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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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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