Wonder Woman 1984 is only the latest in a long line of movies that have ventured into the District of Columbia to capture the backdrop of monuments and neoclassical architecture. But the mega pic is relatively rare in that is uses locations in the DMV — the moniker used to denote the greater metro area of the district and parts of Maryland and Virginia — so extensively. Rather, D.C. typically is used for establishing shots and much of the rest of principal photography is shot elsewhere.
What’s even more unusual is for D.C. to be used for projects that have little to do with politics or government, but have used the city and its surroundings for its sense of place.
There are hopes that it is changing.
D.C. reinstated a film production tax credit several years ago, and although it is not as generous as states like Georgia, it is not insignificant. Wonder Woman 1984 got back $1.6 million through district and state Virginia programs, according to the Washington Business Journal. Locations included the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Penn Quarter and, across the river in Alexandria, the Landmark Mall.
Producer Chuck West has so far shot three films in D.C. “and there is still so much more that we can show.” “It is just a beautiful town,” he said.
He has taken advantage of the D.C. film production tax credits, most recently for The Christmas Lottery, directed by Tamika Miller and aired on BET. The movie, about a family who comes together after their father wins the lottery but have to search for the lost ticket, had been scheduled to shoot in Los Angeles, but Covid-19 prevented production there. Instead, scenes were shot at locations including The Coupe, a coffeehouse and bar in the Columbia Heights area.
“I said absolutely we can” shoot in D.C., West said. “Everyone was very pleased, and we were very Covid compliant.”
Producers have also faced daunting permitting challenges if they shoot at federal property, but West said that they would meet with the D.C. film office before a shoot “so they know exactly what we are expecting and what they are expecting.” He credits the renewed emphasis on production to Mayor Muriel Bowser and film office director Angie Gates. A challenge is also tapping into production talent, as D.C. has not had the critical mass like New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta. But West said that they drew in part on crews from Baltimore, some of whom worked on House of Cards, and also trained production personnel in the district.
And in a reversal of sorts of the trend, in which producers often choose other cities to double for D.C., district locations actually were used in The Christmas Lottery to double for Houston.
Last year, author George Pelecanos debuted his movie DC Noir, which was shot in all four quadrants of the city. He told The Washington Post, “We’re trying to show that we can make movies here. We’re shooting places in the city, not just the monuments.”
That has been the case with other movies, like St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) and Chances Are (1989), which filmed in Georgetown, and going even farther back, to Houseboat (1958), a Cary Grant-Sophia Lauren classic that, when not using rear-screen projection, included scenes at the Watergate steps and Glen Echo Park. Perhaps the most famous of all non-political themed movies shot in D.C. was The Exorcist (1973), using locations in the area of Georgetown University, the alma mater of author William Peter Blatty. Although Exorcist was not a political film, director William Friedkin recalled in an interview in 2018 that as the crew stayed across the Potomac river in the Key Bridge Marriott, Bob Woodward was meeting with Deep Throat that summer at a nearby parking garage.
More often than not, though, productions draw on D.C. for the landmarks but the bulk of shooting is done elsewhere, as has been the case with House of Cards, largely shot in Maryland, and Veep, in Maryland and later L.A.
Lost Holiday, from Thomas and Michael Kerry Matthews, has barely a mention of the monuments, and instead features the city’s wealthy northwest side as a character. In the independent movie, now on Amazon Prime, a grad student (Kate Lyn Sheil) returns home to the D.C. area for the holidays along with her best friend (Thomas Matthews) and, in a drug-filled evening, they get intertwined with the mysterious disappearance of an heiress.
A big part of the story takes place in Rock Creek Park, the largest urban park in the U.S.
“Michael and I felt that, as with The Exorcist and Being There [with outdoor scenes shot in D.C.] there’s a distinctively noir-ish quality that the bare woods add to the surrounding Neo-classical and deco architecture in D.C.,” said Thomas Matthews, a native of the area, who says the project is “a little bit of a torn love letter to the social circle we grew up in.”
“Also, as with L.A. and Detroit, D.C. is a 100% industry town, so the people who grow up here always have a feeling like they’re ‘outside looking in,’ ” he said. As the characters drive around town, they listen to an NPR-like commentary, voiced by Emily Mortimer, that is one of the few references to the politics of the surroundings.
“Our hope was to bridge the gap between our character’s inner turmoil and a much greater disconnect in our socio political culture as a whole, that we’re all looking for quick answers to super complicated questions,” Matthews said.
He said that the district’s film office — accustomed to requests from big-budget studios to shoot inserts into mega pics, kind of laughed when they told them that they were “making a DIY mystery-comedy.”
“They offered for us to shoot at an abandoned police headquarters and it was like a dark depressing Christmas miracle,” he said. A concert scene was shot at the 14th Street club The Pinch, as well as Inner Ear Studio in Arlington. They got around some of the red tape by shooting sans a tripod, and “got shots of the monuments by pointing the camera out a van on I-395.”
A monument has been made of one shooting location — the steps in Georgetown where Father Damien had his fatal plunge in The Exorcist. Five years ago, recognizing the steps as its own tourist destination, the district installed a plaque at the site.