|Interview: Antoine Fuqua on "Olympus Has Fallen"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The director of "Training Day" talks about his latest action film and the nuts and bolts of staging a full-scale attack on the White House, at least in cinematic terms.
Since the release of his last theatrical feature, "Brooklyn's FInest," back in 2009, director Antoine Fuqua--who directed Denzel Washington to his Best Actor Oscar in 2001's "Training Day" as well as such films as "The Replacement Killers" (1998), "Tears of the Sun" (2003) and "King Arthur" (2004)--has been linked to a number of projects (including the long-delayed big-screen version of "24") that have not yet made it to theaters. However, he returns to multiplexes this week with guns a-blazing with "Olympus Has Fallen," an over-the-top action epic in which a lone Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) is America's only hope when a renegade Korean terrorist launches an attack on the White House and takes the President (Aaron Eckhart) and several members of his cabinet hostage as part of a diabolical plan to wreak havoc throughout the world.
Unapologetically R-rated and eerily tuned into current events that it could not have know about when it was in production--ranging from the saber-rattlings of North Korea to the political ambitions of Ashley Judd (who turns up as the First Lady)--the film may well spark controversy due to its subject matter--are audiences far enough removed from the events of 9/11 to witness the White House reduced to rubble in the service of an unabashed popcorn entertainment--and the amount of carnage on display, both of which could very well disturb the very audiences it hopes to attract. Recently, Fuqua came to Chicago to promote "Olympus Has Fallen" and sat down with me to talk about those issues and others raised by the film.
Although your name has come up in conjunction with a number of projects in the last few years, "Olympus Has Fallen" is your first feature film since "Brooklyn's Finest" back in 2009. How did you come to the project and what was it about the film that made you want to do it?
Well, this came about because Avi Lerner and Gerard Butler reached out to me. Me and Gerard had been developing a couple of other projects that we wanted to do together and when he read this, he said "Antoine needs to read this" because it was exactly the kind of thing that we had been talking about. I read it that night, called him, we had dinner and I told him that if we grounded it--it was a little more sci-fi then--in a sense of reality, which is what I like as a filmmaker, then I was interested. He was feeling the same way, we were in sync about the direction of the script and I said that I was in as long as we could do it the right way and really recreate the White House being attacked, which I knew was going to be a big task.
So how does one go about cinematically planning and executing a full-scale assault on the White House?
I met with an ex-Secret Service buddy of mine who worked in the White House during the Bush senior era. We laid out the White House and I had a couple of Navy SEALs and an Army Ranger and we discussed through military minds how we could do that in a real way. How do you use a C-130? What elements do we have here that belong to us that could be used against us? I started with that and then began conversations with "What if on 9/11, the planes were diversions and there was another plan?" That is what we built upon--there was another plan, the planes were a diversion and there was someone on the inside--and we went from there. Then we designed it and made models of the White House, got blueprints, the whole deal. You spend a lot of time going through the details and try to figure out how that would happen.
In some of your past films, such as "Tears of the Sun," you have gotten assistance from the military in terms of supplying equipment and technical advice. Considering the subject matter of "Olympus Has Fallen," did you even bother asking for such things this time around?
No. The Department of Defense wasn't rude about it but they just couldn't support it by giving me equipment or anything like that. Instead, you just look around and find individuals who own these pieces of equipment and sometimes you get off-the-book, off-the-record help from people who know that it is just a movie and just entertainment. Every once in a while, I had some guys who were off to the side who would help me a little bit.
Were there every any concerns from you or the producers regarding the subject matter of the film? Granted, the film is clearly in the vein of action epics like "Die Hard" but unlike most of those films, this one is set in a place that is an enormously powerful symbol and the sight of its destruction, even in the context of a make-believe film, could be seen as crossing some kind of line.
Of course, we had those conversations. What it always comes back to--and we talked about this a lot--is that the White House has a very powerful symbolic meaning for a lot of people. It represents our freedom and what we are supposed to be. It is a temple, if you will, that people travel from all over to Washington in order to see. However, the 9/11 commission said that we were vulnerable to that attack because of a lack of imagination and movies allow you to imagine such scenarios. If you cross the line, and I think that you have to sometimes, it is all for entertainment but it also allows you to put it up there on the screen and say "Let's not let that happen." It is all great to go to the movies, get your popcorn, have some fun and hoot and holler at the screen but it also becomes a little bit of a cautionary tale as well. It is okay in a movie to push that.
This isn't the first time in a movie that the President has been kidnapped but what is really moving people is that there is a lot of emotion in it. Obviously, we are dealing with subject matter that is in our world and our psyche now. Terrorism is something that you and I will probably have to live through for our entire lifetimes because it is not going away. It is a scary idea when you make it feel real and there is a lot of emotion involved when you have great actors who can ground it and give it a sense of gravitas. It is something that we are familiar with from not so long ago. I wanted it to have impact and emotion because why make an action movie without any emotion or connection. The idea of making movies is to connect with a collective group of people.
We have screened this movie all over the place and it is always the same--I see the audience scream, clap, cheer, laugh and even cry.It is okay to make films that are provocative within this commercial context--that is the power of cinema. As long as the story ultimately has hope and the hero's journey is ultimately heroic and you allow the audience to have fun and feel and even discuss whether it could happen, I think that is the power of cinema. We used to make those movies like "Three Days of the Condor" or "Black Sunday" or even "Munich," although that was based on a true story. In movies, that is part of what we do--we take life and translate it and put our own vision on it to give it some meaning and connect to the audience.
One of the more surprising aspects of the film is the quality of the cast. Instead of the usual array of forgettable players that often turn up in action films, "Olympus Has Fallen" features the likes of Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd and Robert Forster in the supporting cast, people that one wouldn't ordinarily expect to turn up in this kind of project.
I wanted to give the film weight and I wanted actors that I knew could deliver and that you could believe in those parts. We talked about who those actors could be and I said that I wanted to go after actors who were the real thing. I wanted Aaron Eckhart as the president and I needed Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House who became President. I need Angela Bassett because she had the weight to be a female head of the Secret Service. For the Secretary of Defense, I needed someone like Melissa Leo who was tough because of what happens to her--she is not afraid and is just as tough as the men in the movie. Ashley Judd brings an intelligence and a gracefulness about her as well as a light around her so that you don't expect what happens to her. Dylan McDermott--I needed someone who could do some real acting--he is an interesting character because you know him and yet you don't know him. Robert Forster--again, the weight of putting him and Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett in the same room together.
As a director, casting is one of the most important things you can do in a movie. If it was up to me, I would have great actors in every single role because they know what they are doing and they are going to bring something to the table every day that even you as a director may not have thought about. That is their job--my job is to capture it and theirs is to make it come alive and breathe. [br]
Although you couldn't have known it while you were making the film, "Olympus Has Fallen" is coming out at a time in which some of the events and elements that it depicts have correlations with what is going on in the real world. For example, although North Korea is not specifically the bad guy in the film, they are involved to some degree and in real life, the country has been doing some fairly aggressive saber-rattling in our direction, not to mention that nonsense involving Dennis Rodman.
That was a coincidence. This screenplay was written a couple of years ago and when I read it, the thing that Gerard and I talked about was that we didn't want to make it exactly North Korea. Instead, we wanted it to be an extremist group led by one individual with an agenda because while I don't believe that North Korea would send ground troops in against us--they might threaten a nuclear strike but wouldn't send in ground troops--but an extreme individual with his own personal issues would do that, which we have experienced. It was more about that particular character's act of terrorism than North Korea. However, the political fallout of recent events with North Korea threatening a nuclear strike against South Korea is real--now even South Korea wants to develop nuclear weapons even though it goes against them being a part of the United Nations. It raises the stakes even for a film like this because most people hear or read the news and when they hear about it in a movie, they really begin to feel it. Right now, it feels real because you are hearing about these things on the radio while driving over to the theater.
The last couple of months have also seen a lot of conversation about the depiction of violence in the media in the wake of the recent mass killings in Aurora and Newtown. Obviously, "Olympus Has Fallen" is a pretty violent movie and deserving of its R-rating but do you think that it plays differently now for viewers than it might have if those incidents had never occurred?
It is hard for me to say because I don't really have that kind of insight. For me as a father--yeah, it doe because that is now in our psyche and we have been experiencing more and more of it in ways that are inconceivable and heartbreaking in every way. As a filmmaker, when you make this kind of movie, you take on this responsibility and you do your best to make sure that the violence comes from the content of the story and that it is not just violent to be violent.
Later this week, in advance of its official opening, the film is going to be screening as part of the annual CPAC conference where, if nothing else, the opening sequence is almost certain to go over well. What are your feelings about showing the movie there?
We screened it in Washington D.C. a couple of days ago and it was amazing. I was so nervous--me and Gerard and Angela and Aaron Eckhart were doing a Q&A afterwards and I was afraid that they were going to come after us. They loved it and they knew that it was just entertainment. They were screaming and talking back to the theater and everything. They all seemed to have a great time and there were serious people there. Afterwards, I was waiting for the fire to start but it was great. We did the same thing in New York and obviously New York is very sensitive as well but it was amazing as well.I hope they enjoy the movie. I hope they take the ride and enjoy the thrill of it and think to themselves afterwards that maybe they should have some meetings to make sure that something like that never really happens.
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originally posted: 03/21/13 16:02:42
last updated: 03/21/13 16:25:57