Knight Moves: How Filmmakers Turned Chicago into Gotham City

FROM FEBRUARY 2009: With imagination, verve, and a hefty package of financial incentives, the makers of the latest Batman epic turned Chicago into Gotham City, giving our town a starring role in razzle-dazzle chases and heart-stopping stunts. Now, the movie stands as a contender for Academy Award hardware. What’s the payoff here?

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Late one pleasant night in the summer of 2007, an 18-wheeler truck snorted out a cloud of diesel exhaust, lurched into gear, and rumbled north on La Salle Street through the heart of Chicago’s Loop. Just past the intersection with Monroe, an explosion catapulted the back of the truck skyward, pile-driving its nose into the pavement and sending the entire rig into a forward cartwheel. As the concussion from the blast washed against downtown’s canyon walls, the truck climbed to perpendicular, steel frame yowling from the torque, taillights gliding past the second-story windows of marble-columned financial institutions.

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Then, with the slow-motion grace of a breaching humpback, the truck crashed onto its back in a cacophony of shattering glass and buckling sheet metal, wheels grasping for purchase against the hellfire sky.

“Cut!” commanded the director.

Nearby, scores of people engaged in making the blockbuster Batman epic The Dark Knight—the special effects experts, the stuntmen, the grips and gaffers and production assistants and all the rest—erupted in jubilant cheers and backslaps. Hollywood’s first-ever jujitsuing of a rolling tractor trailer—a stunt no one was sure would actually work—had come off without a hitch.

“When the truck was fully extended high up in the air in the midst of all those tall buildings, it was kind of awe-inspiring,” says James McAllister, the movie’s supervising location manager and a Chicago resident. “When it came crashing down, it was one of those moments where everybody was thrilled—all the crew. It was like, ‘Yeah! Nailed it—perfect!’”

Some observers simply exhaled in relief, among them Rich Moskal, the city’s point man on local film production work, who had assured nearby property managers that the city was taking all appropriate safety precautions—and who would have had to answer to his boss, Mayor Richard Daley, had something gone disastrously awry. Like just about everyone else on the set that night, Moskal had fretted that the truck might veer off course or tip sideways and crash into a building. “That’s some pretty valuable property on either side of the street,” says Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office. “Northern Trust is right there; the LaSalle Bank Building is on the east side. Those are landmark buildings, pillars of finance—irreplaceable stuff.”

Moskal was also worried about the cannon-like contraption mounted in the trailer, which would blast a two-ton steel battering ram against the pavement to flip the truck. Mindful, he says, that “all the fiber optics leading to the Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve live down there” below the street, Moskal prayed that the truck’s driver would fire the cannon at the precise spot designated by the city’s engineers to avoid harming any critical utilities. “You don’t want to wake up the following morning to headlines saying, ‘Batman Destroys Gotham City,’” Moskal says.

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Director Chris Nolan

Though it consumed just four seconds of screen time, the truck flip in The Dark Knight may have been the most spectacular stunt to grace any movie of the past year—the sort of boffo visual gag that could fuel chatter about golden statuettes come the Academy Awards on February 22nd—at least in the technical categories. (Click here to see the stunt as it appeared in the movie.) Of course, the bulk of Dark Knight-inspired awards-season buzz will remain centered on the late Heath Ledger, who died from an accidental drug overdose a few months after the movie wrapped, and whose ferocious performance as the Joker should make him a top contender for hardware among supporting actors.

The motion picture academy doesn’t hand out prizes to places for excellence in a supporting role, but if it did, surely Chicago would be a contender. With its shadowy subterranean streets, colossal urban canyons, ravishing modernist architecture, and sexy interior spaces overlooking jaw-dropping vistas, the city owns its scenes as surely as the picture’s human stars do. But the makers of The Dark Knight didn’t cast Chicago simply because it made for a convincing Gotham City—Batman’s hometown—which they envisioned as “New York on steroids,” says Nathan Crowley, the production designer. They also came to town because Chicago possessed the resources to support a “tent-pole” production—Hollywood jargon for a studio’s premier megabudget project. That was crucial given that The Dark Knight aimed to show off more of the city—and pull off more audacious stunts and pyrotechnical spectacles—than any movie ever shot here. And Chicago offered a congenial environment for filmmaking—a willingness to do anything within reason to accommodate the production.

Even today, the movie’s makers marvel at the things they were allowed to do while turning parts of downtown into a colossal movie set: buzz helicopters above city streets, send stuntmen plunging from tall buildings, race cars over large swaths of town, set off explosions galore, including the detonation of an actual building, and, yes, somersault one 40-foot-long tractor trailer through the heart of a globally crucial financial district—none of which would have been possible without the city’s eager cooperation.

“I think [the filmmakers] found all the elements they needed in Chicago,” says Wally Pfister, the movie’s director of photography, who received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography in Batman Begins, the 2005 predecessor to The Dark Knight. “Chicago gave and it gave and it gave.”

This is the story of how Hollywood went looking for the perfect city to star in one of the most hotly anticipated summer blockbusters ever, a film that became one of  the highest-grossing movies of all time. It’s also the tale of a city that dreamed of hitting it big on the silver screen and wound up landing the role of a lifetime—along the way scoring a huge payday in the form of a multimillion-dollar boost to its economy.

It all sounds like one of those satisfying tales that end happily ever after. But did it? After the final receipts are tallied and the thrill of Hollywood stardom fades, it may be worth asking if the city got as good as it gave, especially as Illinois offers up ever more lucrative financial incentives—in a sort of casting-couch competition among states—to subsidize local film production. The Dark Knight represents a high point in the city’s 30-year effort to bring the business of movie-making to town. But were the rewards really worth the price?

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