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Chicago: That Toddlin' Town

Why the Windy City is a filmmaker's fantasyland.
Friday Sep 05, 2008.     By Nola Akiwowo
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The Dark Knight
photo: courtesy of Warner Brothers
Batman got some good views of Chicago during filming.

Admit it. The sight of the Batmobile zipping through the underbelly of Wacker Drive in this summer's blockbuster, "The Dark Knight," was fierce enough to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. Nineteen days after the film's opening, this star-studded movie became the highest-grossing movie of 2008, and its success can at least partly be attributed to its masterful use of downtown Chicago as a stand-in for Gotham City. This likely won't be the last time Warner Brothers takes advantage of our city for filming, and many other studios are doing the same. Here's why:

1) The Talent
From the Cusacks to the Belushis, the folks of Second City to Steppenwolf, it's an understatement to say Chicago is teeming with up-and-coming actors and crew. Jennifer Ridnicke, president and owner of TP & R Casting, says she feels the main reason films are made here is our ample human resources. "Studios come to our city because the level of talent is comforting to larger features," stresses Ridnicke, whose company portfolio includes Chicago casting for "The Weatherman," "Grace is Gone," "The Break Up" and 2009's "Public Enemies." Ridnicke adds, "When people come to town, Chicago offers so many things to do when you're not shooting."

2) The Look
It's a wonderful world we live in when a person can get paid to stand atop the nation's tallest building, sporting a latex suit and taking in an awesome view of the city at night. It's nearly as nice to stand on solid ground while walking through the Magnificent Mile, checking out the historical architecture. Big buildings aside, we've also got the bustling neighborhood bars and streets production companies rely on for set-up shots. Rich Moskal, the Director of the City of Chicago Filmmakers Office, says while "Selling the look of Chicago, filmmakers comment that it's part New York, part small town." There are also things you just can't find anywhere else, like the L and the skyline.

Public Enemies set
photo: Chris Sweda/Sun-Times
A transformed street scene around the Biograph Theater is one of the settings for filming of the movie "Public Enemies."
3) The History
We're the home of Al Capone. In the course of 30 years we grew to become the largest city in the northwest (circa 1857). We've been a forceful political machine, producing one president, a democratic monarchy and the current nominee for president. Talk about the phoenix rising from the ashes: The Great Chicago Fire killed 300 and rendered one-third of the city's residents homeless, but brought on the beginning of the Chicago skyscraper and fire-resistant masonry. North Side versus South Side, a 100-year-old curse and a never-ending musical revolution; the historical impact of Chicago is deep, and many films have taken advantage. The most recent is Johnny Depp's "Public Enemies," which leverages the city’s gangster past, using such landmarks as the (Victory Gardens) Biograph Theater, the site of John Dillinger's demise during an FBI raid.

4) It's a Midwest Thang (Ya'll!)
Abraham Lincoln Lim, editor for Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune," and award winner for his directorial work on 2001's "Roads and Bridges," spent the hottest part of summer filming his new script, "God is D_ad," amidst the chaos of Chicago and the tranquility of Monee, IL. When casting the roles for his film, he knew he "didn't want to use L.A. actors because of the attitude." He also knew, being a product of the Midwest himself, he wanted to capitalize on a place that was actually in the Midwest. "['God is D_ad'] is a piece about growing up in Middle America, so Chicago was an obvious choice," he says.

5) Taking Care of Business
Cast, crew, setting and attitudes are great, but why not add a tax incentive? Films created in Illinois and which employ Illinois citizens get a 20-percent tax credit. Moskal notes Illinois' incentives pale in comparison to Michigan's 40-percent and New York's 35-percent. "While not the cheapest, it makes the production value of Chicago attractive." Sweetening the pot are further accommodations such as expedited street-filming permits and access to the Chicago Police and Fire Departments.

Add it all up, and it's not hard to see why you should expect the Windy City to be showing up on the big screen a little more often—which means more cocktail hours stunted by comedic "Break Ups," and work days interrupted by flying superheroes. It's just the nature of the business.


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