D.C. rules make filmmaking a tough sell

The film industry spent $62 million in the District in 2007. That’s a big economic boost to the city, with money spent in all kinds of places — restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners, security, film production.

That number might have been a lot bigger, though, had the nation’s capital not had the reputation of being America’s most difficult city in which to film.

“State of Play,” which opened last Friday, is notable as a Washington-set film that actually showcases Washington. Most films set here get a few establishing shots — an image of the Capitol, say — then head elsewhere to make the movie. “State” shot here for five weeks. You see not just Union Station, but also Mount Pleasant and the Maine Avenue Fish Market.

“State” director Kevin Macdonald thinks he knows why filmmakers don’t spend much time in the District.

“They don’t because, although the film commission are incredibly helpful in D.C. and try very hard, the federal authorities in particular are not particularly helpful,” the director told The Washington Times in an interview. “We tried forever to film inside the Cannon Building. We went through months of negotiations, and they turned us down at the last minute. You can’t film at the Capitol. Most film companies think it’s not worth the trouble.”

Mr. Macdonald remembers the U.S. Capitol Police threatening to take his film. Jonathan Reich, the film’s District-based location manager, was sitting next to the director at the time.

“We were on a process trail, where you put an actor in a car and film him driving. You put it on the back of a low-slung trailer so he doesn’t have to drive in the streets and worry about getting into an accident,” Mr. Reich explains. “The Capitol Police said, ‘Yes, you can, but don’t look at the Capitol.’ We were looking primarily at the Russell Building.”

Mr. Reich notes it was hard to do the shot without catching a tiny view of the Capitol, and after two takes, police stopped the shoot and demanded to see what the crew had filmed. They didn’t like what they saw. “They took my ID and Kevin’s ID, and we left,” Mr. Reich reports.

“What are we shooting that’s going to cause them trouble or security concerns?” he wonders. “We feel there should be a way to work with them to get what we need without infringing on their security stuff. They really don’t play with us very well. We largely avoid them.”

That wasn’t the only time Mr. Reich’s clients had trouble shooting in the area. He also worked on “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”

“We did a scene outside of the Library of Congress where a lot of police cars pull in and look for Nicolas Cage. We pulled it off, but it was supposed to be much bigger,” he recalls. “We could not go off the property of the Library of Congress. So we shot a lot smaller, a lot blander.” He notes that the scene was shot at midnight, when there was next to no traffic around the library.

“Capitol Hill is the biggest conundrum for us. They don’t really allow any commercial filming,” Mr. Reich reports. Yet it’s one of the areas filmmakers would most like to capture on celluloid.

Capitol Police have jurisdiction over a 47-square-block radius around the Capitol. Spokeswoman Sgt. Kim Schneider says filmmakers can work there.

“Have you taken a look at the Web site? This doesn’t have anything to do with feelings,” she says. “People have the ability to fill out the proper application for a permit. If it’s an authorized event, something they’re looking to film and have the appropriate permit, that’s the end of the story.”

The guidelines are contained in just one paragraph in the same application used for permits for demonstrations and musical events.

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