Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Site Unseen: Two locations scouts name their favorite Chicago spots filmmakers may have missed

A.V. Club Chicago
June 30, 2010

Our iconic architecture, crowning skyline, and diverse neighborhoods practically dare cinematographers to resist its charms. Not surprisingly, film history is dotted with iconic Chicago moments, from Jake and Elwood of Blues Brothers careening over the Skyway bridge to Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off contemplating Seurat at the Art Institute. Surely a city as sprawling as ours has plenty of hidden treasures untouched and undiscovered by film crews.

According to Susan Doll—a professor of film history at Oakton College, writer/researcher at Facets Multi-Media, and blogger for Turner Classic Movies—you’d be hard-pressed to find a part of the city that hasn’t been used in a film, and not just because of productions like The Dark Knight or even Call Northside 777, a 1948 crime drama starring Jimmy Stewart that showcased the city’s grit. Chicago was a legitimate center of the film industry around World War I. In the 1890s, William Selig opened a factory in Chicago to manufacture film equipment and later started making his own motion pictures, and in 1907, George Spoor and Broncho Billy Anderson founded Essanay Pictures in Uptown. That doesn’t even begin to factor in the contributions of independent African-American filmmakers of that period, including those working for the William Foster Photoplay Company and director Oscar Micheaux, who made a picture called Within Our Gates in 1920 that included an intense lynching scene (the year after the National Guard was called to Chicago to quell race riots).

“We couldn’t come up with anything,” Doll says. “Every time we came up with something, someone could name a film shot there. There have been about 2,000 films shot in the city since the film-school era in the ’60s.”

Sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it? The A.V. Club spoke with a pair of Chicago location scouts—Al Cohn, who worked on Eagle Eye and is working on Transformers 3, and Steven A. Jones, who worked on Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer and Mad Dog And Glory —and asked them to name great places in the city to film action sequences that haven’t been seen in a film before. Here are their choices.

1. The Water Cribs in Lake Michigan
A series of pod-like structures in the lake where the city’s water-filtration process begins, the water cribs were constructed with crew quarters for workers and deliberately set apart from the shore to avoid pollution. Now, these four Dharma Station-like structures provide amazing city views and a great location for filmmakers, according to Cohn. “Practically speaking, they don’t make a lot of sense,” Cohn says. “Post-9/11, having a crew of filmmakers around the water intake for a major city wouldn’t be the most welcome idea. But it would be a great location. I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a location manager—I consider myself an amateur cultural anthropologist who works in the film business—but I just look at it and think it’s such a cool place.”

2. Underground Walkway Between Concourses B and C at Terminal One at O’Hare
This is one airport hallway where you should skip the moving walkways. Often cited as the world’s largest light sculpture, Michael Hayden’s “Skys the Limit,” a kinetic display of 466 bent neon tubes, hangs from the ceiling and illuminates the long corridor, which is covered in 23,600 square feet of mirror. “That to me is a great place to have a shootout and see all that neon go,” Jones says. “That would be lovely. Since it has moving neon lights across the ceiling, the look is going to be crazy. From a cinematographer standpoint, you can really play with light sources. The walkways run forever toward the vanishing point. It’s something I’ve never seen on film.”

3. Various Points on the Chicago River
“The North Branch of the Chicago River would be great for a horror movie,” Jones says. “This time of the year it’s all overgrown. I’ve canoed it a couple times and there are spots where drainage tunnels come out, parts that look like ancient boatyards that barely exist. Other than that strip through downtown, people don’t think we have a river. It also has all those old railroad bridges, especially the ones south of the Loop. It turns wild pretty quickly, lots of twists and turns, lots of early railroad bridges. There’s one bridge around 18th Street that has a little house on it that rises with the bridge. It would be great to have some horror-movie character live there.”

4. Thornton Quarry
This suburban mining site, bisected by the Tri-State Tollway, is one of the largest rock quarries in the world, complete with raised road carved out of stone. “It’s the first time I’ve seen hundred-foot cavernous spaces on a quarry floor,” Cohn says. “It’s fascinating. I had no idea they do that type of mining in the suburbs. It’s a great-looking environment, with the roadway going into the mine. It’s so unique.”

5. The BP Bridge
While its corporate sponsorship certainly evokes unsettling horror, this magnificent 925-foot-long Frank Gehry-designed bridge in Millennium Park caught Jones’ eye. “I don’t know that anybody has shot that snake yet by the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park,” Jones says. “That walkway is beautiful. With all those metal panels, it would be a great place for a shootout. I haven’t seen the latest crop of films, so I’m not sure if they’re shooting that yet.”

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