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With the close of its first season two Sundays ago on HBO, Veep—Armando Iannucci’s heroically profane comedy about the vice presidency—achieved a feat few television shows about Washington can claim: It’s pretty damned good. But it does have something in common with its D.C.-set forebears. For the most part, Veep was filmed elsewhere.
When the Veep crew did make the trek down from Baltimore to shoot exterior shots here, it was in the hands of location scout Patrick Burn, an old hand in the local film scene and a photographer by training. Over the last 20 years, he’s worked on films like Nixon, Salt, My Fellow Americans, J. Edgar, True Lies, the Bourne and National Treasure series, and Iannucci’s In the Loop, as well as TV shows like K Street, The Wire, and the recent (and recently canceled) The Firm. After looking at scripts, Burn scouts out locations by photographing them panoramically, and then reconstructs the settings digitally. For the would-be location scout, he offered a few tips.
Productions Want a Landmark in the Background
The goal is to help viewers identify the story as being authentically Washingtonian, Burn says. Sometimes, in order to do this, he has to cheat with geography. On the shoot of a television movie about Oliver North, the director didn’t like that the U.S. Capitol was so far in the background in scenes set at the Willard Hotel. Ultimately, the crew filmed their interior shots at the Willard, and then built an awning at Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street NW, from which they filmed the Capitol in closer view.
National Park Service land may be off-limits, but you can work around it
“The National Park Service doesn’t allow you to shoot anything that the regular public won’t do,” says Burn. For a scene in The Firm in which a character runs across the reflecting pool, the crew shot the actor coming up to the body of water and intercut it with footage filmed in Toronto.
Similarly, in Nixon, there’s a scene in which Anthony Hopkins walks up to a Lincoln Memorial occupied by protesters lighting candles and camping in Lincoln’s lap. With fire in the Lincoln Memorial a no-no, the crew shot Hopkins walking toward the White House and edited in flames in post-production. A replica of the Lincoln Memorial was built in Los Angeles to shoot the rest.
Don’t sweat the geographic details
“It doesn’t matter whether the geography makes sense to people who actually live in D.C.,” says Burn, citing the well-known scene in which Kevin Costner emerges from a “Georgetown Metro” station in No Way Out. In a scene in Salt, Angelina Jolie was shot running into the Navy Memorial Metro station. But the production wanted a shot of her running out of the station and off a bridge, so they filmed her running from L’Enfant Plaza and etched a piece of glass with “Navy Memorial.”
Forget the height limit
When Burn worked on the TV show Seven Days, the script called for a background of skyscrapers. Burn found a location on Connecticut Avenue NW west of the National Zoo, where the slope gave the illusion of height.
Be Smart about Substitutions
Close up, the lawn of the Department of Agriculture works as a stand-in for the White House’s. For interior shots, D.A.R. Constitution Hall can serve the same role, Burn says. And the Baltimore Convention Center can be a stand-in for National Airport.
Photocollage by Jandos Rothstein, source material by sneakerdog, cvconnell and kevin dooley. Creative Commons 2.0 attribution, share alike.