tours in Afghanistan, White House Down hews closely to current events. Although the movie is months removed from the terrorism of the Boston Marathon, it’s safe to say this is the kind of film that does not play well when its imagined universe brings to mind real atrocities. The motives and political associations of the terrorists, a paramilitary group led by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke, are more obscure here, with plenty of twists along the way to keep the audience guessing. The reversals in the script made Emmerich feel more as if he were directing a political thriller than an action movie. But as the trailers tout the latest “from the director of Independence Day,” it’s likely that audiences will be happiest seeing their hero stand up to the challenge (and make a few jokes) amidst disaster, pulling our nation through yet another fictional trauma.