Gerard Butler interview: Olympus Has Fallen, 300, fights

Olympus Has Fallen is about to storm UK cinemas, so we took the opportunity to talk to its leading man of action, Gerard Butler...

There was something strangely exhilarating and just a little intimidating about meeting Mr Gerard Butler face to face. When he entered the room I felt the compulsion to stand up out of respect, though this could have been as a direct result of having just seen him dispatch an army of bad guys in action-kill-fest Olympus Has Fallen, in which he both stars and produces. There’s no denying that the man carries quite a presence, and his enthusiastic answers, as a handful of us sat at a round table interview, only just helped to cloud the vision of him despatching us enfeebled writers in a matter of seconds should one of us anger him.

Thankfully the man who’s so convincingly portrayed everyone from King Leonidas in 300, to the majestic Phantom Of The Opera, was on fine form, giving some incredibly in depth answers and even gracing some rather irksome questions with a response. For a talented actor, his career has been peppered with unconventional choices, which have met with mixed reactions – just take a look at the insane Gamer for a prime example, a film which I thoroughly enjoyed, but certainly wasn’t for everyone. Olympus Has Fallen, on the other hand, might just prove to be his biggest and best movie yet.

Already going strong at the US box office, Olympus is a glorious throwback to the mega-violent action thrillers that dominated the mid-80s to mid-90s, and its deserved financial success shows that audiences will still flock to adult-oriented action movies if they’re done well.

Olympus was everything I’d hoped for and more, with an incredible first act that literally blew me away, that gives way to some downright brutal and thrilling fights, mixed with superb one liners and a great sense of knowing humour. As it stands, Olympus Has Fallen is my favourite film so far this year and ranks easily amongst the best action movies of the last decade.

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In a time when John McClane isn’t delivering, at least a new generation have Butler’s Mike Banning to show them how it’s done, so without further ado, let the man himself tell you all about it – some salty language and mild spoilers included.

Congratulations on Olympus Has Fallen, it was proper old school action and just fantastic. In a time when Die Hard and Taken have both watered down their violence, it was great to see a film embrace the traditional mentality…

Yeah we took a very different attitude! [Chuckles] We said ‘you know what, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this.’ Fortunately you have [director] Antoine Fuqua, who’s a very masculine guy, who understands action and so do I. I’ve done a lot of it and produced a couple of movies that were about violent reactions, like Law Abiding Citizen and 300… I didn’t produce 300, I wish I’d fucking produced 300! [The room bursts into laughter] So it was amazing how in cahoots and how co-ordinated Antoine and I were about creating this project, because when I first got the script the second that C130 flies in and you go, “Oh, wait a minute what have I gotten myself into here!”

However, then a lot of the rest of it was a bit watered down and a bit sci-fi, and I thought we have a chance to push the limits here and say, what does a real terrorist attack look like and not shy away from it, look right at it and show everything, because you can’t just show a terrorist attack where men die, or an interrogation where only men are hurt, you know women would be… kicked the crap out of too – that was my idea actually! [The room erupts]

The dog was Antoine’s, but Melissa Leo getting the shit kicked out of her was my idea, and by the way it works to the strength of the movie, because if anything it just shows you how tenacious and heroic the women are and the idea is, I think, that if you were to say what the main theme of the movie is, it’s about heroism and sure there’s the tough guy in the Whitehouse too, but this is about the heroism of everybody.

The fact that when something like this happens, how it brings people together for a higher purpose which is really, at the end of the day, the struggle of good against evil and in that way I find the movie very, very inspiring. And thought if you can make that story, make the attack so visceral and plausible and terrifying in all its glory – [under his breath as he was understandably worried about the misuse of his wording] that’s probably the wrong choice of words as well – but in all its glory, and then meet the characters who are involved in that attack and show the humanity of them and the real life situations they have to deal with, then you’re with them.

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You know their families, you know their children, you know these guys and you care about them, you know their struggles, their history and then you’re really taking a journey with them.

At the same time, you’re studying the protocols and you’re learning the culture of the secret service, what happens in terms of counter-terrorism and terrorism, so you really are on a ride, and then it also is a journey of the heart. At the end of the day who has the biggest heart, because we’re very well trained, they’re very well trained, they have a lot of plans and ideas and so do we, and so it’s about who has the strongest belief and the strongest will to survive.

[He then joked “That was… I just gave you fucking five questions in one! Would you rather shorter answers, be honest I don’t mind.” so full credit for acknowledging the round table situation, while giving me a great answer] 

There’s a lot of fight sequences in Olympus Has Fallen, in most movies the choreography for them looks like a painstaking process – how was your experience with them?

Well no, some of those fight scenes we had put together very quickly, because we were working on the script all the time and always pushing each other and saying, okay, how can we create another twist? How can we show another emotional moment, or something that says more about the character and how can we show the journey in The White House and constantly be raising the stakes? Which meant that the fight sequences were always changing, so one minute you had a fight sequence and you realised that one minute it’s going to happen here, not there, and there’ll be five guys, not two!

So sometimes you were learning moves the day before, but I’d become obsessed with them – the second I’d learn a move, as I’m talking about other things I’m doing the moves, so as I’m talking to you about maybe ‘can we afford the crane for a shot’ I’ll be [he demonstrates some fight moves, with a requisite ‘boom’ noise for each motion – it is very difficult to remain professional and not ask to be a volunteer] just so that you have the moves down. So yeah it’s painstaking, but it’s also exciting doing the moves, because you work with incredibly talented people such as ex-Navy Seals and martial artists.

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So if you can bring out character through fight sequences, then that’s a great thing, because so many fight sequences are just two guys fighting, there’s a punch, there’s a kick, but what does it say about Banning because he’s very motivated, but he also has the same feelings against these guys as the audience do, because they’re so cold blooded and what they do is so horrific, that he obviously feels that too, and that’s something that I picked up from the Secret Service agents. As they live and breathe this honourable job, and they would take a bullet for the President, but when it comes to them talking about the enemy and engaging the enemy, you see a gleam in their eye and a violence, and you understand the damage that they would be capable and are trained to do.

That’s what I took into Banning, so you wanted at times to show him being so effective and at times kind of enjoying the pain that he was inflicting, whilst also it being a means to an end, because then there’s great entertainment in that and it’s very cathartic as well and you can surprise people, so I wanted to make those fight sequences memorable. 

He then got asked about if he’d be prepared to lose weight, replying that he’d do anything for a role if he really, really believed in it and then added:

Listen, to be honest I didn’t want to get that big for 300. I mean I did, because I wanted to play the role well, but I didn’t want to spend months and months and months training and being in that strict regime and having to pump weights twenty times a day before I went on. I knew I was doing my body damage, it wasn’t healthy for me the amount I was training, but I did it because I wanted to do justice to the role and it’s the same with this. I was cracking bones and ripping things and being burned, but again it’s not quite the same. You know you’re going to take a beating and you do it because you want play the role well.

You mentioned the Secret Service, what preparation did you do with them and what did you learn?

We had one more active Secret Service guy, who was more the kind of physical manifestation of who the Secret Service are, and I worked with him a lot and he had their motto tattooed in his gum – that’s what I’m talking about with these guys, they live it, they’re serious and he was such a great guy. He had a scar down his neck, where he’d been slashed, I think [as a result of] drug enforcement, and Ricky Jones was there every second of the day, so I constantly was going to him and just checking – are my moves right? Am I looking the right way? And by the way he was shot in the stomach and almost bled out, and that was engaging terrorists.

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So yeah, you spend a lot of time talking to them. One because it’s fascinating, and two because the more time you do spend talking to them and the Navy Seals and all the people around you, the more you get into that headspace and the more you start to understand who they are, what they do, how they operate.

We also used their advice… the big struggle in this movie was, how do you send me through the White House? How am I always having a purpose and tying it in terms of the story with what else is going on down in the bunker, because in actual fact in some ways it’s an action thriller, but in other ways sometimes putting those movies together is way more complex than a drama, which is just about human emotions and things happening.

I’m not diminishing that, because doing drama is very fulfilling, but it’s actually sometimes harder to make an action movie great than it is to make a drama great, because you have to tie in together so many things and it’s very easy for that stuff to become unbelievable, or not to make sense.

So it was working out what am I doing in the White House, and what’s fascinating, you know I love the ideas of the protocol when you go in assessing the enemy’s capabilities. What do they want? Who’s in charge of them? Who’s in charge of us? What do I think they’ve already done? What do I know they’ve done? What are my first steps? How do I establish outside lines of communication? All of that stuff, it’s great to do that work, and then how do you start your psychological games and try and mess with their plan and what point do you break protocol?

At what point do you improvise – which is where the Lincoln bust came from, because that was the other interesting thing as well, you can train and train and train, but you don’t know where you’re going to be when this happens, and that’s why you talk to them [the Secret Service]. So the second you walk in a room you’re like, “Okay, where are the exits, where would they come from and if they did what would I have to use?” because you don’t always want to fire a gun, because you’re in a building where the second you do that you’ve got 40 terrorists on you.

So it was always calling bullshit and saying what makes sense from a dramatic point of view, but then what makes sense from a Secret Service point of view, and they were always calling bullshit as well. Sometimes you had to say, “Yeah but that would happen, but it doesn’t work for our movie,” so it’s what’s plausible, but in the context of slightly heightened entertainmenmt, and I think that’s why it really worked well. 

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He then also got asked about how the real Secret Service felt about him playing one of them on the big screen, in a slightly provoking manner…

Well for the Secret Service, 300 was a big movie, as it was for all those in the armed forces, so the fact that their Leonidas is playing their Secret Service hero… I was always saying to Ricky Jones, “Won’t they mind that so many of them die in this movie?” and he said, “They love it! They’re so excited about his movie!” And when they screened the movie in Washington he said, “I had lunch with 30 of the Secret Service agents, and they loved the movie and they really thought you pulled it off well.”

In fact, I went to a screening in Washington too, and the first person to speak in the Q&A after said he was Secret Service, and I thought, “Oh shit!” but he said, “Dude, that rocked. You rocked and I believed you were in the Secret Service and I want to talk about the fighting!” And it was right in there.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being boastful, but you ask a question and the only way you can defend it is to say that. It’s a philosophy that I use that helps me work hard, for instance when I played Leonidas, I thought I know that those stunt guys are tough as shit and I know that they thinking, “Here’s a soft actor trying to play a tough guy,” so for me, I thought, I want to train harder than anybody and have them go, “Oh wow. No. He’s nuts!”

I wanted to feel that when I walked in front of them into battle, that they could believe that they would follow me, and that’s what they said at the end, “No, we would follow you.” That’s why I trained and why I was the only person on set that would pump before every shot and I would train at lunchtime and I would train at night, so that I felt when I was standing in front of them that I deserved to be there.

 It was the same with the Secret Service – this movie is really in honour of them, of the work that they do on a daily basis that we don’t even see, that protects us so that we can do these interviews and go and watch this movie for fun and go and have a coffee afterwards. If you focus on a day that’s 100 percent fail, which was this day, it also reminds you that every other day is 100 percent success, it’s just unfortunate that when it’s a 100 percent fail the twin towers fall, or the President’s shot, it’s not just like somebody sprains their ankle.

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When things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way, so even though so many were killed [in the movie], they all died in sacrifice, all taking a bullet effectively for the President and for their country. 

Time was called on the interview, but I quickly asked him if he’d heard of Nathan Drake and the planned movie of Uncharted (yes I’m aware that the geek consensus is for Nathan Fillion to play the role, but Gerard Butler in the flesh that day looked identical) but he hadn’t. I told him that as the President’s son plays the game in the film, I wondered if there was a link and just as the PR had prised him from his seat, he enthusiastically sat back down to tell me:

You wanna know how smart that kid is? This is what he said – we were looking for a line when the First Lady walks in, because she was going to say, “Are you playing video games again?” and he said “No, this is us just doing an everyday examination of a typical life in the day of a Baghdad street.”

He wasn’t just smart, because he looks kind of square, but he was smart and hilarious, and he just came out with that, I mean he just threw it out there and then another line! And I was just thinking I couldn’t come up with that in a million years, I mean he was so entertaining. Not to get away from the subject but just you reminded me to give him a big up!

Gerard Butler thank you very much.

Olympus Has Fallen is out in the UK on the 17th April.

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