Baltimore stars as a stunt double for Washington

April 29, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Eleven years ago, in the film Major League II, Baltimore was standing in for Cleveland. Now, we're playing Northern Virginia and Washington - at least a nominal step up.

Baltimore and its northern suburbs get some serious screen time in XXX: State of the Union, the adrenalized action flick opening today at a theater somewhere near you. For roughly two weeks last September, the film's cast and crew - including director Lee Tamahori and star Ice Cube - set up camp in and around Charm City to film several of the movie's key action scenes.

Which is why that scene where Cube's Darius Stone character leap-frogs his boat onto a D.C.-area bridge might look familiar; it was actually shot on Hanover Street's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge. Or why the exterior of that high-tech chop shop, with the "Capitol Theatre" sign on the front, might ring a bell; it's really the old American brewery on Gay Street. Or why the prison break might look like something you've seen on the local news; it's really the House of Correction in Jessup that's up there on the big screen.

Having a major film shot in Baltimore "lends some excitement" to the area, says Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. "Tomorrow, when Baltimoreans are going to go into theaters, they're going to see their hometown on the big screen, as will probably [audiences in] 3,000 theaters across the country. It brings Baltimore to a nationwide viewing audience."

It also brings in a few dollars, no small consideration. Gerbes estimates State of the Union pumped nearly $5 million into the local economy.

None of the shots proved more difficult, or nerve-racking, than the jump over the 88-year-old Hanover Street span, a major thoroughfare for north- and southbound traffic. For most city residents, all they knew was the inconvenience caused by having the bridge closed. What they didn't know was the logistical nightmare involved in getting permission to film on the bridge in the first place.

"That was probably about four to five months in the works to make that happen," Gerbes says. "The city had to consult engineers, traffic control, public works, construction, all sorts of people. They had to make sure this was doable, and that it didn't do any damage to the bridge."

And it wasn't just city officials who had to sign off on it before the scene was shot, Gerbes adds. Among the other agencies

that had to be consulted: the Maryland Department of the Environment, Department of Natural Resources, Transportation Authority and Port Administration; police and fire departments from both Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties; the U.S. Coast Guard, even the Office of Homeland Security.

In the scene, Cube's character is fleeing some NSA types who don't like that he's just broken into one of their underground centers and stolen part of a computer's memory. Piloting a motorized pontoon boat at breakneck speed - nothing in State of the Union moves slowly - he's got to somehow get off the boat and into a waiting car atop the bridge.

Being a resourceful guy, Cube simply uses a handy construction boat as a launch ramp and hurtles onto the bridge.

"It was nightmarish, but it was also very exciting," Hannah Byron, director of the Baltimore Film Office, says of both the preparation for and filming of the sequence, which occurs about 25 minutes into the film and lasts about a minute. "Once you actually saw how they had everything rigged ... it was much more gentle than what you saw on the screen. If anything dropped in the water, there were divers right there, and there were boats with nets, ready to pick up anything."

Adds Gerbes, "The boat is really just a Styrofoam shell. It's the magic of Hollywood."

Less familiar to local audiences will be two sites north of Baltimore. One, which doubles for the home of a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who gets killed, with Cube's character being blamed), is a majestic mansion in the middle of northern Baltimore County's horse country. The other, seen in the film's opening sequence, is a pastoral, 133-acre horse farm in the Darlington area of Harford County.

"They blew up a car, they drove through some barn doors ... it was all very interesting," says Audrey Murray, who owns Murmur Farm with her husband, Allen. "I would look out the window at 7 a.m., and there must have been 150 people getting ready to film. And they would be there until 8 p.m."

Everybody, she says, was welcome to watch the filming, including several of the Murrays' grandchildren, who took a day off school to soak up what was going on. "Our employees didn't do any work that week," Audrey Murray says with a laugh.

So, how much did the Murrays get paid for lending their farm as a location for the next Hollywood blockbuster, a film with an estimated budget of $118 million? Mrs. Murray isn't saying, but she does provide a hint: It was more than enough to pay for the ocean cruise she and her husband took when the filmmakers returned for a second round of shooting.

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