Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli Talks Recreating 65% of the White House, Crafting “The Beast”, and More on the Set of WHITE HOUSE DOWN

     April 10, 2013


Production design is a crucial, but often overlooked aspect of filmmaking.  It’s the production designer’s job to take what’s written on the page and bring the setting to life, often trying to make miracles happen in a very short amount of time.  Production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli had to be a miracle man on the set of White House Down.  Originally scheduled for a 15-week preparation period, the schedule got cut in half and then he found out that Jamie Foxx had to shoot all his scenes at the beginning of the shoot, which meant all of those scenes need finished sets.  For a big budget Roland Emmerich movie that features the White House, it was a major undertaking.

During a group interview on the Montreal set, Petruccelli talked about the challenging pre-production schedule, the locations, creating sets when reference material is scarce, creating “The Beast” (i.e. the President’s car), and so much more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

White-House-Down-posterHere’s a few of the highlights from the interview followed by the trailer and full interview.

  • They had to build 45 sets in two and a half months because of the rushed production schedule, including the bulk of the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol, tanks, aircraft, Marine One, Black Hawks, etc.
  • They shot the entire film on soundstages; none of the first unit shooting was done on location. This was done so Emmerich could have complete control of the exteriors onstage.
  • In creating governmental structures that are entirely secret (like the underground structures under the White House), Emmerich and his team had to envision the most realistic designs possible.
  • All of the technologies seen in the film are actual things that exist.
  • There were consultants letting them know if something they were designing was too close to reality and could jeopardize national security.
  • “The Beast” is a protective limousine that’s an 8-foot wide by 22-foot long safe room that was built for President Obama’s administration. It plays a major role in the film, but no one’s seen it so they designed it based on the headlights of a Cadillac Escalade.
  • They weren’t allowed to use the Presidential Seal because it’s copyrighted, so they had to manipulate it slightly to make it legal for them to use.
  • They built two Oval Office sets, one for stunts and one for dialogue.
  • The White House Residence is the set that they built most diligently.
  • They re-created 65% of the White House.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

White-House-Down-Jamie-FoxxQuestion: One of the things that’s interesting about this project is how quickly it all came together.

Kirk M. Petruccelli: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Talk a little bit about that.

Petruccelli: Well, we initially had, I’d say a 15-week preparation period, which got cut in half to eight weeks. And we also had to frontload it because of the schedule with Channing and Jamie Foxx. They had to be done by October 6th so every set had to be done prior to October 6th, so we’re shooting most—say 90% of the film—before October 6th, so in a matter of two and half months. And there’s 45 sets (that need to be built) in two and half months. That’s including the bulk of the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol, all of the ancillary places, tanks, aircraft, Marine One, Black Hawks. You saw, there’s an enormous amount of work: two Oval Offices, two south porticos, and south lawn, the pool house. You know, there’s an enormous amount of stuff.  

The biggest undertaking was completion. I’m not really creating too much, I’m re-creating quite a bit. I have 32 set designers running seven days a week for five weeks plus we had 200-300 different tradesmen working seven days a week, plus crews at night. We’ve hired from all over Canada, all over the US, London. The effects crew came from London and Quebec, Toronto, and LA. And really it’s just a matter of the scale and the magnitude of the undertaking was so enormous. And to be able to pull it off—because we never shoot on location—and by the way there was originally location-based stuff and we removed all of it.

All of it? Due to scheduling or due to conflict with locations?

Petruccelli: No, due to style. Control. Roland wants to shoot the entire movie on stage. And we created all of the exteriors on stage. The south lawn there’s a small fraction because we’ve created The Beast. There’s a Beast chase and really we just can’t have the square footage to race around (in a stage). We will be on a stage doing a lot of work but we needed to go to Maziet Park. The one remaining location that we do have on this film is a small park that we’re building a fountain in, building a tennis court to crash through, and building a west gate outside. Outside of that everything else is on stage.

White-House-Down-posterSo there will be exterior shots or establishing shots in Washington, DC?

Petruccelli: A couple of helicopter shots, a couple of ground units and that’s it. No actor will show up. No car will show up. The flight path of the White House you can’t fly. Between the Washington Monument and the White House is restricted air space. So anything you see of Marine One coming in to land is all going to be digital. So it’s great, a fantastic undertaking.  

Do you prefer doing the re-creating or do you prefer creating from scratch?

Petruccelli: I’ve got the greatest career ever. I’ve been fortunate enough to do both. Roland and I have done two re-creative projects, The Patriot is the first. Actually, where I met Roland was on The Thirteenth Floor, which was entirely creative. I’ve done work all over the world with the Lara Croft films, Blade, and sci-fi, big action-adventure films, five Marvel pictures. And all of them are different, but yet they are all significant.  

Lighthearted romantic comedies are challenging. They’re all challenging. Do I like one better than the other? For different reasons, I like this kind of picture. I like the fact that it’s more about God is in the details. If I disappear behind the canvas and no one knows we did anything, my team and I will know that we’ve done our job well. And that’s the thing that’s somewhat—you just have to understand that because no one will ever pat me on the back because they shouldn’t. It should be seamless. “They shot at the White House! How’d they do that?” To me, that’s success.

To that end, we’ve been hearing from Harold that most of what you’re doing is recreating from resources of the White House Historical Society. But there are rooms—like the War Room for example—that they don’t have information on. Tell us about creating those.

Petruccelli: Well there’s only so much you can find out about the President’s Emergency Operations Center. You just can’t. NORAD you can get some pictures from. You can get some Cheyenne Mountain pictures. But those are both Cold War enterprises. What Roland would like to do is take this next generation—we’re at the forefront of what’s happening in technological—you know the NSA, the Pentagon, the White House. They’re all connected. Roland is an optimist in a lot of ways, saying, “Where do we go with the future?” If you date it back to the ’50s Cold War style, we’re already dated. So we’re anticipating what’s possible, what’s probable and trying to add a bit of style to it if you want to say that. Just enough to say it’s cool. But it’s all based in reality. Every question I ask everybody on my team is: “Why? How? Why would it be that way?” And Roland asks me the same questions.

Maggie-Gyllenhaal-Channing-Tatum-White-House-DownSo it might be slightly futuristic, but it’s a conceivable War Room?

Petruccelli: Absolutely. Absolutely. Everything is the technologies that exist now. The Secret Service, someone had mentioned, have sensors under the Oval Office so they can tell whose in there and where they are by footprint identification. There’s things like that, that are out there that’s kind of cool, but it’s not ”Wow!” futuristic. But it’s interesting. It’s one of many things—when you do the White House tour, I saw no cameras at all on the site. But there’s thousands of them. So, the reality is they’ve got high technology in that place. Most definitely.

And where do the tunnels go? What happens in a time of crisis? What about cross-communication within all the different agencies? It’s really a fantastic and inspiring conversation to have.

So what were your inspirations for designing those unseen areas?

Petruccelli: Well, a lot of it comes from conversation with Roland. He has a very, very, very, very sharp mind’s eye and what he sees. We spoke about the realities of the White House, what we’d seen. We did three tours together: one of the West Wing, and two of the public tours. We couldn’t bring any cameras. We could bring a notebook no bigger than yours [mine is the small Moleskin] and we could ask ourselves the questions as we walk through and find that it’s very normal. It’s the people’s house, so it’s a house, not a palace. And the things that go underneath it. We started with the Eisenhower—well, it’s generational. It was built in 1792. It had an Eisenhower renovation in 1952. Currently, when we were they were digging underneath the West Wing, on the north side of the West Wing. So we’re anticipating what they’re doing there. Then we backed into what could they have done? How would they have done it? What kind of materials would they use? What’s the technologies available, then we just backed into our own version of what that could be.

White-House-Down-Channing-TatumAnd it’s all upon Roland’s imagination of, “Okay bunker mentality. We got this. We have to survive for six months, what has to go inside that space? Elevator shafts? As simple as that, what is the elevator shaft. What is the sequence within that? How do you get from one place to another? Why do you get from one place to another? Even within the Pentagon command center. You know, there’s different rationale behind the technology there, but there’s also a way of communicating with the White House technologies so there’s a commonality there. So there’s always a voice that Roland’s always thinking about how do we tell the story. How do we tell the ongoing story and what does it look like? 

It sounds Cold War in the idea of bunkers and shutting yourselves away.

Petruccelli: Well, there is that mentality. And it is a bureaucratic place. What we’re trying to do is kind of cut through hopefully some of the bureaucracy. There’s things that we’ve chosen that maybe go against the grain in hopes that maybe the White House and the bureaucracy can understand that there’s issues. And each time something dramatic happens, the State Department and different places react. And suddenly, they’re ahead of the curve rather than behind the curve. And that’s just hopes. That’s just hopes. But it is a bunker mentality. It is secretive. You do have Air Force One taking the next in line for the succession of the presidency away. That’s part of the plan. Those are known things, the constructs we have to live within.  

When you’re designing something regarding the White House, and technology and rooms and stuff that you’re not allowed to see, is there anyone from the government that’s looking at this and saying, “Ooo. That’s a little too close!”? 

White-House-Down-Channing-TatumPetruccelli: We have some people looking at it and advising us one way or another. Sure. And we work with them. This is a fun, exciting picture. It’s not going to jeopardize national intelligence necessarily. I hope to God they come and say we’re damn close, but it’s not meant to be disruptive to anything. It’s meant to be a re-enactment of what’s potential.

How much do you have to take that into consideration? Do you have to take meetings, like how much government involvement is there when your recreating government buildings?

Petruccelli: First we used the White House Historical Society. Just basic. Super helpful for knowing what’s there. The Secret Service is not so helpful. Why would they be and why should they be? The Beast for instance, there’s no way you can get at it, get in it or get access to it in any way shape or form.

I’m sorry, can you clarify what The Beast is?

Petruccelli: The Beast is the presidential limousine, a protective limousine that was built for Obama’s administration. It’s 8-foot wide by 22-foot long safe room. But no one’s seen it (up close). In order to build it the only thing we could start with was the headlight of a Cadillac Escalade. And then we scaled from that. Because that’s how far you go to build a vehicle. Then we can have our own interpretations of what’s in it. How does it look? What’s its function? And the same thing goes with the different operations centers. We know there’s technologies. We know there’s living. We know there’s layers of how do you survive an incident like this. So, we just compartmentalize it and figure out how we want to spatially create that and tell a story. And then make it fun because it’s a fun movie. Roland is a fun moviemaker. So, it still has an edge to it.  

White-House-Down-Channing-Tatum-Jamie-FoxxAnd then we do have the people in DC who’ve helped us. There’s guys from the NSA, we’ve met. There’s guys from the Pentagon we’ve met. There’s guys from Ex-White House staff that we met. You know top to bottom, some really interesting conversations with interesting people. We have consultants too that just gave us what the realities are. And we tell them where we’re going, and understand where their issues would be, even to insignias on helicopters. If this were that team, would they have an insignia? Those are issues that we always talked about. What would a Capitol police officer wear? What month is it? How significant is it? What does it mean? From color-coding down to the buttons on everyone’s shirts, we have people who have looked at these things to make sure it’s accurate as much as possible.  

Did you run into any issues with—

Petruccelli: Sure. Sure.  

Can you give any specifics?

Petruccelli: Well, the Presidential Seal. We’re not allowed to use the Presidential Seal. So, we have to manipulate it slightly to make it legal to use. It’s a modification of the presidential seal. Every department has their rights restricted, copywritten logotypes. And we have to make sure no one realizes we’ve modified these to a point where it’s legally cleared.

Do they license out that seal, or did they refuse because you’re a big action movie?

white-house-down-channing-tatumPetruccelli: No. No. Not at all. There’s no DOD support. There’s no White House support, anything like that. Outside of the Historical Society supporting us in finding the architectural dignity to the White House itself. It’s the dignity of the place where they’ve helped out mostly. And they gave me a start to get dead accurate with—and this is just architecturally—of what the White House is and how important it is, and which administration’s done what. The history of the administration is what is really fascinating to me. The timelines of how long this place has been here and how many people believe in the institution. That’s some of the fun.

I guess at the speed the sets are being shot on, something is always being broken down, and built. What’s here right now?

Petruccelli: The roof is there. Over there’s the Capitol. Stage M is the press briefing room. Stage K is the oval office. Stage J is the greenhouse, the third story greenhouse. We got the elevator shaft, the PEOC entry. F has got the special effects Oval Office, where something pretty significant happens in the storytelling.

So you have two Oval Offices?

Petruccelli: Two oval offices unfortunately!

So the one we’re going to now is the one nothing happens to—just the Oval Office.

White-House-Down-Channing-Tatum-Jamie-FoxxPetruccelli: Yeah. We got a lot of storytelling that goes in at the beginning of the story and there’s a lot of significant things that goes on later in the story that we need and effects version of it. We’ve already shot and destroyed the East Wing. We’ve already shot and destroyed the North East guardhouse. We’re going to keep the pool house.  

Just for funsies?

Petruccelli: Just for funsies! Just something to do.

It’s so warm in Montreal this time of year.

Petruccelli: (laughs) Cozy, yeah.  So this is our real one. This is the West Colonnade. Going all the way to the White House Residency. The White House Residency is right there.  

What is the set you’re building the most diligently?

Petruccelli: The White House Residence, which is the main structure in the middle of the White House. It is the White House, the original structure we talked about.

How much of the White House percentage-wise have you guys recreated?

Petruccelli: 65% of the White House. It’s massive. Just about. Inside. State floor, Blue Room, Red Room, Green Room. Ground floor. West Wing. East Wing.  Second floor residency. Third floor air command. Rooftop. And then below ground. The Kennedy Gardens. Tennis court, pool house. It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting!

White-House-Down-Maggie-GyllenhaalHow much of it is built as one structure?

Petruccelli: Stage ADF is the place you want to see. The biggest thing there is technical plans for is the White House—what’s called the ground floor. The main floor: the grand entry, the blue room, the green room, and the red room. The East room, which we did not build, and the West dining room, which we did not build is singularly the greatest structure we built. It has the north portico attached to it and complete and it has the south portico attached to it and complete. We built the south portico twice. One is built for the interiors. One is built for the exteriors, where Marine One lands in a tennis bubble inside. So we’re having Marine One built in Vancouver. It’s being shipped next week. It’s the only one that exists outside of museums that have real helicopters. 

Catch up on all of our White House Down set visit coverage below:


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