Murder at 1600: About The Production

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Arnold Kopelson was immediately intrigued when he was offered the script for "Murder at 1600." "Lately, the White House has been vulnerable to a surprisingly wide variety of assaults," says the Oscar-winning producer. "It means that the events of the outside world could conceivably extend to that unique environment within the White House, and I was interested in what the consequences of that would be in the very fortress of American power."

Kopelson and producer Arnon Milchan offered the script to director Dwight Little, whose previous action dramas include "Marked For Death," starring Steven Seagal, and "Rapid Fire," starring the late Brandon Lee. Says Little, "While I've made action pictures before, I'd never done a suspense thriller, and political thrillers are probably my favorite movie genre; I love those seminal conspiracy movies of the '70s."

The filmmakers considered the requirements for the lead role of Harlan Regis and quickly agreed that they wanted Wesley Snipes. Explains Kopelson, "Wesley brings an intelligence to Regis that makes him a memorable character, both smart and physical, with a sense of humor that brings the role to life. We were absolutely thrilled to work with him."

Responds Snipes, "I wanted the opportunity to do a suspense role, which is usually reserved for more mature actors. Plot-driven movies such as this are not motivated by the punch and the kick -- the thrill is more intellectual.

"In this case, it's interesting to watch a guy who's somewhat jaded -- not much about his job is new to him anymore and he thinks he knows all the quirks and angles of Washington, D.C.. Then he gets involved in this White House murder investigation and he might as well be in a foreign country -- everything he thinks he knows is turned upside down. He has to rely on his intuition, his native intelligence and his determination to persevere. It makes the entire experience new for him -- and, I hope, interesting to watch."

While "Murder at 1600" is a political thriller, it is also at its heart a murder mystery, rife with suspects. Says producer Arnon Milchan, "All of the characters come with their own histories, which gradually become known to Regis. Once he figures out that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that several people stand to gain from certain resolutions of this murder, they all become suspects."

Washington, D.C. boasts some 30 different policing agencies, ranging from the Capitol Hill Police to the Park Police, and from the Secret Service to the CIA. If, indeed, a murder were committed in the White House, which agency, or agencies, would actually have jurisdiction? In "Murder at 1600," a D.C. homicide detective is called in to investigate the murder, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service-affiliated White House security force, who assign their own agent, Nina Chance, to the murder investigation.

Agent Chance, played by Diane Lane, is a rigidly attentive, by-the-book member of the Secret Service team; when her boss, Nick Spikings, tells her to keep an eye on Regis and wrap things up right away, she is determined to follow his instructions to the letter. But as she and Regis over come their initial antagonism toward each other, Chance discovers that her own commitment to integrity may not extend to the other members of the White House security forces. She unexpectedly finds herself allied with the very person she was expected to monitor, as Chance and Regis race to unravel an increasingly sinister plot.

Lane was attracted to the role in "Murder at 1600" because, "Nina stands by her personal code," she says. "That's one of the things I love about her. In order to do her job, she has to betray the oath she took, but she does what she knows is right. The minute she crosses the line into that felonious, maybe even treasonous area by investigating her own agency, she sacrifices her career. I like her struggle."

Agent Chance is a gold medal-winning Olympic sharpshooter, a Secret Service agent who takes pride in her abilities. Lane herself is an experienced markswoman, who has done her share of target shooting. "I know what guns do and don't do, so I was sure to be confident but also accurate."

The ensemble cast of distinguished talent on "Murder at 1600" was further enriched by the casting of Alan Alda as Alvin Jordan, the National Security Advisor who has been the President's close friend, ally and confidant for decades.

Says director Dwight Little, "Alan Alda is an American institution, and his presence brings a wonderful credibility to the idea of the Federal government. His presence adds a weight and authenticity to his character."

Daniel Benzali, who soared to stardom in the critically-acclaimed TV series "Murder One," plays Nick Spikings, head of the White House security forces.

Benzali describes Spikings as "very hard-nosed and dedicated to his work." Spikings and Detective Regis become antagonists at once. "My character resents Regis for intruding on his territory, in his house. Both men are just doing their jobs, but inevitably they clash. To a career Secret Service operative like Spikings, the White House is his house, and he is protecting his house and his family."

Emmy Award-winning comic actor Dennis Miller plays Detective Stengel, Regis' rumpled, cynical partner, with Miller's trademark dry wit. Stengel finds the playing field of the investigation a little hard to relate to, and never misses an opportunity to comment ironically on the futility of Regis' dogged search for the truth.

Comments Kopelson, "Dennis Miller is a brilliant comic; we thought that his particular brand of cutting social commentary was a sort of Greek chorus for the story, reminding Harlan Regis all the time that this isn't just a murder investigation, it's a violation of the sanctity of the White House and its occupants. Stengel thinks nothing can touch people at that level of power. What's interesting is that the security forces inside the White House think the same thing, and that's what finally brings them down."

Regarding the casting of veteran actor Ronny Cox as the President, Anne Kopelson says, "Ronny has both the charisma and the elegance of a President. Since we don't see him very much in the story, he has to convey a lot simply with his image, and he did that beautifully."

Cox previously played the President in "Captain America," and recently starred as Warren G. Harding in the stage production of "Camping with Henry and Tom." He muses, "Playing the President is a little like playing a king in Shakespeare. You get to be the President by the way everyone else treats you. And I've really had the opportunity to work with the 'A Team' on this film. The Kopelsons really know what they're doing."

He adds, "I'm very pleased that the production was careful not to be disrespectful. There is a certain dignity to the office, and while the President is a suspect in the story, I believe we've all been very protective of the dignity of the office."

Penetrating the White House

The suspense in "Murder at 1600" centers around the White House, one of the most famous but still mysterious buildings in America. While millions have visited the public spaces in the Executive Mansion, far fewer have spent time in the First Family's living quarters, and fewer still have seen the physical plant of the building, including its heating system, basements and storage rooms. Yet much of the action in the movie takes place in those very regions, requiring the filmmakers to create plausible extensions of the building we all think we know.

"The White House is an icon," says executive producer Stephen Brown. "It's also a very real place, and it's a very exciting idea to penetrate the White House, home to the leader of the last remaining superpower."

Director Dwight Little made many visits to the White House, commenting, "On the VIP tour, I realized how ordinary the White House really is. It needs constant attention and upkeep: the paint is a problem; there are rat traps around the Rose Garden; they have problems like everyone else. When you get into the hallways of the White House, you realize that this is a working space. There were painters, contractors, laborers of different kinds, office workers, delivery people. I'm sure it's quite secure, but a lot of people come and go from that building."

"Enormous research was done to make sure that our White House was authentic and believable, down to every detail," asserts production designer Nelson Coates, who supervised construction of a 30,000 square foot White House set which was built on soundstages. Coates' research included a number of White House visits, during which he furiously scribbled notes and sketches, as cameras are not permitted. He says, "Several new books about the White House were recently published, and we consulted those, along with the souvenir guide books which each administration puts out. In each photo, the camera angle would move a foot here or there, and eventually, we pasted together a jigsaw puzzle-type image."

While he did look at a collection of recent motion pictures set in the White House, he did so only after he'd made very strong choices for "Murder at 1600." Explains Coates, "This White House was based on the script and not on other films. Most movies don't include details such as air-conditioning vents, but this one does."

In all, the film used more than 102 different fabrics for the White House set alone. The magnificent carpet in the Oval Office is a laser-cut reproduction of the current one in President Bill Clinton's office. The opulent White House set featured a series of adjoining offices and hallways, permitting fluid movement from the Oval Office to the surrounding spaces.

"However," warns Dwight Little, "Jack Neil is a fictional President and the events during his presidency are fictional, so his White House is slightly fictional as well."

"The colors have been de-saturated to achieve the effect of impending disaster," says director of photography Steven Bernstein. "It's darker and more ominous than the real White House, with more subtle and somber tones."

Bernstein continues, "'Murder at 1600' is a thriller, with lots of locations where action unfolds under heavy rain, which reduces the ambient light. The compositions are based on heavy and claustrophobic interiors, and the tops of sets were kept dark. The White House, which is a white house, was especially challenging. We used lots of steadicam, weaving in and out of narrow corridors, to create tension. As the camera moves along the corridors, you never know what is around the next corner."

Some of the most exciting action in the picture takes place in an intricate network of underground tunnels which lead into and out of the White House. According to writer Wayne Beach, "Legend has it that, at the early part of the century, one particularly randy President had tunnels constructed so that he could sneak in and out of the White House to visit his mistresses." While it is not known whether tunnels actually connect the White House to other federal buildings, a web of service tunnels some seven and a half miles long do run beneath the main Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

During the tunnel sequences and a number of other action scenes in the movie, Wesley Snipes often did his own stunt work. A trained martial artist, he says, "Some of the action we did was very raw, very real and very exciting. Doing my own stunts lends to the authenticity. I think people appreciate it, and it makes the character more interesting."

Lane's character, Nina Chance, is no shrinking violet, either. "In movies of the past, women tended to play damsels in distress," says Lane. "They didn't contribute to the action of the movie like Nina does. I think she's more like the women who really do work in today's Secret Service."

An interesting aspect of Harlan Regis' character is his passion for American history. In his apartment, the detective has created a gigantic model of Washington as it was during the Civil War, which he has spent years assembling. When a government agency notifies the building's residents that they are constructing a garage on that site and the building is condemned, Regis is overwhelmed by his conviction that his enormous, intricate models would be impossible to move out of his home. But when Regis' historical knowledge about his hometown helps him solve the present-day murder in the White House, he seizes the moment in an unexpectedly humorous way and fixes two problems at once.

Wesley Snipes concludes, "Regis is a big kid with toy soldiers and an affection for the Civil War. And as he's trying to save all of America, he's in the process of being evicted." He laughs, "He's trying to save the White House, but he can't even save his own house."

Warner Bros. Presents, In Association with Regency Enterprises, An Arnold Kopelson Production of A Dwight Little Film: Wesley Snipes in "Murder at 1600," starring Diane Lane, Alan Alda, Daniel Benzali, Ronny Cox and Dennis Miller. The music is by Christopher Young; the film is edited by Billy Weber; and the production designer is Nelson Coates. The director of photography is Steven Bernstein and the film is co-produced by Ralph S. Singleton. The executive producers are Anne Kopelson, Michael Nathanson and Stephen Brown. "Murder at 1600" is written by Wayne Beach & David Hodgin; it is produced by Arnold Kopelson and Arnon Milchan; and it is directed by Dwight Little. It is distributed by Warner Bros., A Time Warner Entertainment Company.

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