“White House Down” Director Roland Emmerich On Keeping The Action Formula Fresh

How the action-movie maestro honed his storytelling for maximum laughs, suspense, and–surprise!–true emotion in White House Down.

“White House Down” Director Roland Emmerich On Keeping The Action Formula Fresh

When you meet Roland Emmerich, the man responsible for such big-budget summer movie successes as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, you can tell right away why he does what he does: He loves it. “When I’m shooting a movie, I’m having the time of my life,” reports the German-accented director, who lights up when he talks about directing his latest movie, White House Down. “You get to play all day–with the cameras and sets and explosions. And people help you; they do everything you say.”

Roland Emmerich

What Emmerich doesn’t like so much is being interviewed. In fact, he visibly winced when I called his movies “formulaic.” (Mind you, I meant it in the nicest possible way: I’m a pretty snobby moviegoer, but I thought White House Down was a blast–and at least one critic agrees with me.) Still, he recovered quickly. Emmerich even agreed to play along with what might be called The Co.Create Formula: He gamely shed light on his creative process to help us understand how he manages to make the action-movie formula (ahem) feel fresh every time. “It’s never good that the audience realizes that there’s a formula,” he explains. “That’s the first rule of formula: Don’t let it look like a formula. You have to try to distract them from the formula. You have to be very clever how you hide it.”

Here’s how he does it:


Emmerich doesn’t seem to take himself–or his movies–too seriously. “Humor is one trick,” he says, launching into an enumeration of his rules. “Well, not a trick. I like humor. I like to laugh. I think even when you have bad guys, you want to laugh with them.” Indeed, White House Down has plenty of humor amidst an escalating hostage scenario. “We humans are incredibly funny.”

While developing the script with writer James Vanderbilt, Emmerich felt they needed “more character for this president.” So he thought of President Obama’s famous nicotine habit and he talked to Jamie Foxx, who plays the president, about chewing Nicorette gum when the heat is on. (Smoking is a touchy issue for movie studios, so that was out.) “I said, ‘Okay, Jamie in this take, go over the top where you’re like really, really nervous and so you take another piece of gum, and another one, and you even offer it to Cale [Channing Tatum], and he just did this take that had us in stitches.”

That take made it into the final cut of the movie. “It worked like a charm because that’s what people want to do when they’re very, very tense,” Emmerich explains. “They want to release that tension and laugh.” Sometimes he has to assure the actors that it’s all right to get funny. “They think that they’re in a serious movie, [but] I said, ‘Yes. It’s a serious movie, but you have to make people laugh, otherwise they will not enjoy this.’ ”


Sometimes, though, even Emmerich can cross an invisible line. There’s a moment early in the movie, he says, when James Woods’s character tells Maggie Gyllenhaal’s that she has to “get back on the horse” with dating. “I thought it was such a funny expression,” says Emmerich, who inserted a callback to it at the end of the movie. “She said, like, ‘Do I have to get back on the horse?’ But people laughed at the wrong moment. It was the wrong laugh at the wrong moment, at a time you want to be emotional, and not a laugh. It’s very tricky.”


That kind of callback to a fly-by reference made earlier in the film is a hallmark of Emmerich’s work. It’s a technique that goes back to Chekhov: If you see a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third act. There are many little details that Emmerich returns to in the movie, such as a ticket for admittance to the White House tour. It’s his way of establishing everything early on, and you can be assured he’ll get back to it later. “We’re a group of people who pride ourselves on that. Everything that you establish has to be completed. There are a lot of other things which were cut out for length reasons.”

He also jams everything into his movies: repeated reveals of bad guys, shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, a car chase involving Cadillac One, a Black Hawk assault on the White House, and the inevitable ticking clock to destruction.


Some filmmakers disdain testing, the practice of focus-grouping a movie in order to tweak it to suit the audience reaction, or at least devise the marketing campaign. For Emmerich, that’s all good. In fact, he’d do even more tests if only there were time. “You test the movie so you know what works and what doesn’t,” he says, matter-of-factly. Then again, he does early tests with a friendly crowd. “I always like a lot of friends and family at the first test screenings because I don’t want to immediately expose myself to a big audience of vicious people who don’t like me.” So he conducts three or four screenings for them first. “Your friends tell you, ‘Yes. It’s great, but, Roland, make it shorter.’ And then you feel it yourself, and you sit in the audience and say, Oh, my God. That falls flat, and that falls flat. And then you just make it shorter,; that’s just the job you have.” He hones the movie so much that by the time he gets to the big screening in front of real people eating popcorn, “I’m sometimes surprised how well the movie plays because we have tested it already so many times. That’s a cool feeling, when you sit in a movie theater and people cheer and laugh and clap and have a good time.”

And yet Emmerich keeps going, keeps testing, keeps editing the movie down, making it shorter and tighter. “I think the movie could be five minutes shorter,” he says of White House Down‘s final running time of 131 minutes. “We could have brought it down more if we’d had time, but Amy [Pascal, head of Sony Pictures] said, ‘What part of perfect do you not like?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it could be five minutes shorter.’ But she said we had to show it to people so it needed to get done.”


In particular, Emmerich cut down the car chase on the White House lawn. “It was endless,” he recalls.


Editing down the sequences no doubt keeps the audience’s energy primed, but what about the actors? It’s funny to imagine, but filming a car chase can be surprisingly staid. The actors are on a blue-screen stage, on which they must imagine most of the things going on. And they’re not actually driving. Emmerich has a technique for priming his actors, and it’s very simple: “Go faster.”

“While the camera is running, you say, ‘Okay. Let’s do this again but much faster.’ So they have no time even to relax. That’s how you get the energy up. And then again and again. And then they yell out, ‘Do you want a series?’ and I say, ‘Yes, a series’ “–meaning they will do the shot again and again without cutting, because with digital cameras, they can. “All of a sudden [the actors] come up with cool additional stuff. Sometimes they get totally silly and then sometimes, because it gets so silly, it’s really good.” For example, during the car chase, Foxx accidentally hit Tatum with the rocket launcher; their joking about it made the final cut. “You cannot plan these things.”


White House Down might seem as though it has every element but the kitchen sink. And it does. But in this case, the kitchen sink is a romance. “A romance would have gotten in the way of him and his daughter,” Emmerich says of the primary relationship in the movie, between Cage (Tatum) and his little girl (Joey King). That relationship gives the audience a grounding in emotion. It helps us to actually care about the characters and root for their success. A relatable child and a fraught connection between father and daughter are kind of foolproof for that. “I believe in a good story and in good character. When you have really good actors and you have a story [that engages the audience], they forget that they are getting fed a formula.”

[Images courtesy of Sony Pictures]

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.