Director Antoine Fuqua first came into the public’s consciousness with Training Day, a powerhouse film that garnered Denzel Washington an Oscar and gave moviegoers a lot of usable quotes for years to come (e.g. the vitriolic “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”). Though, Fuqua has continued to make his mark by directing films like King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest, bringing grit and much needed momentum to the action genre.
Like Training Day, Fuqua’s latest film, Olympus Has Fallen, is a battle of good versus evil as the White House is held hostage by a large group of terrorists, with the dashing young President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) inside. Thankfully, devoted former Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is around to try to thwart these evil forces. He has something to prove, since six months ago he saved the President from a car crash while the First Lady (Ashley Judd) perished.
Fuqua took some time out to chat with us about the research involved in making the film (which might have included playing with action figures), how he cut his teeth directing music videos, and why he thinks Training Day still resonates today.
So, the film is fairly detailed in the whole heist of the White House, and I was reading that you mapped it out, using action figures and other fun tools.
It’s not even glamorous. Here’s the image: it’s me, some ex-Secret Service, some Navy SEALS, with a big map… and action figures. [Laughs] If you didn’t know we were in the film business, you would think we were just a bunch of grown men playing in a sandbox. “Can it come that way?” “No, it can’t come that way.” “But I want it to come that way!” That’s kind of the process.
It really is just like laying out a battle plan, like you’re really going to war. The green figures, the red figures, the markers, the sketches, the designs based on the real information I was given… that’s kind of how it was.
Going off your battle plan, can you talk about the research that you did with the Secret Service Agents?
Let me be clear, the guys that I worked with are not in service today. They were. Yeah, I just spent a lot of time with them, talked to them a lot about what I was trying to achieve. They gave me information that I could have – some information I could not have. They shared a plan of attack that made sense from the ground, that was based in reality, based on things we know. Things are tougher now since 9/11, but we know that planes have come into our space, a plane went into the Pentagon. And it makes you wonder, “What if all that was a diversion? What if the attack was coming from within?” So that’s where it all sort of started creatively. The fact that we know that these events have happened.
In the film, the White House is somewhat symbolic of America. Can you talk about the ramifications of taking down the White House and what it means in the metaphorical sense?
In any takeover or attack in history, they always go after symbols. Tearing down a wall, breaking down a statue… The White House is like a religion in America, the religion of the White House being a cathedral that we all sort of worship, but also the offices. That it represents America. And it’s white. So imagine bloodshed and violence in that particular place, which is supposedly sacred. Taking that alone is a win for terrorism. That’s like going into some of the most precious places and destroying them. Using that particular place as your own personal launching pad.
So, for me, the White House must represent America, which represents the office [of the President], which represents what this country is supposed to be. If you attack it, you attack the heart of America, the heartbeat of America.
The point is, you can take the building but you can’t take the American spirit. You can never take that.
There’s the interesting choice of making the President’s wife the Janet Leigh of this movie’s Psycho – killing her in the very beginning.
Eh… that was reaching. [Laughs] But can you talk about why her death at the beginning was important to the rest of the film?
Her death is really the beginning of our hero’s journey. That tragic decision. It’s putting [Mike] in the most complex, difficult situation: save the family or the office. The oath he took was to protect and save the office. So we put him in the situation where he had to make the Sophie’s Choice: heed the oath or do what most people would have done, take the wife out first. But the Secret Service is different, that’s the whole point. Your whole life is the President. You choose him – you protect that office with your own life.
So the President’s wife represents that decision-making process. That tragedy. Because now it’s a broken family. And [Mike] has to live with that. Now when he has to go back into the White House, through hell and fire and blood to go save the President, it’s also his journey to rise back up again.
If you remove yourself from that job after you’ve taken an oath, it’s almost like leaving a religion. He said, “I do.” He said, “I’ll protect the office.” He made that vow. And then he says, “I want back in.” So the universe hears that and goes, “Okay, great. But it’s not going to be easy. You have to go through hell. If you come out alive, then you’re back in.”
I know you started off directing music videos. How did the discipline of doing that translate into your film work?
Music videos are great because they teach you, not necessarily about filmmaking, but you learn a lot of technical things that you find later become important. You know lenses, you understand lighting, speed – you move faster to fit the different rhythms – you learn how to make the camera convey feelings differently.
What I find is a lot of people in film school learn to convey emotion just through only the acting. But when you come out of music videos and commercials, because they are visual mediums, you learn how to use the camera as a language. And that’s really the biggest thing I learned from music videos. You use the camera as a language – as its own dialogue.
That makes a lot of sense, actually. One final question: your film Training Day left an indelible stamp on pop culture. Why do you think that your film has held up so well, now twelve years later?
[Laughs] That makes me feel old. That’s a hard question, but I’m going to try. I’m going to do this for you…
I guess Training Day holds up because it’s real. It captured a time and an energy and a subject where it was just real. And again, it had a classic hero’s journey. If you take away the gangsters and streets, it’s a good and evil tale. Denzel [Washington] is the Devil… Ethan Hawke is like this gullible, fresh angel. That’s what a police officer is supposed to be – he is supposed to come in and save the day. He is supposed to come in and serve and protect. That’s the idea. But we’ve seen different versions of that.
The first things out of Ethan’s mouth are, “It’s time. You should see [the detective’s] houses. Maybe I’ll get my own division one day.” In the classic sense, the Devil hears that. In the classic sense, when you step out your door, you’re going to get tested to see how bad you want that. And if you can get home and say “no” to all those things, and still do your job, and your morals are still intact, then that’s a good thing. [Laughs] But it won’t be easy. You get beat up, you get slammed in the bathtub… you get offered women, drugs, money… anything you could imagine will be offered to you if you sell your soul. You want one of those houses? You’ll pay later. If you sell your soul, you can have what you want – you’ll pay later.
So I think, at the heart of Training Day, it’s a classic hero’s journey. Just like this film with Gerry [Butler], a classic sense of a hero’s journey. What you say… dialogue matters when it goes into action. What you say… the first things out of your mouth should inform you what the whole movie is going to be about.
How was that?
[Laughs] That was a great answer! I remember when Training Day came out, my cousin used it as a date movie to test if a girl liked it… if she did then she was cool. So that’s always how I remembered the film.
[Laughs] I hope your cousin at least got some action out of it!
Olympus Has Fallen is in theaters this Friday, March 22nd.