City Desk

The FBI’s Video Had Chinatown Pose as Shanghai Because That Was Cheaper

Earlier this week, City Desk took a jab at a new FBI video that tries to pass off D.C.'s Chinatown as Shanghai. In a few of the shots, the movie didn't even seem to try to disguise that it was Chinatown: The Friendship Archway, the distinct diagonal crosswalk on 7th and H streets NW, and the AT&T logo at that intersection were all in clear view.

The video, Game of Pawns, which was shot in 2012 and publicly released Monday, is intended as a warning to American students studying abroad about the dangers of getting caught up in foreign espionage activities. It dramatizes the true story of Glenn Duffie Shriver, an American student studying in China who was sentenced to federal prison in the U.S. in 2011 for attempting to provide national defense information to Chinese officials.

But City Desk spoke today to the project's art director, Eric Hunsaker, who thinks some of the criticism the FBI's work has gotten is a bit harsh and not entirely accurate. Yes, he concedes, the Friendship Arch is a dead giveaway for Chinatown, but there were a number of scenes that were a lot more subtly shot in the D.C. area—and may have even passed for Shanghai, or at least didn't immediately take the viewer to the Verizon Center.

For instance, the university that Shriver is studying at in China is actually the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center off Georgia Avenue NW. The club in Shanghai where Shriver parties with a friend? That's Lima Lounge on 14th and K streets NW. And the hotel where Shriver meets another character, Amanda? That's the Hilton in McLean.

Hunsaker says they considered sending the main character and cinematographer Johnny Saint-Ours to Shanghai to film a few scenes, but that got too expensive. (According to his IMDB profile, Saint Hours also works on HBO's Skin to the Max, a documentary series that looks at "hot and erotic world of real sex clubs.")

"Like most decisions this one came down to dollar and cents," Hunsaker says. "[The film's production company Rocket Media] does a remarkably good job, they are creative and resourceful, but at the end of the day they are in business."

Hunsaker says that based on his research, Rosslyn's architecture actually looks a lot more like Shanghai than Chinatown. Some of the outdoor street scenes were shot in Rosslyn, and he says he advised against including a shot of the Friendship Arch, since that would immediately trigger visions of the non-Chinese D.C. Chinatown among Beltway viewers.

"I warned them against filming the Friendship Arch," he says. "You don't want your audience to look up and say there's 7th Street, and they went against my advice." Ultimately, he says, they decided to film in Chinatown because there are crowds and a lot of texture in the scenery. He says they added additional Chinese signage in the Chinatown shots and left the At&T logo in because Shanghai is filled with American brands.

He adds that the video wasn't low-budget. He didn't know how much it cost, but says police and intelligence agencies have been beefing up their budget for these types of things. The FBI paid Rocket Media a total of $1.6 million for video productions in 2012, government records show. Hunsaker adds that, despite previous reports, no green screen was used making the video—instead, they used compositing techniques to get backdrops of the actual Shanghai skyline.

The video can be seen below. If you're convinced about the quality of the film, the newly released sequel can be seen here.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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