Light your film fuse and see the USA’s third-largest city through the eyes of the camera
By Cheryl Caira
Hollywood may be the limelight stealer when it comes to being synonymous with cinema, but Chi-Town has plenty of heavyweight clapperboards to its name. Once America’s predominant hub for studios and filmmakers, with Charlie Chaplin kickstarting his career in the city’s Essanay Studios during the early 1900s, movie production took a dip when many film companies jumped ship to the sunnier climes of the West Coast.
A revival arrived in the 1980s when Illinois began to lead the way with film industry investment, luring directors and their blockbusters to this spectacular city once again. Since then, more than 1,100 feature films and television productions have contributed $2 billion in local revenue. Over the last decade, a tax credit on film production in Chicago has caused an even bigger resurgence. Once a derelict steel factory, Cinespace is now the second largest film studio in the country, sprawling over 70 acres and housing the sets for running series including Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and HBO’s Empire.
For indie film fans, there’s the Chicago International Film Festival every October, North America’s longest-running competitive film fest. Showcasing over 150 films from over 50 countries, 2019’s festival saw Edward Norton’s adaption of novel Motherless Brooklyn open the festival and French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire take home the top prize for an international feature.
Kwame Amoaku, director of the Chicago Film Office, says of the city’s cinematic ascent: “Our approach to filming is very pragmatic. With recent projects like the Transformers films, we’ve had scenes of immense scale with live action shooting happening on major intersections in the city, and similarly with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Chicago is a beautiful city with a wide range of vistas, from gritty urban to upscale. If you travel slightly outside of the city you also have rural environments – cornfields, forest, beaches.
“The architecture in the central business district is striking, which is why it has frequently been filmed as ‘Gotham’. The city itself is a character. That aerial shot you have of the buildings looking straight down the river – there’s nothing like it.”
Popcorn at the ready – and those in the know buy Garrett’s world-famous cheddar and caramel variety – here’s how to go on location in Chicago
This beautiful building, resident on South LaSalle Street since 1888, was one of Chicago’s first commercial skyscrapers. Its central court and lobbies were remodelled in 1905 by famed US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who illuminated the space with visionary design. Highlights are the dizzying spiral staircase and Carrara marble with golden Persian-style ornamentation. The front of the building masqueraded for ‘Duncan’s Toy Chest’ store in Home Alone 2, as well as being the police HQ of Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables. Catch a guided tour weekdays from 11am to 1pm. flwright.org/visit/rookery
CAFC River Cruise
Remember that emotional scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where Julianne (Julia Roberts) and Michael (Dermot Mulroney) dance and have their last, lingering, solitary moments together, the breeze tousling Roberts’ fiery locks as they pass under the bridges spanning Chicago River? That was aboard Chicago’s First Lady, which for 26 years has partnered with Chicago Architecture Center for a hugely informative heritage cruise of the eye-popping skyscrapers and Chicago landmarks lining the river’s edge. cruisechicago.com
Always packed and famous for its barbequed baby-back ribs, this neighbourhood spot – nestled on a quiet street in the historic Old Town since 1932 – was the shooting location for a villainous confrontation in The Dark Knight. After Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) dented the bar at the tavern by slamming his shot glass down with repeated verve, the proprietors were asked if they’d like it to be repaired. They said no, foreseeing a tale that would draw in patrons. A former prohibition-era speakeasy, Ol’ Blue Eyes liked to dive in here for a thirst-quencher, while in other film news, the restaurant was also transformed into ‘O’Reilly’s Restaurant’ for the 1999 film Return to Me. twinanchorsribs.com
An art nouveau institution and a must-visit despite its lengthy queues, the wait is worth it as the Old Fashioneds slide into crystal glasses and hot jazz bands of the moment take to the Green Mill stage. The Lawrence and Broadway cocktail lounge has a mob past, with Al Capone’s favourite booth – boasting a necessary view of the club’s front and back entrances – still a coveted spot. It’s been featured in many a movie, including The Dilemma, Ocean’s 12, High Fidelity and Thief, to name but a few. greenmilljazz.com
Creeping out on to ‘The Ledge’ at Skydeck – a number of see-through glass boxes 1,353 feet in the air – must cause only a fraction of the jitters the producers of The Dark Knight would have felt when they realised it was Christian Bale standing on the roof of the Willis Tower, rather than his stunt double as planned. Red Bull skydivers also trained in the Alps for a month to jump off the tower in wingsuits for a sequence in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Being the second-tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the views are bonny and city-comprehensive. On a good day, you can tick off views of four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. theskydeck.com
Chicago Greeter tours
Once you’ve cruised the spine of the city by river, the best way to get a handle on its other hotspots is by foot. You can request free Chicago Greeter tours in advance, where you specify your interests and knowledgeable volunteer locals take you under their wing for a few hours. Film-themed walkabouts take in notable shooting locations – including the Chicago Cultural Center’s Grand Staircase and spellbinding 38-foot Tiffany dome, where the The Untouchable’s courthouse scenes were filmed, as well as Union Station, home to the film’s iconic set-piece shootout where pram and bewildered baby bounce down the stairs in slow-mo. The Picasso at Daley Plaza is also a stop-off point – a scene setting for The Fugitive, The Lake House and Blues Brothers – as is the location-rich Magnificent Mile. chicagogreeter.com