Antoine Fuqua is a multi-talented man to say the least. Attending West Virginia with a basketball scholarship, he studied electrical engineering (focusing on electromagnetism and signal processing), went on to dabble as a Golden Gloves boxer, and finally ended his diverse journey by becoming a Hollywood director – and a damn fine one at that. You know him from Training Day, Shooter, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Brooklyn’s Finest and his newest film Olympus Has Fallen, which hits theaters on March 22nd.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Fuqua in New York while attending the Olympus Has Fallen press day, joining a small handful of other journalists for an intimate question and answer session. Read on to hear Antoine talk about his experiences working with such a loaded cast, the grittiness he so wanted to achieve with his action, and his experiences working with trained government professionals.
After he shook all of our hands one by one, we started by asking Antoine about the realism of Olympus Has Fallen since one of the other writers in the room was an Air Force vet and he applauded Mr. Fuqua for his precise attention to accurate detail:
Antoine Fuqua: So I did alright? Good. That was one of my biggest fears, so I spent a lot of time with guys in the service and guys in the White House.
Branching off, the same questioner brought up Antoine’s engineering background and his want to be a pilot as well, asking if that had any draw to the story of Olympus Has Fallen:
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, that’s the kid in me, that’s the dream of me always wanting to [fly a C130], fly jets and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely when I read the script I thought “This has all the elements I grew up loving,” and I’ve also flown in a C130, in fact I flew on one into the USS Truman. All that stuff I get excited about.
We then asked Antoine about the production of Olympus Has Fallen and the amount of research they were allowed to do. Being about the White House, we joked if he’d been put on a blacklist for basically creating a “blueprint” for an attack on the White House, be it a completely fictional one:
Antoine Fuqua: I don’t know, the Secret Service showed up at my house, so maybe [Laughs]? Was it about this movie? Supposedly not, but they really did.
I like realism, I’m kind of old-school I guess. I like films that feel real, I like to do the homework, the research, and try to make it as authentic as I can in the entertainment. The beauty of this is when I sat down with the guys I do know in the service, they have these conversations you’re thinking. I felt safe in what I was allowed to put on the screen because their job is prevention. They sit and have roundtables like you do with the filmmakers and go “What could happen, and how do we prevent that from happening.” So they gave me information like “These things could happen, if we didn’t have x, y, and z in place.” As a movie, we go “Well let’s take out these things, and make that happen.” We’re in good hands with our Secret Service, they’ve discussed these sorts of things quite a bit.
Next up we asked for Antoine’s explanation of what turns an action thriller into a classic, and how important it is to take risks as a filmmaker:
Antoine Fuqua: Well I’ll start with the taking risks question.
I think it’s really important to take risks. I think it’s dangerous because our business is unfortunately all about “How is it going to do at the box office,” and when you take a risk, and it’s not something people are familiar with, then people are afraid - but if you don’t take risks, then you’ll never know. It’s just going to be the same old same old. For me, I love taking risks, I don’t have that fear, I just do it and then let everybody else freak out.
As for the other question, you know, I just don’t know. You just make the movie, you never think about it being a classic in any way. I don’t think you do, maybe somebody does? I think you just have to make the best movie you can.
I think the classic movies all deal with the characters, you have to love your characters. The journey has to be complete. It’s the classic hero’s journey. I think whether it’s Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, or even Shane, there are characters that have a journey you go on with them. You can relate to them in some way in your own person. There’s a hero in all of us, and I think if you can connect with that, you can make a classic film because it’s a part of you.
As far as the scenes themselves, those are the scenes that are memorable because you put your best foot forward to entertain, scare, or give you that “thing,” and if it connects then you have the opportunity to have something that will last.
We then asked if there was anything Antoine added to Olympus Has Fallen that was more his style than what was written on the page:
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, it wasn’t as real on the page. When I first read the script it was different in the sense of it was more sci-fi, they had some more “tricks.” Not in a bad way either, it just wasn’t my way. Instead of getting information from someone, you stick them with a needle, and I was like “No, that’s not how it works.” The realism of what terrorists do in a situation like that, what does it mean to take over a room? When you take over a room, fear always works, they know, and you can’t scare somebody by just yelling at them. You have to show them. So there were things that I would bring that were grounded, and the attack wasn’t the way it was until I got involved either – the attack was different. I got involved and sat with some guys, talked about that, and I asked them “How do I make this have resonance, how do I make you feel this could happen.” They re-wrote that for me.
Having some fun with Antoine, we asked who he would choose if he could re-cast the entire film with older, legendary actors:
Antoine Fuqua: You know what, it’s weird, because I love so many of those guys. You start thinking of guys like Cary Grant, people like that, but I would hire Jimmy Stewart to be [President Benjamin Asher]. He’s a personable guy, he’s the guy next door, he’s a guy you love and you want to throw into the fire and watch him get out. You want a normal person. I would hire somebody like that I think.
Obviously, look, I named my son after [Marlon] Brando, so I love Marlon Brando and all of them – but those guys are tough. Those are guys you believe can get this job done.
Getting back to reality, we asked Antoine how it was working with such a well-respected cast:
Antoine Fuqua: I just wanted to bring the best actors to the table, and I’ve wanted to work with these guys for a long time. Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Aaron Eckhart, Gerard Butler – I was just assembling the best cast I could. Again, when you ask what did I bring, that’s what I want. That’s what I need. I need actors who can really deliver and have a weight to them. So, in casting this movie, including Gerard Butler [who also produced], I wanted realism, but I wanted people you believe in those roles. These are people that all have their own personal journey throughout the movie – getting over fear, learning to take power, Morgan’s character. Aaron Eckhart being capture, humbled and humiliated. Melissa Leo who’s trying to keep her dignity, be tough, not be afraid, and tell this guy “F@ck off” while taking the beating – she’s tougher than any guy in the movie. I was trying to bring characters that had this dignity already, and power to them.
Specifically in the cast, we wondered how Melissa Leo got involved in a project that didn’t seem like her normal routine:
Antoine Fuqua: Melissa is such a powerful actor and I needed someone in that role you believed. You need somebody like Hillary Clinton, you need somebody that’s tough, somebody that can do that. I wanted someone who wouldn’t be a victim, who didn’t care about being pretty – she’s an actor’s actor. So when I sat down with Melissa Leo to talk about it, I told her what I wanted to do, and she loved it. She was tougher than anyone, she scared me some days!
Going back to a popular questions on the day, we asked Antoine what some of the more interesting facts he learned from the specialists on-set while filming Olympus Has Fallen were:
Antoine Fuqua: We, as a country since 9/11, I think have put some pretty amazing things in place to protect this country. Things I couldn’t talk about or put in the movie, those types of things. Those secrets stay with me, but they have things in place right now that are quite fascinating and like I said before, we’re in really good hands when it comes to something like that happening. That’s the thing I found most interesting. Like I said, they spend time daily, in rooms, with some of the smartest people around, talking about things that could happen – I mean from aliens invading the world. Seriously. They do have these conversations. They talk about these things, and it’s good to know that, it’s good to put these things in place. I think that 9/11 was such a wake up call for us to not put our guards down anymore. That’s the thing.
Finishing up, we asked how easy it was working with these “pros” and keeping a constant atmosphere:
Antoine Fuqua: The easiest thing in the world, for me, was that. Everything else was hard. Everything else in the movie was hard. Whenever the actors were there – saved. Being with them was like being a kid in a sandbox again. You’ve got your crew, you just do what you do, none of the politics. They just walk on the set and I’m at home. I love actors, and all these guys were just amazing. They helped me get there.
A special thanks to Antoine Fuqua for spending time with us for this interview. Be sure to check out his new movie Olympus Has Fallen on March 22nd!