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This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In late March 2012, Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal learned of a spec screenplay by James Vanderbilt that had not even been sent out by his reps at WME. The script — about a wannabe Secret Service agent who defends the president when terrorists take over the White House — seemed a slam dunk: packed with action, powered by two strong leading roles and as topical as any studio would want thanks to its exploration of the ongoing debate about the war on terrorism.
Pascal leapt, buying the project for $3 million before rival Paramount could snap it up (thereby providing one of the biggest spec sales in years) and rushing it to Independence Day director Roland Emmerich. That Sunday, April 1, she convened a meeting at her Brentwood, Calif., home, with the studio’s top production executives (led by Doug Belgrad and Hannah Minghella), who met with Emmerich, Vanderbilt and two of the movie’s producers, Harald Kloser and Brad Fischer.
Over the next hour and a half, they thrashed out the details of the potential picture, guided by a layout of the White House that Pascal had downloaded. By the end of their conversation, she was ready to greenlight the film, an actioner with two compelling characters. “Whatever else works, in the end, people want to see movies about people,” she argues. “I will always believe that.”
When Sony opens White House Down on June 28, it will test that conviction at a time when superheroes and franchise films increasingly have come to dominate theaters. It also will determine whether Sony can follow its successful Seth Rogen comedy This Is the End with the type of blockbuster that can compensate for the disappointing returns from Will Smith‘s After Earth. Equally important, as Hollywood approaches summer’s halfway mark, White House Down will impact whether the season breaks records or suffers another slump, as it did in first-quarter 2013.
Currently, despite megahits like Iron Man 3 and big grosses on Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, box office for the year to date is down 2.64 percent compared with 2012. By contrast, the summer itself is up 11.36 percent, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com.
Paramount breathed a sigh of relief when its $190 million World War Z opened to $66 million domestically and another $46 million in foreign sales over the June 21 weekend. But there’s no guarantee a juggernaut like last year’s The Dark Knight Rises is waiting to propel the waning weeks of summer.
Other expensive titles remain, such as Disney’s The Lone Ranger (July 3) and Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Pacific Rim (July 12), raising the stakes — and underlying the risks Steven Spielberg pointed out in early June while speaking at USC.
“There’s eventually going to be an implosion,” said the man whose Jaws in 1975 unleashed the very notion of a modern blockbuster. “Three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
The anxiety is widespread. “This has been a roller-coaster year,” says Dergarabedian. “At one point, we were down 17 percent year-over-year. What Sony and all the other studios are trying to do is keep the momentum going, because it could so easily turn.”
Sony has done everything toward that end, shelling out roughly $140 million for WHD (which would have cost more than $175 million without hefty Canadian tax breaks), including an eight-figure salary for Channing Tatum, 33, Hollywood’s fastest-rising male star.
The movie will demonstrate whether the actor — who plays a father visiting the White House with his daughter when it comes under attack, forcing him to rescue the president (Jamie Foxx) — can continue a remarkable run that has seen such hits as 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Vow. Sony is hoping Tatum’s four-quadrant appeal will help WHD lure more than the usual testosterone-driven crowd. “We are one of the few action movies that have tested better with women than men,” says Tatum’s business partner and the film’s executive producer, Reid Carolin.
But the studio faces considerable hurdles, not least that WHD comes on the heels of the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen (actual Secret Service code for a White House takeover). Pascal, in fact, was a bidder for the Olympus script in 2012, then lost to Millennium Films, which hit fast-forward, bringing its $60 million movie to theaters in late March; to date, it has collected $161 million in worldwide grosses.
“I think both movies can live in this world,” the exec says, while acknowledging she has concerns. “Our movie is less about conspiracy in the White House and more about the relationship between these two guys. It’s a very character-driven action piece, and it is really Roland at his best.”
Emmerich was oblivious to the fact that Olympus was gathering speed when he flew to New York in spring 2012 to persuade Tatum to take the role, just days before the actor was scheduled to leave for a trip down the Amazon. He had to persuade him to say yes.
“I must say I wasn’t sure,” admits Tatum. “A lot of people call me up, and they want to put a gun in my hand, and it’s such a weird place to be in. America is very, very divided right now. But I felt [this film] was a good way to point out some of the issues in our country [including the polarization of Washington] without being too dramatic or heavy.”
With Tatum on board, Emmerich flew to Louisiana, where Foxx, 45, was shooting Django Unchained, and added him as co-star before bringing in James Woods, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins and Maggie Gyllenhaal for other key roles. Now the filmmaker had a new challenge: figuring out how and when to shoot, given that Tatum had agreed to start work in fall 2012 on Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher, in which he plays an Olympic wrestler.
Emmerich called his key crewmembers and asked: Could they cram what should have been 15 weeks of preproduction into eight? The answer was yes, and hundreds of crew and construction members converged on Montreal, where the picture would be shot almost entirely inside a studio — exteriors too — because of budgetary considerations.
With preproduction underway, Emmerich managed to get inside the White House itself, his second private tour following a screening of Independence Day for President Clinton 16 years earlier, when he had “this odd, weird experience that I saw the White House explode inside the White House itself.” (White House Down is unlikely to get such a screening, he says: “It would be a really bad move for Obama. When he just shakes the hand of a Marine and doesn’t salute, he gets shit for it.”)
But this time the director’s visit was restricted to one floor of the six-level White House; neither he nor any of his team ever got to see the supersecret President’s Emergency Operations Center, a pivotal locale in the movie where the president is whisked. The room is believed to be housed somewhere within the building’s three underground stories.
A fortresslike chamber built during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and reportedly able to withstand even a nuclear attack, the PEOC was mentioned in former National Security Adviser Richard Clarke‘s 2004 memoir, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. But the room never has been filmed and only rarely has been glimpsed by outsiders.
“We had to guess what it was like,” says production designer Kirk Petruccelli, referring to himself, cinematographer Anna Foerster and effects maestro Volker Engel.
The room he conceived was built with reinforced concrete, steel and glass, with the assumption that work on it “would have been [done] under the guise of plumbing. As the complex was built, the dirt, rock and old material would have to have been removed through one location, with as small a footprint as possible. I felt that 12-foot-by-20-foot steel forms would be craned below the surface. Roland introduced an octagonal structure. It is not meant for comfort but for survival.”
Equally crucial to the film was another supersecret component: the president’s limousine, known inside Washington as the Beast, a heavily armored car that is part of his motorcade and that is seen during the movie in a lengthy chase sequence on the White House grounds.
Vanderbilt says that when he was researching the screenplay, he was unable to access any information about the vehicle’s protective features. “[The person] who was in charge of replicating the cars contacted the Secret Service and said, ‘What can you tell us about it?’ ” he recalls, “and they very politely told him to take a hike. We built three of them, and it looks like a Cadillac stretch limo until you walk up and realize the doors are as thick as an airplane’s.”
The limo and the White House both were specially constructed for the film, but audiences will see an entirely computer-generated Washington for most scenes not shot within the house and car. Unable to get permission to shoot from the skies or at the city’s monuments, the filmmakers turned to CGI, using about 900 shots before the movie was finished.
The opening sequence of the film — when three helicopters (including one carrying the president) loop toward the residence — was done with computers. “Marine One flies in a squadron of three helicopters, two of which are actually decoys,” notes Fischer. “You don’t know which one the president is riding.” Still, he notes, audiences shouldn’t expect insider revelations: “This isn’t a documentary. It’s a big, fun, summer popcorn movie.”
A relatively trouble-free, 95-day shoot kicked off in Montreal on Aug. 8, with the crew racing against the clock and using several different versions of the same set at various stages of destruction — including two Oval Offices, one of which would be wrecked by a truck driving through it as well as being doused by water and spattered with bullets.
“I don’t know how Roland and Sony figured it all out, but they did,” says Tatum, “and next thing I knew, we were working six-day weeks, 15- or 16-hour days.”
Gyllenhaal, playing a Secret Service agent, was stunned at the sheer scope of the film, shot on seven soundstages with a barrage of gunfire and clouds of smoke wafting around.
“I didn’t want to be in the OK version of a big summer movie,” she says. “If I’m going to do it, I want it to be the awesome version. And that’s what Roland does.”
Despite the controlled mayhem, nearly nothing went wrong. Tatum emerged unscathed (though he had a bad fall that left him with a “butt bruise”), and only Woods reportedly got slightly hurt when a piece of blank cartridge caught his eye — without lasting consequence, however.
Tatum says Foxx kept everyone in good humor: “Being with Jamie is like going to the theater while you are on set. He’ll break out into three or four different characters even while he’s [playing the president]; he’ll just bust out and then be over on the piano playing classical music. He is the purest form of entertainer I’ve ever met in my life.”
Says Pascal: “Jamie Foxx is somebody we have believed in for a long time, [and] Channing has everything. He can tell jokes, kiss girls, shoot guns and act, and he appeals to everyone.”
A mere seven months after shooting wrapped, Sony will see whether audiences agree.
The studio has crafted a marketing campaign heavily reliant on the film and its stars, arranging about 600 screenings nationwide before the picture opens. Those screenings are intended to reach out to people of color and women, among other audiences. “That worked great for us on 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike,” says Carolin.
At the same time, Tatum and Foxx have appeared on Univision to target the increasingly important Latino audience, and earlier this year they created a much-discussed rap video for Jimmy Kimmel Live! that aired in late June and gently poked fun at Tatum’s sex appeal, with both stars singing the sexually suggestive lyrics, “I wanna Channing all over your Tatum.”
Whatever the film’s box-office take, Emmerich is adamant it will have nothing to do with audience reservations about destroying the White House, nearly 12 years after 9/11. “Yes, there’s a lot of gunfire,” he notes. “But it’s the good people who win in the end.”
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