When you’re tasked with building a working replica of the world’s most closely guarded vehicle for use in a Hollywood blockbuster, don’t expect any help from the Secret Service.
That’s what the guys responsible for the nearly 5-ton replica of President Obama’s armored limousine learned as they began to build a copy for use in the film "White House Down."
The film, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, began rolling out in theaters Thursday night. Tatum plays a wannabe Secret Service agent visiting the White House for an interview, only to find it, and Jamie Foxx’s president, under attack.
The two stars find themselves seeking protection inside the president’s armored Cadillac limo, nicknamed "The Beast," after the real Secret Service gave the real car used to protect Obama.
As one might expect, building a replica of such a top-secret car proved to be a challenge.
Cyril O’Neil, president of Ghostlight Industries, the San Fernando company that built the three Beast replicas for the film, said he approached a friend of a friend who is involved with the motor pool in the Secret Service.
O’Neil was looking for any kind of data on the size or dimensions of the real Beast that could serve as a template for the fakes. His contact wasn’t buying it.
"He said he thought it was a really neat project and that he wouldn’t tell us a thing," O’Neil recalled.
"At that point my email stopped working and I was followed around by five Suburbans," Graham Kelly joked. He’s the film's action vehicle supervisor, something he’s overseen on dozens of movies throughout his career. He’s also the guy behind the wheel of this Beast for the film’s stunt sequences, some of which are set on the titular building’s front lawn.
So without any data with which to build their film car, O’Neil and Kelly got creative. They pulled photos of the real Beast from the Internet and determined that the vehicle used headlights from a 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV. Using that piece as a starting point, the pair were able to extrapolate the dimensions of the entire vehicle.
Other photos helped provide perspective, including several showing the actual car sitting higher than Obama, who is 6 feet 1. Another showed an agent standing next to a Beast with the door open, allowing a glimpse at just how thick the vehicle’s shell is.
Twelve weeks later, and at a cost of $200,000 each, Ghostlight had three replicas built.
To build each, a team of 10 people first stripped a full-size Chevrolet Suburban down to the chassis. The team then shaped by hand foam body panels, which served as the molds for the fiberglass pieces that were fitted to the car. The engine is a V-8 crate motor from Chevy, which O’Neil and Kelly estimated was putting out about 400 horsepower.
After delivering all three to Emmerich, the team was hit with another request: Build a functioning interior too. Initially, the script didn’t call for detailed interior shots, but that changed once the director saw the vehicle, Kelly said.
"As this car turned up, and [Emmerich] realized that you could do a lot more with it, he became more into the details," Kelly said. "So we added lots more stuff interior-wise."
In went a hand-built cabin worthy of screen time supporting Foxx and Tatum, a difficult feat considering few people have ever seen the inside of the actual car, Kelly said.
After all the modifications were made, each Beast weighed about 9,500 pounds and was about 23 feet long, Kelly estimated. This made for an entertaining ride during stunt sequences, he said.
"I stunted one all over a park in Montreal. We had it drifting in a field, jumping through trees, and off ramps and crashing Suburbans over it," Kelly said. "It’s ... interesting ... when you’re going sideways at 60 mph."
Hence, two of the three Beast replicas did not survive the shoot.
"It’s the stopping the going-sideways part that got hard," O’Neil chuckled.