Washington, D.C., the capital of political secrets and cover-ups, has always been ready for its close-up. From classics like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to popcorn flicks like “National Treasure,” D.C. has been in a constant star in TV and film.
However, the Washington, D.C. seen in films and movies is simply Hollywood magic. Due to logistics and high costs, D.C. is a difficult place to film on location. Other states like Maryland and North Carolina offer filming tax incentives and computer-generated trickery that draw many film and TV producers far away from the capital.
Although many popular shows today are set in D.C., like “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” “Homeland” and “NCIS,” these shows rarely — if ever — film on location. At best, this results in small inaccuracies that blend into the visual story. At worst, they are obvious visual eyesores for any knowing viewer. For example, the famous brat-pack movie “St. Elmo’s Fire” shows Georgetown University as an open green and rolling campus, which easily identifies the site as the very different University of Maryland.
These strict limitations and heavy costs, however, are very important when crews do film on location. When a crew films in D.C., they are pursuing and valuing the authentic D.C. and, in a way, helping preserve a little bit of the genuine Washington experience.
The makers of “All the President’s Men,” the story of two reporters uncovering the Watergate scandal, desperately wanted to shoot at The Washington Post building. However, The Washington Post, located at 1150 15th St. NW, could not realistically shut down for days on end to film a few movie scenes. So, the crew was only allowed to shoot in the building’s entrance, parking lot and elevator. When it came time to film the office, the crew brought the authentic The Washington Post experience back to L.A.
The crew took several tons of newspapers and trash along with other items from the office to use as props. These props included the copied stickers off of one of the desks, 220 same-make models of the office desks and a brick from the main lobby. The lead actors, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, even copied this zeal for authenticity and camped out in the news office for weeks. At one point, Hoffman was mistaken for a copy boy and was even asked to fetch new typewriter ribbon.
“The Exorcist,” the classic horror story of the possession of young Regan MacNeil and her exorcism, grounded its terror in the very real campus of Georgetown University. The film was based on a novel written by Georgetown student William Blatty. Blatty pushed for the movie to be filmed on location, not only to capture Georgetown University’s gothic air but to also pay homage to the fact that the university served as inspiration for the novel. It was on campus in White-Gravenor Hall where Blatty heard of the 1949 exorcism of Maryland boy Roland Doe, the real-life inspiration for Regan. The infamous fall down the “Exorcist steps” was inspired when one of his classmates fell down a steep stairwell after disastrously trying to steal a physics final exam. When this scene was being filmed on location, it was reported that a Georgetown student charged people $5 to watch the stunt from nearby rooftops.
“The West Wing,” while shot on an L.A. soundstage, came and did some famous “walk and talks” here in the capital. The pivotal episode “The Two Cathedrals” was filmed on location at the National Cathedral. However, when they discovered that Charlie Sheen actually put out a cigarette on the cathedral’s floor during the scene, they promptly banned other films like “The Wedding Crashers” from filming on location.
However, “The West Wing” has left other filming sites with much more positive impressions. For the graduation of President Bartlet’s daughter Zoe, the crew actually came to Georgetown University. The graduation sequence was filmed on Healy Lawn with actual student extras. These student extras were chosen by the Lecture Fund, who conducted a lottery for the juicy role of sitting in the sun for the long eight-hour filming process. In full cap and gown attire, the Georgetown student extras pantomimed and cheered for the fake president.
Although D.C. will always be seen in establishing shots of monuments and the intros of political thrillers, it is productions like these that showcase a more unique and accurate picture of our nation’s capital.
Blair Kennedy is a rising junior in the College. D.C. Uncovered appears every other Monday.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.