Washington’s worst-case scenario becomes a big-screen reality with “Olympus Has Fallen,” arriving in theaters Friday.
D.C. residents might recognize the story from a nightmare: Terrorists launch an impeccably coordinated attack on the city, which includes opening fire on tourists and suit-clad lobbyists alike; the White House (code name Olympus) takes a beating, leaving the stately mansion a charred, bullet-riddled ruin; and the president is taken hostage after the enemy infiltrates his secret bunker. As an added punch to the gut, the Washington Monument collapses like the spectacular finale of a game of Jenga.
If it hits a little close to home, that’s the point. Director Antoine Fuqua and actor-producer Gerard Butler wanted the events to seem plausible.
“I try to find a way to ground the movie in some reality, in something that’s happening in the world, in something that we can all connect to,” Fuqua said on a recent visit to Washington.
Riveting action rooted in real-world drama is the norm in Fuqua’s films, which also include “Training Day” (2001) and “Tears of the Sun” (2003). Another common thread is the hero’s journey. In this case, Secret Service agent Mike Banning — played by Butler — is tasked with saving the day.
Once the favorite handler of President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), Banning is relegated to desk duty after a tragedy involving the first family. But when North Korean terrorists storm the White House, Banning finds himself hiding under the crumbling roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Inside the bunker, a terrorist who goes by Kang begins negotiating with the Pentagon. In return for meeting outrageous demands, Kang promises to free the president.
This is Banning’s opportunity to right his reputation. All he has to do is kill the countless terrorists roaming the White House corridors and then find a way into the impenetrable bunker to save the president and various Cabinet members.
“That’s the ‘Rocky’ moment. He doesn’t think he’s going to win,” Butler said. “When he fights, even though he thinks he’s going to lose, you see his moments of doubt and vulnerability. That’s what I want to work with.”
But Butler didn’t want to confuse unlikely success with impossibility. Banning may be succeeding against all odds, but that does not mean other events should be preposterously far-fetched. Butler saw something special in the original script, but when he approached Fuqua to direct, he admitted that certain passages were going to need an overhaul.
That original version featured civilians being blinded by high-tech gizmos that emit invisible electronic waves, and it culminated in a train busting through a wall and into the Potomac River — “Definitely out of an ’80s action movie,” Butler said. So the actor and director opted to cut down on the frills. The enemies arrive in old trucks and planes.
“There’s a simplicity to it, the way there’s a simplicity to what happened before where essentially box cutters changed the future of the world,” Butler said. “Here it’s a C-130 cargo plane, it’s tourists, it’s trash trucks, all of these things that are so normal and yet are so dangerous.”
Underneath the special effects chaos of the first script, Butler connected with a kind of patriotism-rousing emotion when imagining a White House attack. Even the Scotland native could feel the impact of such an event.
“It is the most powerful building in the world, and it’s the symbol and beacon of freedom,” he said. “The White House and those institutions are America’s treasures, but they’re kind of the world’s treasures, as well.”
But before the filmmakers could obliterate the president’s home, they had to build it. Green screen wasn’t an option, Fuqua said, because characters had to run up stairs and fly through doors, walls needed to explode, and hundreds of extras and stuntmen needed to swarm the building. The attack on the White House — which lasts about 20 spellbinding minutes — was the most complex scene for Fuqua to shoot and Butler’s favorite for audiences to see.
One of the difficulties was finding the space to build such a massive structure, plus an empty freeway to re-create a couple blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It’s hard to find places that just say, ‘Yeah, OK, sure, come take over the whole block and blow up some cars and, you know, there’s a C-130 flying overhead,’” Fuqua said.
Salvation came in the form of Shreveport, La., which was “about 115 degrees” during filming. The sweat moviegoers see is real.
For accuracy in the building’s details, Fuqua turned to production designer Derek Hill, who had already done extensive research on the White House when working on Oliver Stone’s “W.” As for the veracity of the scenes in the president’s secret bunker, Fuqua remains cagey about his intel, except to say that he has never been inside.
“From what I understand, I didn’t do too bad,” he said with a wink.
For Butler’s part, he was trained by former Secret Service agents and watched documentaries about the agency. That taught him not only how to move — “literally how they turn a corner” — but also what the protocol would be if an operative found himself in a similar scenario. That includes everything from finding ammunition to waging psychological warfare on the enemy. The on-set consultants even pushed Butler to include more verbal sparring, which sounds a lot like trash-talk during sports games, but the actor often opted to speak with actions.
While doing research for the film, Fuqua encountered a few surprises, including one that should reassure Washingtonians. The director walked away from the film feeling more secure than ever.
“I had one gentleman sit down and say, ‘Nowadays, we sit around and discuss scenarios. The 9/11 Commission said one of the reasons that happened is because we were unimaginative, we weren’t prepared,’ “ Fuqua recalled. “And now they sit around, and they discuss everything. Aliens could come, and they’ve talked about it.”
In a way, this movie is just another in a series of brainstorming sessions.
““It’s) just sort of a scenario of what could happen,” Fuqua said. “But we’re in good hands with our guys. They know what they’re doing.”