Eric Althoff, a documentary producer, has worked in film and television on the East and West Coasts and as a film and television reporter and critic. He works part-time as a multiplatform editor at The Post.
Nobody likes watching TV with me. I see — and point out to anyone who will listen — the careful framing and editing tricks used to “transform” Toronto into New York or, in the case of the (painfully awful) “X-Files” revival, Vancouver into Washington.
Vancouver’s wide streets look nothing like the District’s claustrophobic byways. The “feel” of “Vancouver-as-D.C.” was wrong, as was a title card saying “Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.” (Although the cemetery was indeed part of the capital, the portion of Washington south of the Potomac River was ceded to Virginia in 1847.)
As a former location scout for film and television, I find it hard to “turn it off.” I have the same problem with product placement, which I did for a game show in the early aughts; once seen, it cannot be ignored. Now I find my critical eye more attuned to picking up on Washington landscapes in fictional form.
The District photographs beautifully, with some of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. It and its Paris-inspired layout offers as much background for drama as it does for photographic capture. So why is it filmed so infrequently?
The simplest answer is that it’s the seat of the federal government, and shutting down even a few streets for a couple hours of filming can make the already notorious gridlock apocalyptic by comparison. This also partially explains why D.C.-set shows such as “Madam Secretary” are shot mostly on soundstages in New York, with a few on-location days for what are known in the industry as “exteriors.”
Last year, I interviewed the show’s creators on the Mall, not far from where star Téa Leoni jogged by the Reflecting Pool accompanied by her “security detail.”
“There’s nothing like shooting in D.C.,” executive producer Lori McCreary told me that day.
And yet in entertainment, as in politics, money talks. The District’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment offers a generous tax incentive to film here, provided that at least $250,000 of a film’s budget is spent “directly in the District of Columbia on qualified expenditures.” (Neighboring Maryland offers filmmakers a more robust sales tax exception, and Virginia gives up to a 20 percent tax credit.)
My home state of New Jersey, where I often scouted locations, overturned the Chris Christie administration’s shameful scrapping of the tax incentive, with Gov. Phil Murphy (D) officially returning the incentive this summer after three years.
Finally, I can stop asking filmmakers whose movies were set in New Jersey why they didn’t cross the Hudson River from New York — many told me they were disappointed their budget didn’t allow it — with the Empire State still offering a generous financial incentive that, until recently, made it far more budget-friendly.
During my four years in the Washington area, I’ve come to recognize landmarks in many films. There’s the Tidal Basin, where Forrest Gump walked with Jenny, and the streets of Georgetown, where Arnold Schwarzenegger tangled with terrorists in “True Lies.” Aaron Sorkin told me last year, when touring his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” that although “everywhere you turn is something fantastic to look at,” filming in the nation’s capital presented problems for his play-turned-screenplay, “A Few Good Men,” with nearly every daytime scene’s sound ruined by overhead air traffic.
Thus, maybe it’s fate that the District is better filmed at night. After all, who could argue that the wet streets of the District were as much a character as Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men”? Yet for last year’s Steven Spielberg-helmed “The Post,” but for a few fleeting shots, most filming was accomplished in New York.
The DC Comics juggernaut came to town this summer, with social media exploding thanks to “Wonder Woman 1984” stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine working along Pennsylvania Avenue and in Georgetown, with a side trip across the Potomac to shoot in Alexandria. This kind of production not only brings money into town but also gives capital actors and extras a way to apply their craft and show hometown pride in a way they couldn’t working on the likes of “House of Cards,” the D.C.-set Netflix show that filmed almost exclusively in Baltimore.
The challenges of filming in the capital, indeed, are legion, but for those of us who live here — and those who know the city long after leaving — it’s crucial that D.C.-set films and TV be as much an ambassador for the capital as its residents. Film is a crucial American export and often represents us to the world. Let’s give worldwide audiences as close to an accurate tour, however fictional, of the nation’s capital as possible.