Rail to Reel
Metro Opens Its Doors To Hollywood, as Long as It's Not During Rush Hour

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The cameras start rolling.

The plot: Public defenders and prosecutors battle wits in a TV pilot filmed by Warner Brothers.

The scene: Judiciary Square Metro station in downtown Washington.

The action: Scott Burdette (played by actor Lou Diamond Phillips), a contentious public defender, accosts a prosecutor as she steps off a train. She is charging his client, a small-time drug dealer, with murder. They argue. She storms off. He calls after her, a doughnut in one hand, an angry look on his face.

"STOP!" comes an order offstage.

The cameras abruptly halt.

But it's not the director screaming. It's the Metro rep.

"I yelled 'STOP!' You can't film that," said Taryn McNeil, who oversees film requests for Metro.

Phillips was eating a doughnut. His co-star was drinking coffee. As regular Metro riders know, eating and drinking are not allowed in the subway system. And anything not allowed in the system is not allowed to be shown in anything filmed there. The script had no mention of food. McNeil wasn't about to let ad-libbed eating sneak in.

The director was furious. " 'Who is this woman?' " McNeil recalled him shouting.

Directors love the distinctive look of Washington's subway -- its vaulted ceilings, long escalators and shiny trains with the "M" logo. But filmmakers hate Metro's rules: No eating, drinking or running. No jumping over fare gates. No shooting bad guys on the tracks. No exceptions.

With Metro, fiction meets reality, and reality wins. And McNeil is the person who makes sure of that.

Washington's transit system gets three to five dozen film requests a year and grants all but a handful. A big-budget movie starring Russell Crowe is filming here now: You might have seen the cast and crew around town the past couple of weeks. Metro doesn't profit from the projects, but it gets bragging rights. And the region benefits: Last year, the District made $63 million from film and TV shoots.

Metro's requests come from all sorts: Hollywood, TV producers, charities seeking to raise money, banks making ATM commercials, government agencies doing training videos, film students shooting their theses.

McNeil, who works in Metro's media relations office, has fielded film requests for more than a dozen years. She makes sure projects have enough insurance. She reads scripts. She decides what meets standards for logistics and safety. And the rules. "I go through it and I say, 'No,' 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Yes.' "

Nicole Kidman boarding a train in last year's alien-epidemic thriller "The Invasion"? Yes.

Kidman jumping from a train full of aliens and running down the tracks to escape? No. (That shoot was moved to Baltimore.)

Morgan Freeman firing a gun out of a train window in the 2001 thriller "Along Came a Spider"? Absolutely not. (Also filmed in Baltimore, substituting special Hollywood glass in the window.)

Of the 103 requests since 2006, Metro also rejected these four: a Bollywood-type movie that wanted to film during rush hour, a magazine shoot featuring dancing and a bartender pouring drinks on a train, an advertising video for security software that flags attacks on the Metro and a short about a man thinking about blowing up a train.

Metro doesn't allow filming during rush hour or portrayals of anything illegal in the system. Officials don't want people to get the wrong idea.

Metro is working with crews from "State of Play," starring Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. Based on the BBC miniseries of the same title, the movie is about reporters for a fictional Washington newspaper investigating the death of a congressman's mistress.

A key scene takes place on the Metro: A character is struck by a train. Shooting took place this past weekend at the Rosslyn Station, and another shoot will occur tonight aboard two rail cars at a different station.

Train accidents are a sensitive subject: Three Metro employees were killed in a six-month period in 2006. But the script doesn't show the death, so McNeil said yes. She was initially reluctant because Rosslyn is a busy station, with 16,860 people passing through on an average weekday in February. But the film crew agreed to shoot when the system is least busy, late at night or after rush hour, and after the system is closed.

Director Kevin Macdonald, who helmed "The Last King of Scotland," wanted Rosslyn for its long escalator and its station platform. One character goes down the escalator to the platform, where trains rush by on the upper and lower levels at the same time. It's the only such configuration in the Metro system.

For tonight's shoot, crews are filming Affleck, who plays the congressman, riding to work on a train that suddenly stops in a tunnel. The crew is renting two rail cars for $1,000 an hour, for at least 10 hours.

(Location manager Carol Flaisher admits that in real life, members of Congress rarely ride Metro. "But this congressman, he's a real man of the people," she said.)

Unlike producers who shoot in Baltimore's subway and pretend it's Washington's, E. Bennett Walsh, a producer for "State of Play," said filmmakers have no plans to head north if they hit a Metro rule.

"To shoot any other subway, you would know you're not in Washington," he said.

Plenty of moviemakers do use Baltimore's system as a stand-in.

In "No Way Out," a thriller from 1987, Kevin Costner is chased into a fictitious Metro stop marked "Georgetown," slides down an escalator and runs into a train. In the 1997 thriller "Shadow Conspiracy," Charlie Sheen guns his motorcycle down a "Metro" station's steps. In 1985's "The Man With One Red Shoe," part of the chase scene is on the subway. All those shots were filmed in Baltimore.

In recent years, Metro has become more accommodating, said John Latenser, location manager for "The Invasion," shot in 2005. For the first time, Metro allowed crews to film during the day, between the rush hours. In another breakthrough, Kidman was allowed to hop the fare gates at the Cleveland Park Station -- on one condition. A transit police officer telling Kidman she couldn't do so was added to the script. (After all that, the scene didn't make it into the movie.)

But Metro refused to compromise on filming Kidman jumping from the train and running on the tracks. So off the crews went to Baltimore.

"We knew to a certain extent that we could fake it in Baltimore," Latenser said. (Fake is right. Seat cushions are the wrong color. Seat backs have the wrong handles. The fronts of Metro trains are not blue.)

The Metro scenes lasted four minutes at most. Three days of shooting at the Cleveland Park Station cost about $11,500 for labor and overhead. Three days in Baltimore, with six times as many people and the rental of prime movers, flatbed trucks, rail cars and a crane, cost more than $77,000, said officials with the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates the Baltimore subway. "You get to do more up there, so you end up spending more," Latenser said.

For the movie "Step Up 2 The Streets," Baltimore allowed filmmakers to shoot dancing in a moving train. "That is definitely stuff that is not allowed in Washington," Latenser said. "We had dancers standing on backs of seats doing back flips."

Maryland transit officials say they don't mind being the understudy. They have the same rules banning eating and drinking, but they figure moviegoers will use common sense.

"By no means do we view this as an endorsement to do risky acts," said MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene. "Art often imitates life but it certainly doesn't dictate how people live their lives."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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