MONTREAL — On a warm fall day in a scruffy suburb of this Canadian city, some familiar sights appear. French-language road signs note estimated distances in kilometers. Beret-wearing soldiers stand guard. A restaurant offers a poutine special.
And then, suddenly, some less familiar ones: large sections of the White House, built to scale and scattered across several neighborhoods of the city. The elegant South Portico, fronted by a lawn big enough for a couple of military helicopters. An elegant pool, in which, at the moment, a sturdy armored car known as "The Beast" is flipped on its back. A gallery of presidential portraits in a carefully appointed room.
No, the local populace hasn't developed a sudden love affair with the topography of Washington, D.C. The buildings are sets for "White House Down," a Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx action movie directed by Hollywood's go-to explosion maestro Roland Emmerich ("The Day After Tomorrow"). And by the looks of things, with sections of the facade scorched and shell casings everywhere, our national landmark is not doing well.
In a filmmaking culture heavily reliant on computer-generated images, massive structures built from scratch would be odd. That the structures form one of the most recognizable buildings in the Western world makes it even more surreal, a Tower of Babel-like project where American political and pop-cultural landmarks are erected by a German-born director in a city proud of its French heritage.
"It's something, yes?" noted Emmerich, a ballcap pulled tight over his head as he took a break from blowing up Washington by grabbing a seat in his air-conditioned trailer. "In 'Independence Day,'" continued Emmerich, 57, referring to his alien-invasion blockbuster, "when I wanted to show the White House, I put up some blue curtains and a sign, and that was it. I didn't want to do that this time."
After all, things have changed in the 17 years since that movie came out. Audiences in this post-"Cribs" world expect access to famous residences.
Sony Pictures opens "White House Down" — in which Foxx plays a peace-seeking president and Tatum a wannabe Secret Service agent who, through a series of coincidences, ends up with the leader during a terrorist attack on the White House — on June 28, moving it up from November for our Fourth of July blow-em-up pleasure.
Although the Montreal sets (shot here for tax credit and space reasons) were built in the service of popcorn entertainment, their ambition raises larger questions: Is there room for physically constructed effects in an era when most illusions are designed on a computer monitor? And can iconic governmental symbols move an audience possibly numb to the sight of entire cities blowing up every other weekend at the multiplex (not to mention the evening news)?
Emmerich and his team went to great lengths to re-create the White House for the film, where characters fight and escape through not just the recognizable sites but also catacombs, elevator shafts and secondary kitchens.
The director and his production designer, Kirk Petruccelli ("The Incredible Hulk," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider"), took several White House tours. They spent days poring over books, looking at where passageways lay, or when and how changes were made in the building's 222-year history. Much of the White House's Byzantine layout is out there if you look hard enough.
"I want Obama to look at this movie and say, 'How did they know all of that?'" Petruccelli said, standing in front of one set that he said took hundreds of crew members working round-the-clock for several days to build. Nearly all of the major wings and rooms were reconstructed, including almost half the complex in a giant indoor space the crew nicknamed "The Bubble."
Nor was the design limited to the buildings. To re-create the Beast — the heavily armored presidential car whose details are a tightly guarded secret — they undertook a different kind of effort. Graham Kelly, a crew member with the Emmerich-ian title of "action vehicle supervisor" tried to work sources, including a friend of a friend who worked in the White House garage.
"I'm surprised I wasn't arrested by the end," said Kelly as he stood in a structure fiddling with one of several replicas he helped design for the movie — a vehicle that will shortly be pummeled into oblivion in a heavy-duty action sequence.
In real life, the White House has endured a pretty much peaceful existence since it got out of the 19th century. But it's come under fire a lot since then in the movies. In fact, it's been shot at, assaulted, set ablaze and otherwise abused so often that Disney keeps a replica of the Oval Office on its lot that filmmakers can rent. Emmerich and producers opted against this.
"You'd have to return it pretty much unscathed, and we couldn't really guarantee that," said Brad Fischer, one of the film's producers. So the production built it from scratch in giant warehouses that they flooded with light to make the action appear as if it's happening outside.
Emmerich layers his big spectacle with bits of self-knowing comedy (e.g., "Can you not hit me in the head with a rocket launcher while I'm trying to drive?," as said rocket launcher is then put to good use). He then combines it with an earnestness that has characters making proclamations like, "Our country is stronger than one house."
Though the film is designed for maximum escapism, Foxx nonetheless said that he believes it features a timely message. "There are parallels to what's going on with America," he said, referencing past and potential conflicts in the Middle East. "Our plot is about reaching out to countries that are in turmoil, and we're figuring out to how to make the world a little better."
The throwback quality to the film comes not only with its God-and-country idealism but also in the mechanics of the story. Tatum is a well-meaning underachiever given a chance to finally do something heroic, not necessarily (but most probably) in a blaze of gunfire — a conceit that seems right out of, well, a 1990s-era Roland Emmerich fantasy.
But though the filmmaker helped usher in the modern summer effects movie, he is unhappy with what he has wrought. "I don't really like comic-book movies," he said. "I don't believe them when I'm watching them. I wanted to make this film to show that heroes can be real people, which I think we've forgotten about."
(Lest the filmmaker be accused of destroying a sacred symbol of democracy, the script, from "The Amazing Spider-Man" screenwriter James Vanderbilt, offers a permission slip of sorts with a scene that has Tatum's character gazing at Tom Freeman's famous painting of the White House burning during the War of 1812. This has happened in real life, the movie seems to say. So it's OK to munch on Milk Duds and enjoy it happening again.
The movie also exempts itself by supplying a group of historical arcana to its audience, a "2012"-like spectacle by way of a seventh-grade class trip. If you didn't know that President Gerald Ford built secret tunnels to the swimming pool to avoid being spotted by reporters in his bathing suit, you will after seeing the film.)
But those involved say the main goal is to tear up the famous landmark. During the shoot, Tatum is wearing a commando outfit with bullets slung across his chest and black makeup smeared on his face. He seems to relish firing a gun over and through some pretty upscale artwork. "I want to buy some of these paintings," he tells a reporter, admiring James Monroe and George Washington with bullet holes ripped through them.
Taking a break, he said, "You can believe my character is trying to do the right thing and also redeem himself with his daughter, who he hasn't always been there for. But you can do it with some old-fashioned excitement."
Producers hope that this, along with the authenticity, will draw busy summer filmgoers. "When do you see anything like this in a big-budget Hollywood film?" asked Harald Kloser, Emmerich's producing partner and composer.
As he walked out of the East Wing past French-speaking crew members, Kloser recalled that one day, he began flinging open the doors to find a bathroom where they were shooting, only to realize that it wasn't an actual bedroom and contained no adjacent facilities. "Until you step outside," he said, "it's hard to remember you're not in the White House."