Why Can't Hollywood Get Washington D.C. Right?

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The husband and I have been enjoying Showtime's Homeland, but we got behind, and so we ended up watching several episodes yesterday.  He has already written up his reservations about the finale's plotting (warning: spoilers).  Those didn't bother me.  But I did chew up a considerable amount of our viewing time pondering a different question of competence: why the hell did they get Washington so wrong?


I don't mean the power dynamics of the city: It is the nature of film to simplify complex dynamics into comprehensive narratives.  I just mean the physical city.

Homeland is filmed in North Carolina, which is considerably cheaper than DC. This is annoying for a city resident--I spent most of my Manhattan youth lamenting unsuccessful attempts to dress up Toronto like New York--but I can live with that; it's not their fault that New York is expensive, and DC is a morass of overlapping jurisdictions that make it impossible to secure filming permits in a timely manner.  What bothers me is the things that they didn't have to get wrong, but went and screwed up anyway.  This happened so often in Homeland that I began to suspect it must be deliberate.

The anomalies started small.  A marine sergeant and his young wife seemed to be living in a fairly sizeable ranch house on a large lot located fairly close to Washington, a configuration that I am not sure exists--but which I am really quite sure is not available on at E-6 pay grades.  A terror suspect was described by a CIA officer as living in "Truxton Circle", a neighborhood which happens to be just southwest of ours.  However, the appellation is a new one, and since both Truxton Circle and my own beloved Eckington are both on the outer frontier of gentrification, I can testify from personal experience that it's highly unlikely that a CIA officer who lives in Virginia would be able to name the neighborhood; if he called it anything, it would far more likely be something like "way the fuck over on New York Avenue".  Furthermore, if he did somehow manage to apprehend that a suspect's address was in "Truxton Circle", anyone he reported this to would respond with a puzzled stare.  Right now, the area is known less by its name than by its notorious housing projects.

We will not even ask why someone who is supposed to be teaching at one of our fine local universities--all of which are located west of 20th street NW--would be living miles away in an area that is at least an hour from work via public transportation.

I mean, yes, these are small things.  But they are also really cheap things to get right.  You could just, like, email someone who lives in Washington DC and ask them the name of a neighborhood where assistant professors of middle eastern studies might be found.  You could contact the housing office at one of our area's many fine military bases and ask them where their staff sergeants usually live, then let your fingers do the walking through the local real estate listings to see what the houses there look like.  This is the sort of thing that, in my experience, interns can usually dig up in a few hours.

But they really lost me in the last few episodes.  Not to give anything away, but they have a big scene set in Farragut Square where there are a bunch of agents preparing to take out a potential terrorist as he meets a contact.  This is what the actual Farragut Square looks like. It is less than a fully city block square, and in the busiest part of the downtown area.  It is entirely surrounded by traffic-jammed streets and what passes for a tall building in DC.  Homeless people sleep there.  Sometimes people stop for a moment to rest on the benches, but it is not a particularly inviting place because it's very close to all that traffic.  There's a statue of Admiral Farragut that you can look at if you like that sort of thing.

Remember, the producers chose to set the scene in Farragut Square.  They could have put it in a shopping mall, a building courtyard, or in Rock Creek Park, which looks pretty much like other parks, especially when filmed in close up.  But they chose to locate their scene in a particular named place--and then chose a location that looked nothing like this place.  It was enormous, more like a state park than a little city square; it had almost no buildings around it; and it was surrounded by parking rather than traffic, a fact that the filmmakers make sure to emphasize in establishing footage.  There was a huge fountain in the middle that looked almost as big as the actual Farragut Square, and some snazzy tables with red umbrellas that may or may not have belonged to a restaurant.  They filmed this with a lot of loving long shots, so that Washingtonians could really ponder at length the almost complete lack of resemblance to the actual Farragut Square.

In the next episode, they--suddenly and for no apparent reason--portrayed the police closing off blocks and blocks around the State Department to non-residents (an action which would have required shutting down two bridges, the most important arterial route through the city, and a considerable portion of the Mall), and put a sniper on what appeared to be about the 20th floor of a downtown residential building in a city with a roughly 12-story height limit.  We will forgive them for placing a residential building on what seems to be the approximate location of the Lincoln Monument, since this--unlike all the other nonsense--was actually integral to the plot.

Why do they do this?  My husband, who knows a lot more about Hollywood than I do, answers: why shouldn't they?  Americans (and even more, foreign audiences) expect the US Capitol to have tall buildings and large, gracious city squares.  They like neighborhood names like Truxton Circle, which sounds a bit hip and a bit posh.  They like to set scenes in places with real names.  There is no penalty for making up a more convenient Washington that happens to look a lot like North Carolina.

I'd argue that there is a benefit to versimilitude, especially if it's cheaply obtained (getting place names right and filming scenes in tight if you're trying to pretend they're in a semi-famous location).  If viewers go to Washington (and a surprising number of people do, every year), they will find out that the places you've claimed to be filming look nothing like the ones on your show.  That breaks the illusion of almost-realism that keeps us coming back to stories.

But if there isn't a penalty for filmmakers, surely there is for my home city.  Maybe there are so few good movies about Washington because we make it so hard for filmmakers to get a real sense of place.  And in turn, that means we get fewer people coming here looking for the things they've seen in movies and television.  If the city worked harder to help filmmakers work here, maybe we'd get more of them--and too, we'd get fewer Washingtonians chafing at the ridiculousness of what they see on their television sets.

Update:  Reader AJWIP writes


D.C. has problems other than difficulty with permitting. D.C. tried to implement a transferable tax credit incentive to draw production to the city. They actually screwed some participants over who had done everything they were supposed to in order to qualify and the city reneged on issuing the credits. This absolutely hammered the equity participants of the picture and has left the city with a very bad reputation. People typically just send a B-camera and shoot the exteriors they need to fudge things.

There are a lot of practical factors that would impact the location manager and director's choices of location. If they are shooting in North Carolina (who have both successfully created a tax-incentive program and helped folks develop local production and post-production facilities). How easy is it to find similar architecture to the actual reality you are trying to cheat, do you have to lose a half a day of shooting to move the production across town to film a minor location without much import...

If you have a choice between an extra half day of shooting (meaning more takes and/or perhaps a more ambitious dolly shot or two to work with in editing) and having a location that isn't going to satisfy the small minority of folks familiar enough with D.C. to see the issue and also care one way or another it isn't even a close call. You are much better off getting a more interestingly shot and performed scene than one that accurately depicts the socioeconomics of who lives in that type of house. If you are successfully gripping your audience you can make all sorts of mistakes with continuity or set decoration that will be ignored as people concentrate on the drama. If people are paying attention to the sets rather than the actors you have larger problems then verisimilitude.

Still doesn't explain why they put a professor in Truxton Circle . . .

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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