MONTREAL - It's not everyday that you get to visit the White House...in Canada.  

Last September, I was among a small group of journalists who visited the elaborate Montreal set of Sony's upcoming "White House Down," where stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Joey King and James Woods, director Roland Emmerich, and writer James Vanderbilt were hard at work trying to bring the large-scale action film to life under enormous time constraints. 
 
In the film, Tatum plays a secret service rookie named John Cale, working under a soon-to-be-retired veteran named Walker (Woods). They both answer to the president, played by Foxx. 
 
When terrorists attack the White House -- just as the president is laying out an expansive Middle East peace treaty --Tatum and Foxx team up to escape the assault. 
 
It's the second film to be released this year that could be dubbed "Die Hard in the White House," alongside "Olympus Has Fallen." 
 
The scene we saw being shot featured a White House tour that included a meeting between Cale's precocious daughter Emily (King) and the president. She grills him about his Middle East initiative while taking video for her blog -- much to the embarrassment of her dad. Initially taken aback by the tween's no-nonsense inquisitiveness, President Sawyer makes a plea for peace, hoping that the people of the world can put aside their differences and all just get along. Such worldwide unity won't be seen in this movie, however.

Some of the film's other stars -- including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke -- weren't on set when we visited. 
 
Emmerich has been to the White House before of course -- both on screen and in real life. 
 
In 1996's sci-fi smash "Independence Day," the helmer famously blew up the president's crib. Emmerich was personally invited to the White House to screen the film for then-Commander in Chief Bill Clinton, who also gave the director a guided tour of the building.  
 
More than fifteen years later, Emmerich was back in the White House -- only this time it was in Montreal. 
 
Since shooting at the actual White House is strictly forbidden (visitors aren't even allowed to snap photos while taking the tour), it had to be re-built almost entirely on various massive sound stages in Montreal. 
 
Seemingly as big of an undertaking as the late-18th century construction of the real building, we were told that the film's sets replicated between 60% and 70% of the iconic residence, including the gargantuan White House lawn.
  
Here's what the main White House set looked like

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Hundreds of designers, builders, craftspeople and artisans worked virtually non-stop for weeks to re-create one of the most recognizable -- and most mysterious -- buildings in the world. The public tours of the White House only reveal a small part of the building. It houses 132 rooms, a tennis court, a swimming pool, a jogging track and much more. Very few people have seen the Oval Office and other, even more secretive rooms, such as the President's Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), which seems to be an integral part of the film.

Emmerich, production designer Kurt Petruccelli and their ace crew of designers, builder and artists had help from the White House Historical Society, but much of the film's design was based on primary sources, old photographs and some simple guess work. Furniture was shipped in from allover the world ("Ebay is our friend," Petruccelli explained) and the myriad paintings on the grounds (in addition to those famous presidential portraits, the White House is home to works by Pollock, Rothko and others) were forged specifically for the film. Sadly, all the fakes were destroyed after production wrapped. 

"A lot of the movie relies upon the geography [of the White House]," explained Vanderbilt, "and using it to its fullest extent and all the bells and whistles and nooks and crannies and the fact that there's a greenhouse on the third floor."

Vanderbilt  (whose writing credits also include "Zodiac" and "The Amazing Spider-Man") proudly noted that the film's technical consultant/D.C. insider Rick Klein was impressed with the simulated version of the White House.
 
"We're very careful about every little tiny detail because you have to believe the majesty and power of the White House," Woods added. "It has to be a monumentally overwhelming place."

Likewise, the film's replica of "The Beast" -- the president's souped-up, fully armored limo -- was based on estimations. For the film, they built three "Beasts" in just ten weeks, with plans to sink one in the pool, smash one up with the terrorists' SUVs and suspend one in mid-air during a particularly intense battle scene. 
 
"The real 'Beast' is built on Chevy chassis, basically an armored car," explained one of the builders. "[There's] no data on the real car. We reckon that the real car weighs somewhere near 16 tons. It's basically a truck with a Cadillac-shaped body." 
 
The film versions of The Beast were built on Suburban chassis, stretched 20" and scaled up. They feature 400 hp Chevy engines. One of them was only partially built, to be used in blue screen scenes, with "everybody hanging upside down in mid-air from it."
 

Here's a shot of 'The Beast' after it has crashed into the pool:

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Go to page two to read about the film's fast shooting schedule, Emmerich's shooting style, the characters played by Woods and King, and more.

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