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?

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.

* * *


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?

* * *

 

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

 

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.”

* * *

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.”

* * *

 

By the fall of 2006, it was clear that the new Batman flick would be shooting scenes in Chicago. The city “was always a location that the director wanted to come back to,” says Lisa Rawlins. “It was just a question of how long [he could stay].” This time, Nolan envisioned a much more ambitious project, involving stunts, explosions, and high-velocity car chases on a scale that would dwarf that of Batman Begins. “When the story gets going, it’s utter chaos,” says James McAllister, referring to the mayhem that ensues as the Joker runs amuck in Gotham. “As you read the script, you see it’s one big event after another. Everyone on the production team swallowed hard.”

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As the bean counters at Warner Bros. crunched the numbers on bringing the tent-pole production to Chicago for an extended stay, one other development augured in favor of the city. In May 2006, Illinois had boosted its film production subsidy in order to stay competitive with other states. Now, the state would award tax credits equal to 20 percent of a production’s in-state spending. (Warner Bros. would be able to sell those credits to other businesses and use the proceeds to reduce its production costs.) Had there been no such incentive, “it would have made the discussion [about shooting in Chicago] a lot tougher,” says Bill Fay, president of production at Legendary Pictures, which partnered with Warner Bros. to finance The Dark Knight. With the incentive, “it was an easier decision to make,” he says.

As Nolan’s plans took shape, suddenly Warner Bros. had a new concern: Was Chicago up to the challenge? The city had handled everything the filmmakers threw its way on Batman Begins. But that project was in town for three weeks. On The Dark Knight, shooting could take three months. “And three months is a different bag of beans,” Moskal says. “Warner Bros. didn’t want to get to the point, midway through the production, where we realized this was too big for the city. They wanted assurances that this was doable from the city’s perspective.”

A meeting was arranged with Mayor Daley in early April 2007. Chris Nolan, his wife the producer Emma Thomas, the producer Charles Rovan, and Lisa Rawlins, the Warner Bros. executive, sat down in Daley’s office with the mayor, Moskal, and Cortez Trotter, the city’s chief emergency officer at the time. The movie folks laid out the full scope of their plans. They wanted a massive chase sequence, which could take as long as a month to film and require nightly street closures that could snarl downtown traffic. The aerial work with helicopters would be at least as extensive as in Batman Begins. And there would be almost nonstop stunts and pyrotechnics, including blowing up a real building—not just making it look like one was blowing up. The crew would number as many as 500, and with them would come a fleet of trucks, support service vehicles, cars, and assorted Batmobiles and Batpods. The level of logistical support and coordination of public safety efforts would place a heavy burden on city departments—the film office, police, fire, streets and sanitation, traffic, and emergency management. The executives wanted to hear it from the top that Chicago was prepared for the onslaught.

Daley didn’t blink. He turned to Moskal and said, “You’re gonna take care of this, right?” The mayor’s question was really more of a statement—to the moviemakers that the city stood ready to provide all the support at its disposal, and to Moskal that the responsibility for making it work lay with him. “I knew that this was something the mayor wanted, and it was clear in my mind that we were going to do everything we could to make it happen,” Moskal says.

* * *

On June 8, 2007, the city kicked off its Summer of the Bat by holding its first-ever press conference to announce the arrival of a movie’s cast and crew. Christian Bale spoke, and his presence alone guaranteed an excited media throng. Chris Nolan also offered a few remarks, mentioning his boyhood in Chicago and his long-held desire to return there to direct a movie. Mayor Daley emphasized that the high-profile project would bring positive attention to Chicago and serve as an economic engine, generating jobs and revenues for local businesses.

Besides drumming up enthusiasm for the movie, there was a second purpose for the press conference—to prepare downtown businesses and residents for a summer of inconvenience. “Not every studio or every filmmaker is going to be up for that kind of exposure,” says Moskal. “Generally they like to fly in and fly out without having to stand there with the mayor saying, ‘We’re the ones bringing chaos to your town.’”

Over the course of the summer, the city went to extraordinary lengths to manage that chaos, issuing daily traffic advisories, alerting the media about road closings, and sending out e-mail blasts to property owners and community organizations to warn of filming activity. To minimize disruptions to downtown businesses, the city limited the hours that streets could be cordoned off, ensuring that commuters could come and go unimpeded at rush hour. And to keep the peace at night, the city set curfews for helicopter flights and loud noises—11 on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Even so, says Moskal, “people had to constantly be reassured that an explosion in the middle of the night wasn’t a terrorist attack, and the helicopters hovering overhead were not dangerous.”

The summer had its share of memorable moments—the flipping of the 18-wheeler on LaSalle Street, or the detonation of the administrative building of the old Brach’s candy factory, dressed up to play Gotham General Hospital. Mostly, though, Moskal remembers the grinding intensity of the work—a summer-long marathon run at an all-out sprint. The typical movie might have a few logistically complicated scenes, he says—low-flying helicopters (requiring streets to be “dried up” of pedestrians) or high-speed chases (requiring street closures) or dangerous stunts. “You work up to that day; it goes well; and there’s a sense of relief when it’s done,” he says. On The Dark Knight, relief never came. “It was relentless,” he says. “Every day something was getting blown up, or someone was free-falling off a 40-story building. There was just a certain endlessness to the activity. I don’t think anyone was ever able to take a breath or relax till it was over.”

It wasn’t all work and no play, though. The routine was leavened by the after-hours doings, dutifully reported in local gossip columns, of the movie’s stars—Christian Bale hanging at downtown nightclubs, or Heath Ledger, wool cap pulled down tight over his head, shooting pool at a River North watering hole or shopping the Magnificent Mile for gifts to take to his daughter, Matilda.

Beyond the media chatter, swarms of Bat geeks seemed to keep an account of each new development on the Chicago set running in cyberspace almost in real time. “There were scores of bloggers that literally recorded our every move on that show,” says Rawlins. “I could pull up the blogs here at my desk [in Los Angeles] and tell you at any point of the day or night where our company was and what they were doing—what bars our actors were going to, when they came and left their hotel rooms.”

* * *

By late August, filming in Chicago came to an end. On August 27th, the cast and crew gathered at the meatpacking district restaurant Carnivale to celebrate the completion of the Chicago portion of the shoot, though for most, more hard work lay ahead. The production would move on to London for a few months of stage work and then to Hong Kong in November for a few more days of location work.

Two months later, in January 2008, while Nolan was still editing the film, the shocking news broke that Heath Ledger had been found dead in his New York apartment, the victim of what turned out to be an accidental overdose of prescription medication. By then word had long since spread of Ledger’s spellbinding performance as the Joker, and in the spasm of sensational media attention, speculation swirled that the darkness the actor had limned while playing the role had pulled him into a fatal abyss of depression and drugs.

To the people who worked with Ledger in Chicago, though, such speculation rang preposterous. On days when he wasn’t working, Ledger would often skateboard to the set and hang out there, content to listen to music through headphones or watch closely as Nolan directed, filing away mental notes in the hope of someday directing his own movies. “Most actors when they’re not working don’t want to be on the set,” says McAllister. “He was very unassuming and a really nice guy.”

When Ledger was “on” as the Joker, though, it was clear to people who were there that they were witnessing something approaching genius. “It’s rare when you see a performance that really jumps out at you on the set, but his certainly did,” McAllister says. Says Pfister, the cinematographer, “I felt I was seeing one of the most original interpretations of anarchy I’ve ever witnessed in filmmaking. And I think he knew he was doing something special. Contrary to what some of the press reports have said, I think he was having the best time of his life. I think he was going home after a day’s work knowing he was really knocking one out of the park. I think he was very happy.”

* * *

 

Even without the fascination surrounding Ledger’s death, anticipation for the opening of The Dark Knight, fueled by a viral marketing campaign and breathless hype, would have built to a frenzy. And in Chicago, the city’s starring role in the movie only added to the fever of expectation. At the movie’s premiere in Chicago, hundreds of die-hard fans waited for hours in the sweltering evening heat to glimpse three of the film’s stars—Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Chin Han—as they walked the red carpet en route to the Imax theatre at Navy Pier. The next night, the movie rolled out across the country, with midnight screenings in sold-out theatres packed with lucky fans—many sipping energy drinks to stay awake, others costumed as the Joker or other Dark Knight characters—who had snapped up tickets weeks in advance.

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With some theatres offering 72 straight hours of screenings, the movie shattered the box office record for an opening weekend, previously held by Spiderman III. In the coming months The Dark Knight would rake in about $1 billion in theatres worldwide—the fourth-highest sum of all time, and a figure that will climb when sales are tallied from a limited re-release on Imax screens in late January. Sales of the DVD, which hit stores in early December, will add many millions more to the movie’s total gross.

For its part, Chicago can count up its own Dark Knight bounty. The city film office proudly points out that the production poured $35.6 million into the local economy. Some $18 million of that money went to payroll for 900 crew members and 88 actors; $17 million more went to hundreds of Illinois vendors, covering everything from hotels and restaurants to space, equipment, and vehicle rentals to the services of caterers, construction companies, and off-duty Chicago police officers and firefighters.

Boosted by the haul from The Dark Knight, total spending on all film production in Illinois came to $155 million in 2007, the state’s best year ever. Clearly, making movies has become big business here. But it’s also important to other states, at least 40 of which now offer their own incentives in the cutthroat competition for Hollywood business. In May of last year, Michigan stormed ahead of its peers by upping its subsidy for film production work to about 40 percent. Not coincidentally, the number of movies shot in the state surged, generating total spending there of about $350 million—dwarfing Illinois’s record-breaking 2007 and prompting Lars Ullberg, president of the advocacy group Illinois Production Alliance, to complain in October to the Chicago Tribune that Illinois was “hemorrhaging dollars, literally, to Michigan.”

The following month, with Illinois’s 20-percent subsidy set to expire at the end of 2008, the Tribune opined that it was a “priority” to ensure Hollywood’s continued bounty by extending the state’s film production incentive. A few days later, state lawmakers voted almost unanimously to boost the state’s tax credit from 20 to 30 percent and to strike down the sunset provision that had required an annual vote to renew the credit. The day following the vote, the Sun-Times entertainment columnist Bill Zwecker offered his “kudos” for the passage of the legislation.

* * *

But not everyone thinks it is wise public policy to use the state’s tax system to favor just one high-profile industry—especially when that industry is hardly hurting for money and when the state’s own finances are in such shambles. “I don’t think we should be subsidizing a very lucrative business at all,” says John Nothdurft, a legislative specialist in tax and budget issues at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that promotes free-market ideas. “What you’re doing is saying the film industry is more important than other industries or companies. Is that really a wise use of taxpayer money?”

Politicians are suckers for the “glitz and glamour of Hollywood,” he says, because, with a film like The Dark Knight, “they can say, ‘Look, I brought you this great movie.’ It’s a very visual thing they can show voters, constituents, and taxpayers—a real feather in their cap.” They can also tout the jobs they’re creating, the money they’re bringing in.

What’s missing from the discussion is a bottom-line analysis of the cost of those revenues. Nothdurft cites two studies—one from an economist in Louisiana’s Legislative Fiscal Office, the other by a public policy center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston—that conclude that the economic stimulus generated by taxpayer-subsidized film production is negligible, and an inefficient allocation of scarce state resources. The jobs they generate are temporary—hardly an effective way to build an economy, he says. And the money that moviemakers spend locally represents “fleeting moments of economic growth, not long-term sustainable economic growth.”

Such work would be fine, he says, if the state weren’t relinquishing 30 cents in tax revenue for every local dollar spent by filmmakers—especially when the state is “running a huge budget deficit. They should be tightening their belts rather than throwing more money at Hollywood.”

Rich Moskal responds that the tax incentive is intended to create jobs and boost business in Illinois. Subsidizing film production, he argues, “is no less legitimate than incentivizing the building of a factory or the relocation of a corporate headquarters.” And filmmakers bring benefits to the state in addition to economic punch. “By showcasing Chicago and Illinois on big screens all over the world, the industry offers publicity that generates tourism and attracts other businesses,” he says.

* * *

The pros and cons of tax incentives were far from the minds of the crew on the set of The Dark Knight back on that evening in late July 2007 as they stared at the 18-wheeler lying supine on LaSalle Street. After the euphoria of flipping the truck had worn off and shooting had wrapped for the night, they still had to get that 40-foot behemoth out of there. The plan had been to hoist the mangled wreckage onto a flatbed truck and cart it to a warehouse, but it had never occurred to anyone that a truck sitting atop a truck might not fit under the el tracks surrounding the Loop. A moment of panic ensued as crew members pondered the repercussions of leaving the wreckage downtown. On a production that had operated all summer with the crisp precision of a military campaign, it was a rare moment of disarray.

Eventually they decided to go for it, hauling the wreck gingerly toward the underpass at Wells and Madison. Before attempting passage, though, crew members clambered on top and hammered down stray shards of steel—just enough, it turned out, to clear the underpass with barely an inch to spare. The night’s work was finally done. Tomorrow there would be Batmobiles to race and explosives to detonate and high-wire acting to perform—the hard work of making movie magic.

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