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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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The Caped Crusader’s adventures in Chicago actually started one movie earlier in the series, when Batman Begins filmed here for a few weeks in 2004. By then the Batman franchise was essentially on life support, thanks in particular to the 1997 flop Batman and Robin, and Warner Bros. had hired a relatively unknown 32-year-old writer-director named Chris Nolan to resuscitate it. Nolan, an Englishman who had spent part of his childhood in Chicago, had scored indie successes with Memento in 2000 and Insomnia in 2002. Now he hoped to bring the same narrative intelligence to the superhero action genre. Nolan and the screenwriter David Goyer crafted a script for Batman Begins that explored Bruce Wayne’s backstory, explaining how a troubled young billionaire might become motivated to don bat ears and cape and dish out heaping helpings of whup-ass to Gotham City’s criminal lowlifes.

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Nolan aimed to elevate Batman, played by Christian Bale, above cartoon silliness and make him more complexly human—a flawed superhero without superpowers who could plausibly exist. “Our core concept was, ‘What if Batman were real?’” says Crowley, the production designer, who worked alongside Nolan developing the look of the movie while Nolan wrote the script. “That alone set it apart. The previous two films [before Batman Begins] were very fantastical, very comic book–like. We really wanted to push the realism and the belief that this could really happen.”

Warner Bros. OK’ed the script, and the new Batman movie took wing. Because England was offering generous financial incentives to movie production companies, the studio arranged for the bulk of the filming to take place on a soundstage outside London. But the script also called for a major chase sequence involving helicopters and the Batmobile—and Nolan considered it crucial to his conceit to film those scenes on location in an actual city rather than resort to the fakery of miniatures and blue-screen special effects. Since Gotham was an American city, he couldn’t capture that authentic New World look in London. It also didn’t help that London placed draconian restrictions on filmmakers who wished to shoot on city streets.

Nolan and Crowley scouted a number of U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Jacksonville, Florida. Because Gotham was a fictional New York City writ large, the Big Apple might have seemed the ideal spot. But the chase sequence they envisioned would require street closures on a large scale—virtually impossible given the population density of Manhattan. As the two men explored options, Nolan kept mentioning Chicago, the city of his boyhood and a place Crowley had never visited. “Chris was always telling me about Lower Wacker and how he remembered it as a child,” Crowley says. (Nolan did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

The two visited Chicago, and once Crowley saw the city’s claustrophobic underground streets and the urban layers they created, he was smitten. Lower Wacker Drive, he says, “is a terrific-looking piece of roadway, especially to do a chase. It’s got columns; it’s got multiple lanes; it’s got ramps that go onto Upper Wacker. You’ve got exits across steel bridges. You’ve really got this great network.” And because it was isolated from the streets above, and located in a part of town that usually emptied out at night, it would also be relatively easy to close it to the public for filming.

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Nolan lobbied Warner Bros. to let him film for a few days in Chicago, and the studio assented. Although Chicago had ample experience as a moviemaking town, the complexity of the chase sequence in Batman Begins would test the city. “We squeezed a lot of work into a very short time,” says James McAllister, the location manager. One scene, for example, required two helicopters to fly down LaSalle Street just 50 or so feet off the ground, their skids passing at streetlight level. “A helicopter doesn’t look that big when you see it flying through the air,” McAllister says. “But when it’s coming down LaSalle, with rotors that are 20 feet from the edge of the buildings, it looks enormous. These pilots were the best in the business, but that was a hairy one.”  So hairy, in fact, that the filmmakers had been unsure whether the city would permit the shot. Given the value of the surrounding real estate, it was the sort of stunt some other cities might have categorically rejected.

Perhaps no shot demanded more of Chicago’s logistical capabilities than a chase sequence that required closing off an eight-square-block section of downtown for an afternoon and into the night. “We were running the Batmobile at 90 miles an hour on Lower Wacker,” Crowley marvels. “The amount of street closures we needed was immense.”

Nolan found Chicago’s streets so much to his liking that he asked the studio for additional time there. Warner Bros. agreed to pull some scenes slated to be shot in the United Kingdom and move them across the pond. “The director loved Chicago, and that was clearly influential in the decision to shoot more of the movie there,” says Lisa Rawlins, senior vice president of studio and production affairs at Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In all, the production camped in Chicago for three weeks—the longest it could stay and still qualify fully for the British film subsidies. Aside from the chase sequence and a few other scenes, Chicago is barely recognizable amid the digital enhancements that were added in postproduction. But those scenes were crucial in selling the idea of Gotham City as a real place—and Batman as more than just a character in a comic book. They also enhanced the filmmakers’ perception of Chicago as a city that could help them make movies. “There were days when the producers were surprised at the level of cooperation they received from the city,” McAllister says. “They learned they could achieve a lot—probably more than anyone was expecting. And that served as a primer for The Dark Knight.”

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