This week, “White House Down,” the deliriously silly (but ridiculously entertaining) White House hijacking movie, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, detonates onto Blu-ray and DVD. In honor of the film’s release, we chatted with “White House Down” filmmaker Roland Emmerich and asked him to run down the five biggest influences on the film (which this writer places amongst the top tier of the director’s work). At first he was reluctant (“I feel back in school, like I had to do homework”), but eventually he shared what fuelled his movie. Read on to find out what inspired “White House Down,” the dirty wife beater Channing wears and Jamie Foxx’s famous line about his sneakers.
It might have been hard to come up with five influences, but Emmerich has a clear understanding of what the film he was trying to make was and what it wasn’t influenced by. During the conversation, when we tried to float the idea that some of the shoot-out sequences were inspired by the balletic Hong Kong works of director John Woo, Emmerich just shrugged it off. “Yeah, there’s a little of that,” he said, trailing off. Instead, he came up with a list of influences that are both creative and personal, making for an array of specific reference points that are also tellingly self-reflective. Sometimes, it seems, Emmerich is his own biggest influence. From the obvious to slightly off the beaten path, read on below…
Unsurprisingly, the first movie that Emmerich mentioned and the movie’s chief influence was John McTiernan‘s 1988 action masterpiece “Die Hard.” The two movies share a similar narrative core (about supposed terrorists taking over a building, but really gunning for something else altogether) and leading character (Tatum, like Bruce Willis, is a chronic fuck-up looking to redeem himself in the eyes of his family). “I think the biggest influence was probably ‘Die Hard,'” Emmerich said matter-of-factly. “I watched it with my DP Anna Foerster and we said, ‘What a great movie.’ The movie itself is great, but it doesn’t quite hold up stylistically.”
When we balked at this comment, especially after watching it again on the big screen earlier this year, Emmerich held firm. “Maybe because it’s the late eighties, the style… it just looks old. And not every movie from that period looks as dated.” So Emmerich chose to borrow other parts from the movie. “It’s still an amazing movie, the way it mixes humor with suspense.” Apparently, screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt is also a big fan of the exploits of John McClane. “It was also probably the biggest influence for the writer.”
In terms of specific references to “Die Hard,” it turned out that Emmerich was partial to a piece of the film’s costume. “The wife beater!” Emmerich exclaimed. “We did a variation of it, we had a vest over it. And then at the very end, we just had the wife beater. Some of the people at Sony thought there wasn’t enough wife beater in the movie.” Channing Tatum in a wife beater? You can never have too much of a good thing, we suggested. “Exactly,” Emmerich replied.
Another big influence on “White House Down” was Richard Donner‘s influential buddy cop movie “Lethal Weapon,” released the year before “Die Hard.” “It is one of my all time favorite movies, which I watched again and again and again.” Where “Lethal Weapon” fits into “White House Down” is that both films share that buddy cop dynamic, even if in Emmerich’s film it’s the President (Foxx) and a plucky would-be Secret Service agent (Tatum). “It’s just about the interaction between these two guys,” Emmerich said about the 1987 classic. “And how their relationship is interwoven with the story is incredible.” And it’s clear in “White House Down,” Emmerich and co. sought to replicate the easy back-and-forth chemistry between Danny Glover and Mel Gibson.
Oddly enough, one of Emmerich’s biggest influences on “White House Down” was the movie he had just made: “Anonymous,” a sweeping historical drama about how William Shakespeare was a huge fraud. “I had just shot this with Anna, the DP. And in that movie we had experimented with very, very wide lenses. And DPs hate wide lenses because they cannot hide lights,” Emmerich explained. “When I made that movie, to talk Anna into doing it, she kept saying that she really wanted to direct. But I finally convinced her to make ‘White House Down.’ And she said, ‘How are we going to do it?’ And I said, ‘Exactly like ‘Anonymous.'”
Considering the scope and scale of “White House Down,” having the lighting and sets be so contained was a tall order indeed. “I wanted to build every ceiling in every set and light from the outside and only with natural lighting. And she said, ‘Oh god, again?’ And we did it, with mirrors and whatnot, all kind of tricks. It was a very difficult thing to do.” Still, it was all attempted in the heady spirit of experimentalism: “I wanted to try it out in a big commercial movie,” Emmerich said. And he can now cross that off his list.
Another one of Emmerich’s films provided inspiration for “White House Down,” at least tonally: his own box office-breaking sci-fi extravaganza “Independence Day.” “It was interesting because during ‘White House Down’ I started seriously preparing ‘Independence Day 2.’ So I had to watch my own film again. I was so nervous about that, because I never watch my films,” Emmericn explained. “And I was actually surprised – I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s funny!’ It’s also serious because it’s about aliens trying to destroy us but it’s really funny.”
This moment went on to inform how the director made “White House Down.” “That influenced me for ‘White House Down’ because it would be so refreshing to not take itself so seriously but still be about guys who put a gun to a little girl’s head,” he explained. “When you do something very intense and then release it with humor, it actually helps. So ‘Independence Day’ was a major influence.”
We asked if the script was as funny as the movie turned out to be, and Emmerich said no. “It was through a lot of improvisation and if you have Jamie Foxx or Channing Tatum, people who are really smart and funny, and you let them go, crazy shit happens. A lot of things, which were the biggest laughs, we actually came up with on the set,” he explained. “When the rocket launcher hits him on the head? We came up with that by accident. Shit like that.”
The scene where Foxx yells at one of the bad guys, “Get your hands off my Jordans,” was also an improvised moment. “And now it’s the funniest line in the whole film,” Emmerich said. When we marveled at the fact that he was able to improvise and try things on a movie that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he says that it was okay because he shoots “super fast” and that it’s essential to his creative process and the process of those in the cast and crew. “Otherwise, these days are very long and people get very tired very fast,” he said.
For the fifth influence, Emmerich chose to get introspective. The filmmaker was born in 1955 in Stuttgart, Germany, far away from the bright lights and razzle dazzle of Tinseltown. And this upbringing proved to be one of the guiding forces in his creative life. Even today. “Maybe the influence is that I come from Germany. That might sound very strange at first, but I’m still in awe that I make movies,” Emmerich said. “When you grow up in Germany, from a city where there’s no film or anything, and you sit in a movie and stare up at the screen and say, ‘I would love to do that too.’ And all of a sudden, you’re standing around people like Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum on a set. You have this reality check moment of, ‘Oh my god.’ I’m not jaded. There are a lot of big egos in Hollywood. And I always say: big egos are the enemy of good films. In some ways I’m still a big kid and totally in awe of what I get to do.”
“White House Down” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.