Source: Wikimedia Commons
Over a decade after 9/11, Americans are still eager to see anti-U.S. forces outsmarted by America’s finest at the Central Intelligence Agency. Just last year, films like Argo flourished at both the box office and the Oscars, while the Showtime series Homeland became one of the year’s best-reviewed television shows. But where did they film scenes that take place at the George Bush Center for Intelligence in Langley, Virginia? Surely, the agency that’s supposedly shrouded in secrecy and unspeakable importance wouldn’t let creatives into its walls so easily?
Argo, last year’s winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, was filmed primarily in Los Angeles. Scenes of the CIA Headquarters were mostly filmed in the Los Angeles Times building. (Somewhat ironically, the LA Times wrote a piece rounding up Argo‘s filming locations, nonchalantly mentioning their own contribution.) Admittedly, the office space did look awfully… low-tech. Then again, the film takes place in the ’70s, so the production design was probably spot-on for the time period.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
An early scene in Argo.
Many political thrillers on TV, which often feature the CIA, are not filmed anywhere close to the D.C. area. Homeland is closest in Charlotte, North Carolina, while series like Scandal and Covert Affairs are shot primarily in LA and Toronto, respectively. Alex Gansa, one of Homeland‘s co-creators and writers, explained that filming in D.C. is difficult for two reasons. First, it’s economically easier to film in states like Maryland, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, which offer 25% tax breaks to producers. In addition, scheduling TV shoots in D.C. is difficult because governmental powers can revoke permits at any time for whatever political (and presidential) reasons.
Homeland features Langley as one of its scenic hubs and shoots its scenes at the Cambridge Corporate Center in Charlotte. While it might not match the real Langley’s size or scope, it’s got enough style and sleekness to support the show’s twisty, conspiracy-laden plot. Its website boasts pictures of spiral staircases, aerial walkways, an interior garden, and proximity to Starbucks–which might explain how protagonist Carrie Mathison, an analyst, never seems to sleep.
So what’s the CIA’s official stance on filming at Langley? Its Entertainment Industry Liaison website states: “In some cases, we permit filming on our headquarters compound…We can also provide stock footage of locations within and around our main building.” (This explains why all exterior shots of Langley look the same!) Other than that, the site is predictably ambiguous about what they will or won’t tolerate.
Get in touch with the author @YiinYangYale.