Director Antoine Fuqua has become one of the screen’s finest purveyors of old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground action with thrillers such as Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest. His latest film, Olympus Has Fallen — due out March 22 — may be his most intense work yet. The film depicts the capture and occupation of the White House by a group of North Korean terrorists. While the log line suggests a formulaic Die Hard rip-off, the story is told in an immediate, hyperreal, detail-obsessed style that brings to life America’s most hallowed residence in an absolutely convincing and horrifying manner.
BuzzFeed spoke to Fuqua by phone about the challenge of creating and then destroying this most renowned of addresses.
BuzzFeed: When you read the script, what jumped out at you that this could be something really different from the standard action film?
Antoine Fuqua: Well, it’s high-concept writing. Attack the White House. I thought, Oh, this is ballsy. When I read the script, I thought, I’ll do it if I can ground it, you know what I mean? If I can really make it feel much more real. So I sat with some head Secret Service guys and some Navy Seals and a couple people who worked in Washington in the Bush senior administration, and kind of laid out a plan, like, what happened? How would you do this? And when I started to find out about the 15-minute response and things, I said, “I have to do it.” If nothing else, it makes people not forget what we all went through on 9/11.
BF: Fifteen minutes is how long you say in the film it would would take the military to respond to an attack on the White House. That’s based on real information you gathered from talking to the Service?
AF: Fifteen minutes for a full military response, you know, to get planes and all that kind of stuff. Because they don’t, obviously, the cops don’t just sit there. A full military response would take about 15 minutes. An air strike obviously would get there quickly — helicopters, jets, all that kind of stuff, and then we’ve got first-response teams, stuff like that. You’ve got some serious guys in different buildings all around the White House, in places that, obviously, 1) I’m not allowed to talk about or show, and 2) I wouldn’t anyway.
BF: How much is there that they told you but said, “You can’t put this stuff in the movie because it would compromise security?
AF: Quite a bit. They’ve got some serious contingency plans for these kinds of things. At the same time, it was one of those things where I would start talking to some of these guys about how you would do it, and there was a sort of a light that went off in their eyes a little bit, you know what I’m saying? … If you have someone on the inside. If you have the information. If you know a timeline. If you can use equipment like garbage trucks and C-130s that all belong to us against us. And they’re a well-oiled machine and willing to die for it; they could cause a lot of damage, you know? And that’s a fact of life.
BF: Now that you’ve told the story, could the attack that you created in the movie actually happen?
AF: I don’t think so, no. Because it’s like, the bad guys might see it; the good guys see it too. And there’s a lot of stuff in the movie that’s just movie magic, stuff like that. These guys are ready for a lot of things. When nothing’s happening, when everything’s peaceful, there’s a lot of guys out their doing their work, doing their jobs, to keep it that way. But as we saw once before, we can fall asleep, you know? The bad guy can just lullaby you to sleep, where everything seems OK and nothing happens and then we wake up one day and we see what we witnessed.
BF: The amazing thing about the film is its physicality. From the fact that much of it takes place do it in real time — the attack is in real time — to that it’s very light on effects, to just the sense of the White House as a real space. How did you create that?
AF: I went through a lot to build that place. We built as much of it as you possibly can. We built that front lawn and facade and the interiors and all that stuff; we built some of the sides.
BF: In Shreveport, Louisiana, you built a replica of the White House?
AF: I needed a place where I could blow things up and shut the city down, and we had full control. I needed a road wide enough for Pennsylvania Avenue that I could build on, a big open space I could put the White House on. I’ve got all these guys running around with guns and shooting, in with a neighborhood, they would have shut me down, so it was pretty intense. We had helicopters flying around. Pretty crazy.
BF: With every part of the White House, were you sticking to absolute verisimilitude in recreating it? Is that the scale of the Lincoln Bedroom, for instance?
AF: Yep, all that stuff’s to scale, absolutely. The hallways are to scale, everything. Those trap doors, where a guy comes out on one side, that stuff like that, were really detailed with as much information as we could get.The pictures on the walls, the color of the walls. All the details we were trying to get just right to make it feel as real as possible.
BF: Did you attract notice in Shreveport, that someone’s built the White House here?
AF: Oh my god, it was a tourist spot. The people were coming all the time. It was crazy.
BF: Did you have moments where it felt strange at all? Like, “We’re building the White House, and then we’re ripping it to shreds?”
AF: Oh yeah. We had a lot of those moments — we had a lot of emotional moments. Just from making the movie, you’re into it, you’re having fun, you’re directing, this feeling is great. And then every once in a while there were moments where even I’d have to step back and look at it through the lens and say, “Wow, I’m not sure how I feel about this today.” Bodies laying all over the steps, blood on the walls: It emotionally hits you in the gut, you know?
BF: There’s this great irreverence toward the White House. As he’s looking around for weapons and grabs Lincoln’s bust and things like that.
AF: All that stuff, where he goes past Washington’s picture or you see Lincoln on the wall, JFK, you know, you walk past JFK who’s looking down, that stuff really affects you. I have friends who actually work in the White House, and they said they got chills. It’s crazy. And then there was blood on the walls, and the lights were off, the smoke was there, the fire was going. It was eerie. And that’s where you would just go, “I do not want to ever see this film.”
BF: Were the actors affected by it? How did they deal with it?
AF: They were really affected, and they would all sit on the side and talk about it. It was just like, “This is a really freaky thing to see,” because what we all believe this building to be represents our freedom. It represents the symbol of freedom. For anyone to look at it this way, I think, you listen to the music, it was religious mostly. There was sadness within it because I wanted that — because that’s how I felt.
BF: You cast Ashley Judd as the First Lady of the United States. Can you see her in real-life politics?
AF: She’s a smart lady and she has a good heart, and I don’t know if a good heart is the best thing to have in politics. She seems to be an intelligent lady who wants to do good, so that’s what I got from her. As far as her policy as a politician goes, I don’t really know if I saw her that way; I just saw her as a great actress. As a person, from just spending time with her, she’s a sweet person, she’s a sweet lady. I hope she doesn’t get her heart broken.