Boom Town

(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 30, 2007

I once sold a movie script to Hollywood for what I thought was a great deal of money; insiders, however, assured me that, to Hollywood, it was chicken feed. The movie was never made, which seemed to me to be an enormous financial tragedy for the studio that had bought the script; insiders, however, assured me that my fee had probably been budgeted in the same category as lobby fish-tank maintenance. Hollywood operates on an entirely different monetary system.

I remembered all this the other day when I walked out my front door to discover that my Capitol Hill neighborhood had been transformed, overnight, into Amsterdam. A big-budget movie was being made.

Clearly, no expense had been spared. Many of the shops had new canvas awnings with Dutch names. An outdoor produce mart became "Bloemers Hydrokultur." Five vehicles had been repainted and re-detailed to precisely replicate Amsterdam police cars and ambulances. For two blocks, elaborate outdoor gift and flower stands had been set up with beautiful displays. Most seemed to be selling gigantic sunflowers, which few real live people actually buy, but which apparently look dramatic onscreen. The movie -- "Body of Lies" -- is an inter-national thriller featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, but neither actor was on hand. The stars of the day were the 220 "extras" earning about $150 apiece, wandering the street, gamely wearing furs, parkas, gloves and overcoats in 85-degree weather. Evidently, this was to be a winter scene. To avoid inconvenient faintings, location aides were assigned to spray the extras with water mist and wipe their faces with tissues. A team of demolition experts was working on a gray Volvo, which was going to blow up. It was packed not with dynamite or C-4 plastic explosives, but with propane tanks and gunpowder, which deliver maximum flash and roar but minimum collateral destruction. Because "minimum collateral destruction" is inconsistent with good video, the demolition guys were also booby-trapping the cars on either side of the Volvo. Under each was a hydraulic catapult they call a "mousetrap," which is timed, at the moment of the blast, to flip the cars into the air and onto their backs. Other cars nearby, purchased for this scene, would be pancaked by the mousetrapped vehicles.

There had been weeks of logistical preparation. Creation of the street scene had taken a full day and night with a crew of more than 50 people, for whose convenience a house-size tent had been set up, with bathrooms, catered food, etc. Filming began on day two at 9 a.m. and was not over until 6 p.m. The sweltering extras redid their scenes 38 times, walking the same dozen feet again and again, chatting with one other wordlessly. The action was being filmed by seven camera crews, including one that had been lifted onto a rooftop by a cherry picker and another hovering overhead in a helicopter.

"Body of Lies" seemed a great title for the movie being shot here. This wasn't really Amsterdam, it wasn't really winter, and the short, bearded, rodent-like actor playing the Arab terrorist was, as it happens, an Israeli Jew from New York. Ran Nikfan told me he learned he had the nonspeaking part only two days earlier, then was flown to Washington and put up in a nice hotel for this one scene; this, he said, had been the pinnacle of his acting career. Mannequins had been painted, clothed and wigged to resemble the extras standing nearest the Volvo, and just before the detonation, the doppelgangers were substituted. The explosion went off flawlessly -- flash, boom, fling, crunch -- as a street full of extras dove for cover, scattered for safety, cringed in terror, exactly as they had done 14 times before in rehearsal. After the D.C. Fire Department descended and extinguished the burning vehicles, the cars were towed away, replaced with others that had been purchased for this movie and then pre-destroyed with torches and sledgehammers, to resemble cars demolished by a much more powerful bomb. As the helicopter camera re-circled, the aftermath was filmed, featuring Dutch-looking medical workers tending to writhing extras who had been painted with fake blood and smeared with pitch. Fog machines created a Stygian atmosphere.

Finally, director Ridley Scott emerged from his command tent, surveyed the faux carnage and the huge mess that would take 24 more hours to clean up and declared the filming over. The media had been asked not to bother Scott, but I elbowed my way in for one question. It proved to be one of my favorite interviews, ever.

"Ridley, everything that happened today -- how much screen time are we talking about, total, in the movie?"

"Ten to fifteen," he said.

Not minutes. Seconds.

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