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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Though Chicago played a key role in the early days of movie-making, the business moved west in the 1920s, and for the next half century the city was largely flyover country for most Hollywood moguls. But in 1980 The Blues Brothers came out and put Chicago back on the map. “They saw that and said, ‘Wow, they let you do almost anything in Chicago,’” says Moskal. They also noticed that Chicago had interesting locations that seemed fresh and unfamiliar. And the city offered other advantages, including a thriving theatre community that allowed for local casting, as well as the hiring of indigenous professionals experienced in makeup, costume design, lighting, props construction, camera operation, and other moviemaking tasks.

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Over the next three decades, Chicago’s fortunes as a movie-making mecca would ebb and flow. In the eighties, local film production activity picked up. John Hughes by himself became a one-man champion of movies set in Chicago—particularly the North Shore—both as a writer-director (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off) and as a producer (the Home Alone series). But in the early 1990s, the boomlet tapered off largely because Hollywood had discovered Canada as a low-cost place for moviemaking, thanks to the strength of the U.S. dollar there. Chicago fought its way back after an early-nineties lull, and in 1999 enjoyed its best year ever, with three TV series shooting locally and enough movie work to generate a total of $125 million in local production spending.

Competitive forces again caught up with the city, as some U.S. states and countries such as Canada used subsidies to lure more Hollywood productions. By 2003, just four years after its best year ever, Chicago could tally just $25 million in local spending by filmmakers. By then it was clear that financial incentives were the name of the game. Without them, the city would lose ground to places that offered a better deal. But legislative efforts to establish competitive subsidies never got very far. Then the musical Chicago came out in 2002. Other than a smidgen of stock footage filmed in Chicago, the movie was shot entirely in Toronto. “That brought attention to just what we were missing out on,” says Moskal. “It was part wounded pride, part missed business opportunity, and part envy.”

So in 2004 Illinois began offering a modest tax credit that allowed film production companies to recoup some of the money they spent in the state. Even then the competition was intensifying, as other states continued to up the ante for subsidies. As recently as a decade ago, says Moskal, producers looking to film in Chicago tended to ask about the availability of locations, logistical support, and production infrastructure. “Now the first thing out of their mouths is, ‘What is your incentive program all about?’” he says. “It’s like the Wild West—the rush [by states] to one-up each other has been fast and furious.”

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Batman Begins turned out to be a critical and commercial hit, grossing $375 million in worldwide box-office receipts—a bonanza that made a sequel all but inevitable. And soon enough, Warner Bros. was moving forward on a new Batman movie. To keep nosy reporters off the scent—and so as not to arouse the legions of fans obsessed with all things Batman—the studio gave the project the sappy-teen-flick working title Rory’s First Kiss (a homage to Nolan’s infant son, Rory). Eventually the movie would be known by its real name, The Dark Knight. Chris Nolan would again direct, and Christian Bale would again star as Batman. Heath Ledger would play the movie’s villain, the Joker. Nathan Crowley would again serve as production designer.

During the summer of 2006, Nolan coauthored a script along with his brother Jonathan, an accomplished screenwriter. The new movie would be driven by an epic collision between order, exemplified by a smoothly functioning Gotham City, and anarchy, embodied by the sociopath Joker. That story line posed a bit of disconnection from the previous movie’s plot. In Batman Begins, Gotham had appeared to be a city out of control—or rather, under the control of the criminal mob—a Hobbesian tableau of decay and lawlessness. In The Dark Knight, the city has been rather miraculously transformed into a glittering and thriving metropolis. That bit of dramatic license was purely intentional. It wouldn’t have been very interesting, after all, to see the Joker unleash hell on . . . Hell. Far more interesting for him to interject chaos into a fully functioning civic and social order. “We have this city that’s working,” says Nathan Crowley, who worked alongside Nolan developing the movie’s distinct visual signature. “That gave us the great opportunity to then bring in the anarchist to start destroying it.”

Because this movie depended so much on Gotham City as a fully realized place, the filmmakers decided on another strategic departure from their previous playbook. Whereas they had shot most of the nonchase Gotham scenes for Batman Begins on a soundstage, they decided that wouldn’t do for their new movie. “To get that realism, we needed to use real locations rather than build sets on a stage,” Crowley says.

Based on their experience, one city already sat perched at the top of their wish list. While working on Batman Begins, Nolan and Crowley had found a bit of time to explore Chicago—and to discover interesting scenery around every corner. “When we really started to look around, I remember vividly the director saying, ‘Hey, we could have done this here,’” Crowley says. “What we realized was that there were so many great interior and exterior locations.”

Crowley later got to know the city much better when he returned to work on the 2006 film The Lake House—a story about an architect in which the camera pans lovingly across some of Chicago’s architectural landmarks. “I spent six months there looking at the architecture,” says Crowley. “So when I got to The Dark Knight, I said to Chris, ‘Hey, you know what? Chicago’s got a lot more than we saw.’” Crowley says he “dragged” Nolan back to Chicago to scout some more.

In particular, Crowley had fallen for the city’s less-is-more modernist architecture. While contemplating Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist masterpiece at 330 North Wabash (more popularly known by its original name, the IBM Building), Nolan and Crowley hit upon an idea: Instead of ensconcing the hero in a rebuilt Wayne Manor—the countryside mansion outside Gotham City that had burned to the ground at the end of Batman Begins—why not make his residence a splendid penthouse in the new and improved Gotham? (They would ultimately use other locations to create Bruce’s urban redoubt, but make extensive use of 330 North Wabash nonetheless.)

In the movie, Gotham City has a new knight-in-shining-armor district attorney named Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) who has put crime on the run. In the minimalist harmony and the austere plazas of Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired architectural treasures—among them the Richard J. Daley Center and Illinois Center —Crowley saw the perfect visual articulation of law and order—of a city that works, so to speak. “The city was in a new era,” says Crowley. “The cleanup had started. So I really wanted to give some strength to the civic buildings and the fact that those buildings had taken over. The authorities had taken back the city from the hoodlums, and I felt that the clean architecture—modernist yet not super modern—communicated that idea.”

As they explored Chicago, Nolan and Crowley found other tantalizing spots, including the old main Chicago Post Office, the massive West Loop facility that straddled the Eisenhower Expressway and had sat unoccupied for a decade (it’s currently awaiting redevelopment into condos, offices, and a hotel). “I said, ‘Look, that’s got to be useful in there—an eight-story 1930s building that’s empty,’” Crowley says. “It seemed like, with a little help from the city, we could do a lot here. You’ve got this big toy box, and everything’s available.”

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