Filming movies in Washington just got harder

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location manager of the Netflix series “House of Cards.” It is Patrick Burn. This version has been corrected.

January 30, 2012

John Latenser doesn’t want to lose his dome.

The Bethesda-based location scout was standing last week on one of Hollywood’s favorite spots in the District, a sliver of pavement at the edge of the reflecting pool with the U.S. Capitol looming just so over his shoulder — as it has loomed over Sean Penn, Aaron Eckhart and various Transformer robots.

“This is one of the great money shots in D.C.,” says Latenser, who was here scouting angles for “Veep,” a new HBO series that hopes to add Julia Louis-Dreyfus to the list of those filmed at this spot off First Street NW.

Directors love this angle not so much for aesthetic reasons as legal ones. It is as close as they are allowed to get to the Capitol itself. So Latenser and others in the D.C. film community were horrified to learn last month that Congress had quietly lifted control over this easternmost patch of the Mall from the U.S. Park Service, which is known as a film-friendly agency, and given it to the Capitol Police, which is not.

“The answer from the Capitol is always absolutely no,” Peggy Pridemore, another D.C. location manager, whose local credits include “Wedding Crashers,” “Night at the Museum 2” and “Forrest Gump.” “My entire industry was afraid we are going to lose that special spot to film the Capitol building.”

The prospect of giving up their beauty shot of the D.C. icon comes at a bad time for the city’s film industry. Even as Washington story lines are enjoying a boom in movies and television, the nation’s capital is losing more and more of the actual location work to other cities.

No matter how much art directors crave Washington’s majestic vistas, they quickly run into twin deal-killers: Filming in the security-obsessed federal core has become a hair-pulling hassle, and the District government lacks the money to compete with sweetheart incentives from other locations.

Baltimore, in particular, is eating the District’s popcorn. Thanks to Maryland’s generous tax-deferral program for film projects and aggressive courting of producers, at least three recent Washington-set stories are using Charm City as a stand-in. They include “Veep”; “Game Change,” a coming Sarah Palin flick from HBO; and “House of Cards,” a political drama that will mark Netflix’s first foray into original programming.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Crystal Palmer, director of the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, of the spate of other locations doubling for the District. “We have a two-fold problem. The first question they ask is ‘Do you have an incentive program?’ The second is ‘Can I film inside the U.S. Capitol?’ We basically have to say no to both.’ ”

Seeing Baltimore’s Tremont Plaza Hotel stand in for Senate offices, as it does in “Veep,” is more than an annoyance for District officials. A feature-film crew can spend up to $500,000 a day on location. In all, the D.C. government estimates that the commercial filming it didattract brought $20.5 million into the city last year. “I think we could have doubled our business easily,” Palmer said, if so many productions weren’t outsourced to other locations.

Patrick Burn, a District-based location manager, described a single sequence in the 2010 thriller “Salt,” in which Angelina Jolie is seen jumping from a bridge at L’Enfant Plaza. The shot, which amounted to two seconds of screen time, cost nearly $70,000 in local truck and crew expenses.

“People think of film crews as a bunch of people standing around with cappuccinos in their hands,” said Burn, who is managing “House of Cards.” “But there’s a whole blue-collar element. These are jobs.”

The District made a pitch for all of the recent projects, Palmer said, but is facing ever-stiffer competition. Maryland, for example, last year bumped its annual film incentive budget from $1 million to $7.5 million annually. Palmer and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) met with the producers of “House of Cards” last year in Los Angeles, where they learned that Maryland had offered up to $11.5 million in multi-year incentives. The producers said they would come to D.C. if the city could come up with at least $3.5 million in tax deferrals. After two weeks of scrounging the budget, Palmer had to call back empty-handed.

“The game changed,” Palmer said. “The film business used to be location, location. Now it’s money, money, money.”

But even if the District could find more money, filming amid the monuments and marble has become complex in ways that would have been inconceivable in the days when Frank Capra could use the halls of Congress to portray the halls of Congress in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“I know of one spot where the street is D.C., the sidewalk is National Park Service and when you walk toward the building you’ve got Federal Protective Services,” said Latenser, who has worked on dozens of local crews, including “Transformers,” “24,” “National Treasure” and “Thank You for Smoking.” “I can safely say this is the most difficult city to shoot in in America.”

Increasingly, producers come here to shoot drive-by footage of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other signature settings and then insert their characters digitally. NBC’s “The West Wing” was largely filmed on California sound stages, with actors visiting Washington occasionally for outside establishing shots in makeshift settings.

“A lot of people have used this area to stand in for the White House portico,” said Peggy Martz, showing off a columned corner of the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters on 17th Street NW. The light fixtures in a nearby hallway are left over from a “West Wing” shoot, the draperies from “Salt.” “They’re nicer than what we had, so they said we could keep them,” said Martz.

The “Veep” crew came briefly to shoot some motorcade sequences, driving their cameras up Massachusetts Avenue behind a D.C. police escort. That sequence will be dropped between scenes in the vice president’s office (played by a sound stage in Columbia) and the Veep’s Naval Observatory mansion (a house in Baltimore County).

Director Steven Soderbergh adopted guerilla tactics to film his HBO series “K Street” in the District, driving around with a camera and actors to shoot impromptu scenes around the city.

“We could fit the entire crew into two 14-passenger vans, including George Clooney, James Carville and Mary Matalin,” said its location manager, Joseph Martin, whose work has included “Minority Report” and “The Insider.”

One “K Street” scene was shot near the reflecting pool spot that was just annexed as U.S. Capitol property. The transfer, apparently made at the request of Capitol officials in order to beef up security around the 11-acre parcel known as Union Square, was slipped into the December appropriations bill without a hearing.

The spot instantly became off-limits to commercial filming in accordance with the long-standing policy on all other Capitol grounds. Filmmakers quickly contacted Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who pressured Hill officials not to cut off one of Hollywood’s favorite close-ups of American government.

“For goodness’ sake, let us have a film industry to provide revenue for our city,” said Holmes-Norton last week.

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said Congress is working to carve out a Union Square exception to the no-filming rule. He has instructed Capitol Police to follow Park Service policy in granting permits for the next 90 days, by which time he hopes Congress will pass a law making it permanently permissible to shoot from the spot.

“Our primary concern is security,” said Gainer. “We had no desire to pick a fight with anybody about shooting movies, and we’re not trying to put anybody out of work.”

But Gainer said movie makers shouldn’t expect to get any closer to that dome. That’s too bad, say those who like to see Washington movies made in Washington.

“These iconic monuments are a terrific incentive for them to film here,” said Holmes-Norton. “If we can just get permission.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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