In acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua’s electrifying new movie, “Olympus Has Fallen,” a small group of heavily armed, meticulously trained extremists launch a daring daylight ambush on the White House, overrunning the building and taking President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his staff hostage inside an impenetrable underground presidential bunker. As a pitched battle rages on the White House lawn, former presidential security officer Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) joins the fray and finds his way into the besieged building to do the job he has trained for all his life: to protect the President at all costs.
At the film’s recent press day, Fuqua, Butler, Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott and Rick Yune talked about working together on the entertaining, non-stop action thriller, their most memorable moments during production including an intense 3-day fight sequence between Butler and Yune, how they got in shape for their roles, the enthusiastic response the movie received from the Marines when it was screened recently at Camp Pendleton, and why they hope President Obama will enjoy the film. Butler also discussed his producing role and why he’s confident this is an inspiring, patriotic movie that both men and women will enjoy.
Question: Is it possible in this current environment to make a movie like this and stay true to action and keep it apolitical?
Antoine Fuqua: The intention was, first of all, to entertain and make a fun action thriller. But it’s always good to make an action thriller that has substance and relevance to our time. Since terrorism is a part of our lives unfortunately, it punches you in the gut because it feels real. It’s how our brains are wired since 9/11. These things can happen. So yes, that was the intention.
Q: Gerry, this was non-stop action for you. Do you prefer a role where you’re constantly moving, jumping around, shooting, falling and so on? Or, would you have preferred to be in a room and talking it out with them?
Gerard Butler: To be honest, I was very jealous the week that Morgan Freeman arrived because literally this excitement came over the whole set. It was amazing to watch. I really wished I’d been involved in those scenes. It would have been great to be in them. A lot of my favorite stuff in this movie is what happens in the Crisis Room. It’s so incredibly gripping to go in and experience what it is that those people do that we don’t know when this happens. During 9/11 we were saying, “Where’s the President? Who’s making the decisions? What’s happening?” Here, you realize and this is why it was great to have this incredible cast to really humanize these characters and see the decisions that they have to make and that they’re real people having to make split-second decisions that will affect the planet. The stakes are rising and they’re going into territory where there is no protocol for even what they do. So, I would have loved to have been involved with that, but it’s fun to go and kick ass as well. Antoine and I wanted to make this guy incredibly brutal and uncompromising to give some satisfaction that I feel in our recent history we never felt that we got. After 9/11, it was done. Everybody was gone. Here, we have a stand-off situation with an escalating international crisis, but the terrorists are there and we need to see some payback. We do. But also, it’s not just the action. It’s being able to climb into what happens in there? What are counter-terrorism strategies when you go in and you assess the enemy capabilities and you get your ammo and you establish outside lines of communication? Nothing can happen in this film without [everyone’s cooperation and coordination]. I can’t work without these guys and they can’t work without me and with the President holding out on the information. That’s what’s great about it. It brings it all together, so you have the action and all that.
Q: The film has everything from pop-up action and suspense to critical deliberations in the Crisis Room. Do you have a memorable moment or one that challenged you the most during the making of the film?
Fuqua: As the director, I have so many memorable moments. Every time I got to walk on set, I’d see Angela Bassett, Aaron Eckhart, and then Gerard and I were together every day, in the middle of the night until 2 or 3 in the morning coming up with ideas and kicking stuff, and then Morgan Freeman would walk into the room, and then Rick Yune would walk into the room, and Dylan McDermott would walk into the room, and Melissa Leo would walk into the room, and Ashley Judd. For me, it was like every day, and then I got to shoot and blow some stuff up. There were so many great memories for me.
Rick Yune: The fight scene with Gerry was fun because the Gerry that you see, this jovial, laughing guy from Scotland, is a different kind of guy than I know. This guy grew up in Glasgow. He knows how to throw a punch. Being able to work with a buddy, especially in a scene like this, you can go just a little bit harder. Just to let you know, what was choreographed is not what we did. He slipped in a few hard punches on me, and I returned the favor, and that’s what we got. Antoine was there. He’s like a maestro. He’ll set a situation up, and then he’ll kind of disappear into the background, and then things will transpire. But we really got into it and afterwards, maybe a day or two later, we were able to laugh about it. But, in between, it got pretty intense.
Butler: It was a 3-day fight sequence, three days of just knocking [the hell out of each other].
Q: One of the turning points in the movie is when Morgan Freeman was put in charge. The audience just started clapping like crazy.
Morgan Freeman: As well they should. (laughs)
Q: I thought it was awesome when the Speaker of the House became the man in charge. Did you have to do any additional research for playing this role and what was it like working in Louisiana in the heat?
Freeman: I was raised in Mississippi so that heat and humidity is my bread and butter. It keeps me going. I can’t stand cold weather. I’m freezing now. I don’t think to play just about any role, unless you’re going to play someone who is extant, someone who is living today, that you have to do any research beyond learning your lines. I don’t go for trying to study the Speaker of the House. You know who that is?
Q: There have been others so…
Freeman: Well yeah, there have been, but no, I don’t think there is any need for that. I’ve played a prisoner and some of the actors on that scene were going, “We’re going to spend the night in jail.” “Really? And learn what?”
Q: Dylan, on “The Practice,” we’ve become accustomed to seeing you be very adept at arguing points that maybe we as viewers don’t agree with or maybe you as an actor don’t agree with. Did that skill come into play with your character in this and how did you wrap your head around his point of view?
Dylan McDermott: That was one of the things that drew me to this, because I played a Secret Service agent in “In the Line of Fire” years ago and I was interested in playing the bookends on that. But the real reason I took the film was to play golf with Morgan Freeman. He kicked my ass. How many times?
Freeman: Nah, cmon!
McDermott: No, he did. But no, to answer your point, working with Antoine who I love working with, we were able to fill in the script and points that weren’t there, and that whole speech about globalization and buying of the Presidency, that was something that we worked on hard to justify why my character would turn, which was such a huge thing to be a traitor after working so long for the government. There were a lot of intricate points in this character that we had to fill in, and I think by the end, when Gerry takes me down, we arrive at some sort of redemption.
Q: What did you guys do to get in shape for the roles? Did you try any crazy new workouts and how did you learn all these fighting moves?
Butler: Rick’s been doing this his whole life. He is the ultimate badass so I wasn’t relishing those three days fighting him. I’ve done a lot of action movies and worked with a lot of stunt teams, and we had a phenomenal stunt team in this movie including former Navy Seals and martial arts experts. So, for me, I was just constantly practicing my moves and loading guns while I’m talking to people. I would be doing that to keep up. You just get out of every second you can, and you’re pumping weights, and then you’re trying to produce. Antoine and I were tight. We were always moving forward with ideas, and then you just get in there and hope you don’t make a fool of yourself.
Yune: What you guys see is not what we do. What I’ve learned over my experience is that the punches and the kicks and the explosions and the gunshots, they really don’t matter that much. It’s all about the intention placed behind it and the reason why it’s there. I’m sure you’ve seen these movies that are filled with all this sort of extemporaneous fireworks that really amount to nothing, and you’ve seen guys like Bruce Lee, he’s done one move and it’s magic. Or, a guy like Clint Eastwood, where he picks up one gun and he says one line and it fills the screen. It’s the same with Sean Connery. He’ll do a bar fight and punch and it looks like magic. That gives a lot of credit to the actors involved, especially here. Gerry was working five different jobs at once, and I also saw him in the background doing all the stunts just to make sure. This is not something that a lot of the actors normally do. It was that commitment to the characters and making sure that you got something that was reality-based which was really the focal point for Antoine. At one in the morning, during filming, Gerry showed me a video of Antoine and Gerry in the ring boxing and they went a couple of rounds. I was like, “Man, you guys are taking it to another level!” I was like Morgan, “I don’t really have to do this. You can pretend.” We all really went for it.
Butler: We should point out that the only person who would compete for being the biggest badass on the planet other than Rick would be Antoine. I mean, seriously, he’s a Golden Gloves boxer. So, to make an action movie with a guy who understands fighting and who understands character, it’s like Rick brilliantly pointed out, you can say so much with a fight sequence or you can say nothing. We were always about this specific intention behind this guy fighting. Stunt guys are incredible, but they’ll often give you stunt team moves, and you go, “No, I want this. I want to surprise. I want to be lethal or I want to punish.” It’s like Rick said. What’s the intention behind that? When you’ve got a guy like Antoine, who completely understands that and yet understands character and performance, then it makes it a really…that’s why we have such a rich movie. It’s not just an action movie, but it’s a thriller. It’s an emotional ride as well with characters that you get involved with. It’s because he does all of that. And the one thing I’d say though that you were saying, Rick, is in this situation I think the explosions actually are important because this take down of the White House is one of the most unforgettable action sequences, but again has such a purpose behind it. It’s all relevant. How did they do it? What is the intelligence they used? It’s a very powerful thing to experience and we really focused, especially Antoine, on grounding it and [showing] what this would really look, feel, smell and taste like. You’re totally pulled into this. In that respect, I think every gunshot, every explosion is mind blowing.
Q: After President Obama watches this film and sees how this scenario plays out, how do you think he’ll react? Do you think the Secret Service will be maybe a little more paranoid?
Fuqua: No, we’re in good hands. Hopefully, our President will watch it and enjoy it as a movie. It’s always a good conversation starter, I’m sure. We worked with some Secret Service guys and these guys are the best of the best. They sit around and talk about different scenarios. The 9/11 Commission said we were able to be attacked because we lacked imagination. Well, part of our government now is to sit and have think tanks about scenarios and imagination, so I think this would just be another scenario that they could look at and say, “Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen.” But we’re in good hands.
Q: Angela, a lot of your audience has loved you since you played Bernadine in “Waiting to Exhale,” how do you feel you’ve evolved as a thespian for this role?
Angela Bassett: Honestly, I have not thought of that. I don’t know. I hope I just continue to be passionate about the roles and to always endeavor to bring clarity and honesty to the table and different ideas.
Q: Some of you went to Camp Pendleton recently to show the movie to some of the guys down there. Can you talk about the reception and how it went?
Butler: (pulling out his iPhone) I’ve got to play this. For me, it was a huge fear when we talked about showing it to the military, especially the Marines. I always thought how are they going to react to this? This is a day that we focus on there being a big fail. There was a fail today, which shows you that every other day that it doesn’t go wrong was a big success. But, at the same time, we’re concerned about what they would say just for those reasons. In actual fact, because the movie is so much more…this is a shark attack and it takes us by surprise. At the end of the day, what this movie is really about is the heroism of everybody, everybody in every different part of the movie, and the belief that in our darkest hour, our nation will rise and it will unite. And that’s what they got out of it. I stayed, even though I was more terrified than anybody, and I thought, if it’s not going well, I’m going to leave before the end. They got exactly the heart and soul and the point of the movie. They got the humor in it, because there were a lot of funny moments in it. They got the inspiration in it. They got the intelligence of it and they enjoyed the action of it. They took it for exactly what it is. It’s provocative entertainment. I’ve got to let you hear this response which I was just showing to Aaron. (plays a recording on his iPhone of the response of the Marines at the end of the screening at Camp Pendleton; we hear loud cheers, whistles and applause) And that’s the Marines! We screened this in Washington to political journalists, to government officials, to Secret Service, and they went crazy for it. We screened it to the literati in New York. They loved it. We’ve done word of mouth screenings all over the country. I don’t think we even expected that response, but everybody takes out of it what they need if it’s just for the action or it’s for the patriotism or whatever it is. The themes involved are so overpowering in a way. Let me tell you, women love this movie as much if not more than men.
Freeman: We’ve got women working in it.
Butler: And especially because of the performances of Angela and Melissa and the characters that they play. It’s phenomenal. But it’s also because of the values in the movie. It didn’t have to be a man or a woman. It’s about what do you attach to your feelings and the emotions deep in your psyche about what does the White House mean to you? What does the fragility of our freedom mean to us? What does the President being taken hostage mean to us? It means the same to a man and a woman. So, at the end, we’re all feeling it, women as well. Women are coming up and punching me, “Damn, I loved that movie!” I think between Antoine and the rest of the cast, it kicked it out of the ballpark.
Yune: I was there. It was incredible being around these guys because you see the level of [commitment].
Q: Regarding the White House, the layout, the secret passages, and how it functions, how much of it did you know about and how much did they let you disclose? Was it easy?
Fuqua: Nothing about it was easy. That’s for sure. Like I said, we worked with people who worked in the White House. Most of the people we worked with, outside of a couple people I can’t tell you who gave me some information, they were employees in the White House in different capacities – Secret Service, one gentleman worked for George Bush, Sr., and you can imagine that job. So, they laid out the White House for us in the basic sense, and then they told me a few things that I wouldn’t put in the movie anyway, and of course, they wouldn’t let me. Yes, we laid it out. I know the basic White House, but I didn’t know about Truman and I didn’t realize they had a lot of passageways and things like that. One of our consultants told us stories about Jimmy Carter’s daughter. They used to always have to go get her because she would sneak out, and that’s how Connor (Finley Jacobsen) comes out. She would sneak out and that’s all true.
Bassett: We had a screening in New York and it was nice. One of the audience members, a Secret Service guy, stood up and said he really enjoyed the movie. “You guys had the pictures in the exact right place down to the sconces on the wall.” So, being an insider, you’re looking for that thing. You know when it’s right in your lane, so he appreciated that.
Freeman: If anybody’s looking for a team to invade the White House, then look no further.
Q: For Angela and Morgan, would you two talk about working with each other in this movie and what that experience was like?
Bassett: Of course, I was incredibly intimidated when I found out.
Freeman: Stop saying that!
Bassett: But it didn’t last long. The moment I met him, it was just magnificent and everything that I would hope for. It was the opportunity to play with, to observe, to study, steal, and he’s a pretty good singer as well.
Fuqua: Yeah, Peggy Lee. You guys don’t know. Those scenes are intense, and Mr. Freeman used to sing a little Peggy Lee for us.
Bassett: He’d serenade us in between takes.
Fuqua: Classy guy.
Freeman: One of the great things about this work that we do, I’m still kind of star struck. I see actors. I’ve seen just about everybody here do incredible work, and to get a chance to dance with them is a serious perk in life. So, you walk onto a set and there’s Angela, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m there! I’m down with it.” Dylan and I have worked together a couple of times before. So, you find a good dance partner and that’s who you want to dance with.
Q: Morgan, how do you stay so humble in Hollywood? What’s your secret?
Freeman: Don’t live here. Go where people put you in your place.
Q: During the Cold War, Russia was always the bad guy. So, is North Korea the new bad guy in upcoming films? Is that the new trend?
Freeman: Somebody’s got to do it.
Fuqua: This script was written a couple of years ago. The writers, no one, could know that this was going to be happening in our world as far as nuclear threats and all that. In this film, we went out of our way to make sure that it was more about extremist terrorists as opposed to the country itself attacking us, which is normally the case in these sort of terrorist attacks. We did research, and one day I was sitting in my office with Gerry and we saw an image of a young North Korean boy starving. It was a group of them. We froze the frame and we said to ourselves, “What if that was Kang?” Most of these young kids are brainwashed over there. So we said, “What would happen to a kid who believes everything their great leader is telling them, because that’s all he knows. There’s no internet, no TV, no nothing. And then, his mother who gets wise to it tries to get him out, and they have to go through barbed wire, electrical fences, and then past the largest landmine in the world. If his mother died trying to do that, and his young mind, because of America, because of one of our own landmines, that guy could become a terrorist. Like in a movie, if he quietly got to South Korea, got into the government, harbored those feelings, got an opportunity and took the opportunity. Most of these terrorists that we know of, that’s how they operate anyway. It’s always personal. They always wind up like we catch them in a bunker and they’ve got Beatles albums and New York Yankee hats. So it’s always personal. This guy over in North Korea right now, what’s going on with him? He’s got 20,000 movie collections. He watches movies. Dennis Rodman is hanging out with him. He drinks wine. It’s always personal, so we just wanted to make it personal and not make it about the country.
Q: Aaron, how do you feel you set your President apart from past Presidents we’ve seen on the big screen?
Aaron Eckhart: I don’t know. I think it was probably Antoine that did it and making him physical and active and having a young family. That was really it, and then what I thought were the characteristics of the ideal President. I think it was mostly the script.
Fuqua: But also, Aaron is an amazing actor. I mean, part of what you see are strong individuals and strong, strong actors. One of the key things for me was I didn’t want any one of our characters to be victims. They’re all tough. They’re all mentally tough. They’re the ideal leaders that we would want. Aaron, I’ve wanted to work with for years. When I looked at the script, I thought it has to be Aaron. I begged him to do it, by the way. And he goes, “Alright.” But I begged him. It was one of those things where me and Gerry and we all talked about it and said, “We want a tough President. We want a young Kennedy. We want a guy who you believe has those values and intelligence, and you’d vote for this man.” But also, he could fight. Aaron can fight. Gerry can tell you. He came to the ring in that boxing scene. He was more ready than all of us. This man is a champion.
Eckhart: He kicked my ass.
Fuqua: But part of that was that I needed a real heavyweight. The guy is going to be captured, and I didn’t want a victim. I wanted a fighter. That’s what we need, so that’s what he is. He’s an amazing actor.
Butler: I just want to put in as well. He brought so much to life for that President and having worked with him, I have to say this, I was totally inspired by the intensity, because what we all have to go through, but what the President has to go through, that’s hard to keep up. Nobody is more committed and prepared and stays in that space to the point that I thought I was pretty committed, but I’d watch him and be like, “Damn!” I was very, very impressed, and I think you really feel that in the movie, that same tenacity and commitment and brilliance that I got from Aaron.
Q: Morgan, you’ve played the President before, but this time it was more or less a split role. For both you and Aaron, how did having that being a split affect the way you guys made your decisions with your characters, especially knowing that if you save the President, that would mean you deny the world having Morgan Freeman as the President?
Freeman: That doesn’t enter into it. You know that. I don’t see that there is any decision you’re making regarding your role, except either you’re going to play it or not. What’s in the script is in the script and you don’t go to the director and say, “Look, I like the idea of playing this, but I want all these lines changed so that I can put more weight for the idea that I would really like to be President. That just doesn’t work.
Eckhart: Well I don’t know. I mean… (looks at Freeman)
Freeman: (laughs) Don’t look at me. I did my part.
Eckhart: I don’t think it did. I mean, you’re just worried about dying or something.
Q: This is a good summer movie. You guys are the first ones out of the block.
Butler: I think it’s important with a movie like this and when you advertise, it’s one of the first things that women imagine going to see. It’s a movie that when they do go to see it, they’ll get as much out of it as the men. And I think it’s important to emphasize that just so they know that this is a movie that they can enjoy and experience and really get a lot out of.
Q: Did you enjoy producing it?
Butler: I loved producing it. I was all over this ripping it apart and putting it back together. Antoine and I were at this every day and every night. I’d be up all night working with the writer trying to make it better and more gripping and more involved and more connected and more human and more substance and better action. I was really trying to pull that off and also with the marketing campaign. I’ve been involved with every part of it and I loved it, but that was the issue for me. Sometimes I’ve got to remember, and Antoine had to remind me, “Okay, you’re an actor now.” Because you’d be fighting over scenes maybe even with the other financiers, “Okay, we’ve got to get this scene done” and you’re changing and you’re saying, “No, we’ve got to move into overtime and I’ve got to get this,” and then suddenly someone would say, “Okay, you’re on.” “Oh shit, I’m Banning!” I’m really glad you enjoyed the movie and please get the word out.