There are lots of reasons why the nation’s movie industry is based in Southern California and not Northern Virginia. On a relatively mild evening in December 2000, local film producers Jeffrey Benya and Sharza Lozier discovered that weather is a big one.
They were shooting an ambitious crowd scene for their D.C. spy thriller City of Secrets. As the filming dragged on, the temperature began dropping until, finally, the first snowflakes of the year started falling on the crew and the nearly 80 actors who had come dressed to shoot a summer cocktail party. “Right before every take, all these people had to rip off their coats and pretend they were warm,” recalls Benya, who is the film’s director and writer. “Everyone’s noses were all red. If you look closely, at the end of the scene you can see the frost coming out of people’s mouths.”
This weekend, City of Secrets will be screened at the 12th annual Rosebud Film and Video Festival, a showcase for local filmmakers. The work-in-progress grew from the conviction that weather is about the only thing California has over D.C.: Tired of movies and TV shows that use Washington and its denizens as backdrops or plot points but film in more predictable climes, Benya—who lives in Silver Spring, Md., and works as a film editor for Northern Virginia Community College and the PAX television network—decided to produce an independent film. What he had in mind, he says, was something with slightly higher aspirations—and production values—than “three people running around in the woods.”
The result is a 94-minute spy thriller about a retired government assassin living in the Virginia suburbs who gets summoned back into service when nuclear terrorists threaten the nation’s capital. “It’s an action film—sort of a cross between West Wing and James Bond,” says Lozier, who plays lead character Angelique. “There’s a lot of action, a lot of movement, a lot of excitement.”
Indeed: In addition to its hefty cast of extras, City of Secrets offers a considerable amount of fighting, shooting, and blood—and a seemingly only-in-the-movies tale of behind-the-scenes serendipity. Partway through the two-day filming of a speedboat/jet ski chase on a river near Annapolis, Benya’s boat broke down. The crew managed to hail a passing couple—who happened to know Lozier and were willing to lend the group their vessel to finish the shoot. Local connections like that helped the producers keep out-of-pocket expenses at about $25,000 (the project was financed by Benya and Lozier), tapping into the enthusiasm of area film crews and local actors looking for something a little more exciting than work in government training films and documentaries. Some—including an actor who works for the CIA and another whose wife works for the National Security Agency—even provided a small window into the real-life workings of the agencies around town. “A lot of people wanted to be involved,” says Benya. “No one’s been paid any cash, but if the project sells, everybody expects to be paid according to their time.”
With everything but final editing and a few audio dubs done, Benya and Lozier have been shopping the film around to national networks as a potential TV movie with hopes of a regular show to follow.
City of Secrets, says the film’s press materials, was conceptualized to “tell a plausible DC story.” So is the movie’s depiction of a Washington filled with superspies, weapons smugglers, and contract assassins realistic? “This seems like a very calm city, but this is where most of the spies live,” Lozier says. “There’s something about D.C. that is exciting. It’s the center of things. If James Bond was going to live anywhere, he’d probably live here.” —Andrew Curry