This Man’s Quest to Make D.C. More Fully Represented in Film

Hollywood only ever recognizes Washington as a political city. George Pelecanos wants to change that.

George Pelecanos is one of D.C.’s foremost chroniclers. But the D.C. of a George Pelecanos novel is not the one you’re used to seeing on film and television. There’s a reason for that: Hollywood producers are narrowly focused on Washington as a political city and rarely explore life being lived outside its halls of power.

That could change, argues Pelecanos, a D.C. area native, if filmmakers had more incentive to shoot their projects within the city limits. Too often, film crews shoot only cutaway shots of the monuments and famous sights (what I call “the usual suspects”), but then film the rest of their movie or TV series somewhere else. If they had a better reason to stay in Washington—like through a reliable tax credit—and were exposed to more of the district’s beauty and history, producers would quickly recognize how ripe the city is for non-political stories.

Pelecanos, 61, has told many such stories in his more than 20 crime novels set in and around Washington. (His latest, The The Man Who Came Uptown, was published last September.) Since collaborating with David Simon as a writer and co-producer on the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, Pelecanos has been delving deeper and deeper into the visual art form. He’s written multiple episodes for Treme, co-created The Duece, and is now doing what he’s always wanted to do: making films in Washington about the people of Washington. He’s just completed D.C. Noir, an anthology film of gritty tales set in D.C.’s underbelly.

I recently caught up with Pelecanos, who Esquire magazine once called “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world,” to talk about why his hometown is so singularly represented on the screen—and what can be done about it. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

NK: What led you to make this latest film, D.C. Noir?

GP: I had made a movie, The Confidential Informant, based on one of my short stories. The guy who produced it said to me, “Why don’t you write a few more of these based on your stories and we’ll do an anthology film.” My ulterior motive, though, was to create a relationship with the District of Columbia vis-a-vis film production because I’ve been trying for years to get stuff off the ground here.

NK: You’ve had problems with that in the past?

GP: I had a project at HBO that was based on Hard Revolution, my novel about the 1968 riots. That was something that I was determined to do here. HBO then put a pin in it. I can go out and sell it somewhere else. If I ever do, it’s going to be a stipulation that I shoot it here, which is a hard line to stand on because of the studios. Generally, you don’t get to shoot where you want. It’s contractual. They send you wherever they want you to shoot your film because of the tax credit.

But I’m not going to do it anywhere else. I’ve been talking to the D.C. film office about that for years. They have been very cooperative. They want the same thing I want, which is to get production going here on an ongoing and meaningful basis, not second unit stuff in which they come here and shoot for a week.

NK: I know you’re a native D.C. son, but what is it about the city that is not regularly captured that makes it such a compelling subject and location for film and television?

GP: The beauty of it, for one thing. The landscape, the architecture that is never shown. The whole city, not the federal city. And then, more importantly, capturing us as a culture. The way we talk and dress. Our music, go-go music, which most people don’t know about. It’s about showing our colors basically and it’s never really been done before. And when it has been done by outsiders, they get it wrong.

NK: What do they get wrong?

GP: I’ll give you an example. House of Cards had this thread where Reg Cathey played a guy who had a barbeque joint. The idea that this cracker, this congressman [“Francis Underwood” played by Kevin Spacey], would go over there and this black man on the other side of town would open his door to him in the afterhours, and they would talk about life and stuff like that, was, on the surface, ridiculous.

NK: Are you familiar with Mike Canning? He wrote a book called Hollywood on the Potomac. His thesis is that D.C.’s persona of politics is the only one Hollywood ever focuses on. Beyond that, they just don’t see us living here. They think the city is comprised only of politicians or faceless bureaucrats.

GP: They’re not talking about the living city. They’re talking about a small portion of the city. What would have to happen to change that is, first, they would want to shoot here, and what would make them want to shoot here is a large tax credit. And then they would be forced to find locations in the city. And that’s how they would branch out and get to know us.

NK: Does D.C. not offer a tax credit to attract Hollywood producers?

GP: You can’t go to HBO and say, “Washington will give us a 35 percent tax credit.” What you can do is say they are willing to negotiate about shooting in Washington [depending on the availability of funds]. But the studios know that they can go to New York and get that tax credit. They know they can go to Louisiana and Atlanta. When I was shooting The Deuce, there were forty productions shooting concurrently in New York City. Forty productions.

On a show like mine, I got about a couple hundred people on the crew, spending money in New York, living in New York, buying real estate there. I know that because I have to keep a record for tax reasons. I personally spent $25,000 in New York last year, just on living expenses. On top of that, I paid payroll taxes, personally, to New York State.

NK: How can city leaders make D.C. an attractive place to actually shoot film and television productions?

GP: What should happen ideally—and what I’m hoping to be involved in—is not one movie. If you get something like a Law and Order here—that ran for twenty years. That’s what needs to happen, because other things happen around that. The infrastructure grows: You need sound houses; you need trucking companies; you need places to park the trucks. If you just have a few shows that run for a few years, that’s what triggers it all. It can’t just be giving money to one movie studio for one movie. They go away. It’s like the carnival coming to town. They pull the stakes up and leave. What you want is for people to come here and live.

NK: What about indigenous independent filmmakers? It seems like they could really help. Given what a fertile setting D.C. is for film, why hasn’t it produced someone like John Waters of Baltimore, or Richard Linklater of Austin, or Tyler Perry of Atlanta?

GP: Well … I’m trying.

Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley is an author, journalist, and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C.