From crash to kablooey, Chicago weathered 'Dark Knight'

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So you thought Batman's Gotham City was a stand-in for New York, just like Metropolis in the Superman comics? MTurns out you're wrong. Gotham actually is Chicago — at least in the eyes of Christopher Nolan and his upcoming film "The Dark Knight."

"Batman Begins," Nolan's first foray into comic book movies, took him home to Chicago, where he lived until his mid-teens. Impressed by the Windy City after three weeks of filming, he decided to spend four months shooting "Knight" there in spring and summer 2007.

One of the movie's strengths is its focus on realism. As a result, no longer is there the stylized Victorian or art deco version of the city seen in past Batman films.

"When people choose to stylize a city, they draw from one particular age of architecture, which for us didn't make sense. Real cities have a tremendous mix of architecture; they combine all eras," Nolan says. "In this film, we favor modernism compared to the last film. We still have a great mix of buildings and a realistic mix of buildings. But we decided to favor modernism because a lot of the story is set in the civic locations. … It's a nice balance between keeping the audience aesthetically engaged with the film but feeling more real, feeling more contemporary."

But pity the poor city. With a script that called for an all-out assault under elevated streets, hospitals being blown up and semi trucks flying end over end, Nolan put Chicago though a workout worthy of his costumed vigilante.

"Every day there was something being blown up or a high-speed chase or a free-fall aerial drop," says Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, which assisted in finding an old factory on the edge of town where the filmmakers, actors, stunt coordinators, camera crew and special effects artists rehearsed and refined stunts and set pieces.

By all accounts, the city more than withstood the assault.

One of the movie's set pieces is a fierce battle that culminates in a jaw-dropping flipover of an 18-wheeler — for real — in the downtown streets. The stunt required the cooperation of many departments and agencies; Warner Bros. even hired engineers to study the structural implications of slamming an 18-wheeler into the pavement.

"For us, the movie was breaking new ground," Moskal says. "We don't want to hear months later there's a sewer line crack or that some quadrant of the city has no power." Chicago also took a real pounding when the production decided to level buildings that had been cast as a hospital. The filmmakers found a condemned former candy factory, securing the necessary permits, and the special effects crew worked with a demolition company.

Ultimately, it involved more than two dozen agencies from the private, municipal and federal levels, including police, fire, utilities, transit and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

On demolition day, a human services department conducted sweeps of the affected buildings to make sure they were vacant, while another department made sure no trains were running on the two rail lines behind the building.

The tension on the set was palpable, everyone knowing how much was riding on this one shot — one that not only saw the implosion of a building but also was augmented by real fireballs (as well as digitally enhanced ones). The planned choreography featured people fleeing the scene and Heath Ledger, as the Joker, coolly walking away from the destruction he just caused. "It really is Heath just walking out in front of it," Nolan remembers. "It was pretty remarkable thing to watch — very much a one-take deal."

Operators at 911 and 311 were alerted to expect an increase in calls. Sure enough, they heard from worried citizens crying out, "Oh my God, a building just blew up!"

The crash and demolition elements took months of negotiations, checklists and endless meetings. Still, both sides have nothing but praise for each other.

"We've had smaller productions with less complicated stuff run into bigger problems than these guys did," Moskal says. "A lot of it has to be attributed to how well planned and how well thought out and how sensitive they were, knowing they'd be here for an extended period of time."

Says Nolan: "It would have be very tough for us to do this film in any other city."

Borys Kit can be reached at borys.kit@THR.com.
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