The Reel Breakdown

First Person: Why I Blew Up the White House Again – By Roland Emmerich

The Reel Breakdown

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Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich, director of 'White House Down' and 'Independence Day' (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

By Roland Emmerich

When I had finished "Independence Day," I had the luck to be invited to the White House by President Clinton with Bill Pullman and the writer/producer Dean Devlin, before the movie came out. I didn't know what to expect and there was this little cocktail party followed by dinner with a couple of tables, not more than 25 people, staffers, friends of the Clintons, and their daughter. And then we went down into the screening room and watched the movie and, yes, it has a scene where the White House blows up.

It was the most surreal moment in my life. Only in America!

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When we made "Independence Day," we used a model. That's changed now. Everything in "White House down" is CGI. Flames and smoke in particular can be created in the computer more convincingly. In the model years, the most fake thing was smoke and fire because they revealed the scale. Now, since I made '2012,' where everything was digital, it was a watershed moment. From now on, you don't have to put any barriers on your imagination. You can create anything. And it's a little frightening because it leads to movies that overdo it.

[Related: What Really Happens During a 'White House Down' Moment?]

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White House Down

The White House, as depicted in 'White House Down' (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

If something like what this film depicts happened, it would be an immediate global crisis. It would destabilize the world right away. And not every country is friendly to America: for them "White House Down" is a movie about brother against brother, Americans against Americans and the division of America. There are bad parts, too: so much lobbying, the big military and oil companies have much too much power. In America, it’s too easy to lobby. Americans don’t find it undemocratic to pay for things, in other countries it is impossible to do that.

In German there's a word, schadenfreude, and this movie also reflects the world's desire to see America fail.

One thing that interested me to return to the White House in this script was the tour, where you learn something: It's 222 years old; there are 35 bathrooms and three main buildings. The British burned it down during the War of 1812. In "White House Down," the actor playing the tour guide improvised a line where he said this is the "big famous building in the middle that got blown up in 'Independence Day.'" 

There's also a line where the Speaker of the House played by Richard Jenkins says, "Our country is stronger than one house." For me it's a cool example of how movies come to be: you have improvised stuff and scripted stuff. One is a funny joke that tells the audience, 'don't take this too seriously.' On the other hand I love this line "our country is stronger than one house" but [spoiler alert] it isn't until you look at the movie a second time that you realize this bastard is willing to raze the building to rise in power.

This was an action movie where the main character wants to reconcile with his little girl. The first thing the actors Channing Tatum and Joey King do is a father-daughter tour of the White House, and they get in all this trouble. Everywhere in the world they understand where the Tatum character is coming from: He’s a father that wants to be loved by his daughter again.

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Tatum was honestly concerned that whatever he did in this film was accurate. Since he was playing a man that had been in the Marines, he wanted to act in such a way that soldiers or military men are not offended. That they would not be laughing at him. There is a whole discussion with him and the President: "You politicians always talk about sacrifice, but who's doing the sacrificing?"

What I always say to people outside or inside America: Why do you think the only really true American movies brought to the world is the Western? What are they: people with guns shooting each other. That sums it up, right?

If the White House came under attack, as it does in my movies, it would mean more than the destruction of a single building. It’s the most famous house in the world. Everybody from China to Uruguay knows it.

I'm German and when I was 13 years old I visited for the first time. I stood in front of it and thought, "Oh my God, it's real." I knew it already. I'd seen it many times on TV. All of a sudden, it was really real to me.

The building is unique internationally. In other countries they say this is now old and they build a modern building and the whole government moves. Not in America. There's a tradition embedded in the White House. It's the President's house, and then it was called the people's house. You can actually walk in there and talk to the President.

And that's why the American President, or anybody else, could never decide to go to something more practical and easier to defend. That’s because it's a symbol for freedom. The White House is such a strong symbol of America that they keep this house around because they could never, ever build something new.


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