There's No Place Like D.C.
By Matt Slovick
Thursday, October 15, 1998
"Untitled DC" is a low-budget independent film being shot on the streets of Washington during October. This is the second of an occasional series, in which we'll visit the set, talk to the film's creators and trace the film's progress.
"We've dealt with one big, different problem each day most of which have been out of our control," says Adam Joyce, who is the director, co-screenwriter and co-producer. But he quickly switches gears. "The crew is really coming together and doing a great job. We've had no personnel problems to speak of. And the acting is superb far above what you might expect in a low-budget film. We have so little money and are working so hard and so fast that we can't quite always shoot as many shots in each scene as we'd have liked to. But for the most part, it's been a lot of fun."
The various locations were a necessity in order for Joyce and Kurt Olmstead a co-writer and co-producer to achieve their goal of showing a Washington the average moviegoer never sees.
In the film, Gregory (Derrick Damions) returns to town after 10 years and runs into Isabel (Kate Stewart Mayfield), a woman he remembers from his childhood. When his car breaks down, they walk through the District, encountering people and places that they did not know existed. Their search becomes a walking tour of a city in the shadows of memorials and monuments.
Setup at the Titanic memorial, which is between the end of Water Street SW (which parallels Maine Avenue along Washington Channel) and the wall of Fort McNair, began at 6 a.m. The crew had a 6:30 a.m. call followed by the actors at 7 a.m.
Production coordinator Carol Swaine said the production received many curious stares and questions from early morning walkers and joggers.
At mid-morning, while shooting in the heart of Southwest and in the Capitol area, a District police officer approached the crew. They had all their permits, which is tremendously important when filming in the nation's capital. However, the officer said he was going to send someone to confiscate their film.
Olmstead said it was an anxious moment, but no one returned before the production moved to the underpass at Virginia Avenue SE near H and Second streets. Swaine said that later in the day they talked to a District police officer who was excited about another movie filming in the city. He was going to be part of security for "Random Hearts," which stars Harrison Ford.
At the Underpass
While the crew sets up, the actors wait. Big-name stars get trailers during big-budget projects; Damions and Mayfield get Keith Eaton's 1978 VW bus. The unit manager's van is one of the production's vital organs. It carries a generator, first-aid kit, chairs, tables, food and drinks.
And their wardrobes aren't from Saks Jandel or Nieman Marcus. They come from their own closets. Mayfield brought an extra suitcase from New York with movie-only wear. She and Joyce spent a few minutes deciding on her look.
The actors finally get their call.
In the film, you'll see Gregory and Isabel walk toward a wall that is topped with wrought-iron fencing. They'll have a short conversation about the history of trains in Washington. What you won't see is the activity surrounding the actors.
The wall and fence make a 90-degree turn at the street. Sandvik and his camera, which is high on its tripod, are catty-corner from the actors. Also on that side of the wall are John Snedden and Eric Bannat. One guy is standing on the wall on the other side of the fence holding a large piece of cardboard painted gold (he also has a silver one) that helps reflect the light. His assistant is on a six-foot wooden ladder, holding him so he doesn't fall. A sign on the wall reads "Danger. Live Wire. Keep Off."
One each side of the actors are two rectangular light filters. Crouched below the wall are sound producer James Hu, who points a large microphone at the actors (a wireless mike also is on the fence), Joyce, assistant director Terry Nickelson and three more crew members. Joyce and Sandvik talk via cell phones. Script supervisor Shannon McManus is nearby in case someone forgets a line.
They are ready to shoot. Production manager Talia Inbar, who with a few other crew members is monitoring traffic, gives the word to turn off all cell phones and walkie talkies.
Joyce yells action and the scene begins. He strains to hear the dialogue, which is being drowned out by the cars traveling overhead. They shoot two takes of this scene before breaking for lunch. Hu says, if needed, the lines can be dubbed later.
During the break, assistant cameraman Roger Fortuna sits on the ground, alone, with his arms in black sleeves that are attached to a large duffle bag. He's performing one of the most important functions of the day. He's changing the film. Hours of work can be lost in seconds with a few rays of light.
After lunch, the production makes its final move to Northeast for scenes in Gregory's car, on the street in front of the apartment belonging to Isabel and Raymond (played by Mark Selinger), and then into the apartment's living room.
They then head to one of their most coveted locations the roof of the Cairo Building, 1615 Q St. NW. Now a residential building, the Cairo was built in 1894 and is one of the tallest structures in Washington.
The afternoon is gorgeous and the view is stupendous. The Washington Monument is in plain sight. Parts of the Jefferson Memorial and Capitol also can be picked out. But what is so impressive is how far one can see office buildings, residential areas, roads and green.
In this scene, a cabdriver named Andre (Larry Hull) takes Gregory and Isabel on an impromptu tour of the city, which includes some D.C. history. Joyce did most of the historical research while writing the screenplay.
The equipment must come up 12 stories in the elevator and then a stairway to the roof. Before the camera arrives, Joyce walks the actors through their steps. It's simple, they come out of the stairway, turn left and walk to the end of the deck. At the same time, Andre tells Isabel the Cairo's background.
Well, it seems simple. Before even one take, the actors walk about a dozen times as Joyce frames the shot. First they are walking too fast, then too slowly. Hull then follows Mayfield too closely. But eventually, the director gets what he wants.
"We had equipment go down at the beginning of the day," Joyce says, "so we lost two or three hours. It was something that happened and everyone stayed pretty calm." Two crew members also have a minor car accident this day. No one is hurt and damage is minimal.
Later in the week, they would shoot from the Old Post Office Tower. "But that's a view a lot of people do get," Joyce says. "Not everyone gets a chance to go up on the Cairo."
The crew sets up Saturday at Town Center Park at Waterside Mall in Southeast and also shoots at Douglass Park. It rains Sunday, but work can't stop. Scenes are filmed in Southeast in Gregory's car and in Andre's cab, and later at a gas station in Bethesda. Monday's locations include Meridian Park and the Old Post Office Tower.
On Tuesday, the production camps out at Jimmy T's, a small diner on East Capitol Street. It's on the bottom floor of an aged Capitol Hill rowhouse in a residential neighborhood. Jimmy T's has a counter, a few booths and some tables near a large bay window, outside of which the camera sits. Clearly, Weight Watchers does not meet here. The menu includes pancakes, burgers, bacon, eggs, grits and scrapple. The grease stains on the wall just add to its character.
When asked how he found such a classic greasy spoon, Joyce says: "We stumbled upon it after a long drunken night. It's a wonderful little diner. When Kurt moved to Capitol Hill we discovered it. It has a nice feeling of community."
In this scene, Gregory and Isabel meet Roz (Patricia Williams) for the first time. Roz opposes a monument being erected in her Southwest neighborhood, which is predominantly African American. It turns out that Isabel's boyfriend, Raymond, works for Gregory's father (Greg Christopher), a congressman. And Raymond has convinced the congressman to attend the groundbreaking of the statue in Roz's community.
A Day Off
"Everyone is exhausted at this point," Joyce says. "We had a location pulled out from under us on Sunday. We were all set up. Within an hour we were at a different location with everyone fully rehearsed and ready to shoot. We moved from Southeast to Northwest.
"And the lab has been in touch with us about the footage, and they say it really looks great."
Next week: The production takes on Washington nightlife, visiting El Tamarindo in Adams-Morgan and Poli-Tiki on Capitol Hill.