Chicago film crew tries to keep 'Batman' under wraps

by Terry Armour

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

2 August 2007

Chicago becomes Gotham City again as crews prepare more than 400 extras for the filming of "The Dark Knight," June 27, 2007. The film, the next chapter in the Batman series that stars Christian Bale, caused the Wabash Bridge to be closed for part of the day. (Milbert O. Brown/Chicago Tribune/MCT) 

CHICAGO - A curious crowd has gathered in Old Town, where a film crew has spent a good portion of the night setting up shop. Word has traveled through the neighborhood that the latest in the “Batman” series, “The Dark Knight,” starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, is shooting scenes. People, many with cell phone cameras in hand, are craning their necks to look beyond the police barricades so they can see something - anything.

Suddenly there’s a loud “Boom!” A car has just been blown to bits for the movie.

“What’s going on?” a woman asks a crew member who happens to be within earshot. “Is this for the `Batman’ movie?”

With a sly grin, the crew member shakes his head. “No, miss - it’s for `Rory’s First Kiss.’”

Holy fib, Batman!

Just about everybody knows “The Dark Knight,” director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Batman Begins,” is filming in Chicago. The local news is reporting casting calls and giving daily traffic updates warning drivers to steer clear of streets blocked off to accommodate the shooting. Internet movie blogs and comic book Web sites are abuzz with news of the film (one site already has footage of the aforementioned car bombing). Paparazzi have invaded town hoping to get photos of the cast, which includes Heath Ledger as the Joker and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, cavorting around town. They’d also like to get pictures of Batman’s latest toys, including the much-talked-about motorcycle, the “Bat Pod,” which was unveiled for a chase sequence July 25.

Yet Warner Bros. and everybody working on the Chicago-based crew continue to refer to the movie as “Rory’s First Kiss” (Rory is Nolan’s son’s name) in a not-so-secret attempt to throw everybody off the trail. Even on the imaginary film’s Web site, rfkcasting.com, Warner Bros. describes the production as “a Christopher Nolan film starring Christian Bale,” which confused some would-be actors who recently showed up for an open casting call at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts last month.

Dave Heimberger, a 22-year-old financial analyst from Elgin, Ill., persuaded his mother, Kris Heimberger, to join him as an extra on the film. The younger Heimberger said he learned about the casting call while listening to the radio.

“They said it was `Rory’s First Kiss’ but then they hinted it was the new `Batman’ movie,” Dave Heimberger said. “I’ve been a Batman fan since I was 4. How often do you get to be in a `Batman’ movie?”

Warner Bros. has been tight-lipped about the production, but one production executive on the film - who, of course, wants to remain anonymous - explained that it isn’t uncommon for a movie to keep its original “working” title through the entire moviemaking process. The executive did point out, however, that using “Rory’s First Kiss” or “RFK” on production signage around Chicago instead of “The Dark Knight” does limit the number of gawkers when crucial scenes are being filmed, including last week’s filming that forced the rerouting of traffic on Lower Michigan Avenue, from Lower Wacker Drive to South Water Street, along with other parts of the Loop.

Still, most everybody seems to know it’s the new “Batman” movie, especially workers in buildings surrounding the downtown filming areas who are instructed daily by the Chicago Film Office, Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department on where they can - and can’t - park.

“We respect the fact that the studio is still calling it `Rory’s First Kiss,’ especially if `Batman’ draws more problems, in terms of crowd control,” said Chicago Film Office director Rich Moskal, who is responsible for the logistics when it comes to the mostly overnight shooting of the film. “But, clearly, there’s no sense pretending it’s not a `Batman’ movie.”

Though word first leaked that a good portion of “The Dark Knight” would be filming here late last year - parts of Nolan’s “Batman” prequel “Batman Begins” shot here in 2004 under the pseudonym “The Intimidation Game” - the cover was officially blown when Nolan and Bale were introduced at a City Hall press conference in June, with Mayor Richard M. Daley welcoming the film and touting its importance to Chicago.

At the time, Daley pointed out that “The Dark Knight” was the biggest movie ever to be shot in Chicago (the film has a reported budget well in excess of $100 million). By the time Warner Bros. leaves town in September, the studio is expected to have dropped $50 million while employing nearly 400 workers from the local movie service industry. That doesn’t include the expected 6,000 extras needed for scenes around the city.

“It creates jobs for the hard-working people of our city,” Daley said. “Not only actors, but also crew members, caterers, electricians, truck drivers and all the others who devote their talents and skills to the enterprise.”

Once “The Dark Knight” officially set up shop here in June, however, everything - including the film’s name - went on lockdown. Crew members had to sign confidentiality agreements before being hired, promising not to divulge any details while on location. Security on the set has been tight; the Chicago Tribune was turned away twice while attempting to report this story. No cameras are allowed, and routine checks are conducted to make sure crew members are wearing their official “RFK” badges.

But why all the secrecy?

According to Moskal, the main reason is to prevent any of the plot from being divulged, particularly with so many Web sites already devoted to “The Dark Knight,” scheduled to be released in July 2008. The secrecy is unprecedented by Chicago filming standards, Moskal says. The only other time in recent memory that filming was so guarded was when “Batman Begins” shot parts in Chicago in 2004.

“They initially tried to fly under the radar trying to protect the story,” Moskal said. “Going under a different name is an effort to be less conspicuous.”

Last Wednesday, as postwork commuters waltzed through Metra’s Millennium Station, several “RFK” signs were posted throughout the terminal, telling extras and crew members where the evening’s shooting was to take place. Much later, a stunt man plowed the Bat Pod through two sets of glass doors and into the “Gotham” terminal for a scene.

By 7 a.m. Thursday, things were back to normal, with morning commuters oblivious to what took place the night before. Unless, that is, they happened to notice the “Gotham: We’re glad you’re here” sign hanging above one of the entrances.

“It’s not every day that we get this type of film that’s going to have such high visibility in theaters,” said Betsy Steinberg, director of the Illinois Film Office. “It’s not every day that you get to host ... a film of this magnitude. Warner Bros. has gone through great pains to try to keep it quiet. But people around town are very bright. It’s hard to put one over on the people of Chicago.”

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