Olympus Has Fallen is a old-fashioned action movie that hearkens back to one of the grandest plot devices in the genre — the mission of saving the President of the United States. In this film, which riffs on the Die Hard setup better than A Good Day to Die Hard did, the White House is taken over by terrorists, Washington D.C. is a war zone, and the President is a hostage in his own bunker. Playing the hero is Gerard Butler, an ex-secret service man who becomes the country's last hope in saving the president's (Aaron Eckhart) life, and also preventing nuclear devastation. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film also stars Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, and Ashley Judd.
While he is still best known for directing Training Day in 2001, Fuqua previously helmed Brooklyn's Finest (2009), Shooter (2007), King Arthur (2004), Bait (2000), The Replacement Killers (1998), and more.
I sat down with Fuqua in an exclusive interview to discuss his film, the heroes he wishes to honor with this movie, what he thinks of George W. Bush's dog paintings, and more.
Olympus Has Fallen opens nationwide this Friday.
In the '90s, there seemed to be many movies about presidential danger, especially related to acts of terrorism that also puts civilians in danger. Those films are much like "Olympus Has Fallen" in that regard. And yet after 9/11, they stopped making these films. Do you think it is fair to say more than a decade later after 9/11 that people are more comfortable with such images of terrorism and danger?
You need some time. I think it comes in waves. I think what happened is that we all found a new villain after 9/11. Al Qaeda, the Middle East. It was not okay to show us in perilous situations. But I personally feel like we have to. I used to hear a lot of responsibility and people saying take accountability for your actions, and I feel like we've come to a crossroads where we have to deal with the reality of the world we live in. Terrorism is a part of our world now. It probably will be at least in our lifetimes something we've always got to deal with. As a filmmaker, sometimes you can put that on the screen, so that it doesn't happen again. "Let's not forget that these types of scenarios could happen, and let's not let it happen." The 9/11 commission said we were attacked because of our lack of imagination; we couldn't imagine that. People saw it on TV and say, "It's got to be a joke. A hoax. It can't be real." Very real. Very horrific. Heartbreaking. You say, okay, now cut to New York today, and we're still dealing with it, the pain of it, but we make movies and we entertain people, and sometimes we can entertain with substance. We can entertain with current events. And you can give them a thrill ride, a thriller with drama and action, this movie has all of that. And some laughs, have some fun. Hit people upside of the head with a Lincoln bust. It's all levity. But at least you can go walk away and have a conversation with your friends. "Could this happen?" And hopefully, and I'm sure the guys who protect us, have that conversation. And movies make you think about this whether you want to or not. As the movie sets up its terror, 'Olympus' features violent images in front of the White House that I don't think I've ever seen before in an action movie. Were there any visuals of violence that were off the table when it came to building up this moment?
There were a few things that I learned from my secret service guys that I can't talk about or show. There were a couple of things that I said, "I just don't want to know." Or, "I just can't show that." I don't want to be responsible for throwing that up there. The events that the movie deals with are the very real possibility, and I worked with Secret Service guys, and special forces and NAVY SEALs guys, people who worked in the White House, and they laid it out for me. I'm comfortable saying we're in good hands with our secret service.
With this movie, you're planting the idea with this specific scenario that "it's not a question of if, but when." Was there a certain thrill for you as storyteller to show such horrific possibilities?
It's always interesting to have the idea as a director to say, "I'm going to hit a nerve." But not to do it to be a jerk, or to piss people off, but to entertain you, and make people think. Because again, if someone says, "Whoa, that's tasteless to show certain images," would you rather it happen for real? Or would you rather have it in a movie so we can all discuss it and have a debate about it, and say, "How can we prevent that from happening?" You would hope that if someone would have laid out a plan on how to deal with something like 9/11, that maybe we would have been a little more alert to it. Maybe. Or maybe not. The boxing scene in the beginning of this movie is about that, and it's the whole message of the film; you've got to stay alert. We are dealing with a shadow element that you don't always see. And if you take over a plane with box cutters, imagine if they got their hands on these types of weapons. And everything [the terrorists] use [in the movie] is ours. The armor trucks are ours, the RPGs, the Hydra. All American issued. Stay alert. Never get too arrogant. Never get too cocky. It happened before, we got a little too arrogant or too cocky. We paid for it. So, now let's be humble, but alert.
Your film, and your statement about arrogance, reminds me of this trend that has been bugging me in recent action movies. I feel like Americans have been consistently presented as arrogant, from John McClane vacationing in Chernobyl in 'A Good Day to Die Hard' to even 'Argo' or 'Zero Dark Thirty'. What do you think?
It's just not true. We've had great success from SEALs, and we talk about some of them, and they are amazing. But other SEALs we don't talk about, because we're not allowed to know their names when they die out in a crash in a helicopter somewhere, and their body gets sent home to someone in a flag. There are a lot of things that we don't know behind the scenes that they protect us from everyday. During the Iran-Contra, we had a horrible crash, and it was a disaster, and a lot of people don't know about these things where we don't always win every battle. We have our failures, we have our disasters. In movies, it's great to make ourselves the heroes. Every country does it. Our guys give their lives, it doesn't always go right. It's dangerous business. I think it's better to show them at least fighting in a battle they are losing, and give people hope. They rise to the occasion. I think it's a mistake to make a movie where nothing happens. Like Zero Dark Thirty, I thought it was a well-done movie, but I don't remember seeing the bodies when the one chopper went down, the ones who actually didn't make it. For me, those guys are heroes. I want to see who they were. I think Black Hawk Down did an amazing job of showing a disaster of young guys, 18, 19 years old, doing their job. It didn't go well. They aren't any less heroes, they did their job, they did what they were told to do. They get in and out of there, but they're still heroes.
To change gears, what is the status on your upcoming documentary on Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight?
I am about two to three weeks away from finishing. It's been a long journey. I got a few notes from Showtime that I've got to work on, and as soon as I finish this, I am going to go and finish that up.
Did you get Snoop Lion on the doc?
I talked to Snoop, he is a friend of mine, but this was really about Suge. I wanted people to hear from Suge. I followed him around, I was in the car with him, I went to Vegas with him. I drove through the areas where Tupac died. We went through some details. I feel like he's the one who was there next to him, so I want to know. We've heard a lot from Snoop and Dre, but Suge is the mystery. He's been the villain as well, so let's go a little deeper and talk about the good and bad of it.
Changing gears again, what are your impressions of these recent dog paintings by George W. Bush? Did you ever see him as a visual person?
Look at that [laughs]. That's funny. He's the President of the United States - you don't have the vision of the President of the United States doodling. But we don't know everything about him, or how long he has been doodling. Or if he just became an artist. You never thought of a President being an actor until Reagan did it. It's pretty good though. That's good. I'm going to give him a call and see if he can do storyboards [laughs].
Are you studying any directors now or turning to any films in particular recently?
I think I'm out of place. I go back and watch films that inspired me as a kid. You go full circle sometimes as a filmmaker. "Why did I want to be a director in the first place?" And, then, "What are the characters that moved me? What are the themes that I now can step back and look at and see that they somehow got into my consciousness?" For example, I'll go back and watch Shane. I had my son and daughter watching Shane with me, and I watched them to see how they responded to it. And they loved it, and it reminded me of when I first saw it. Or I go back to Sergio Leone films, because I love the characters. Their faces are so real, their teeth are rotten, and flies are on their head. It's so nasty and real. I realized how much I love real characters like that. I always watch Scorsese's films. I love the camerawork and the way he uses music, and the details he would put into it. The rhythm and the details. I would watch Oliver Stone's JFK or Wall Street, because he challenges power. He'll go and challenge the abuse of power, and he has no fear to go in there. And then I'll go and watch The Battle of Algiers, or sometime every once in a while some Fellini or Antonioni, or somebody, just because I have different interests. And sometimes I watch it just for enjoyment, not to study it, but it's just fun. It's just great man. I just love movies.
I remember watching for the first time Casablanca. I didn't catch the whole German Third Reich thing. I saw a love story, "Play it, Sam," the iconography, etc. I wasn't thinking about Hitler. I loved the fact that he never got to be with the woman he wanted. And now when I look back it, there's a lot of political undertones in there. That's really kind of interesting. But you go back as an adult and a filmmaker, and you watch the films that inspired you, you'll find interesting elements of their time. Things they were dealing with at that time. That's why I find that when I go and make movies, like with this movie, "What's our element that we are dealing with at our time?" That's terrorism.
Is that something that will continually motivate you as a director, to be aware of what's going on?
Yeah, unless it's a period piece. Even a period piece, it's so bizarre, what I discovered about King Arthur, it's tough in that some people didn't want to accept it, but it's true — the knights weren't fancy. They weren't in shiny suits. They were out on Hadrian's Wall, which is the worst place. It was between us and the barbarians. So it was like special forces, like us on horseback. They were the rebels, and they weren't fancy. You look at that, and we kind of looked at that like Vietnam, where the Romans are like the Americans, and they were out there in the bush. I always try to find something that I related to, and with King Arthur it was like, "These guys are special forces. They are rough, they're out there, and they do the jobs nobody else wants." And you see, history repeats itself. It just repeats itself.
Quick Questions with Antoine Fuqua
What did you have for breakfast this morning? I haven't had breakfast. I had coffee.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours? Martin Scorsese. Earlier in his career. Mean Streets, or Taxi Driver.
Age of first kiss? Eight. I grew up in the hood, man. You get kissed in the hood. She was 14.