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WHITE HOUSE DOWN

Designing the White House
The residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not only the home and office of the President of the United States, but also an iconic symbol of democracy, leadership and freedom that draws 1.5 million visitors each year.

"When you're at the White House, the thing that really strikes you is that it isn't that big -- it's just a house, surrounded by higher buildings and a park," says Emmerich. "On the other hand, they have every technology you can imagine and some you can't imagine, and there are all sorts of rumors about missiles on the executive building and the surrounding buildings. When you think about it, it's a huge security risk -- and that's what our movie is about."

The task of designing and building the sets fell to production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli. "Kirk is one of the unsung heroes of this production," says producer Bradley J. Fischer. "He had one of the biggest challenges on this movie, to build these sets. We've only had glimpses of rooms we know exist -- the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or the beehive where the Secret Service works, which is actually below the Oval Office -- so Kirk's job was to pull back the curtain a little bit and invite people behind the walls. He gave us a great playground to have as much fun as we could."

"My perception of the White House has always been that it's the center of our government, but what does that mean? What is this place?" asks Petruccelli. "Of course, it's the iconic museum of our time, of American history, and through each administration."

Producer and screenwriter James Vanderbilt says, "The great thing about the White House is the history behind it, and the rumors behind it, too. There's the history of the green room, where the body of young Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln's 11-year-old son, lay for the viewing, and his mother Mary Todd Lincoln would never go back into that room."

"Many things have happened, many things that no one knows if they truly exist -- tunnels under the White House, for instance," says Petruccelli. "Marilyn Monroe might have been down there, and we believe that it's possible. And I think between the history and secrecy, and all these other things lend to it being a great place to tell a story."

Vanderbilt's approach to the screenplay began with research, but there's a point at which imagination has to take over. "There are different levels of information on the White House," explains Vanderbilt. "There's a lot of stuff that's publicly available, and then, there's the level of stuff that nobody knows about. We contacted the White House, and in a lot of cases, they said, 'We can't tell you that at all.' They couldn't confirm or deny the existence of the tunnels, the location of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center or any number of things."

When Petruccelli met with Emmerich to discuss his objectives for the aesthetics of the film, they agreed that the set design for the film should be anchored in an attention to realism. "Roland's primary goal was to make an entertaining action-based drama and make sure that we were as close to reality as we could be," says Petruccelli. "This was incredibly important and challenging, in that the White House is so well known that we had to get it right. It's one of the most photographed houses in the world and one of the most identifiable ones. It made my life easy in one way: we knew what it was. But it made it incredibly complicated in that it's so detailed and there's so much secrecy around it."

The process began with tours of the White House. "It was really important for Roland and me to go," recalls Petruccelli. "By going to the White House, you learn a lot and your assumptions are proven wrong. The thing that stuck in my mind most was that it has two faces -- there's a business face and a social face. The business face was going into the West Wing; you imagine a palatial place but, in essence, it's a very small, very business-oriented complex, and it's not over-designed. It's actually very succinct, very concise, and rather bureaucratic."

"And then there's the other face," continues Petruccelli. "It's a glorious museum of history as you walk through the Great Hall right into the Green, Blue and Red Rooms, into the East Room, through the State Dining Room, and through the ground floor. There's the Secret Service, the Capitol police, hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists going through there -- and yet, it's very peaceful, very respectful."

When the research was complete, Petruccelli assembled an army of 300 carpenters, 45 plasterers, 32 set designers, and 16 art directors to build the intricate sets. Their home became Mel's Cite du Cinema in Montreal, where the production took over all of the stages to re-create the White House. "We reproduced the spirit of the White House as closely and as precisely as we could," explains Petruccelli. "Architecturally, it was somewhat easier than it was with the décor. The architecture is a very classic structure. It has its different time frames: the original structure in 1792, the Jefferson colonnades, the Taft Oval Office, and so on. In 1952, Truman did a complete remodel of it, but kept the exterior walls intact. We wanted to make sure that we always included the organics, the idiosyncratic parts of the building, because it's a very old structure, and you see those things."

"The décor was a whole different matter," continues Petruccelli. "We had teams scouring the world. We were in the United States, Canada, and Europe. We had carpets made in India. We had to build all of our light fixtures because, frankly, none of the stuff exists. They're so iconic that the only thing you can do is to do your best to reproduce them."

Not only that, but the logistics of the physical production made the set design a complicated matter. "Because there are so many stunts, the Oval Office had to be created twice," notes Petruccelli. "We had water, fire, and explosions happening in and around it. We worked closely with the practical effects team, so they knew where the bullets would hit, and we knew where to run cable inside the walls that were going to blow. The press corps offices, the Oval Office, the center hall, the Great Hall, the Great Staircase were all completely underwater. The Blue Room had a helicopter tail crash through it. The Green Room, the Lincoln Bedroom, the Master Bedroom were set on fire."

But the interior of the White House was only part of the challenge. "We also needed a set that would give us the enormity of the South Lawn and South Portico of the White House," says Petruccelli. "It would have to be big enough that we could bring a tank in there, as well as our Marine One. No stage is big enough for that, so we started to look around. We tried to find an airport hangar, but none were available. And that's when we found 'The Bubble' -- an interior golf driving range. It has an enormous interior footprint and a sixty-foot-tall bubble on top. It functioned very well. We were able to build a lot of the scenery within it. It's one door in, one door out, a revolving door to keep the bubble up -- and, when we were there, three-hundred-plus people inside, having a laugh."

Once the sets were completed, even the veterans were amazed by what had been accomplished. "Throughout my work with Roland, I have seen quite a few sets -- even very big sets -- but this one was notable," says producer Harald Kloser. "At one point, I was walking through the set and I asked one of the production assistants where the bathroom was. I was expecting to be pointed down the hall, so I was surprised when she reminded me that our bathrooms were outside -- I forgot I was on a set!"

Petruccelli and his team also worked closely with the visual effects team. "The visual effects team and my team are connected at the hip from inception, and we depend on them and they depend on us to be collaborative and cooperative," explains Petruccelli. "We are the first line up, but everything is built in the computer. So, what I have to do with my team is to make sure that it's tailor-made to what happens in post, because the visual effects teams have to then be able to function with it, and then extend it or manipulate it or recreate it or augment it."

"Every decision goes through a process, through Roland first, through me, then to visual effects guys, and then through the visual effects guys back to me, because there's different things going on at different times," continues Petruccelli. "On this film, we're planning the visual effects to be 'invisible' -- the kind that you don't realize you're watching visual effects -- and if nobody realizes that it's not real, then for me, that's the glory of it all."

Aside from the White House, Petruccelli's team was responsible for the Capitol hallways, the White House office suites, ancillary newsrooms, the streets throughout Washington, D.C., Air Force One, Marine One, the Pentagon Bunker, the Presidential Emergency Operation Center, the Secret Services offices, the South Lawn, the South Portico... and a little something called The Beast.

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