OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN
The Taking of the White House
Once Fuqua and his advisors had their plan of attack on the White House finalized, the director made a bold choice. Rather than use extensive CGI technology to recreate the Washington, D.C. landmark, they would build a replica and stage the siege with only judicious use of special effects.
"We physically take the White House down in this movie," he says. "That was a big conversation. We knew if we were going to do it this way, we would have to come out blazing. It's an event."
But Fuqua had assumed he would be shooting the film in the D.C. area and was shocked to hear that the producers were planning to construct his replica of the White House in Shreveport, Louisiana. "I said how are you going to do that? But we found the perfect production designer. Derek Hill had already built the White House once for Oliver Stone in W. I knew if anyone could do it, it would be Derek."
Hill created a massive and detailed set for the movie's most expansive scene. "I think the biggest moment for me on the entire shoot was walking on the set for the first time," says the director. "We actually built the White House in Louisiana. We built Pennsylvania Avenue. We built the water fountain. We built the whole front facade and the whole interior front lobby. I still can't believe they built so much so fast."
On the first day of shooting for the epic battle scene, Fuqua was able to take full measure of Hills' accomplishment as he watched a crowd of people playing terrorists, Secret Service agents and bystanders swarming the set. "It was pretty impressive to see," he says. "I felt like I was a kid watching a David Lean movie. The scene had such scope. The crane was up and we had this big battle going on. I thought: this is why I wanted to make movies."
To help choreograph the action, Fuqua brought in Keith Woulard, a former Navy SEAL who had worked with the director on an earlier film, Tears of the Sun. "I knew Keith could make it exciting and authentic," he says. "The violence looks so real that it can be very disturbing. We worked out the choreography based on what the SEALs might actually do in that situation and then we tweaked it with a little movie twist."
Woulard and his team simulated the corridors of the White House using cardboard boxes, laying everything out with a video camera for Fuqua. "That's how I was able to prep it so fast," the director says. "I didn't have time to storyboard everything like I normally do.
They were really creative about using things you might actually find in the White House as weapons. They made it authentic and fun, but nasty and brutal, because that is the way it would be."
Woulard, who has worked on other blockbuster action films, including Black Hawk Down (for director Ridley Scott), Iron Man (Jon Favreau) and GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra (Stephen Sommers), was instructed to make everything seem as genuine as possible. "Antoine was extremely particular about making things look real," he says. "He doesn't like phony fighting. We worked with a lot of martial artists who were adept at impact work, so they could actually tap each other, which makes it look even better."
The stunt crew was enormous, totaling about 130 people. "That's a pretty big crew," says Woulard. "We used about 100 people at one time for the battle outside the White House. It was all happening simultaneously, so there were a lot of people to deal with. It's pretty spectacular to see Korean commandoes taking over the White House. I'm proud to be a part of making the whole thing happen."
The film's enemy combatants include a number of women, which Fuqua says reflects the reality of modern warfare. "I don't treat the women as if they're victims or damsels in distress," he says. "They're fighting. They're part of the battle. When they get kidnapped, they get beat just like a man. A terrorist wouldn't be gentle just because a captive is female."
Melissa Leo's character is a case in point. As secretary of defense, she has information vital to the terrorists and they use whatever means necessary to get it out of her. "We don't show any mercy to Melissa Leo," says Fuqua. "She gets physically beat. And she's tough. She stands up to her captors as boldly as any man. Once they're kidnapped, it's all about demoralizing them in order to get what's needed and so that they don't even think about trying to escape. When we go into the PEOC, it gets intense. Some people may find it shocking, but when we did a test screening, women thanked me for not making the character just a victim."
But it was Butler who took the brunt of the abuse in a role that requires him to be in almost constant physical danger. "He's pretty athletic and he doesn't whine about anything," says Woulard. "He just goes for it and he's a perfectionist. He doesn't want to miss a single move. When he stepped on set, he was always good to go."
Fuqua says that Butler could have used a stunt double for many scenes, but preferred to do it himself. "He is extremely dedicated. We could have done a wide shot and let a stunt man do it, but he wanted to do it all. He took a few bruises, because he and Rick Yune would just go at it, slamming each other against the walls. And because those walls aren't real, we had to keep stopping to fix them!"
As a filmmaker, Fuqua says he always tries to make movies he would want to see. "I made this because it's something I wanted to see it. It will keep surprising the audience. There are so many different aspects to be entertained by. It's very emotional. It's also quite intimate in places. There are great characters and all these different dynamics going on."
But most of all, he says, it's packed with over-the-top, high stakes action that he hopes will thrill audiences. "I love movies," Fuqua says. "I love to push a story as far as it can go. I think movies should live out on the edge, with characters and events that are larger than life. Watching a big screen movie, you should be able to disappear into this other world.
"Any time we have to confront danger, there is something exciting about that," he concludes. "Putting yourself on the edge creates adrenaline. Adrenaline makes you feel more alive. A movie like Olympus Has Fallen makes you think about life and the dangers it holds. In this case, it is possible for the White House to be taken, for hostages to be taken and the world held for ransom. It is mind-boggling and yet it's not that far away from reality."
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