"Untitled DC" is a low-budget independent film being shot on the streets of Washington during October. This is first of an occasional series, in which we'll visit the set, talk to the film's creators and trace the film's progress.
This is the Washington people see in the movies.
Meanwhile, each day Washingtonians jog around the Mall, eat in restaurants that don't have a view of a famous edifice, take the Metro rather than a limo and socialize at places that don't require formal dress.
That's the District two guys with big ideas but small finances are bringing to the big screen. Adam Joyce and Kurt Olmstead are the producers of "Untitled DC," a film in which the city is portrayed as a real place.
"We tend to see D.C. in films used as a backdrop rather than a foreground," Joyce says. "You see the same scenes over and over again. We want people to find out what the city has outside of that."
It's the story of four people with real lives in a city full of monuments. Their paths intersect one day as each struggles to rise above the history that overshadows them. One woman actually fights to stop a monument from being erected.
Like most low-budget independent films, the people involved take on numerous responsibilities and work incredibly long hours. The film's budget is about $75,000, which the two young producers raised from private investors. The actors have deferred their salaries meaning that if the movie gets picked up and makes some money, they'll get paid. If not, they'll just chalk it up to experience.
Joyce and Olmstead both worked on casting the film, rather than using a casting director. "I found that I devoted a full two weeks almost simply to calling people and trying to arrange casting," Joyce says. "We had to rush through the process. For the first week, anyone who sent a picture got an audition. After that, we just called those who looked like the people we need. We auditioned over 60 people in the course of two days. We called back three or four for each lead. I don't believe there were any agonizing decisions once we had call-backs. Everyone we wanted, wanted to work on a feature."
Washington natives Derrick Damions and Mark Selinger are two of the film's three lead actors. Both had had small roles in feature films Damions in "Contact" and the recently released. "Pecker"; Selinger in "The Naked Gun" and "Fear of a Black Hat." Kate Stewart Mayfield, a New York-based actress and a friend of Joyce, plays the other starring role.
"The people have been enthusiastic," Olmstead says. "They had a great response to the script once they had it in hand and read it. They had ideas and wanted to talk about it. They have their own experiences living in D.C. and the D.C. area. They wanted to talk about how the screenplay relates to their lives."
A limited budget also means no money to pay for a full-time location manager or for a location. Joyce and Olmstead have had mixed success in securing spots for particular scenes. "It's certainly difficult to hold down a full-time job, write on the side and do whatever function you have to do on the side to make this happen," Joyce says. "The National Parks Service will tell you they are very popular with filmmakers and still photographers and are being bombarded with requests for shooting. We're pretty much staying away from monument grounds."
One situation that caused Joyce much stress was the process of securing the roof of the Cairo Building for a shoot. The historic residential building on Q Street is one of the tallest buildings in the city and has a tremendous view.
"An important part of our script concerns a landmark building in Washington," Joyce explained two weeks before principal photography was to begin. "Not only does a scene take place on the building, but the characters talk about the building. It's important to get access to the roof of the building."
It was necessary to get the co-op board's approval a hoop that, quite possibly, a bigger-name director might have made it through more quickly. "If we were Sydney Pollack," mused Joyce before the permission came through, "we'd be on that roof tomorrow. I'm not saying they won't give us access, but we have very little recourse if they don't." (Pollack is in town to direct "Random Hearts," starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas).
Although Joyce did end up receiving the go-ahead to shoot at the Cairo, the okay came only four nerve-wracking days before the scheduled shoot.
The two young producers have also approached local business owners, and some had no problem with Joyce and Olmstead shooting on their premises. Others, however, wanted a fee a fee they just could not afford. To place things in perspective, Ford's salary alone for "Random Hearts" is more than 200 times the entire budget for "Untitled DC."
Although the film is so much a part of the streets of Washington, it actually got its start in a bowling alley near the University of Iowa. Olmstead, a San Francisco native, had come to the Midwest to major in English, and Joyce was studying in the film program.
"We ran into each other at a bowling alley, then at a Jonathan Richman show," Olmstead says. "We ended up side-by-side at a bar and recognized each other from the bowling alley and began talking there."
Their first collaboration was "Tracking Signal Impulse Movie," which starred Olmstead and was directed by Joyce. The film was a 1996 nominee for the Student Academy Award in the alternative category. It also received a Lagniappe Award for excellence in filmmaking at the 1997 New Orleans Film and Video Festival.
One of the influences of "Untitled DC" was a 19th-century Norwegian novel, "The Hunger" by Knut Hamsun, in which a city plays such an important role that it's almost a character. Olmstead and Joyce decided to choose Washington as the setting for their screenplay. Olmstead had been living in the District for about a year; Joyce was in New York.
Joyce would visit, and the two would spend time walking aimlessly around the District, eating, drinking beer and writing notes. The script then went through various forms and plenty of rejections. "No one in the world was interested in us," Joyce remembers.
Their biggest problem was that they had a concept but no story until inspiration struck. "We finally had a revelation," Joyce says, "and in the space of about an hour, we came up with a very simple story."
So by phone and e-mail, they talked and wrote, developing their final script in the course of about a year. And now they're walking the streets of the District again. But this time they've got a cast and crew and a strong sense of direction: They're putting their story on film.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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