OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN
At any given moment on the set of Olympus Has Fallen, says actor and producer Gerard Butler, he could look one way or the other and see some of the most honored and sought-after actors in Hollywood.
"We have a great script and a great director, which attracted great actors," he notes. "People really wanted to work with Antoine, so Aaron Eckhart came on board, and then Melissa Leo and then Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett. And it didn't stop there. We have Ashley Judd, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Cole Hauser and Rick Yune. We had this incredible cast."
Butler's character, Mike Banning, previously headed up the president's security team. "He is a man's man, says Fuqua. "At one time, he was very close to the president. Like the Secret Service guys I spoke with, he is extremely loyal. Then the tragedy happens with the first lady."
The president and his wife are in a car that plunges off a bridge into deep water. Banning follows procedure and saves the president, even though the chief executive orders the agent to take his wife. The first lady is lost and Banning is sidelined after the incident.
"Mike is unable to save the president's wife," says Butler. "After that, he's transferred to the Treasury division. It's a dead-end job, especially for a guy like Mike who is also ex-Special Forces. He's struggling to find some kind of redemption. He's having serious issues with his wife, as well, because he was not an easy man to begin with and now there's this darkness all around him."
"For the Secret Service, there is no 'almost,'" says Fuqua. "It's a hundred percent success or a hundred percent failure. In this case, it's a hundred percent failure, even though he saves the president. Mike is a hero who has fallen from grace and he wants back in. He wants to be a part of that team again."
As events unfold, he once again has the president's life in his hands -- but not in a way he ever would have hoped for. "Sometimes the universe thrusts you into the world you think you want, but not in the way you wanted. Banning goes through hell to earn his place at the president's side. He has to travel into the belly of the beast and get back out alive."
The role promised to be demanding, but Fuqua knew Butler was up to the challenges. "Gerry has the presence, and the weight to pull this role off," says Fuqua. "He's intense and totally dedicated. The guy didn't sleep. He called at three in the morning to talk about the next day's scenes. He was obsessed with getting it right and I had to love him for that."
With the president and the vice president of the United States in the hands of terrorists, the mantle of power falls to Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull, played by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman.
"Morgan brings a majesty to everything he does," says Fuqua. "He is one of our great actors. When he agreed to do the film, it immediately elevated the project. What I find special about him is that he brings so much power to a role, and yet there's always a gentleness about him. If the nation were falling, I would want someone like Morgan Freeman to take the helm. He's a national treasure and it was an honor to work with him."
Freeman, who earned an Academy Award for his work on Million Dollar Baby, along with four other Oscar nominations, has enjoyed a uniquely varied career, with starring roles in films that range from the blockbuster Dark Knight franchise to serious naturalistic dramas like Gone Baby Gone.
"This is a very exciting action movie and that is always fun to do," says the actor. "It's the vicarious thrill that pulls me to action. In real life, very few people get to be heroes. We never get to punch people out or kill bad guys. But in a movie like this, you can just go along with the good guy, or even the bad guy, if he turns you on."
Freeman says he found the story very true to life. "If a special group makes their way out of North Korea, how are we to know?" he points out. "It's easy to buy that part of the story. You can't tell North Koreans from South Koreans and South Koreans are our allies."
Fuqua was initially hesitant to give Freeman much input on his performance. "What does a director say to Morgan Freeman?" he asks. "Action! You let him do his thing. But he wanted to be directed and when Morgan Freeman looks at you and says 'what do you think?' you better have something good to say."
Freeman praises the director for being decisive but remaining open to the performers' input. "Antoine was very collaborative, which was awesome. A lot of directors don't pay much attention to the actors, but he's all ears. Whatever I mentioned, he was quick to acknowledge. And he is quick, which I just love, while still managing to be very easy going. He knows what he wants and when he's got it, he moves on."
To play President Benjamin Asher, Fuqua turned to another actor he had long wanted to work with, Aaron Eckhart. In addition to his pivotal role as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Eckhart's recent credits include the espionage thriller, Erased, and Hunter S. Thompson's picaresque adventure, The Rum Diary, opposite Johnny Depp.
"Aaron has this unique energy about him," says the director. "He is another intense guy, a committed actor who disappears on set. He goes in deep. I wanted somebody who could play a youthful, contemporary president and I quickly realized that would be Aaron. He's very presidential and really handsome with that dimple."
Eckhart says he never expected to be asked to play the most powerful man in the world. "But as long as I was, I was interested in making him a heroic character. Asher is a tough guy, even though in this film he is pretty badly abused. I love action movies, and this is just a straight-up, full-on, full-tilt action, which I liked being a part of."
The most difficult aspect of the performance for Eckhart was that his character is handcuffed to a railing for a considerable portion of the film. "To be immobilized and yet stay so connected was a challenge," he explains. "We get hit and kicked around pretty good. It was important to me to maintain the integrity and strength of the office, while waiting for Gerry's character save the day."
Butler set a high bar for the rest of the cast, according to Eckhart. "Gerry was fully committed to this movie," says Eckhart. "As the producer, as well as the star, he has a very large stake in its success. He was 100 percent there every day and great to work opposite."
Fuqua also provided daily inspiration for the actor. "Antoine brings strength, knowledge and enormous experience to the table," says Eckhart. "He's very quiet, but he knows exactly what he wants, which is refreshing for an actor. He always allows you to experiment and push it to the next level. He works differently with every actor, because he wants to get the best from each of us."
Fuqua's unflinching, unwavering commitment to truth is what makes the movie believable, says Eckhart. "We are watching terrorists take the White House and we need the audience to believe that it is possible. We had great advisors and consultants on the film, helping us to be as truthful as possible. And Antoine is so good with action, so I think the audience is going to get a real kick in the pants."
To play President Asher's Secretary of Defense, Ruth McMillan, Fuqua made an offer to Oscar-winner Melissa Leo. "I never really thought we would get Melissa for this role, but I had to try," he says. "When her people said, 'she really respects you and wants to work with you,' I was thrilled. She's another one of those people that elevates the set. She's a serious craftsperson who will never let a director down."
The actress, who is best-known for her roles as hard-edged, down-on-their luck survivors, describes her first reaction to the script as "dazed and confused." "I knew I had an interest in working with Antoine," says Leo. "But in all honesty, I don't generally do this kind of action-driven film. It's very outside the box for me, and that was the thing that most intrigued me. It's a very different character than my usual trailer-park gals. When I read the script and put the story together in my head, the delicate intricacies of political realities seemed very interesting things to consider. The world is a complicated place. I'm a peacenik myself, but playing the secretary of defense made me look at things in a new way."
The realities of making an action film were equally enlightening for the star of Frozen River and The Fighter. "I realized the great joy of making a movie like this is that the director takes everything into the editing room and puts together two seconds from here and maybe three seconds from there," she says. "That's not the situation I'm used to. I grew to trust Antoine enormously in this process. It was really lovely to let him get the shots he wanted and trust him to cut them together."
The physicality of the role was also novel for Leo. "The staging was complicated and difficult. I kept asking Antoine to tell me exactly what he needed. He gave me golden words of advice, but I still didn't know the choreography of the fight. But he always had my back. He was 120 percent behind me."
The director describes Leo as a "very generous actress," always ready to make adjustments and do another take. "She wanted to make sure I got what I needed in the editing bay," he says. "Melissa was always asking for more details, from how the character would wear her hair to what her injuries would realistically be. How do you breathe when your ribs are broken? Her attention to things like that brought real magic to the character."
When it came time to cast the role of Banning's supervisor, the head of the Secret Service, Fuqua made an unconventional and timely decision. "I thought a woman would be great in that role," he says. "We've got female soldiers on the front lines now, and I thought a woman would actually be more interesting in that position. She didn't come up through the boys club. She had to be as tough as the men and sometimes tougher. Angela Bassett was just the type of female I needed, with the strength and intelligence to pull this off."
Bassett, an Oscar nominee for her searing performance as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It? has long been a close friend of Fuqua's wife, but the two had never had the opportunity to work together before. "We reached out to Angela and she was there," Fuqua says. "As a director, I couldn't wait to put the camera on Angela. Even when the camera's on another actor, she's giving 110 percent."
Bassett was excited to play Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs. "There's never in the history of the United States been a female head of the Secret Service," she says. "I don't think anyone has even considered it other than Antoine. The fact that it is a brave new world attracted me. My character provides the link between the speaker of the House and Banning while he is in the White House. As his longtime boss, she believes in him and trusts him implicitly, which is beautifully demonstrated in our first scene together."
Working with Fuqua provided Bassett with a new outlook on an old friend. "Antoine is so calm under pressure," she says. "He is tireless about achieving the best articulation of the script possible. His talent is for meshing the visual, the emotional and the action into an exciting, successful thriller. He's one of the best at that."
Bassett reveals that Freeman showcased his little-known musical talent during breaks in filming. "I wouldn't say Morgan is a dance man, but when they say cut, he's definitely a song man," says Bassett. "I had a lot of songs sung in my ear by Morgan Freeman. This is my first opportunity to work with him. To have that chance to sit next to him, look in his eyes, just a foot away, was a dream come true."
The world of the movie is dangerous and exciting, but not so outrageous as to be implausible, says the actress. "We've considered this world before, but not to the extent that we take it in this movie. The script had me on the edge of my seat as I was reading it. It's an opportunity to live vicariously. When you can ground all this great action with a great story, it just grabs your imagination and you are there."
As Kang, the putative head of security for the South Korean prime minister, Rick Yune brings the steely determination and stellar martial arts skills that made him a standout in earlier films including Die Another Day, The Fast and the Furious and The Man with the Iron Fists. This was his first opportunity to work with Gerard Butler, an old friend.
"Everything is exciting about this film," says Yune. "I've been a big fan of Antoine's since Replacement Killers and I loved Training Day, Tears of the Sun and King Arthur. He always incorporates old-school ideas about courage and camaraderie and what it takes to overcome great odds. I love those themes.
"And I've known Gerry Butler for about 12 years," he adds. "To be able to get on set with someone you know so well is a pretty rare thing. We have known each other since we were starting out in the business, so it was cool."
Yune compares directing a film to running a military operation and says Fuqua is an able leader. "You want somebody who understands risk, not just in a cerebral sense, but who has actually experienced it," says Yune. "Antoine grew up in an environment where there was a lot of risk in everyday life. He's lived through life-and-death situations, so he understands how to capture that and communicate the moments in a way that raises the stakes. That's what's necessary in an action film."
The majority of Yune's scenes are with Eckhart and Leo, as Kang and his henchman reveal themselves to be moles that take the president and his staff hostage. "Aaron took a very Method approach," he continues. "There were moments when I didn't know whether he was in character or not. And Melissa also works that way. That tends to create a lot of spontaneity when 'action' is called. Unexpected moments are always good in filmmaking."
While Yune appreciates the intensive preparation and thought that went into making Olympus Has Fallen an authentic experience. "I loved that every character in the script had a distinct identity," he says. "Even the heroes have dark sides. And those contrasts balance everything out. I look for the entry and the exit in a character. Kang, in particular, has a pretty interesting transformation from beginning to end.
But Kang says what he loves most about the film is the excitement and fun of it. "It's a kick-ass movie with great actors," he promises. "Gerry has great comedic sense as well as being a bad-ass action hero and when he brings that to a tense moment, it's really entertaining."
Butler says a dream cast like this one could have made even a flimsy story into something quite substantial. "But fortunately we had a great script and then we got these amazing actors," he adds. "It's really gripping and compelling to go from the bunker with Aaron Eckhart and Melissa Leo to the Crisis Room with Morgan Freeman and Robert Forster and Angela Bassett, And then to me roaming about the White House. You'll be kind of spoiled for choice, really."
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