Film Brings Smithsonian’s Characters, Relics to Life

Posted May 20, 2009 at 4:19pm

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, Attila the Hun and Ivan the Terrible faced off on the National Mall, look no further than the new film “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.—

The largest museum in the world — and the gem of D.C. tourism — is the backdrop for this family comedy that features characters and objects from the Smithsonian coming to life for one crazy night. Opening Friday, the film is a sequel to the 2006 film “Night at the Museum,— which grossed more than $250 million.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement and pride— about the movie, says Claire Brown, spokeswoman for the National Air and Space Museum, where a portion of the film was shot. “We did have the opportunity to read the script, and so after reading it, we thought this is really going to be a good way for the Smithsonian to reach out, particularly to children and families.—

The Smithsonian was drawn to the idea after seeing the success that the first film brought the American Museum of Natural History in New York. After “Night at the Museum— opened in 2006, the museum’s attendance spiked by about 20 percent, according to film director Shawn Levy.

[IMGCAP(1)]“We think it will increase attendance and also increase interest in the museum,— Brown says. “We hope children and families — if they can’t make it this summer —will come later to visit.—

Free publicity isn’t all the museum got out of the filming. 20th Century Fox, the company behind the movie, paid location fees, licensing fees and presented the museum with an opportunity to share in the merchandising profits. In exchange for all of this, the museum allowed the crew to film in the Air and Space Museum over the course of four days in May 2008. The Smithsonian also supplied paint and carpet samples of the museum so it could be re-created in a movie studio in Vancouver, where some of the more destructive scenes were shot.

“When they shot on location, they shot in a couple of galleries here at the Air and Space Museum,— Brown says. “They didn’t touch the objects, and obviously we wouldn’t allow them to get into artifacts.—

For instance, at one point in the film Amelia Earhart pilots a plane out of museum and onto the National Mall. This scene was shot in Canada so as not to harm any of the museum’s priceless pieces. Levy joked at a press conference last week that he had to promise the museum “I won’t break anything— before he was given the green light to shoot in D.C.

Levy and the stars of the film were feted with a red carpet premiere on the mall last week that was attended by such noteworthy Washingtonians as Chief Justice John Roberts, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). While these folks may be famous inside the Beltway, that didn’t stop them from getting star struck around the actors.

“I remember seeing [Robin Williams] on TV with Mork & Mindy,’— Matsui says. “He’s such a talented actor, and he was really almost like a little kid— at the premiere.

Just as political types were excited to see the actors, Hollywood types were thrilled to be in Washington.

Actor Ben Stiller, who plays hero Larry Daley in the film, says that the Smithsonian has always been his favorite museum and that he remembers coming as a kid to see the USS Enterprise from Star Trek. All this added to his excitement about filming in the museum.

“It was really fun to be around that stuff, the real stuff — the real Spirit of St. Louis,— he says, referring to the planes and spaceships that dangle from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum.

In celebration of “Night at the Museum’s— release, the Air and Space Museum will be showing the movie at its IMAX theater through June 19. The museum will also offer a “treasure map— to visitors that highlights where the objects seen in the movie can be found in the museum.

Elizabeth Brotherton contributed to this report.