One night about 20 years ago, Answer Man was walking down a darkened street in the historic downtown of Wilmington, N.C., when he noticed that a car parked at the curb had a Maryland license plate. So did the next car, and the next one. All of the cars had Maryland license plates.
Answer Man kept walking, his heart pounding, when he came across a police car — a Baltimore police car. Had he slipped through some strange vortex or portal, or even a vortal (or portex?).
No, he had stumbled upon a “location.” Just as, for example, Daniel Day-Lewis was pretending to be Abraham Lincoln for a movie, so Wilmington was pretending to be Baltimore.
As for Cleveland, through the end of this month, it is pretending to be Washington. The brown Metro pylons are part of the Hollywood fakery involved in making “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which is largely set in the District.
If you thought the filmmakers were in Washington, you’re right. They were here for a few days in the spring to get the sort of establishing shots that are hard to re-create. Then it was off to Cleveland, which in the first Captain America movie stood in for New York City.
“Cleveland’s not necessarily a Midwest town,” said Ivan Schwarz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, the outfit tasked with luring filmmakers to the Ohio city. “We have much more of an East Coast architecture. . . . Really, there’s nothing you can’t do here at the end of the day except for mountains and desert.”
But nothing looks more like Washington than Washington. Why not film here?
Too much bureaucracy, Ivan said. Washington can’t be as flexible as Cleveland. The Shoreway, a major commuter artery that hugs Lake Erie, is being closed for two weeks for a huge stunt sequence.
“Can you imagine a road closed in Washington, D.C., for two weeks?” Ivan asked.
Leslie Green of the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development admits that there are some challenges to shooting in our town. Post Sept. 11, 2001, security is tight. The city can provide permits for some areas, but other locations — the Mall, the Capitol, the White House — fall under various jurisdictions: the National Park Service, the U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service.
Also, Leslie said, Cleveland was able to offer the filmmakers financial and tax incentives that Washington couldn’t match. (Another benefit for Cleveland: Directors Anthony and Joe Russo grew up there.)
Still, there’s a mini-boom in Washington projects, including “House of Cards,” “Veep” and “Homeland.” But as with “Captain America,” they are only partially shot here. The crew of “House of Cards” and “Veep” spend a lot of time in Baltimore. “Homeland” is shot largely in North Carolina.
Answer Man wondered whether Clevelanders ever feel sad that Hollywood seems interested in their city mainly for its ability to look like other cities.
“I get that question all the time,” Ivan said. “For me, our mission is about economic development. It’s about driving dollars here and creating jobs for people who would otherwise leave. . . . I’d rather show that we can be everything to everyone than be limited to just a Cleveland location.”
Of course, movie magic doesn’t fool everyone. When “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is released in 2014, it may strike some Washingtonians as odd to see a Federal Triangle Metro pylon in front of the 31-story One Cleveland Center skyscraper.
“I’m a native Washingtonian, born and raised in the city,” Leslie said. “I know when it’s the real thing and when it’s not. It’s funny, but also kind of frustrating at the same time, when film productions don’t get it right.”
But even Washington is not above fooling audiences. In 2008, historic Eastern Market made an appearance in the Russell Crowe-
Leonardo DiCaprio thriller “Body of Lies.” It was playing a flower market in . . . Amsterdam.
Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to email@example.com. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.