It’s hard to film in D.C., with the permits and expenses and logistics. But it is even harder if the film takes place in a different era. We have seen two recent instances in which films have tried to recreate an older D.C., including one last weekend. It’s all about finding the right location.
1940-1944 – The Lindbergh Years
What if Charles Lindbergh was elected President in 1940? That’s the premise of a Philip Roth novel and a new HBO mini-series that was filming in D.C. last weekend – The Plot Against America, starring Winona Ryder.
One of the main scenes being filmed was at John Marshall Park, where a crowd has gathered to gaze up at Lindbergh flying on one of his trips during his presidency.
This scene looks purely 1940, although D.C. natives may notice something about the courthouse in the background. The building dates back to 1849, and served as city hall and various courthouses for much of its history. But it was not the “District of Columbia Court of Appeals” until 1970, when the court was established as part of the transition to home rule.
Maybe the filming avoided focusing on the court lettering, but it looks like the camera was capturing it.
The staircase was new as of the time of the film, and would have been a major public attraction with its 230-foot width and the bas reliefs on either side. The stairs were part of the construction of the Municipal Building, on the right side of the stairs, which was completed in 1941. The film crew painted the top of the stair railings in a temporary dark finish so it took away the steel shine, although we believe that the stair railings are the original ones built in 1941.
The great costumes and props complete the 1940’s look.
And of course the 1940’s cars.
1963 – Jackie
Jackie is a 2016 movie about Jackie Kennedy’s determination to have her husband remembered as a great President. With that goal in mind, Jackie wanted a funeral procession as grand as Lincoln’s. The funeral procession went from the Capitol to the White House by motorcade, and then from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral on foot.
Much of the movie was filmed at a studio near Paris, but some key funeral scenes were filmed in D.C. at the corner of 14th and F. On one corner of the street, there’s the Willard Hotel and Schwartz’s Jewelers, both of which have stayed looking more or less the same for more than 100 years, so it is an appropriate location. But the scene is not entirely accurate – this location is a couple of blocks from the actual funeral route.
While most of the side of the Willard Hotel looks the same, moving a few feet off will reveal modern street signs – so the filming started just after the funeral cortege walked past this point.
On the other street corner, much of the Hamilton building looks the same as it did in 1963.
The Hamilton building, while it still looks the same as in 1963, has changed use – Garfinkle’s built its flagship store in 1929, and was at that location until its bankruptcy in 1990. It was a high-end retail store, and Jackie would sometimes don a disguise and sneak out of the White House to go shop there. In one of the last scenes in the movie, Jackie looks wistfully out of a car window as it goes by Garfinkle’s. During the filming, the crew loaded lots of period clothing into what is now the Hamilton in order for Jackie to be able to glimpse a replica of the Garfinkle’s window (although in the movie, the “Garfinkle’s” window still shows the gold Hamilton lettering, but you have to look carefully to see this error).
Along with the historic buildings as background, the iconic hats and hairstyles of the era make the transformation to 1963 complete.
Movies and TV shows set in D.C. usually film in other places, but some come to D.C. for a couple of days for location filming. Local news stations, DCist, and Popville will usually pick up this news and announce it a few days before, based on a police department bulletin that lists the road closures but no other information, so you may have to guess which show is being filmed and exactly where and when the actual filming will take place. If you wander about a bit, you should be able to spot some signs that have been put up to direct the cast on which way to go to the set and the canteen, and once you follow those signs, you’ll end up at the set. Sometimes crew members are sworn to silence, and sometimes they will helpfully tell you when and where the filming will occur.
Usually the crew sets up a restricted area for filming that does not shut off the entire area, so you can often get close enough to see (and photograph!) the action.
I often walk those steps at the courthouses at lunchtime as it they are located near my work. Glad to hear the history! (Great pictures too! I’m sad I missed a glimpse of the filming!)
Thanks! I’ve always enjoyed walking up those stairs too, although I’d assumed that they were built as part of the construction of John Marshall Park in the early 1980’s. It wasn’t until I started looking at the history of the Municipal Building (now the Henry J. Daly Building) that I found out the stairs were part of the building construction in 1941, when they were originally hoping to create an entire municipal campus.
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